Yesterday, I attended a full screening of the documentary Spirit Road, the first of an eight-part series called “Becoming Indian in Oklahoma. ” The series will delve into the history and contemporary lives of peoples from the 39 different American Indian nations in Oklahoma. The screening and the accompanying panel discussion was one of the public’s first encounters with a project that has been years in the making, and which took concrete steps forward with the interdisciplinary collaboration started by City College of New York (CCNY) Prof. Campbell Dalglish of the Media and Communication Arts Program and Prof. Lotti Silber of the Anthropology Department. Last summer, Prof. Dalglish, Prof. Silber, and Mr. Robert Vetter traveled to Oklahoma to begin filmmaking and research and build more formal ties with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College (CATC) in Oklahoma. This summer, CATC students will work in collaboration with CCNY and other students who register for an Ethnographic Filmmaking course to take place June 3-28. There are four tracks, for 3-6 credits or no credits, and involve combinations of study both here in NYC and in Oklahoma. For more details, please contact Prof. Dalglish at email@example.com and post and/or share widely to spread the word!
In the last two weeks, the City University of New York (CUNY), has hosted several conversations related to indigeneity and filmmaking. In attendance and dialog at yesterday’s screening were honored guest CATC President Henrietta Mann; CCNY President Lisa Staiano-Coico; Humanities Dean Eric D. Weitz; Anthropology Department Chair Prof. Diana Wall; Mr. John Haworth, Director of the NMAI Gustav Heye Center; Prof. Silber; Prof. Dalglish; and Mr. John Vetter, who has collaborated with Prof. Dalglish for some time and whose close relationship and work in Indian Country has opened many doors for the “Being Indian in Oklahoma” and other projects. Last Friday, April 19th, the City College of New York (CCNY) Center for Worker Education hosted “Indigeneity in the Americas: A Transnational Roundtable and Workshop” right across from the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Gustav Heye Center to begin a formal discussion on creating an Indigenous Studies program at CUNY. Panelists included Prof. Circe Sturm, author of Becoming Indian: The Struggle over cherokee Identity in the Twenty First Century (2011, SAR Press); Mr. John Haworth; Prof. Marcia Esparza, author of the upcoming Silenced Communities in the Aftermath of War and Genocide in Guatemala; Prof. Erica Wortham, author of the forthcoming book, Indigenous Media in Mexico: Culture, Community and the State; Prof. Campbell Dalglish; and moderated by Prof. Silber. I missed the Monday, April 22nd Decolonizing Methodologies event, but suffice it to say that between all these events; the programming at the NMAI Gustav Heye Center; and the bigger focus on Andean Studies (not to mention “Quechua Nights”) at NYU, it’s been a good month for people interested in indigeneity in the NYC area.
I want to make sure that anyone out there reading meets the April 30th deadline for the Ethnographic Filmmaking class, so I won’t elaborate on the discussions at these events (although I hope to in future). Please share the call for registration. Remember, registration for credit is not required.
Warriors of the Sun is one of the more unique documentaries I’ve seen, not for its subject matter, which is the Totonac ritual of flying dancers, or voladores – men who climb an extremely high pole and propel themselves around it with ropes as an offering to God and a “service to the community.” Like some pow wow dancing and American Indian sports like lacrosse, many activities that may be interpreted as merely recreational have deeper spiritual significance to indigenous peoples. The voladores ritual is actually treated in a more polemical way in the short film Voladora/Flying Woman by Chloe Campero, which follows the emotional journey of a young woman trying to penetrate this all-male establishment. (I did not notice whether the dates of these two films coincided, but I think so. I would be interested in knowing more about the community’s take on the young woman’s efforts.)
No, Warriors of the Sun was intriguing because it lies somewhere between documentary and home movie – and I don’t mean that in a negative way. It is one of the rare movies where a director, in this case Bruce “Pacho” Lane, clearly inserts himself into the movie and establishes his positionality vis-a-vis the Totonac community being filmed. He has had a long relationship with the community, having filmed a previous documentary on the ritual and along the way, becoming godfather to the son of Don Salvador, who takes on the task of reviving the voladores ritual with four young men. Don Salvador takes on the task, “on the condition” that anthropologist Albert L. Wahrhaftig continue research on the topic and that Lane makes another documentary, this time on the process of revitalizing the ritual. Beyond that, Lane makes obvious his close ties to the community by naming not only the protagonists of the film, but also children of his compadres’ family, for example, or brief exchanges that other documentary filmmakers would not think to include. A pretty straight forward treatment of the subject matter, but in a more personal, and therefore interesting, way.
Another unique quality was the somewhat awkward but much appreciated explanation of the English subtitles. Subtitles in yellow font, we clearly read, are for translations from Spanish, while subtitles in white font are for Totonac. This clarification, along with references to the “Americans” and the roles of Lane and Wahrhaftig, signals the various cultures that are in communication in this film. Language is of course especially important since language loss is a concern for many indigenous communities. But beyond that, Lane’s godson makes frequent references to having previously denied his Totonac heritage and seems to be on a quest to regain it in his own life. Some of the more memorable scenes for me are when Lane’s godson and wife visit archaeological ruins and are asked to comment on their ancestors’ accomplishments. It was one of the few times I’ve seen indigenous people pictured next to their cultural heritage like that. Another memorable scene is when a priest (presumably Totanac) gives a homily from the altar and references the voladores ritual and actually names indigenous gods after which the voladores ritually dance around the alter.
This brings me back to the beginning of the film, which is actually introduced by Ivan, a high school student whose dream leads him to ask Don Salvador to teach him to be a volador. This introduction set the stage for the film in terms of its reason for being, its pace, and also reinforced the importance of dreams in indigenous culture.
Several documentaries made by indigenous filmmakers are filmed for community use and not necessarily for external consumption. Warriors of the Sun straddles the line, being both something for the community but also for English speaking audiences. It was enjoyable, interesting, and even exciting when the young men and Don Salvador took to the skies. I think this documentary would be useful for anthropology classes discussing positionality; those interested in Totonac culture, including the importance of dreams and spirituality; cultural revitalization; intercultural exchanges and possibly, religious syncretism.
Trailer for Don’t Get Sick After June: American Indian Healthcare
I recently watched two films on Native American health distributed by Third World Newsreel . The first is a 2000 documentary directed by Beverly Singer titled Diabetes: Notes from Indian Country. The film draws on the perspective of many people in painting a well rounded picture of this disease. It includes interviews with American Indian health professionals and their experiences engaging patients. One of the more memorable interviewees is nurse Lorelei De Cora who discusses a grant project which will examine the successfulness of the talking circle, a traditional method of education, as an educational and preventative tool. She notes the importance of taking a multifaceted (physical, mental and spiritual) approach to combating the disease. De Cora also provides an interesting oral history by noting other challenges to combating this disease. Before Housing and Urban Development (HUD) housing was introduced, she notes, her community used gardens to manage their nutrition in a healthier and self sufficient way.* HUD’s clustered housing and income-based pricing format seemed to encourage unemployment and reliance on the commodity system with all its health consequences. Other professional interviewees also provide information in an accessible format, while the community members interviewed are people living with the disease, or people who have helped loved ones combat it, or who give their impressions and anecdotes about this killer. In this sense, the film is yet another educational tool for the community to be used in conjunction with talking circles and other outreach methods. I just noticed that my posts typically end by noting that scholars or teachers or students studying a particular topic can avail themselves of one film or another. But in a recent post on diabetes, I express my interest in having American Indian communities themselves watch the films and pass them on to community members and I feel the same about this film.
The more recent 2010 documentary Don’t Get Sick After June: American Indian Healthcare, directed by Chip Richie, is an indictment of the federal government’s mismanagement of American Indian health care. While health care is a federal obligation under treaties between the U.S. government and sovereign American Indian nations, but insufficient funding has resulted in unacceptable conditions. Some reservations have healthcare only one week per month or provide outsourced ambulatory service that have in some cases arrived too late to save a life. In this very informative and integrated film, Richie attacks the issue as one of not only inadequate healthcare, but other systemic and foundational problems of the colonization project. This project ushered in several systems that have had a profoundly negative effect on these communities. One of these is the commodity system based on processed, canned, and food lacking nutritional value. Another was the boarding school system which extricated children of their traditional knowledge, spirituality, and languages and has had a negative effect on familial and community relations. The startling statistics presented in Don’t Get Sick After June - like the much higher rate of diabetes, homicide, and suicide in Native American communities – point to the negative consequences of the way that American Indians have been treated historically. Although the reality is stark, the film does point to positive changes. In some reservations, casino profits have been used to improve health care, including the re-incorporation of traditional medicine. I particularly appreciated Comanche interviewee Rodney T. Stapp (I had trouble removing the subtitles so I couldn’t tell his professional affiliation), who provided a succinct and articulate explanation of how medicine is approached in American Indian versus Western medicine. I also thought it was important that the documentary, while ensuring that the record is straight in terms of the government’s historical culpability, ends on a note of self determination. As I noted above, this film would be of interest to American Indians themselves who have a vested interest in fighting the lack of funding in their communities. This film would also be of interest principally to those studying healthcare and disease, but some segments could also be very interesting to those researching food, American Indian perceptions of the U.S. government, and women.
In a broader sense, this documentary is one that everyone in America can relate to from a nutritional perspective since the topic of obesity is regularly on the news and is being fought with such efforts as the First Lady’s Move campaign. The topic was brought home in a radio interview I recently heard with the director of A Place at the Table, a new documentary about the many millions of people in this country who suffer “food insecurity” every day. These people include those who technically eat, but they eat detrimental food void of nutritional value, which fills bellies and is cheap in the short term but has an expensive long term effect in disease and medical costs.
[*This was particularly interesting to me because in other films, like Good Meat, interviewees on the Pine Ridge Reservation refer to infertile land and their history as a hunting community as deterrents to farming. Perhaps De Cora is referring to Nebraska and not South Dakota, or perhaps in Good Meat, they were referring to pre-Contact days and not to the 20th century, as De Cora is.]
This is a quick note to thank Roselly Torres Rojas at Third World Newsreel (TWN) who sent me several preview copies of TWN’s Indigenous Studies Collection for review. Roselly and her colleague Michelle Guanca, who used to work at LAVA (Latin American Video Archive) were very helpful to me when I first started researching video indígena, almost ten years ago! This is the first time anyone has sent me preview copies for the site, believe it or not. Hopefully this will open the flood gates for more preview copies which I am unable to obtain via mainstream venues. ¡Gracias, Roselly!
I finally caught the documentary Miss Navajo, directed Billy Luther (who also directed Grab). It has been on my list for some time and I thought I would have to request it from the library until I noticed it on my Hulu stream, along with Barking Water, a feature directed by Sterlin Harjo. (Thanks to my man and apparently secret faithful reader, who corrected me when I put down Netflix when it was actually Hulu.)
Miss Navajo primarily follows Crystal Frazier as she competes for the title of Miss Navajo 2005-2006. Crystal is not the typical beauty pageant contestant, but then again, this isn’t a typical beauty pageant. In fact, although the earliest Miss Navajos might have been picked primarily on the basis of their looks (and Crystal is indeed beautiful), the title has come to represent a woman of substance who lives in beauty, so to speak, through her awareness, knowledge, and respect for her culture. Candidates must perform a talent or skill before an audience; they must answer questions on Navajo culture and history in the Navajo language given by the winners of previous Miss Navajo competitions; and, they must butcher a sheep.
Although the sheep butchering scenes were memorable, it was actually the interviews which most stood out in my mind. This was because I saw how much the young women struggled to speak in Navajo. Besides the fact that I think language is an important way to live a culture, I know there is a lot of concern and discussion over language loss and recuperation in native communities. And yet, I also have questioned myself about how important language or other culture markers, like clothing, really are. While not in Navajo, Crystal’s answer to one of the questions demonstrates knowledge and respect for both her cultures, intelligence, and a clever mind. So, I think that this film would be of particular interest to any classes studying the importance of language retention. (I should note that after the contest, Crystal says that she has made more of an effort to learn Navajo and feels more confident in her language skills. It does not sound like she is fluent yet, but I just read that a few years ago, she was considering running for Navajo Nation president in the future.) The film would also be an interesting way to discuss gender, beauty, and cultural representation.
I think I enjoyed the film mostly because of Crystals’ down-to-earth way and because I appreciated the effort that Luther must have put in tracking down all the older Miss Navajos and getting their input. It was interesting geting to know Crystal, her competitors, and learn the importance of the contest from past winners, but I would have liked to have learned more about the previous winners. In particular, I would have liked to get a sense of what they thought of the candidates’ lack of language skills or how the ideal of a Navajo woman has changed over time. It was nice to see how supportive previous winners were of the runners up, but I wanted more of an impression of how this pageant fits into the concerns of Navajo peoples in general. But, overall, an interesting watch and good way to introduce a debate about the importance of language in culture. I have also read about beauty pageants among Otavalos in Ecuador with a similar emphasis on language and culture, so I guess such a pageant is not totally unique. But, it’s still pretty refreshing that I got through this post without using the words “make-up” or “nail polish.” (Although Crystal did wear heals, which was interesting on a few levels.)
A few months ago, I researched films related to Native American athletes and sports for a chapter entitled “Building a Library Collection: Fifty Years of Native American Athletes, Sports and Games on Film” which was just published in The Native American Identity in Sports: Creating and Preserving a Culture ( edited by Frank A. Salamone, Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2012). In the chapter, I write about all types of sports as well as non-athletic games like the Hand Game. I also include a few films on the mascot controversy. There are a number of famous and lesser known talented athletes that any aspiring athletes out there can draw inspiration from.
Today, though, I’m writing to all the rest of you. Those of you who think you don’t have an athletic bone in your body and who may be struggling with diseases like diabetes, which is affecting Native American communities in large numbers. A few months ago, I briefly wrote about the film Good Meat, which is an inspiring story of how far a more active lifestyle and a change in diet can go in fighting this disease. The film references some of the obstacles to good nutrition, like the commodity system implemented by the federal government. In that post, I referenced some health-related resources like the exercise video RezRobics and the animated Eagle Series, which explains the importance of an active lifestyle and good nutrition to children (see the episode “Tricky Treats” below). Today I learned of a new video series called Diabetes Is Not Our Way, created by the people at The Cheyenne River Youth Project (CRYP). Please check it out and share it with your community.
If you are not athletic, please don’t let that stop you. Start by walking. I personally know a number of women who walk dogs a few times a week at a local animal shelter and have dropped 15-30 pounds just by doing that. If you’re having trouble finding motivation to get active, finding something personally meaningful like this might be your way of staying the course. Consider doing a walk-a-thon or running even a short race for a charity that’s important to you. You don’t have to be fast. You just have to do it.
Hello my southwestern friends and folks who will be in Santa Fe through this Sunday, August 19. Please check out the Native Cinema Showcase at the New Mexico History Museum (113 Lincoln Avenue, Santa Fe, NM) ! I checked out a few films for a chapter I recently submitted on films about Native Americans in sports (Skateboard Nation and Run to the East), but many films in the line up are new to me so please let me know what you thought of them. I’m particularly interested in the sneak preview of The Medicine Game. (I still need to post my impressions of Crooked Arrows, which I watched on opening weekend.) Until next time, for all the runners out there, here is the trailer for Run to the East…
Last Friday, I saw the premiere of We Women Warriors / Tejiendo Sabiduria at the IFC Center in the Village (NYC). This documentary, by Nicole Karsin, who was on hand for Q&A after the screening, followed three Colombian indigenous activists: Doris (Awá(, Ludis (Kankuamo), and Flor Ilva (Nasa). Their communities are caught between the military, FARC, and paramilitary forces and the attendant violence. Some of them have lost their husbands and are left as single parents, a situation they share with many women in their communities. While the killing of men has left many widows and fatherless children, women as well as children are also direct targets of violence. The film contains graphic content and shows how many people are so easily wrongly accused or framed. As female leaders, these three women are charged with making decisions on sensitive issues that affect their communities. They also work to find more sustainable working conditions. This includes a discussion about the irreconcilable positions of the protagonists of the war on drugs and (indigenous, in this case) farmers who have little alternatives to growing coca.
I often marvel at the footage that documentary filmmakers are able to capture given the risky circumstances they are filming. During the Q&A, I asked Karsin how she navigated the line between wanting to get these women’s (and people’s) stories to a greater audience, but also possibly putting them in danger as a result. Also, does having a film crew on hand help to temper a potentially violent situation? Karsin responded by noting that the Nasa themselves have better video equipment than she does and were on hand filming one of the events which I referred to (that could have taken a violent turn). Although I think that having a foreign filmmaker on hand at that particular event may have made a difference (although she did not, and with her experience, she would know better), the point is well taken that indigenous people are themselves protagonists in the documentation of these events. So, she was not putting them at greater risk than the community itself was taking in also filming. The time invested in documentaries also never ceases to impress me. In response to another moviegoer, Karsin noted that the film took 6 years to make, with varying degrees of time to gain the trust of the three women highlighted in the film, which has not yet been screened in Colombia.
This documentary would be useful for any class dealing with indigenous women in Latin America; the war on drugs and coca production; and the ongoing armed conflict in Colombia.
In signing off, I’d like to thank my cousin Yvonne who attended the film screening with me. I don’t think I gave her enough of an explanation about this film, so I think it was a rude awakening after having our quiet vegan dinner at Cafe Blossom a few blocks away! But she said she was glad to have attended because it’s good to see what’s going on out there in the rest of the world. Which would make a good slogan for a t-shirt for documentaries. And I couldn’t agree more. Until next time…
In case you are still craving to watch the Olympics after the 12th, you may want to check out the live webcast of the documentary Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athleteon the NMAI website on Friday, August 17, 2012 from 2–3pm (EDT). Check out the trailer here. This webcast, along with the discussion at the Washington D.C. NMAI site, is being presented in conjunction with the exhibition “Best in the World: Native Athletes in the Olympics,” on display through September 3, 2012. Shout out to Steve Beleu, fellow AILA member and reference librarian at the Oklahoma Depart of Libraries, for alerting me.