My Ancestors Were Showbiz People

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.

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Performers for the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Wild West Show. Germany, 1928.

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.

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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.

 

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Out with the Old, in with the New

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.

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Sherlock, Jr. (Dir., Buster Keaton 1924)

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:

List of US Citizens

George Swallow Passenger List

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?

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Germany, 1928. The two people above bear striking resemblances to my great-great grandparents. A new mystery has emerged from the abyss of the internet.

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.

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A Moment of Innocence (dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996)

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.

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Screen capture from A Moment of Innocence.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

An Extra in the Indie-Film Trenches of ‘Red Hand’

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Waiting for filming to start on the set of Red Hand

 

I recently had the pleasure of participating as an extra in Rod Pocowatchit’s new feature-length movie Red Hand, filmed this September and October in Wichita, KS.

Read the director’s article about the dilemmas faced by indie filmmakers! In Pocowatchit’s own words, the film is about “a man with the power to heal who time-travels from a dystopian future to save the Native American race.”

Shooting took place in a warehouse with a small crew and about two dozen extras. During the scene I participated in, dozens of Red Hand followers rally around a character (Randall Aviks, who also appeared in The Dead Can’t Dance) who proclaims that a man has traveled from the future to save Indigenous people.

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Credit: The Wichita Eagle

In an increasingly homogenized media world, grass-roots independent filmmaking still exists and it’s something that is still worth supporting!

According to Pocowatchit, the film will be released in 2017.

The 1491’s, reclaiming Native American imagery

The 1491s (Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau, Ryan Red Corn and Bobby Wilson) are an Indigenous comedy troupe whose youtube channel is filled with sketches that comment upon some of the absurd ways that Native Americans are shown in popular media.

The group’s TedX Talk from 2013 gives an introduction to their work. Like most Native American/Indigenous filmmakers, the 1491s use cameras and other media tools to reclaim many of the stereotypes of Indians that are perpetuated through visual art and other kinds of images.

Their most salient point about the way Indians are portrayed on camera can be seen in the group’s 2011 Smiling Indians video, their best and most concise work, which refutes the images of turn-of-the-20th-century ethnographic photographer Edward S. Curtis by simply showing images of smiling Indians.

Curtis’s images of stoic, humorless Indians have shaped the popular view of Indians as extinct beings from the pre-American past, but Smiling Indians places Native Americans in a contemporary context to underline the survival of Indigenous people in the modern world.

 

“The reality is, just because we’re not dressed up in buckskin right now doesn’t make us any less Indian that we would be if we were at a powwow right now…. “

As they state in their Ted Talk in regard to their goals as artists, Smiling Indians reiterates that “the big idea we’re trying to fight is, go cry over somebody else’s tragedy, because we’re alive and thriving.”

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From their Ted Talk, the 1491’s outline the effect of Indigenous people commandeering the image making process: “The colonial mindset decided to warp everybody’s view about what a Native American is. … The reality is, just because we’re not dressed up in buckskin right now doesn’t make us any less Indian that we would be if we were at a powwow right now…. ”

 

Rediscovering ‘Daughter of Dawn’

Is Daughter of Dawn an Indigenous film?

Questions of authenticity and cultural representation often arise in Native American/Indigenous Cinema. Going back to Barry Barclay’s inception of the Fourth Cinema as Indigenous Cinema (in Barclay’s words, “with a capital ‘I'”), Daughter of Dawn

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Credit: Milestone Films

can be added to the category of Indigenous Cinema despite being made by white filmmakers because the film still carries with it the ‘essence’ of Indigenous life and outlooks due to the Kiowa and Comanche cast creating their own performances in their own environment.

 

From playing the role of cultural object in early ethnographic films, to their status as villains and savages within the Western genre, Indigenous people have had stories and images of their lives dictated by an industry whose point of reference has been the same “Noble Savage” image of Indians for over a century. A previously unreleased film from 1920 called The Daughter of Dawn, while made by white filmmakers, was the first, and still remains after over 100 years of cinema, the only movie to feature an all Native American cast.

There is little reason to believe that the Kiowa and Comanche actors who appeared in the film had complete control over how their cultures were portrayed on screen, but the film is important because it preserves moving images of tribes who were only two or three generations removed from people who had known the regions of modern-day Oklahoma and Kansas as completely free of white settlers. The film is important because it is one of the first to sympathetically feature the lives of non-white characters during an era of casually accepted racism in the film industry. The Daughter of Dawn can be used in comparison to later representations of Native Americans in film to show how images of Indigenous people have (or, have not) evolved in the film industry.

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In 1920, Oklahoma had already been sequestered as Indian Territory and had been part of the Union only thirteen years before Dawn was made. In the summer of 1920, filming took place in the Wichita Mountains in the western part of the state. The film featured a cast of 300 actors, all belonging to the Comanche and Kiowa tribes, none of whom had appeared in front of a movie camera before. Many arrived from relatively new government-created reservations within the state and brought with them the tipis, clothing, weapons and many other authentic props seen in the film.

The film was directed by a little-known filmmaker named Norbert A. Myles, who only has two other silent films to his directorial credit. He was a very prolific make-up artist until the late 1950s, according to IMDB, having worked on The Wizard of Oz, Stage Coach, The Thief of Baghdad, Duel in the Sun, and The Jack Benny Program, among a large other films and TV shows. A description of the film’s plot gives the impression that The Daughter of Dawn had epic period drama aspirations: There is a conflicted love story centered around the Daughter of Dawn (a Kiowa woman named Esther Lebarre), who is the daughter of the Kiowa chief (played by a non-actor named Hunting Horse). She is in love with a warrior named White Eagle, played by White Parker, who was the real-life son of Quanah Parker, the chief of the Comanche tribe. Conflict arises when another man vies for the attention of the Daughter of Dawn. There is also a hunting sequence in which we see a beautifully filmed gigantic herd of buffalo roaming freely in then-wide-open Southwestern Oklahoma.

The Daughter of Dawn suffered a fate similar to many forgotten and then rediscovered silent films, its damaged nitrate reels languishing in obscurity before they were rediscovered and restored. For reasons no researchers have been able to figure out, the film was never given an official release and was shown only one time in Los Angeles during the same year it was shot. The film also played in Joplin, Missouri the following year. All five reels of the 80-minute movie were heavily damaged and sat undiscovered until 2008, when a private investigator, who had inexplicably received the film as payment for a case, sold it to the Oklahoma Historical Society for five-thousand dollars. A restoration process began that same year and a musical score for the film was written by composer David Yeagley from the University of Oklahoma.

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The restoration of the sepia-colored film is striking in its visual clarity and depth  of field. With real locations, real Native Americans (one of the few Westerns ever made in which no white actors wear makeup or wigs in order to play Indians) and real props that the Kiowa and Comanche used during their everyday lives at the time, the film gives the viewer the strong impression that they are witnessing a rare glimpsing into the pre-American past.

Daughter of Dawn is now often viewed in the context of a document that has preserved a virtually vanished group of people of Oklahoma’s pre-settlement past. But given the film medium’s nature to obfuscate reality and Hollywood’s bad relationship with underrepresented groups of people, the authenticity of the images can only go so far. Questions about representation of non-whites by a virtually all-white film industry arise when considering the history of depictions of Native Americans in the cinema.

A better way to examine the intentions of Myles’ representations would be to compare The Daughter of Dawn to other representations of Native Americans during the silent era, especially in the early Biograph works of D.W. Griffith, whose films from this period, according to a Cinema Journal article dated in 2000, mainly consisted of stories about Indians. The article places Griffith’s sympathy for the Native American characters depicted in his early Biograph films within the context of condescending attitudes regarding America’s paternalistic attitude towards Indians. Of this attitude that Jay sees in Griffith’s films, he wrote about how “the apparently sympathetic representation of the Native American still adheres to the logic of white supremacy eventually enunciated in Birth of a Nation”.

Myles doesn’t share Griffith’s attitude towards Native Americans. Comparatively, there are no hints of the “Noble Savage” stereotype in Daughter of Dawn seen in most Westerns up to 1920. Overtly ugly representations of Indians, as seen in the early Griffith Biograph shorts, is less apparent because the film, consisting entirely of Native Americans, is not given the opportunity to present the Indian/White, or Civilized/Savage dichotomy that drives the plots (and violence) of many Westerns.

The Kiowa and Comanche actors’ very presence as themselves lend Daughter of Dawn the Indigenous “essence” that Barclay mentioned. Buffalo hunting, courtship and traditional ceremony mark the characters’ lives, all aspects of which were informed by the actors’ real-life surroundings. There is no threat of encroachment by settlers, no gun battles, no paternalistic tone in which Indians are treated as backwards people stuck in the distant past. The struggle for cultural survival and relevance in the modern world are won by the Kiowas’ and Comanche’s very presence in the movie, filmed entirely in their Wichita Mountains homeland. Until 1961’s modern Native tale The Exiles, in which the mostly Native American cast used their personal experiences and perspectives to create a narrative that situated Indians in the contemporary world, Daughter of Dawn represented the most successful negotiation between Indigenous people playing out versions of their lives and the predominantly non-Native medium through which they were captured.

Boiling down conflicts in Western films between Indians and whites as a battle between good and evil fuels the Savage VS Civilized Man conflict that perpetuates stereotypes about Native Americans

The people who appear in the film, none of whom had acted before, carry themselves with the slightly exaggerated mannerisms which may be attributed to the acting style of melodramatic silent film. It is important to place the film within a melodramatic context because, as Jacquelyn Kilpatrick points out in her book Celluloid Indians, the melodramatic form allows for the Good VS Evil conflict that is central silent Western films. Boiling down conflicts in Western films between Indians and whites as a battle between good and evil fuels the Savage VS Civilized Man conflict that perpetuates stereotypes about Native Americans. In her book, Kilpatrick paraphrases Peter Brooks’ The Melodramatic Imagination, in which he says that melodrama “deals with the world in Manichean terms of good and evil, with no mediating middle ground… In the case of the American Indian, that characterization could be evil, as in the bloodthirsty savage stereotype, or good, as in the noble savage”.

Despite the comparative closeness to accurate cultural representation, the actors were still forced to work in a predominantly white industry that, especially in the silent era, created genres that thrived on ugly racial stereotypes. Such depictions made non-whites seem villainous and simplistic. Kilpatrick laments, “Indians who were multidimensional human beings with faults and virtues were not to be found in the silent films that first introduced them to the American film audience”. With this quote in mind, it is poignant that The Daughter of Dawn had very few public screenings. With their broad acting flourishes, there is a hint of self-assuredness in the actors’ abilities to play representations and perhaps they were able to create their performances on their own terms.

While the film cannot be considered an authentic representation of a particular culture (can any film truly make such a claim?), it’s all-Native cast was given a small, if very brief, moment to play out a simplified version of their lives. Stereotypes and misrepresentation aside, the film deserves our attention because of its close link to the early American past at the beginning of the twentieth century.

A short video about the history and rediscovery of The Daughter of Dawn:

-Scott Pewenofkit, jr.


The Daughter of Dawn will be released on DVD by Milestone Films on July 19th, 2016. Currently, you can stream the film on Netflix.

The film was also inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2013.

Article: Surviving the Apocalypse, Part 2: ‘The Dead Can’t Dance’

39126-dead-can-t-danc-eRodrick Pocowatchit’s The Dead Can’t Dance (2010) is a comedy/zombie film about a Comanche family that must band together and fight for survival as the world’s non-Native population inexplicably turns into flesh-eating zombies. The film is the first in the now-exhausted zombie genre to feature main characters that are Native American. Similar to Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls, The Dead Can’t Dance uses the horror genre to broadly trace a whole history of experience involving Indians’ experiences in North America.

Comanche everyman Dax Wildhorse (writer/director Pocowatchit) is driving his teenage nephew Eddie (T.J. Williams) to college. Along for the ride is Dax’s brother and Eddie’s alcoholic, wayward father Ray (Guy Ray Pocowatchit), who’s been absent for most of Eddie’s life. The film opens at a rural Kansas rest stop when all of the people around them suddenly drop dead. In a panic, they leave, but their car runs out of gas. They wander into a nearby small town, where they come across a spaced-out white stoner named Clooney (Randall Aviks). The four men band together to fight the growing hoards of Caucasian zombies.

The Dead Can’t Dance is like a Creation Story in reverse. In a complete reversal of tragic history, non-Native people are decimated and turned into the walking dead by a disease that doesn’t affect Indians. The film is also about the destruction of the world witnessed by Indians who already have experience dealing with the End Times. The film reshapes horror conventions to talk about loss in many of its forms, which are infused with cathartic humor. Like Barnaby’s Rhymes, the film’s characters look for ways to stare loss in the face and keep charging forward.

We’re the first ones here and the last ones to leave. Now that’s poetic justice.

After the four men take refuge in an abandoned school, a bickering Ray and Clooney are sent out to search for a gas can so Eddie, Ray, and Dax can continue on their way and Clooney can reunite with the woman who left him. But they become stranded at the school when Clooney and Ray are unable to find gas. The hordes of mostly-caucasian zombies slowly close in. Not only must they fight for their own survival, but they must confront the tangled messes of their dysfunctional family life and their newly found places in a world that hasn’t existed since pre-European contact.

Ray frames the end of times in his own smart-ass way: “We’re the first ones here and the last ones to leave. Now that’s poetic justice.” Ray reaches for a high-five from Dax, who rolls his eyes in response.

The Dead Can’t Dance is also a family film in the way it focuses on the bonds between the three Comanche men. The plot is driven by the strained dynamic between Eddie, Dax, and Ray, and not zombie survivalism. Their fractured family is forced to come together and fend off a grave threat and their cohesion is the key to saving their own lives. Against the backdrop of the predominantly-white apocalypse of American society, they continue to carry around the heartbreak of the incidents that caused the rift between them, but the film is empathetic towards the characters who have severed bonds with their families and have caused others pain.

In the opening moments of the film, freeze-frames and subtitles introduce each main character by revealing a secret they are keeping from the others. Through this device we are introduced to Ray as a man secretly heartbroken over the lost relationship with his son. Ray isn’t a perfect father, but the device used to introduce each character via their secrets acts as a kind of plea for him, in light of his irresponsible nature, which has driven Eddie out of his life. The non-Native world ends all around them, but Ray and the others are given a chance for reconciliation in its ruins.

 

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Comanche Writer/Director Rodrick Pocowatchit also stars as Dax. Behind him, Stupid comes to the rescue.

The film is full of subtle, sublime Termite-Art moments that eat away at its functionally low-end aesthetic to reveal its sincerity in small, fleeting moments: while Ray and Clooney nervously stare down a school hallway full of zombies lurching towards them, they very briefly pause the film’s narrative to talk about being left by women they love. It hurts, Clooney reveals, dejectedly, and Ray agrees. The moment is short-lived and will go unnoticed by most viewers, but it sums up the turmoil the characters dwell in and ties into the film’s themes of forgiveness. Clooney alludes to a bad relationship with the woman he is trying to reunite with, and Ray’s immature nature and estrangement from Eddie speaks volumes about the nature of the relationship with the woman who left him. They are flawed men, but misunderstood. We’re never shown the mistakes that destroyed the relationships they are trying to bring back to life, but we do see both men reaching towards forgiveness, trying to pick up the pieces.

In the beginning of the narrative we are introduced to Dax via subtitles that say he is secretly sick. Another fleeting moment alluding to this secret is equally great in its own peculiar, almost unnoticeable way. After Ray and Clooney leave the abandoned school to find gas, Dax nurses Eddie back to health after a diabetic attack. During the scene, Dax tries to convince Eddie that his father does love him, despite his absence. Eddie questions the apocalyptic events unfolding around them, and asks his uncle Dax if the world is coming to an end. Dax tells Eddie, no, and, “Besides, you’ll be dancing long after I’m gone,” a statement that puzzles Eddie. Dax then tells him the only reassuring thing that comes to mind: “Whatever’s happening around us, there’s a reason for it”. Something else looms in his mind. The moment is filled with uncertainty. We look back on the moment when we realize he is keeping his sickness a secret from everyone else. This is the film’s other, authentically revealing moment, breaking loose from the intentionally-or-not slapstick, amateurish style of the film.

The film’s low-end visual style serves its comic tone quite well and emphasizes the inherently ridiculous nature of the zombie film and its cliches. The extras’ caked-on white makeup make them resemble the zombies of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Some of the undead also have veins stenciled onto their faces. The obvious artifice of the film’s makeup FX creates a sense of alienation from the work, transforming the zombie menace and the very notion of the End Times into a kind of joke.

The appearance of Stupid (Wade Hampton), a friendly, dim-witted zombie who maintains a fixation on a handheld radio and later becomes a key character, is a parody of Day of the Dead‘s Bub, a zombie who was  experimented on by scientists in that film. In an obvious way, Day of the Dead tried to garner sympathy for Bub by giving him living-human characteristics, feelings, and memories. However, Day of the Dead takes a darkly cynical view of actual, living humanity and its capability to do good in a dying world. Romero wanted to create sympathy for walking cannibalistic corpses while showing contempt for the living members of humanity, which seems like a confusing moral framework to work within. A film ever-hopeful about the dying world, expressed through the notion that surviving indigenous people will inherit the earth, the presence of Stupid in Dead Can’t Dance thumbs its nose at past films’ use of the zombie movie as a vent for the cynicism of filmmakers like Romero. The Dead Can’t Dance is one of the few modern zombie movies with a hopeful view of the post-apocalyptic world.

Having Native people immune to the virus wasn’t just a comical device. I also wanted to comment on how Native culture was massacred when the European settlers arrived. They did bring rampant disease that wiped out Native people. The outbreak of the zombie virus in the movie reversed all that.

Writer/Director Pocowatchit uses the zombie film in a way that is informed by history. He said in our interview that the question, “What would reverse the situation?” involving the circumstances of indigenous populations being wiped out by disease, and, “what would wipe the slate clean?” were the inspirations for the story, in regard to reconciling the mistreatment of Native Americans in boarding schools and for the use of diseases to kill them off.

A prop history textbook found in the abandoned school introduces the theme of historical revisionism through Pocowatchit’s Comanche perspective. The cover has the title History Re-Written. The film highlights the poor relationship between indigenous people and the educational systems established by colonizing entities. The decision to have the main characters take refuge in an abandoned school was not an arbitrary decision, according to Pocowatchit. The film has a similar attitude to Rhymes for Young Ghouls in regard to Indians’ status in their respective country’s educational system. The Dead Can’t Dance places its three Comanche characters in the school to underline the mistreatment of Indians in American’s educational system while tying historical allusions about disease decimating indigenous populations to the threat of infection in a zombie film. As a filmmaker conscious of how genre elements can be bent in order to conform to a director’s peculiar vision, Pocowatchit knows that the zombie film has been used to comment on societal aspects since their inception: “Having the film set in a school was a very conscious decision. The great thing about zombie films is that they’re ripe for commentary, so yes, I did want to speak about how Native people were mistreated in the mainstream school system and that history was taught wrong.”

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Guy Ray Pocowatchit in The Dead Can’t Dance (2010).

The film is loaded with references to history, especially in the anxiety-ridden fantasies of Eddie, in which he is being humiliated by a teacher for not knowing which state was the last to grant the right to vote for Native Americans. Pocowatchit had clear goals in mind for using the zombie movie to address history: “Having Native people immune to the virus wasn’t just a comical device. I also wanted to comment on how Native culture was massacred when the European settlers arrived. They did bring rampant disease that wiped out Native people. The outbreak of the zombie virus in the movie reversed all that.”

The world in The Dead Can’t Dance comes to an end, but the film is hopeful about what comes after it’s all gone. The three Comanche men who witness the end of the world around them are already survivors. Dax, Eddie, and Ray come from a people, the indigenous population of North America, poised to survive the destruction of their colonizers’ world because they are the kinds of dystopian survivors Sidner Larson described in his theory of Post Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome. Larson wrote that Indians are the only people to have seen the end of the human world. Contemporary Indians are only several generations removed from the ancestors who saw their tribal cultures destroyed by colonial expansion, war, and disease. Their descendants are feeling the effects of these catastrophes in the forms of alcoholism, poverty, crime, the dissolution of family ties, all of which, according to Larson, are all a kind of PTSD that reverberates throughout time. In this way, the three men struggle with the ripple effects of the end of the world. The survivors bring knowledge necessary for propagating the next civilization. The three principal Indian characters’ use of the Comanche language throughout the film makes them vital for bringing valuable knowledge into the Newly Indigenous World. As a filmmaker, Pocowatchit is aware that the end of one world is not equal to the end of existence, as long as we have people to carry traditions to other generations. This reasoning preserves the Comanche language in the contemporary world. Pocowatchit says, “I… liked that society and mankind lived [on] because of the graciousness and knowledge of Native people.” Their use of the Comanche language shows the importance of cultural survival.

I want to tell contemporary stories about Native people living in today’s world, even if it’s in a zombie movie. Especially if it’s in a zombie movie.”

The characters in The Dead Can’t Dance and Rhymes for Young Ghouls walk across the land of the dead, and the survival of characters in each film is meant as an imperative for all indigenous people. Rhymes had a mournful tone, and while its protagonist did survive, there was no hope of a better world to look forward to. That film suggests survival for its own sake in a world where indigenous people have nothing left to fight for. The Dead Can’t Dance would be a creation story for those reclaiming a world once lived in by their ancestors. As a film, it gives Pocowatchit an opportunity to establish the relevance of Indians on the pop culture landscape. Like many indigenous filmmakers, he has the tendency to use the film medium to consciously establish a place for Native Americans in the American moviegoing conscience. In regard to films by and about Indians, Pocowatchit says, “When I see something that I connect to on a personal level, it makes me feel valid, that I count. One of my goals is to see Native people represented more in mainstream pop culture. I want to tell contemporary stories about Native people living in today’s world, even if it’s in a zombie movie. Especially if it’s in a zombie movie.”

The Dead Can’t Dance shows that hope for Indians lies in the rubble of our world’s destruction.

 

Scott Pewenofkit, Jr.

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The Dead Can’t Dance can be streamed for FREE on skinsplex.com, a new distribution platform for current films by and about Native Americans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ARTICLE: Rondeaux’s Unconventional Realism

Sterlin Harjo‘s new film Mekko has started a successful run on the film festival circuit, where it had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June and its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September. The film tells the story of Mekko, a Creek man who’s been paroled after serving a 19 year prison sentence for killing his brother. With nowhere to go, Mekko begins living on the streets of Tulsa, where he is absorbed into the local homeless Native American community. The local homeless population is terrorized by a man named Bill, who Mekko believes is an evil spirit.

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The film’s star, Crow/Cheyenne actor Rod Rondeaux, takes his first leading role with Mekko, after years of working as a stuntman in Hollywood and taking small parts in other films, like Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff. With Mekko, Rondeaux seems to be joining the ranks of character actors whose work stands out because of their unique backgrounds and unconventional qualities as performers. I first saw Rondeaux in the documentary Reel Injun, which was a survey of decades of Native American misrepresentation in the film industry. He was featured briefly in Reel Injun and talked about his life as a horse trainer before working on film sets as a stuntman. Rondeaux stood out in Reel Injun because of an unnameable authenticity generally lacking from the performances of well-known leading actors. Later, when I saw him in Meek’s Cutoff, he once again stood out as a performer who had an unpolished authenticity that unconventional character actors often bring to roles that make the studied acting techniques of more famous leading men appear transparent and obvious.

Like some great character actors, Rondeaux has the unique ability to add real-life texture to his performances. And realism was important to the way he approached playing Mekko. In an interview with FourthCinema he says of his role, “I tried to bring the reality to the part. After all, 19 years in prison would have changed you as fast as times are now moving. Fear, intimidation, and the uncertainty of how my family would take me in had to be real.”

In a recent interview with Tulsa Public Radio, director Harjo cited Werner Herzog‘s odball masterpiece Stroszek (1972) as an influence on Mekko. A direct line can be drawn between Mekko and Stroszek, where Herzog used Bruno S., a formerly homeless street musician, to play the film’s title character. Like Rondeaux, Bruno S. was in possession of the type of rough-hewn demeanor and acting style that gave the film its sense of realism. Bruno S. and Rondeaux come from hardscrabble backgrounds, and they both posses a lack of formal acting training that sets them apart from conventional leading men. Look for great Termite Art tendencies in the few leading performances from Rondeaux, including Meek’s Cutoff.

Rondeaux stressed the importance of realism for the role when talking about parts of his own personal life that informed how he played Mekko: “…for a time I was homeless when I moved to LA, staying in a shelter for a few weeks until a friend of mine took me to Kansas for a movie.”

Outside of his stunt work, Rondeaux had no previous training as an actor. He grew up on the Crow reservation in Montana, where he worked on the rodeo circuit for most of his life. Recalling the path that led him to his current stunt/acting career, he says, “I rodeo’d for 40 years -team roping, riding bulls, steer wrestling -and a friend of mine drug me to an audition for core riders in 1996 for TNT’s Crazy Horse, shot in South Dakota. I got the role of stunt double for the lead, Michael GreyEyes. I moved to California in 1997 and got into the stunt business from there.”

As a director, Harjo himself must have recognized the great, unconventional acting qualities that Rondeaux possesses. Rondeaux says, “Sterlin saw a picture of me leaning over a fence looking at horses in a corral and decided then and there that I was Mekko.”

Mekko has gotten positive reviews from Variety and a handful of online publications. For Rondeaux, his reception as a leading actor at the Toronto International Film Festival has been equally positive. About his experience at TIFF he says, “The attention [was] somewhat overwhelming.  But I believe the crowd and the people that watched the film were genuinely surprised that we had such a realistic, modern-day kinda dark movie coming out.  Real real real.”

Scott Pewenofkit, Jr.