A video I made for the San Antonio Film Commission’s #FilmSa contest.
During the 1920’s, my great-great grandparents were performers in a Wild West Show.
Ernest Swallow and his wife Mary Big Nose, the grandparents of my maternal grandmother, were performers in the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Wild West Show. The 101 Ranch show toured extensively through the US, Mexico, Europe, and South America.
The 1924 passport photos of my maternal great-great grandparents Mary Big Nose (L) and Ernest Swallow (R):
Ernest and Mary were Cheyenne and Arapaho. Ernest was Born in 1890 in Porcupine, South Dakota to John Thunder Bear, a judge on the Pine Ridge reservation. Mary was born in 1898 in Darlington, Oklahoma. Her father was named Kiowa Little Bear. Their son George Swallow, my great grandfather, was born in 1920 in Calumet, Oklahoma.
The Flickr page of Dave Miller says Ernest and Mary traveled to South America with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show in 1924. After I found out about the existence of my great-great grandparents, I began to wonder if they were driven to become artists or performers. I wanted to know if the “creative drive” that gave me a voice as a kid was passed down from them. I wanted to fill in the blanks of a family history that feels shrouded in secrecy.
Wild West Shows started in the 1870s as circus-like extravaganzas in which actors playing cowboys, Indians, and outlaws acted out Old West myths and reconstructed historical battles as action-packed extravaganzas. Exhibitions in hunting and sports were also big parts of Wild West Shows. Buffalo Bill Cody created the first successful Wild West Show, which featured “Custer’s Last Stand.” In it, General Custer and his men are killed at Little Big Horn in a battle with Natives, after which Buffalo Bill rides in and kills all of the Indians out of revenge.
From the beginning, Native Americans were an integral part of Wild West Shows.
Many Indian performers in Wild West shows were also tasked with creating “Indian Villages” to exhibit powwow dancing, show off fancy powwow regalia, and to create facsimiles of “Indian Life.” Native exhibitions at Wild West Shows seemed to resemble prehistoric museum displays that contained living people. Even back then, Native people were forced into a past-tense context.
The 101 Ranch Wild West Show toured the country from 1907 to 1939. It originated on a northern Oklahoma ranch of the same name that was established by Col. George Miller, a Confederate veteran who acquired 110,000 acres of northern Oklahoma land in the Cherokee Strip that was also occupied by the Ponca tribe. The ranch was passed on to his three sons after his death in 1903. Similar to many successful farming operations back then, the ranch seems to have suffered greatly after the Great Depression struck.
In 1905, the Miller sons mounted the gala performance of their show. The extravaganza featured an elderly Buffalo Bill, by then a showbiz has-been; and Bill Pickett, the first nationally known African American rodeo performer. Even Geronimo made an appearance. In a moment loaded with symbols of historic struggle, he was photographed supposedly after shooting a buffalo from the seat of an automobile ,while wearing the high fashions of the day. At the time, he was imprisoned in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. An account of the event says he was accompanied by guards throughout his visit to the ranch.
By all accounts, travelling with a Wild West Show was never comfortable, or easy.
Through the Oklahoma Historical Society I found out that the show went on hiatus during World War I. It resumed in 1924, at around the same time Ernest and Mary joined the show.
And they apparently joined the show at a bad time. By the mid ’20s, the show “ran in to grave financial difficulties, losing over $ 100,000 in 1926 alone, then as the Great Depression began the show went deeper into debt.” Like most Wild West Shows, it struggled to compete with the motion picture business. However, in 1924, Paramount Pictures used the ranch to film a Western called Trail Dust. By the time my great-great grandparents joined the show in 1924, cinema had already reached its peak as an art form, and no other spectacle or visual art could compete with its draw.
Mary, Ernest, and their three year old son George, my maternal great grandfather, traveled to South America with the 101 Ranch Show. To get back home, they traveled by ship from Buenos Aires on November 10th, 1924 and arrived in New York City on December 1st. They lived in Calumet, Oklahoma:
A question persists: why did my great-great grandparents join a Wild West Show?
I hope that looking for the answer to this question will help me understand why I’ve been driven my entire life to become a filmmaker, to become a writer, to constantly remain immersed in the arts generally and the entertainment business, and to explore cultural expression in its different forms. Sometimes I feel that If I didn’t have a creative life of some kind, I would have very little else in the way of a personal or even cultural identity.
Discovering Ernest and Mary gives me hope that, perhaps, they toured with the show out of creative aspirations. Were they performers of some kind for the show? Musicians? Actors? Powwow dancers?
The older I get, the more I realize that I’ve navigated through the world without a “cultural compass,” or, more specifically, without a point of view that was informed at all by any tribe I’m descendant from. Then again, I find that many Indian children experience a kind of cultural disconnection when they grow up in places where very few Native American people reside. From the small pieces I’ve gathered about my parents’ younger years, they experienced a similar disconnection. I remember a childhood that was almost completely devoid of any reference to our Kiowa or Cheyenne cultures. My siblings and I grew up with other poor kids in Kansas, but they were usually white or black. Other kids didn’t know what I was, and I only had the vague notion, mainly through my dad, that I was “Indian.”
I realized fairly recently that a sense of shame over being “Indigenous” kept my parents from teaching us anything about our family history. And I know now that this shame is at least partly the byproduct of a boarding school system meant to assimilate Indians. In multiple ways, I’m living proof that this system was successful in erasing Native cultures. I was a late 20th century kid raised on junk food, pop culture, and too much TV.
My maternal grandmother, the granddaughter of Ernest and Mary, was sent to an Indian boarding school in Oklahoma as a child, and she seemed to have lost contact with most of her family after she married my grandfather, who traces his ancestry to Ireland. She and my grandfather started a family in the early 1960s, and then lived the lives of non-Native working class Midwestern people in a very conservative Kansas town.
My dad is Kiowa and Apache, he grew up around powwow culture, and he understands the Kiowa language. He rarely exposed us to anything remotely “Native American,” except for the occasional Pan-Indian powwow. He must have felt this same kind of disconnection that my grandmother felt and that I felt, growing up. As I got older, I imagined most Indigenous cultures in America as simply shadows of whatever they were before Europeans got here.
Over the years, my dad has opened up more about powwowing, about his own enshrouded family history, and hearing the Kiowa language spoken while growing up in Anadarko and Carnegie, Oklahoma.
As a Native kid who knew nothing about “being” Native, I learned to understand and navigate the world in my own peculiar way. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to spend my younger years immersed in my music-cinematic-pop culture obsessions. Growing up, movies were my first gateway to the world.
I believe many people become artists to re-create a moment of catharsis that art gave them early in life, whether it was felt through a movie, a song, a piece of literature, a painting, or anything else that compelled them to express themselves, creatively.
I’ve been trying to recreate this initial moment in some way for most of my life, through writing, filmmaking, taking pictures.
In trying to understand my family history, I find myself hoping that Ernest and Mary joined a Wild West Show because they too were forever trying to create that same feeling.
For me, old photos, public records, and fragments of my great-great grandparents’ existence gleaned from the internet have been reconstructed into a new family history. In historical revision of our lives, the shame of who we are doesn’t exist. In this re-imagined history, knowledge of ourselves and where we come from allows people like Ernest and Mary to thrive.
Without the resourcefulness of my girlfriend Angela and Ancestry.com’s status as the repository for the paper trail created by our existence, I never would have found out anything about Ernest, Mary, or George.
The market-driven culture machine constantly vies for our attention. Its tentacles have a stranglehold on our senses.
It’s easy to forget that our experience of the world is constantly being mediated by an ominous Something Else.
This Something Else has shaped the world’s idea of what an Indigenous person is, but the older I’ve gotten, the more aware I’ve become of what those ideas represent.
Simply trying to be yourself is the best form of resistance in this world.
Stills from Eloge de l’amour (Dir. Jean Luc Godard, 2002).
Awake, a Dream From Standing Rock, is all politics and no aesthetics.
Or, at its best, its politics are muddled and its aesthetics are weak and unoriginal.
Awake is a pastiche-style documentary seemingly designed to stir up outrage over the Standing Rock Protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. For those unaware, the pipeline transfers oil from the Bakken oil shell In North Dakota, to Illinois. On its journey there, it passes underneath the Missouri River. If the pipeline were to break or leak, it would threaten the water supply of 17 million people.
Equally important, the pipeline also passes through lands that are sacred to the Sioux and other tribes. These lands became sites of violent confrontations between North Dakota law enforcement and unarmed, mostly-Indigenous “Water Protectors” who were there to protest the re-routing of the pipeline through Sioux burial sites.
In its first section, the film takes great pains to show that drones were used to capture much of its footage, which includes unprecedented access to moments of police brutality against the protesters during a freezing night in November of 2016.
The images would be tragic if the movie didn’t simplify the protesters’ struggle into a garbled, uninformed political diatribe.
The manipulative outrage tactics of cable news, Russian bots, and Cambridge Analytica have infiltrated the film medium, and Awake is a good example of this. Awake uses the same outrage tactics that drive online clicks by pushing our emotions into negative places.
Few people at the site of the protests are allowed to speak for themselves in interview footage, giving the “Water Protectors” a vaguely defined group identity that becomes eerily reminiscent of the portrayal of Natives-as-pantomiming-creatures in Terrence Malick’s The New World.
In Awake, the filmmakers lazily chose to compare the “Water Protectors” to the “Indians” of the “Cowboy v. Indians” conflict that is prevalent throughout the entire Western genre.
The police are obviously delineated into the (surprise) “Cowboy” half of the “Cowboy v. Indians” motif that Awake strenuously underlines during the first chapter. They too, are given as much screen time as the protesters to speak for themselves, and so they become just as faceless.
Going back to the the Terrence Malick style that the movie inexplicably affects, the first section is marked by a female voice over narrator whose presence in the movie grows redundant, as she sometimes only directly describes what is taking place on screen. In an unexplained attempt to sound like Linda Manz in Days of Heaven expressing child-like wonder at the natural world, the narrator speaks and describes the world in a detached, passive tone.
The sleepy sounding narrator even says the protesters are “Water,” and that the North Dakota police are “oil.”
In one of Awake‘s worst moments, the violent confrontation between the “Water Protectors” and the police is juxtaposed with archival photos of Indians and Old West cowboys and present-day footage of the violence at the protests.
The drone footage, shot from from high above, like the Cowboy v. Indian motif stressed early on in the film, turns the violence experienced by the protesters into a simplified ideological struggle. All of the footage showing police brutality incites anger within the ideological conflict that spews from network news and talk radio. The Liberal vs. Conservative narrative style and aesthetics of the mainstream news media infect the film’s advocacy stance.
Awake is mostly reflective of the media environment in which we live. As a gimmick, the drones create a sense of distance that dilutes the reasons that drove the protests, just as the immediacy of causes like NODAPL are lost in the social media blur that has drowned out its message. As a recent example of politically slanted advocacy filmmaking, Awake‘s presentation is heavily driven by the Establishment sensibilities and modes of presentation that it thinks it’s speaking out against. The oil industry, the militarized police industrial complex, the news media that inform Awake‘s style and presentation, and the producers of this movie, all benefit from the NODAPL movement more than the indigenous protesters ever will.
While watching footage of the police abusing the protesters, I began to compare the riot scenes in Awake to the Odessa Steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein‘s Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein’s rendering of a mass of people being oppressed by authoritarian figures was more concise and artful because of the strong ideological stance that informed his work.
Awake seethes with outrage at authority figures, but it goes no deeper than the cowboys versus Indians motif that the movie establishes without subtlety.
The cowboys and Indians comparison in Awake pushes Indigenous people back into “Old West” stereotypes that most Native filmmakers in the U.S. claim to decry. And similar to many representations of Native people (made by indigenous and non-indigenous filmmakers), Awake uses a defeatist point of view in its portrayal of Native Americans.
Eisenstein, who was a Marxist, knew that stand-ins for authoritarian figures like the Cossack soldiers on the Odessa Steps and military servicemen where only cogs in an oppressive system. The creators of Awake don’t explore the idea that the police officers are forced to drink the same potentially polluted drinking water. Economically speaking, many of the police and Indigenous protesters have been equally exploited by the State and by big corporations.
The authoritarian march on average people depicted in Battleship Potemkin should be the standard bearer for all political propaganda movies:
The filmmakers’ perplexing decision to employ pseudo-lyrical artiness to present the immediate issues surrounding DAPL seems like an arbitrary one. In the fashion of practically every Malick film, from Badlands, to Days of Heaven, to again, The New World, a young woman whispers dreamily over airy images that are somehow meant to juxtapose her aimless musings.
I found it odd, yet telling, that few of the protesters or many people deeply involved in the NODAPL movement were interviewed in-depth.
There is very little direct, practical information about ways people have or can take action to… to do what, again? Protect Native Sovereignty? To fight the police? What is it these people are protesting, again? As of now, the pipeline is up and running.
Like most political movements these days, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, the people who appear in Awake lack any motivation or clear goals. The movement, like all others, has fizzled out. In a demonstration that market-driven advertising has insidiously seeped into, even infected, all manner of thought and speech in this world, all of the current protest slogans sound like vague, ill-defined ad catch phrases. The system has already won.
Below, a representative example of the protesters who appear in Awake, with their actual captions:
Why the arty dreaminess? Awake is such an ironic title.
Awake and the entire NODAPL movement lack a universal message that will convince people to stand behind the “Water Protectors” and their goals to… stop the pipeline? Protect sacred sites? Whatever it is they are trying to do, the divisive, violent imagery in the film only serves to drive people away from their movement.
Why can’t they get the 17 million other Americans, including the police officers who abuse them, whose water supply could also be poisoned by DAPL, behind their cause?
I watched Awake for the for the first time last August on Netflix, which was around the same time I found an Indian Country Today op-ed by Terese Mailhot that reads like a treatise against terrible contemporary art made by Native Americans.
Mailhot explains that we are quick to accept bad Indian art and overlook why it’s terrible, because there are so few positive representations of Native Americans in most modern art forms.
What happens when we lower the bar for Native American art, simply because we’re desperate for any positive representations made by actual Native Americans? The article rightly points out that the sympathy vote given to bad Indian art enables, for example, copy after copy of cliche-ridden “mash-up” artwork that juxtaposes Edward Curtis-esque photos of Indians against images of modern Indians. And she rightly bemoans the half baked, male dominate “comedy” that push the kinds of misogynistic ideas that “Native Artists” claim to speak out against. Bad Indian art also treads repeatedly through worn themes like “resilience” and “decolonization,” words that are turned into mindless, cult-like mantras by the protesters in Awake.
The acceptance of Awake among political activists is largely sustained by the need to accept any sort of “Native Art” as good, even when it plods through the same cliches decried in Mailhot’s op-ed piece. It becomes more offensive than stereotypical representations of Indians created by non-Indigenous people because it gives the impression that none of us cannot make good movies, which obviously isn’t true:
You will not enter the spirit land
You will wander
Alone forever, between the winds
Briefly, here is a report from the Times of Russia about the Standing Rock Protest.
NYC Stands With Standing Rock provides a good resource for learning about the fight in which the Standing Rock Sioux find themselves and also provides a detailed timeline outlining the larger struggle for indigenous sovereignty.