Printer Friendly

Indigenous popular culture.


Efforts to revitalize Native stories and indigenous cultures in the Americas are often interlaced with similar movements around the globe and with the protean genres of popular culture. To complement our special section on Neustadt laureate Patricia Grace, the following essays highlight three dynamic areas of Native storying in the 21st century: music, comics, and cinema.

Indian Blues

Indigenization of American Popular Music

John W. Troutman

Native artists today perform not only at powwows but also in rock and hip-hop clubs. In fact, American Indians have performed European and African-derived music for centuries. The following essay reveals one facet of this history, when Native musicians turned the federal government's "civilization" campaign on its head, indigenizing the music meant to detribalize them.

In 1955 anthropologist James Howard cast a dim light over the expressive culture of American Indians, remarking that powwows reflect a "process by which socio-cultural entities ... are losing their tribal distinctiveness and in its place are developing a nontribal 'Indian' culture." (1) He believed that American Indian musical traditions were fast becoming generic, "pan-tribal" performances that reflected a decreasing vitality and diversity of songs and dances. Any powwow singer or dancer would immediately reject his analysis on the simple basis that tribally specific--and clan- or family-specific--songs have vastly multiplied over the past century, just as intertribal powwow culture has proliferated to an extraordinary and quite heterogeneous degree. Yet equally profound in growth to powwow culture are the ways in which American Indians have also manipulated and refigured other forms of music, in the process developing new means within expressive culture to perform their identities as indigenous peoples.

Just as the continued expanse of intertribal powwow culture has facilitated the sharing and development of new varieties of songs and dances, Native singers, musicians, and dancers of all varieties continue to access every available musical arena, including cyberspace. The Native American Music Awards, or "Nammys," are telling: they comprise over thirty genres of music and provide awards ranging from best powwow and Native American Church recordings to best blues and hip-hop recordings. Indeed, many Native musicians have recognized popular music genres as opportunities to expand their tribal, oral traditions. For example, the 2008 Nammy Record of the Year award went to Blackfire's (Silence) Is a Weapon. The two-disc set is a tour de force by these veteran "Alter-Native" and punk rockers from the Dine Nation. They describe themselves on their MySpace site as a "traditionally influenced, high-energy, politically driven group comprised of two brothers and their sister. Born into the heart of a political land dispute area on Black Mesa in the Navajo Nation, this Family's powerful music reflects the Hopes, Freedoms, and Barriers of today's world." Blackfire in fact tours the world and has gained respect in many circles; their 2002 album One Nation Under featured the last recorded vocals by punk legend Joey Ramone, and David Fricke, Rolling Stone magazine's premier music critic, has promoted Blackfire in his columns. (Silence) Is a Weapon consists of one disc of charging, protest rock-n-roll interlaced with Dine chants; the other disc is solely Dine ceremonial vocal and drum songs. Both discs suggest musically what it means to Blackfire to be Dine today, and the album demonstrates their extraordinary ability to weave thousands of years of ideas into one musical text. In effect, these artists have refigured the meaning of what constitutes their tribal, and indeed "Indian," music altogether.

The practice by American Indians of fusing tribally derived music with that of Anglos and African Americans has existed for a very long time. Sacred music in missions and churches probably provided the first and certainly the longest-lasting variety of this blending of traditions, and the genres of American secular, popular music have provided another. In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of Native musicians such as Cree singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, Kaw-Creek saxophonist Jim Pepper, and Dakota singer Floyd Red Crow Westerman gained international fame for their rock, jazz, country, and folk recordings. These musicians and others gained an even higher profile in the midst of the Native protest movements such as the takeover of Alcatraz Island, which captured the national media's attention at that time. Westerman's album Custer Died for Your Sins, for example, provided an equally scathing soundtrack for Vine Deloria Jr.'s groundbreaking 1969 "Indian manifesto" of the same name. While some performers were more subtle than others, popular music concerts and recordings provided extraordinarily powerful and far-reaching opportunities through which Native peoples could deliver politically charged anthems before audiences of many thousands, dramatically raising the profile of issues facing indigenous peoples.

Despite the attention that this wave of Native artists received in the 1960s and 1970s, the embrace of secular, popular music by Native peoples, and its potential for expanding opportunities for expressing tribal and Native identities, has a history that stretches back to long before the late twentieth century. Native peoples for quite some time had been blowing the saxophone, sawing the fiddle (or violin), and strumming guitars and mandolins. How they came to those instruments and to these new styles of music becomes particularly revealing when we consider the ways in which the practice of music had become so divisively, politically charged in Indian Country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Over the course of several decades in the nineteenth century that were comprised of intense and often brutal efforts by the federal government to force Native peoples from their homelands and hunting grounds and onto small reservations, the government began to increasingly adopt the view that American Indians must individually "assimilate" into American society if they were to survive at all. Administrators within the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) took it upon themselves to determine exactly what that "American society" meant, and in turn what it was about "Indian society" that seemed such a hindrance to their assimilation agenda. As OIA officials drew lines in the sand in the late nineteenth century, surveying and then selling off reservation lands once protected by treaties, they also surveyed expressive culture, determining which forms were satisfactory for the making of a model American citizenship, and which challenged the OIA agenda of detribalization. Not unexpectedly, most dances deemed "Indian" by the OIA were blacklisted in orders passed between 1882 and 1923.

Dance restrictions were varied and created unique circumstances on each of the reservations throughout the country, but the OIA was particularly concerned to prohibit a number of both ceremonial and social dances that had gained incredible currency during that period among tribes in the Northern and Southern Plains. Those dances, namely the Sun Dance, the Omaha Dance, and the Ghost Dance, appeared to the OIA as facilitators of tribal or intertribal celebrations of indigeneity (although in their own parlance, they typically, and synonymously, referred to them simply as "savage," "heathen," or "Indian" dances). The dances seemed to threaten the OIA officials mostly because they seemed foreign and un-Christian, because they were organized by Native people themselves, because the songs were typically sung in tribal languages, because they were often associated with communal events such as "giveaways," and because they seemed to celebrate the clan or tribal ties that the government was attempting to sever. Local OIA agents indeed struggled during those years, with few successes, to dismantle all utterances of expressive culture that they considered antithetical to their goals of breaking tribal bonds and liquidating remaining tribal estates. On the reservations of the Northern Plains, the raiding of dance halls, the arresting of dancers, and the withholding of treaty-guaranteed rations--not to mention the atrocities committed by the Seventh Calvary upon Big Foot's band and their traveling companions at Wounded Knee in 1890--all figured into the government's arsenal of curtailing various expressions of cultural practice. Indeed, the assault on tribal customs was quite expansive at the time, but also expansive were the creative efforts by tribal peoples throughout the continent to resist such assaults. (2) Because of their arduous defense of these songs and dances, intertribal powwow culture and Stomp Dances, among other such expressive practices, flourished in the twentieth century rather than withered away in response to the assimilation agenda.

That assimilation agenda, however, was waged in multiple arenas, not just that of the reservations. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Native children were increasingly placed by government agents and missionaries into federal Indian and mission boarding schools. Keeping in line with the assimilationist philosophy that defined for the OIA the ideas of what constituted uncivilized "indian" music, the OIA boarding school curriculums included instruction only in what it construed as "civilized," European-derived forms of music. In their study of Native American education, K. Tsianina Lomawaima and Teresa L. McCarty have argued that in fact the boarding school administrators sought in this manner to contain, control, and otherwise manage all aspects of life for the students through purging any Influences they considered dangerous and oppositional to their goals; the schools were "arguably the most minutely surveilled and controlled federal institutions created to transform the lives of any group of Americans. The schools [were designed to] neutralize the Native languages, religions, economies, polities, family structures, emotions, and lives that seemed to threaten American uniformity and national identity." (3) Every expression of music was therefore highly politically charged because the civilization agenda of the OIA depended entirely upon the close monitoring of every musical utterance emanating from both the reservations and the boarding schools.


Boarding school teachers, matrons, and superintendents all got in on the act, training Native boys and girls in the arts of "civilization"--comprised, of course, of Euro-American compositions, instrumentation, and musical theories. Brass marching bands served to regiment and discipline the boys, considered unruly and unrefined in their Indianness. Various bugle calls ordered the daily existence of the boys and girls, blaring musical commands to rise, march, eat, learn, work, study, pray, and sleep every day--some twenty-nine bugle calls filled the grounds of Carlisle Indian School from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. (4) Girls practiced piano in order to rehearse the parlor duties of a future of domesticity. Boys and girls together sang hymns, and some learned to perform the scores of Bach, Mozart, and other European composers that were considered the pinnacle sonic achievements of white civilization. To the eyes and ears of OIA officials, music was indeed politicized in this era of American Indian history.

Musical education in the schools was often quite elaborate, despite the fact that most of the school administrators remained alarmingly unable or unwilling financially to provide for the basic medical and nutritional needs of the students. (5) Many of the schools in the early twentieth century maintained thirty-member mandolin orchestras, glee clubs, harmonica orchestras, string quartets, choral ensembles, jazz bands, and of course large brass bands to perform martial music. Ostensibly these musical organizations were a terrific PR tool, demonstrating to the non-Indian public through city park and parade performances how the government was succeeding in "civilizing" the Indians. They were also designed to inculcate decidedly middle-class, white American cultural values among the students.

In this way, thousands of American Indians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gained a familiarity, if not fluency, in Euro-American derived instruments that included pianos and stringed parlor instruments as well as the saxophones and cornets. From the schools, hundreds of Native singers and musicians toured the country in all sorts of ensembles, from the Indian String Quartet to the Blackfeet Tribal Band to the Nez Perce Harmony Chiefs. Following their departure from the schools, in the first few decades of the twentieth century many like Blackfeet horn player Joe Morris formed all-Indian jazz bands while others like celebrated Creek-Cherokee singer Tsianina Redfeather Blackstone performed semi-classical compositions at the Metropolitan Opera and the Hollywood Bowl. Of course, though they were introduced to new musical forms and ideas, few actually bought into the premise of "civilization" (versus their own supposed "savagery") that the government hoped they would invest in. Rather, they developed their own meanings for the new music they performed, quite often derived their own pleasures from it, and in doing so many developed new ways to demonstrate through this music the pride in their tribal and Native identities that the government had sought to eradicate.

Some of these musicians used their new forms of musical training and resultant audience access to publicly criticize the federal government, predating the musician activists of the 1960s and 1970s by decades, and their efforts did not go unheard; savvy to the new, cutting-edge technological opportunities that the early twentieth century provided them, they could broadcast their music and messages to potential audiences of millions through the advent of radio technology. One such artist was the Yakama-Cherokee tenor singer Kiutus Tecumseh. (6) Tecumseh regularly toured the country in the 1920s and 1930s, gaining incredible exposure along the way. In 1929, for example, he embarked upon a massive U.S. tour, singing at radio stations in thirty-three major cities from New Orleans (WSMB) to Boston (WNAC) to Salt Lake (KSL). He was broadcast live on the radio on all but 13 days of the 128-day tour. (7) Tecumseh sang semi-classical and popular songs of the day, and he knew that he was considered by booking agents as novelty entertainment for non-Indian audiences, as an "Indian singer." Yet, unexpectedly for his audiences, he would often chastise the federal government, for example, in its pessimism toward Native intellectual ability, which largely prohibited opportunities for Native people to seek higher education. Concerned about the welfare of Native students, he also routed his American tours so that he could visit them in as many boarding schools along the way as possible. Newspapers such as the Washington Post covered his criticism of the OIA's penchant for giving jobs to whites over qualified Native applicants, and he took Yakama land claims cases to the commissioner of Indian Affairs. (8) These musical performers expressed the modern concerns of Native peoples in unprecedented ways; such public access had never been available to Native people before, and many such as Tecumseh took full advantage of it.

Popular music arenas provided Native musicians like Tecumseh new opportunities not only to join in public conversations on Indian policy but also to develop new ways of expressing their tribal and indigenous identities in the modern world. The legacy of those early boarding school students and their rejection of government detribalization objectives is witnessed in the decades since, as Native peoples have proliferated tribally derived dances and songs as much they have innovated the genres of American popular music. Indeed, Blackfire's cultural and musical inheritance, as well as its contribution in those veins, runs as deep as the knowledge and experiences of the Dine people and as wide as the thousands upon thousands of American Indians who first began experimenting with new musical genres long, long ago.

Editorial note: Adapted from Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music, 1879-1934, by permission of the author and the University of Oklahoma Press. Copyright [c] 2009 by the University of Oklahoma Press ( All rights reserved.

(1) Clyde Ellis, Luke Eric Lassiter, and Gary H. Dunham, eds., Powwow (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), ix.

(2) For a detailed examination of this resistance, and of the politics of American Indians in popular music from the period, see John W. Troutman, Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music, 1890-1934 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2009).

(3) K. Tsianina Lomawaima & Teresa L. McCarty, "To Remain an Indian": Lessons in Democracy from a Century of Native American Education (Teachers College Press, 2006), 2-3.

(4) Annual School Calendar, U.S. Indian School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, "15-16" (Carlisle Indian Press, September 1915).

(5) These shortcomings were detailed in an independent government report published in 1928 that reported vastly insufficient medical care and nutritional foods available to boarding school students. Subsequently many of the schools were closed as the OIA placed a new emphasis on day schools. Institute for Government Research, "The Problem of Indian Administration," in Studies in Administration (Johns Hopkins Press, 1928).

(6) Tecumseh was originally named Herman W. Roberts, but he changed his name and I have followed his preference here.

(7) "1929 Radio Broadcasting Itinerary, Chief Tecumseh," author's collection.

(8) "Chief Holds Whites Responsible for Race," Washington Post, November 24, 1930.

University of Louisiana at Lafayette

John W. Troutman is Assistant Professor in the History and Geography Department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he teaches courses on American Indian history and American popular culture. His first book, Indian Blues: American Indians and the Politics of Music, 1879-1934, is forthcoming in May from the University of Oklahoma Press.


Indigenous Comics in the United States

Tony Chavarria

From May 2008 through January 2009, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico, featured the exhibition Comic Art Indigene: Where Comics and the Indigenous Meet, which considers how storytelling has been used by comics and comic-inspired art to express the contemporary Native American experience. The exhibition is currently at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. (through May 31). The following is adapted from the exhibition materials and presented with the permission of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.

As an art form, comics are poorly understood, underanalyzed, and underutilized. Created to be disposable yet widely read, comics are often dismissed as primitive and juvenile. Nevertheless, a generation of Native artists has embraced comics as an expressive medium. It is only natural that this marginal art appeals to oft-marginalized indigenous people, for both have been regarded as a primitive and malignant presence on the American landscape.

Like American Indian cultures, comic art is amazingly complex and adaptive. As the first widely accessible mass medium, comics were consumed by Indian people as a recognizable form of storytelling--expressing cultural stories through pictures. Indian artists articulate identity, politics, and culture using the unique dynamics of comic art. This is a new world of American Indian art, full of the brash excitement first seen on newsprint a century ago--sometimes unrefined, often considered crude, but never sterile.

Shared Aspects of Comics and Native Art

In American Indian cultures, art lives in the everyday, as part of the mundane and metaphysical. Art tells stories, reinforces beliefs, petitions the supernatural, and balances the universe. Thus Native art, without the aid of a written language in most instances, developed as a unique visual communication system; symbols float, merge, separate, and repeat, creating unique layers of meaning accessible to individuals, families, clans, and villages, each reading elements within their own understanding.

Comic art also developed its own unique dialogue. Figures and backgrounds are reduced to the basics as a result of reproduction on newsprint. Word balloons and visual effects such as motion lines, impact stars, sound effects, and sweat drops drive the story in three panels or less. Newspapers and newsstands offered humor and adventure in dazzling color ready to be devoured and discarded. It is an art for the masses, of any age, gender, or background.

The audiences, messages, and media of comics and Native art have contributed to their strange aspects. Although at first deposited in ethnic or cultural categories, art's unstable molecules smashed superficial boundaries to become anthropological texts, social commentary, commercial enterprise, and, ultimately, fine art. The impact of Native and comic art on American culture is fantastic.

Indian Artists Making Comics

As Native artists began working in "nontraditional" mediums such as easel paintings, murals, and works on paper, it was a natural step that some of these emerging artists would delve into the medium of comics. Since the 1940s, American Indian artists have worked in all aspects of comic art, including comic strips, single-panel cartoons, editorial cartoons, and comic books.


With few exceptions, Native artists' explorations in comic art are still informed by their cultural background. Stories are woven from the indigenous experience in a postcolonial world. Issues of identity, representation, wellness, and self-determination are constant themes in the work produced by these artists. Using the methodology of comics and cartooning, problematic topics can be examined under cover of a quick laugh or an action-packed adventure.

In Mr. Diabetes (see previous page), Marty Two Bulls offers a vivid statement on the diabetes epidemic in Native American populations. The blue marks visible on Mr. Diabetes are from a blue pencil. As blue pencil lines do not reproduce using mechanical reproduction, they are used by artists to lay out a piece before inking without the worry of stray lines appearing on the published art. The blue pencil also was the tool of choice for the editor, to the degree that to "blue pencil" something became a synonym for deleting or censoring.


Comic Art as the Source

Contemporary Indian artists have grown up under the inspirational tutelage of Martinez, Lewis, Cannon, Houser, and Velarde---just to name a few--yet they also grew up absorbing the likes of Kirby, Ditko, Steranko, Crumb, and Los Bros Hernandez. Native artists recognize the power of cultural symbols to speak about their past, present, and future.

Raised East of the L.A. River, Speedy (Skater) Skato (facing page) lives and thrives in the concrete metropolis. He is proud of his culture, history, and city. He is able to become one with his environment through skateboarding. Pesky cats wait on every corner to escort him off the premises, but this does not deter him in his quest for skate mastery. His battle is threefold: society, which views him as a pest; gravity, which would hold him down; and pesky cats, who try to eat him for lunch in between doughnut breaks. He is the best-unknown skater out on the streets (written by Douglas Miles).

In Lest Tyranny Triumph (this page), based on a full-page drawing by Jack Kirby from an issue of The Mighty Thor, Diego Romero's fine example of "illo-drama" blends the art of the Mimbres, the Greeks, and Lee & Kirby into something distinctive.

Just as their ancestors did, Indian artists today use tradition as a foundation mixed with outside influences to comment on their world and lifeways. The works created are not comics, but their insidious influence is seen. Using the conventions of comic art, such as its hyper-dynamism and raw absurdities, Native artists are reclaiming stereotypes of their art, culture, and environment, stretching them beyond recognition and transforming the standard expectations of what is Indian art.

Editorial note: For more on this topic, see the review of Michael Sheyahshe's Native Americans in Comic Books on page 77 of this issue.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Tony Chavarria is Curator of Ethnology at Santa Fe's Museum of Indian Arts & Culture (www.miaclab. org), a premier repository of Native art and material culture that tells the stories of the people of the U.S. Southwest from prehistory through contemporary art. He was the inaugural Branigar Fellow at the School of American Research in Santa Fe and has served as a cultural / exhibit consultant for several universities and museums.


Indigenous Stories Reaching Out to the World

New Zealand Maori & Native American Cinemas

Andrew Horton

What future on this little corner of land, once enough to support many but now in these days merely a worry and a trouble.

--Patricia Grace, "Transition," Waiariki and Other Stories

Fade in: a mother is rushed into the delivery room and gives birth to twins, a son and a daughter, but the mother and the son die, leaving the daughter to a grieving father and grandmother and a disappointed grandfather. The family is Maori, and the scene opens the popular Oscar-nominated New Zealand film, Niki Caro's Whale Rider (2002), based on the short novel by the Maori poet and author Witi Ihimaera.

But return to the "disappointed grandfather." What is his story? Simple but complex. He is the Maori chief of his town's tribe, and he had hoped for a grandson to pass on the tribal leadership to. Now he is cursed with a granddaughter instead of a grandson. The novel and the film, however, are told through the girl's--Pai's--point of view. Played by then twelve-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes (who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance), Pai narrates her struggle to grow up without a mother and her effort to win her grandfather's acceptance. She narrates to us, the viewers, in voiceover, building her story into the oral mythology of her Maori culture, thus the title "whale rider." A contemporary Maori story thus unfolds, combined with Maori mythology as we see the images of the sea, whales, and the mother's childbirth and her death and Pai's brother's death while we listen to Pai relating her story:
 In the old days a man felt a great emptiness
 that was waiting, waiting to be filled
 up. Waiting for someone to love it. Waiting
 for a leader, and he came on the back
 of a whale, a man to lead a new people,
 our ancestor, Paikea, but now we were
 waiting for the firstborn of the new generation,
 for the descendant of the Whale
 Rider, for the boy who would be Chief.

And as we see her father crying and holding Pal's dead mother, we hear her final voiceover words to us for the opening of the film: "There was no gladness when I was born. My twin brother died and took his mother with him." The film then moves to Pai as a twelve-year-old and follows through her story.

Storytelling is so much a part of every culture and its literature, but this is especially true of indigenous peoples for whom the oral tradition has thrived through the centuries and continues today in many parts of the world, including within Maori culture in New Zealand and the many Native American cultures within the United States. Focusing on both of these cultures, I wish to suggest that there is also a strong link between their literary and cinematic traditions that we do not see so clearly in considering American literature and Hollywood filmmaking.

Take, for instance, the top-ten box-office American films of all time as of January 2009: Titanic (1997), The Dark Knight (2008), Star Wars (1977), Shrek 2 (2004), E.T. (1982), Star Wars: Episode 1 (1999), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006), Spider Man (2002), Star Wars: Episode III (2005), and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003). Do we note any Ernest Hemingway, Sherman Alexie, Ralph Ellison, Joyce Carol Oates, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, or Willa Cather in this list? Similarly, is there a single film about American life and culture, past or present? "None" in either case!

Thus we begin with the reality that what is treasured in American literature is very different from what movie viewers line up to see in the multiplex cinemas. And what about any Native American films in the top, say, 250 selling American films? Once again, the answer is zero.

In contrast, New Zealand is not only a different country, but one with a fascinating popular and award-winning indigenous tradition in both literature and cinema. The quality and number of films made by and about Maori in New Zealand is impressive, and three of these films are in the top-ten box-office New Zealand movies of all time, each coming from a popular and respected work of published Maori prose fiction. I have already started, of course, with Whale Rider. But we must also mention Ian Mune's What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? (1999), with a script by Maori novelist Alan Duff from his own novel, and Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors (1994), based on Alan Duff's novel. (Note that The Lord of the Rings films are not officially "New Zealand films" since they are Hollywood produced and owned.) Each of these three films is also about contemporary Maori society and life in New Zealand, without aliens from other worlds invading or animated special effects taking place in imaginary worlds as in many of the top Hollywood films.

And yet there is a lively and growing "First Nation" (the Canadian term for "Native") film tradition in the United States that does build on its own indigenous storytelling roots. Two more film scenes will take us further in this exploration of these two indigenous countries and their cinemas.

In the first scene we see a quiet country field and sky as we hear a Native American storyteller speak a story in his language with subtitles in English provided:
 I was once told by my grandmother a
 long time ago that Rabbit ate Bear whole.
 She said that Rabbit told Bear that he had
 a belly full of honey. This made Bear curious
 so he went into Rabbit's mouth and
 down his throat into his belly. This made
 Rabbit full for years to come!

As the story ends, we see a young man pulling the corpse of an older man along that same country road, and we soon learn the young man is an Oklahoma Seminole Indian who has come back to his father's small country home one morning to find him dead from self-inflicted chemicals. But his father left a note for his son asking him to bury him in the tribal tradition. And so the son drags his father from the house across a road and field and into a lake where he anchors his father at the bottom of the lake before leaving. We, as audience members, are already pulled into a "real" story dealing with Native traditions, suicide, and a young man coming of age, but with a storyteller, "speaking" to us also, we are curious to find a connection between what we see and hear: how does a Rabbit full of Bear tie in with a father's suicide in small-town Oklahoma?

In our second scene, a white-haired Maori father is seated in his kitchen in Wellington, New Zealand, when his young nephew from the South Island of New Zealand comes in the room and starts speaking hesitantly. The young fellow finally gets his story out: one of the father's sons died in a car crash that evening. We await the father's reaction. He pauses, smiles, but the smile collapses into near panic as he then looks up to his nephew and says, "Do you want a cup of tea?" The nephew hasn't even had time yet to explain they had been doing drugs and a white youth was actually the driver. Thus begins a tale of a contemporary Maori family in New Zealand that must deal with loss, love, friendships, and new beginnings. Once more, we experience no animated creatures from outer space or pirates in the Caribbean or Pacific Oceans.

These scenes are our entry point into the impressive current "First Nation" film traditions currently developing in New Zealand through Maori stories, actors, and filmmakers and in the United States through various indigenous filmmakers across the country, particularly encouraged by the Sundance Film Festival workshop and seminar programs.

Our first scene is from the opening scene of Four Sheets to the Wind, which was the first feature film written and directed by Oklahoma Seminole filmmaker and former University of Oklahoma film student Sterlin Harjo. The film did well at the 2006 Sundance Film Fest and went on to play at festivals around the world, including New Zealand, with limited theatrical release and current DVD availability. As I write this piece, Harjo's second feature film, Barking Water (2009), has been accepted at Sundance and already invited to numerous additional festivals. This film, like Four Sheets, is also an Oklahoma First Nation story, made independent of Hollywood production companies.

The Maori scene is from a 2007 first feature film, written by Andrea Bosshard and directed by Bosshard and Shane Loader, entitled Taking the Waewae Express and starring the well-known Maori actor Rangimoana Taylor as the grieving father. What unites both projects and many others from New Zealand and the United States is that we are not just speaking of specialized cinemas in these countries but of the larger traditions of "indigenous storytelling," which clearly unites published storytellers such as Patricia Grace and Maori filmmakers in the same way that Seminole filmmaker Sterlin Harjo as a storyteller ties into Native traditions shared by such writers as Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie, and N. Scott Momaday.

Sherman Alexie, for instance, who is a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Native, certainly represents an American indigenous writer who, similar to Alan Duff in New Zealand, can publish popular and award-winning poetry and fiction and also write and even direct respected feature films. More specifically, he has published ten books of poetry, seven novels, and short-story collections, including The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007). The popular film Smoke Signals (1998) was based on one of his stories, "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona." In 2002 Alexie wrote and directed the contemporary feature film The Business of Fancydancing, which is a complex drama with comic moments as old friends reunite at a friend's funeral and work on their own lives to follow.

Clearly there have been other strongly crafted Native films made, including Jonathan Wacks's Powwow Highway (1989) and Randy Redroad's The Doe Boy (2001). And Hollywood has taken on "Indian" stories in box-office hits such as Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990) and Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans (1992), but these are not indigenous films in terms of the filmmakers and even, truly, in the storytelling traditions we are discussing. But none of these works has reached the wider and larger home audiences that the Maori films have.

Why not? More specifically, how has the Maori tradition become so strong in New Zealand in film and in literature, reaching large and appreciative audiences of whites (Pakehas) as well? An answer begins with the cultural differences between the United States and New Zealand. Start with the fact that Maori represent about 15 percent of the New Zealand population compared to the United States in which First Nations people make up less than 1 percent. Add to this fact that New Zealand has embraced indigenous culture even to the level of teaching the Maori language in many schools as part of learning about New Zealand culture. Can we Americans imagine a time when at least one First Nation language of the more than five hundred that exist in the United States would be offered, even only a few words or sentences, as part of an elementary or high school curriculum? I find it important, for instance, that not all of Patricia Grace's books have a glossary for Maori words used in them.

Add, too, that elements of Maori culture appear everywhere in New Zealand life, including, for instance, the opening of each rugby match played by the famous New Zealand All Blacks who act out a fierce haka (war dance) complete with facial expressions and menacing stretched stares and body movements. Thus there is a general familiarity that the New Zealand population has with Maori culture that simply no longer exists in the United States. For instance, I have asked many friends in Oklahoma if they have ever attended a powwow, and the answer is usually "no"!


But even taking all this into consideration, how is it possible that films such as Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors have done so well critically and in terms of viewing audiences outside of New Zealand? One Cape Town, South Africa, film reviewer, for instance, in writing about Once Were Warriors when it came out in 1994, described it as the best South African film ever made! He went on to say that he knew the film was from New Zealand but that the social, racial, familial, gender, political, and personal issues brought up in the film absolutely spoke to the realities of South African cultures.


Therein is the truth that we know speaks to all great literature and cinema: cultural details may differ from nation to nation, but human relationships have much in common around the world. Once Were Warriors can speak to Americans about poor Latino or African American neighborhoods in Los Angeles, New York, or elsewhere, just as this New Zealand film focuses on poor Maori families living in the ghettos of New Zealand's largest city, Auckland. With unforgettable performances by Rena Owen as an abused Maori wife and mother and Temuera Morrison as Jake, an alcoholic, unemployed husband/father, the stories that unfold embrace family violence, rape, incest, and suicide but, finally, cultural ceremony (the funeral) complete with a non-Hollywood ending, for they do not live happily ever after as the sequel, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, details.

Fade out on the ending of Whale Rider. Pai (who is named Kahu in the novel) is finally accepted by her grandfather, Koro Apirana, and we have a large community-centered ending by the sea as the whole Maori tribe and their friends and Pakeha loved ones show up to launch the Maori hand-carved battle canoe into the sea, with Maori songs and war chants accompanying all. Pai's personal story and Maori legend come together at last as the canoe with dozens onboard strokes into the ocean with the men, including her father, paddling and chanting. Pal is sitting with her grandfather who smiles and hugs her, and we hear Pal in voiceover one last time: "My name is Paikea Apirana, and I come from a long line of chiefs stretching all the way back to the Whale Rider. I'm not a prophet, but I know our people will keep moving forward ... all together ... with all of our strength." Fade out, as the Maori canoe moves swiftly and steadily in the distance of the ocean.

Fade out also with appreciation for organizations such as World Literature Today, the Sundance Film Festival, and the New Zealand film festivals including the Wairoa Maori & Indigenous Film Festival (, which have encouraged the production and celebration of indigenous storytelling in book and cinematic forms. "Once upon a time" as told in whatever indigenous language continues to be an important part of being human for all of us, no matter what race, creed, or country we belong to.

So what finally happened to Rabbit, who ate Bear? Well, to finish the story you must watch Sterlin Harjo's Four Sheets to the Wind! In fact let us close with "storytelling" words from Harjo in an interview on a Native American website with the question to Harjo: How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker? His answer says all that we have been suggesting here:
 I tell stories from a place and about
 people that mainstream audiences rarely
 hear about. I didn't make any money
 off the sale of my last film, Four Sheets
 to the Wind, but it was great to hear how
 popular it was in Indian communities in
 Oklahoma. I had people that I would run
 into on the street tell me that their whole
 family loved it and would burn each
 other copies and wear copies out because
 they watched it so much. That felt good.
 That gave me great pride because I knew
 that some of these communities, especially
 Seminole and Creek communities,
 were seeing themselves for the first time
 on screen. That's success to me. Of course
 now as I get older I want to make money
 as well! (

University of Oklahoma

Andrew Horton is the Jeanne H. Smith Professor of Film & Video Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of twenty books on film, screenwriting, literature, and culture and an award-winning screenwriter whose credits include the script for Brad Pitt's first feature film, Dark Side of the Sun. He co-wrote a New Zealand jazz / sheep farm comedy, Make a Joyful Noise, which is currently in development in Wellington.
COPYRIGHT 2009 University of Oklahoma
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:special section
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2009
Previous Article:Patricia Grace: the 2008 Neustadt Laureate.
Next Article:The detective novels of Qiu Xiaolong.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters