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Wiping the War Paint Off the Lens

November 9, 2010

Beverly Singer PhD, Santa Clara Pueblo, Tewa/Dine’

We had good lives. We fed ourselves. We built our homes.  We had worship. And, we celebrated family and community. What have you brought us?
Beverly Singer PhD

When Beverly Singer was 11 years old, she looked on as a Hollywood film crew set to work on the Indian reservation she called home.  That experience inspired her to become a filmmaker; her film work has explored the lives of native women, native children and health issues facing Native Americans.  Also an author, her book Wiping the War Paint Off the Lens: Native American Film and Video, was the backdrop for her Nov. 8 presentation as part of the Grand Valley State University American Indian Heritage Month series.

Singer began by talking about the importance of community, of belonging to each other and how 21st century technology impacts the experience of community. “We are now moving towards a different idea of ourselves as human beings as a result of what technology brings.”

In illustration, she recalled the Disney promotion of its animated feature Pocahontas in New York’s Central Park. She was living in New York City at the time. Singer was struck  that the Disney film repeated the same fixated themes propagated by media about Native Americans throughout American history: 1) the romanticized, free spirited people of the land who have a special connection with some energy force that allows them to adapt to anything that comes along; 2) the embattled savages who are just waiting to be enlightened and changed; and 3) the revolutionary activists who spend all their time figuring out how to counter-balance all the changed that have been forced on our indigenous peoples.

“The bias of the narrative is that we’re constantly at juxtaposition; we don’t really belong. We lost the war. We are angry. We need to make a stand,” Singer said. “Yes, we are very revolutionary but not in the ways you would think. We have held on and not forgotten where we come from. We have connection to community.”

By making their own films, Singer and other Native American filmmakers have been able to step outside those conventional representations—and outside of the boundaries set for native arts by a White America that sees native peoples as mysterious, decorative and nostalgic.

“In the market place, you see the totem pole, the Navajo woman figure, the mythological figure. Somehow native people cannot be understood because we are still mysterious, still hiding something. This (representation) turns back in on ourselves. Much of this art is non-political and non-creative—safe and decorative. What does that do to a people? We are not  allowed to move, to change, to feel and experiment.”

As TV has become for native children “their parent, grandparent, teacher, babysitter and best friend,” children grow up with this twisted idea of what it means to be native. They are hounded with images that reiterate the notion that Native Americans can’t fit into society and are potentially volatile.

Following Singer’s talk, five panelists were asked to respond. Glenn Zaring, Tribal Public Affairs Director, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, Manistee, MI, said, “We are tired of being referred to as the Indian problem. Too often, we’re viewed as an anomaly that now happens to have a casino and money. The Native Americans offers solutions. Apply our principles to . . . to the issues we are all having to face. We are not the problem. We are the Solution. We would like to offer that assistance.”

Lisa LaPlante, News Reporter, FOX-17, Grand Rapids, responded, “There is a corporation. What I do makes money. The (editors) are gonna cut, gonna cut, gonna cut. On a national news level, people take shortcuts and regurgitate whatever was fed to them. On a local level were getting better.”

Matthew Wesaw, Tribal Chair, Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, Dowagiac,  said, “For too many years, we have let other people talk about who we are, what we need and what we want. That’s why we are still a mystery. Now is the time for us to tell our story . . . Without us telling, it will never be told properly . . . Warriors like the doctor (Singer) get the message out.”

David Murray, Reporter, The Grand Rapids Press, responded, “American Indians today are still considered mysterious or hiding something? It wasn’t mysterious to me and it wasn’t hidden. … In my community (growing up) there were people who spoke native languages. They were regular folks like you and me.” Murray also denied the existence of institutional racism having an effect on media based on his practice of not using race as a basis for choosing interview subjects on his assignments.

Jeff Smith, Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy, presented figures from GRIID studies analyzing representations of Native Americans in local news. The studies exemplify how news agencies do indeed engage in systemic racism. “Native Americans are racially profiled, meaning they only appear in stories that are race specific—like  Pow Wows or casinos. When there are news stories about the economy, public health issues, the environmental or politics, Native voices are virtually non-existent,” he said. “In the 50 popular films we studied this past year, only one has a native character—Twilight. In that context, the native is seen as savage, succumbing to emotions and economically depressed. The white vampires are cool, calm, economically privileged and don’t give into their emotions. How do we think about this stuff that all of us are consuming and how do we relate to that?”

As corporate media isn’t going to set the record straight anytime soon, Singer’s is the most logical response: she and other Native American filmmakers are making their own media. As she said when concluding her talk, “l create media that connects American Indian people with each other,  to reduce the  noise, to get back to inherent values and practices that keep people belonging to a community, locally and globally, as full partners in what is the creative economy at this moment in history.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. Kate Wheeler permalink
    November 10, 2010 1:38 am

    There have been some directed by White people that give a good perspective on the Indian culture and accurately show how it has been affected or damaged by White actions or presence. One is “Buffalo Bill and the Indians,” a film written and directed by Robert Altman. It is about Buffalo Bill Cody at the point in time when Sitting Bull joins the Wild West show cast. The mind games that the Indians play with the White cast members…Bill’s complete inability to comprehend the Lakota’s point of view and priorities…and the way in which the whole “savage Red man” schtick was set into concrete via the Wild West show are all part of the remarkable script.

    “Black Robe,” a Canadian film, shows how the attempt of a single White man, a Jesuit priest, to enter in and change the native culture literally destroys an entire family. The Canadians have made some beautiful films about Indian culture, and this is one. Directed by Bruce Beresford.

    2008’s “Frozen River” puts an Indian woman and a White woman, both desperate single mothers, in the same nightmarish dilemma when they attempt to make some quick money through a smuggling scheme. It takes place on a Mohawk reservation near Quebec. Courtney Hunt directed.

    “The White Dawn,” directed by Philip Kaufman, is about a trio of whalers who find themselves stranded in northern Canada, where an Inuit tribe saves their lives and attempts to shelter them. The three White men assume the White man’s role of conqueror over the tribe, damaging its culture with alcohol, gambling, disease, and a disrespect for their customs. The Inuit see the whalers as infantile and attempt to tolerate and teach them, but when they are unable to help them assimilate, the tribe members have to decide whether they should destroy the whalers or allow their tribe to be irreparably changed.

    These can be contrasted with films directed by Indians:

    “Smoke Signals,” a film that gives a fresh perspective to the classic coming-of-age-theme of a young man forgiving his father and reconciling himself to his father’s death. Victor has to travel to the Southwest from his reservation to make arrangements for his estranged father’s funeral. Tagging along with him is Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a childhood friend whom Victor dismisses as annoying and ineffectual. But it turns out that Thomas is actually a tribal shaman, and his purpose in making the trip is to attempt to heal Victor’s anger. Directed by Chris Eyre, an Arapaho Indian. This is a witty, well-written, and–in the end–profoundly moving film.

    “White Fawn’s Devotion,” directed by James Young Deer, a member of the Winnebago tribe. This is a silent film, made in 1910, with an all-Indian cast and an Indian director. For that reason alone, it’s fascinating to watch. The plot runs along the same sort of melodramatic lines as most early silent films, but it’s actually shot on location instead of a cheesy “frontier” set, and it deals with a startingly contemporary subject: an interracial marriage that ends badly.

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