In the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve
on Manitoulin Island
of some quiet authority
generously gave me the name
of various objects in Ojibwa.
Seeking to see
her breadth I finally
pointed at my laptop.
and she responded
without missing a beat
with a word I couldn’t pronounce
much less spell.
I scratched my head.
What does that mean?
It means something that holds memory.
So when I rest on my modern laurels
all content with my latest toy
complete with new power adaptor
I’m often jolted back
to that honest woman
who had a better name for our
technology than we do
and let out a long, heated, breath.
The opening gala for the Guelph Festival of Moving Media this past Friday featured Neil Diamond‘s Reel Injun. That’s not the singer but the Director from Waskaganish on James Bay in northern Quebec. This 2009 documentary was both interesting and honest as it portrayed the history of Native People in the movies from the very early beginnings of the industry to today. A film like this could easily descend into an angry narrative about how terrible our natives have been treated as the guest facilitator did following the screening, but the documentary doesn’t fall into that trap. There is humour and hope here without candy coating the sad truth. And by the end of the film I have some hope of progress in coming to terms with and healing what was, after all, genocide.
One part that shocked me into realization showed John Wayne desecrating a native grave by shooting the corpse’s eyes to prevent him from seeing in the afterlife. Now I had enjoyed westerns as a kid: these were, in essence, films about the triumph of good over evil, right? Well, I am happy to say, my perspective is different now. This documentary puts those westerns from the 30’s in context. The American people wanted simple escape from the economic realities surrounding them and, I think, from the burden of their warped history. At one point in the film we experience this, particularly poignantly, when a classroom of young natives are shown a Cowboys and Indians movie typical of the time. The cinematographer focuses on their faces and it is so easy to see the damage cause by these historically inaccurate fantasies.
But the portrayal of our native peoples in film changed many times. There’s Billy Jack who fights back and in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) you see Chief Dan George as the wise old man and comic relief. We see the noble savage shown out of all proportion.
The director shows, very clearly and with an admirable balance, that few films actually show native people accurately. Like headbands being shown on all Plains Indians who didn’t wear headbands. Why? Because the non-native actors needed a way to keep their long wigs from falling off. Only when native film makers have been allowed to tell their own stories do we see something real like Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001).
For those who want more check out this interview of Mr. Diamond by the CBC.
A very highly recommended film.
Drew Hayden Taylor‘s 2007 novel, The night wanderer (Annick Press Ltd.), is about a 350 year old Anishinaabeg (Ojibway) Vampire meeting a modern Ojibway (Anishinaabeg) teenage girl.
It has the subtitle ‘A Native Gothic Novel’ but I beg to differ with that categorization, ‘gothic’ implies something else to me. A dictionary defines it as:
A novel in a style emphasizing the grotesque, mysterious, and desolate.
To me, a better and less limiting summation would be ‘A Native Vampire Story’. While one of the two main characters, Pierre L’Errant, is certainly mysterious and has been, at times, desolate, he is never grotesque to me. Definitely not a typical vampire. And although Tiffany, the 16-year-old other main character, is frightened and helpless at times she has untapped inner strength. I see her as neither a gothic heroine nor could she afford to look like or be a goth. Taylor has created two very unique characters who inevitably clash with interesting and, IMHO, satisfying results. What I found most fascinating was Pierre’s view of the contrasts between his former culture and the current native culture found in Tiffany. I wanted more of that actually. Tiffany’s grandmother provides a sympathetic bridge between the old and the new as someone who yearns to hear Anishinabe language being spoken but lives patiently in the here and now.
All in all, a quick and highly recommended read!
I’ve been to the Sainte-Marie among the Hurons historical site three times (once in the seventies as a child, 2 years ago and this past week) and enjoyed it very much each time. What was a fun family trip when I was a kid has become more to me as an adult as more is understood about this 10-year period of history. The Historical Interpreters at the site do an excellent job of showing the complex differences between the traditional and Christian Wendat (the natives who lived in the area), the well-meaning Blackrobes (Jesuit Missionaries) and the lay people who volunteered to help them.
On this last trip I was especially impressed by one of the Interpreters named Brian. He sat down in the Christian Wendat Longhouse and explained the complex position of the Wendat in the 17th century. Through a series of trading alliances, they were a powerful native people. Disease, starvation and the attacks upon them by the Iroquois in the winter of 1648-49 caused a dispersal of the Wendat south to Sioux country and east to Quebec.
I wonder if the Jesuit attempts to Christianize the natives led to the Wendat decimation and disperal. I don’t know. Certainly the existence of a fortified Sainte-Marie symbolizing a union with the French and the Wendat must have been threatening to their enemies. Certainly diseases brought by the white man weakened them.
What the Iroquois and their confederacy did was brutal from our comfortable 21st century perspective but they were reacting not only to the encroaching Europeans but also to the fact that they were surrounded by hostile native peoples as well. From their perspective they needed to defeat the enemies at their backs before they could provide a unified front and bargain politically with the technologically advanced French, English and Dutch. The Iroquois were virtually alone in that part of North America in their desire to retain their own culture instead of being changed by the European tide. It is certainly arguable that the Iroquois way allowed them to survive better than did the Wendat and many other native nations.
I’ve certainly been inspired to do some more reading on the topic. I’ve put some Bruce Trigger and other books on hold at the library.
I would like to attend the First Light event in early December too.