‘The Seventh Fire’: Indians as Objects

seventh_fire_xlg-708x1024There have been panel discussions organized around screenings of The Seventh Fire that wished to address the societal ills that plague the tiny indigenous community depicted in the film. However, any discussion about the film should center around the way the film uses its lyrical, pseudo-documentary style to establish its Native American subjects in the same contemporary cultural landscape as other segments of American life. In order for the film to be successful, it must find a balance between a sympathy for the people it portrays and the easy way in which Native Americans are easily exploited by the filmmaking process.

As it stands, the film is meant to draw attention to the various modern problems that have helped destroy familial and tribal structures. Jack Pettibone Riccobono, the non-indigenous director of The Seventh Fire, is successful at proclaiming the place of its subjects in mainstream American life in ways that even some Native American filmmakers are incapable of doing, but the film nearly fails at breaking the bonds of its negative portrayals to rise above the misery that serves as the basis for much of its aesthetics.

Rob Brown, an Ojibwa drug dealer and gang member on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota, spends most of the film drifting in and out of a drug and alcohol-fueled haze. As such, he serves as a symbol for the once-perceived urban problems of gang violence and drug addiction that have plagued many rural places across the United States, including  Indian reservations. The film follows his life up to the moments that he is sent to prison. Touching on intergenerational themes seen in many other movies about indigenous subjects, the film also follows teenager Kevin Fineday, Jr., Rob’s fellow gang member and protege, whose goal in life is to become the reservation’s number one drug dealer. The film depicts Kevin and Rob at a crossroads in which they must take the opportunity to steer away from the cycle of drugs, violence, and poverty where the film dwells.

 

The faux-documentary’s artiness has the negative effect of turning real people into art objects

The Seventh Fire shows its subjects caught in a system that undermines and destroys the fabric of family and tribal life. As the film opens, one man remarks, “Let’s put it this way: With Rob there is always a new low.” Some of the intimate, uncomfortably close moments in the film are filtered through a style that recalls the impressionistic, ephemeral visuals of Terrence Malick, who serves as one of the producers of The Seventh Fire. As Rob falls to various low points in the film -snorting meth, drinking himself into oblivion, sitting in prison as his son is born- the real-life moments of his journey, documented and narrated loosely as a cinematic fever dream, take precedence over underlining the systemic poverty/gang/drug/incarceration web from which many reservation people struggle escaping. The faux-documentary’s artiness has the negative effect of turning real people into art objects.

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Rob Brown in The Seventh Fire. Credit: theseventhfire.com

Gang tattoos, rap music, the ubiquitous Scarface poster pinned to the wall of many young drug dealers, are all part of the film’s landscape and serve as the contemporary cultural codes that replace the symbols of traditional tribal culture. Representations of indigenous people have come a long way since the once-prevalent Western genre cast Indians as noble savages. The ways in which the real-life dismal landscape of the film is shown is an advancement over past stereotypical depictions simply because, despite its objectification, The Seventh Fire still shapes Rob, Kevin and others into sympathetic characters. However, it will be easy for some viewers to define Rob, Kevin, and many of the film’s subjects in negative terms due to the criminal activity filmed, and by the pitiful wallowing in various substances that the film’s camera is never afraid to show. This negative portrayal is balanced by the detached, observational manner in which the people of the film are shown; it is the minute observations of everyday life escaping the ambient tone of the film that humanize Rob and Kevin.

No film should be obligated to explicitly underline in a literal way the root causes of systemic issues that people face, but the fugue state manner in which the events and people of The Seventh Fire are depicted runs the risk of distancing real people and their very real tragedies from society outside of the reservation. A sort of “othering” of  Rob and Kevin is achieved by the film’s loose-narrative, dreamy visual style. The reservation is depicted as an isolated, alien place. A drone shot of Pine Point from above shows its small size and rural isolation. Within its layout of desolate streets there seem to be no roads leading out of the reservation. The image itself resembles an existential nightmare. This viewpoint contributes to the alien-othering achieved by Riccobono.

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The Seventh Fire‘s post-apocalyptic landscape. Credit: theseventhfire.com.

Ricobono has created a film whose artistic roots can be traced not only to the dreaminess of Malick’s visual style, but also to the documentary-fictional blend of filmmaking styles used to great effect by Werner Herzog. Ricobono, who was a participant in Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School, has appropriated that director’s tendency of  using non-actors in dramatically structured moments. Bruno S. in Herzog’s Stroszek and the dwarf actors in his otherworldly Even Dwarfs Started Small come to mind. Stylistically, the film has much in common with Harmony Korine’s misunderstood, visually dynamic Gummo, a film that has also reshaped the lives of disadvantaged people into characters who occupy a rundown world that resembles an alien, apocalyptic, landscape.

Questions about exploitation arise when we consider that the film has been made by outsiders who view an economically disadvantaged, historically disenfranchised people through such a seemingly negative point of view. But like Herzog and Korine before him, Riccobono shows sympathy for the real life people whose life he shapes into narrative form. The Seventh Fire‘s negative depiction of Rob is redeemed by a dramatic arc that shows hope for his future.

Within the film’s theme about future generations of Ojibwa men breaking out of a cycle of drugs, gangs and poverty, the film reaches the sad conclusion that Rob must enter prison to understand the systemic, multigenerational web in which his people are caught. After wallowing in images that border on the kind of exploitation seen in the poverty porn pictures of Aaron Huey,  the film ends with still images of a younger, healthier Rob wearing regalia and dancing at a powwow. The images are devastating when they are contrasted with the sad state in which Rob finds himself while incarcerated. In voice over, Rob talks about the Thunderbird, who flies head of his flock to warn others of an impending storm. With this ending, The Seventh Fire almost achieves a balance between the exploitation of Indians by outsiders.

Scott Pewenofkit, Jr.

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…. ”

 

Passing for Indian in ‘Kimmy Schmidt’

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Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is Tiny Fey‘s Netflix-produced satire about a naive young woman (Ellie Kemper) finding her way in the world after spending fifteen years in an underground bunker with an Indiana doomsday cult. While Kimmy fumbles her way through her new life in New York City, she befriends a number of interesting characters, including Manhattan social climber Jacqueline Vorhees (Jane Krakowski, playing a variation of the clueless blond she played on 30 Rock), who turns out to be a Lakota woman from South Dakota. A subplot in both seasons of Kimmy Schmidt explores Jacqueline’s struggle with her Lakota identity.

The show introduces Jacqueline’s background in episode three of season one, when one minor character inquires about her origins. We flashback to South Dakota in 1992, when Jacqueline Vorhees, stereotypical trophy wife, was teen Lakota Sioux girl Jackie Lynn, who rebelled against her parents, played by Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster (the actors are Comanche and Cherokee, respectively), by pretending to be white.

The younger version of Vorhees is also played by Krakowski and the casting of a white actress to play a Lakota character in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does several things: it reminds us of the need for more Native American/Indigenous actors in film and TV, it points to the structures of society that favor the appearance of whiteness, and as the series progresses it points out the absurdity of the insensitivity that America has expressed towards Native Americans.

“I just want to be somebody!” Jackie Lynn proclaims in a flashback that introduces her backstory and plays into the show’s theme of identity, which also informs main character Kimmy Schmidt’s character arc . “Nothing has changed in this country. If you want to get anywhere you’ve got to be blond and white” teenage Jackie says before heading off to New York City with dreams of marrying People Magazine’s sexiest man of 1992, Nick Nolte.

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Jackie Lynn/Jacqueline bleaches her hair and wears blue contact lenses to insert herself into the world of white affluence, but when (spoiler alert) she loses her wealth at the end of season one, she retreats back to North Dakota in a season two subplot that reiterates for her the importance of asserting her true self in a world where she is expected to be nothing more than a blond trophy wife. As Jacqueline sheds her socialite status, she tackles Native American causes that her wealthy former philanthropist friends dismiss as inconsequential. Still, she charges forward and by the end of season two plots to take down the Washington Redskins.

In a daring way, the casting of a blond, white actress to play a Lakota woman brings the show’s satire back to itself, as it uses Krakowski to point to the lack of diversity in the film/TV/media worlds. The show and its casting become part of criticism towards a lack of racial/cultural diversity in the entertainment business.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spiritual Flight in ‘Ancestor Eyes’

Ancestor Eyes, a 2008 short film by Kalani Queypo, is currently streaming on Skinsplex.com, a free streaming site that features short and feature-length works by Native American filmmakers. What is most notable about the 19-minute short, starring Tantoo Cardinal and Rulan Tangen, is its exploration of the journey one of its main characters takes on her way to the afterlife. The film has a genuinely strong spiritual bent that is common in movies by and about Indigenous people, which is rarely seen in current non-Indigenous cinema.

Willa (Tangen) is bed-ridden and suffers from a disease that is never identified in the film. Her mother Verna (Cardinal), a youthful older woman who takes care of her and spends her days hiking in the wilderness and films scenes from nature with her video camera that her daughter later watches in the confines of her drab, darkened bedroom. The film opens with Verna and her love interest Charlie (Raoul Trujillo) going on a hike, where they film an eagle soaring high above them. In the first moments of the film, we see Verna and Charlie flirting with each other as Verna films the eagle, an obvious but nice visual reference for the film’s theme of spiritual flight. In her bedroom, weak and bedridden, Willa watches the footage shot by her mother, and smiles when she hears the flirtatious banter between Charlie and Verna from behind the camera. Willa’s only means of pleasure seemingly comes from watching the tapes her mother makes and through the possibility that her mother and Charlie are possibly in love. The tapes are meant to make the dying Willa feel a connection to the outside world. But as the film progresses, we learn that it is Verna who must come to terms with the inevitability of death brought on by Willa’s disease.

Verna takes care of the frail, sick, much younger Willa, but Ancestor Eyes is about a dying person who helps a grieving person heal. When Verna returns from a hike with Charlie and discovers that Willa has thrown away her medication, Verna becomes upset with her daughter, and at her wit’s end, demands to know what to do in order to help Willa. In response, Willa tells her to “drop the business about the pills,” and to continue to see Charlie. Willa is oddly content with her illness. Verna films an outside world that she wishes her daughter could experience, but Willa is more concerned with Verna finding enjoyment in the world she captures with her camcorder. Without outwardly expressing it, Willa has come to terms with dying. During a key moment of reconciliation in the film, Willa says to her mother, “Can I tell you something, mom? You did good.” Note the look of elation of Verna’s face in close-up during this scene.

And so begins Willa’s journey to the next life. Her mother tells her the story of the keeper of the flowers, which is about a little girl who sits under the quarter moon one night and is visited by the Sky People, who explain to the little girl how all of the different plants of the world, when grown, will bring healing to her people. The Sky People give the little girl a magical satchel of seeds and two gourds of water, which she must carry up a mountain. The little girl accepts the difficult burden of carrying the sack of seeds and the gourds of water up the mountain, her path illuminated by the light of the moon. The little girl must plant the seeds until the entire world is covered, as Verna narrates the story to Willa, “in a lush landscape of healing plants.” There was a place for every seed and every drop of water. The little girl gave of herself, creating a blanket of nourishment for the world. The little girl would never return to her family. Willa’s eventual demise is visualized at the end of the film in a simple way that is striking.

I was there when she found her way to this earth. I give her back to the sky.”

In their last moments together, Verna talks about the moment that Willa was born: “When you were born, you knew too much. You looked at me through the eyes of your ancestors. I felt so lucky. I got to witness your spirit coming into this earth.” The film closes with reconciliation and acceptance. We hear Verna communicating with the hereafter in voice-over narration, “I’m calling out to all my relations. I give her back to you, the girl with the eyes of the ancestors. The girl who knew too much. Make a song for her to follow. Make a path for her to travel. I was there when she found her way to this earth. I give her back to the sky.”

Ancestor Eyes was made during the beginning of a growing tradition among Indigenous American filmmakers whose expression of spirituality underlines the belief that our existence on this earth is only part of a larger journey, that this journey is circular and not linear in nature; there is no end, only a continuation. As the film ends, Verna says in voice-over, “I am now the woman who knows too much. Now I’m the woman with the eyes of the ancestors.” Like the films of Sterlin Harjo (particularly in Four Sheets to the Wind [2007] and Barking Water [2009]) and in Jeff Barnaby‘s Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013), we’re shown that life and death are not separate from each other. While Willa’s death is presented as a tragedy in this particular world, Verna realizes that she too will one day continue onto the next part of her journey. Willa’s role in the film became that of someone who gives solace to the grieving. Like the little girl in the keeper of the flowers story, Willa’s demise gives her the opportunity to let others heal.


-Scott Pewenofkit, Jr.