Recently I watched a series of short films by Indigenous Canadians at Eastern Illinois University’s Tarble Arts Canter as part of their Our People, Our Land, Our Images: International Indigenous Photography exhibit, on view at the Tarble through March 4: Shirley Cheechoo’s Silent Tears (1997), Daniel Janke’s How People Got Fire (2009), and a series of shorts from Shelley Niro, one of the photographers in the exhibit. Although directed by filmmakers from different tribes, all these films demonstrate well that representations of American Indians gain further authenticity and serve as more powerful critique of the exploitation of a people and their land when they are constructed by Indigenous filmmakers rather than Euro-Americans.
Despite their stereotypical representation of Indians as an “other” that must be annihilated, Westerns in which Indigenous characters are highlighted demonstrate how well these first peoples adapt horrific environments into homes through narratives of environmental adaptation. Although Westerns with American Indians at the center or on their edges do construct them as either savage or noble “others,” the films also demonstrate how effectively American Indians have adapted, and adapted to, what white settlers see as an environmental “hell” or something worse. As the Fort Lowell commander Major Cartwright (Douglass Watson) puts it in Ulzana’s Raid (1972),
“You know what General Sheridan said of this country, lieutenant? ... If he owned hell and Arizona, he’d live in hell and rent out Arizona.”
The American Indian constructed in typical Western films, however, fulfills Shepard Kreck III’s criteria for what he calls “the ecological Indian.” According to Kreck, the trope and “dominant image” of the ecological Indian found in literature and film is “the Indian in nature who understands the systematic consequences of his actions, feels deep sympathy with all living forms, and takes steps to conserve so that earth’s harmonies are never imbalanced and resources never in doubt” (21). The ecological Indian valorizes nature at the expense of progress, and this Noble Savage shatters when confronted with a modern world and its technologies. The ecological Indian cannot assimilate into Western culture and vanishes or faces extermination.
Whether or not typical Westerns humanize their American Indian characters, they all rest on a similar ideology of progress. To make way for civilization, American Indians must be removed or eliminated. Only rarely is an alternative for American Indians presented in these films, and that alternative requires assimilation and renunciation of their savage culture. As John E. O’Connor argues in “The White Man’s Indian: An Institutional Approach”: “The view that the Indian impeded progress because he lacked the ambition and “good sense” the whites used in developing the American landscape has prevailed throughout our history. Movies and television, the popular art forms of today, continue to present images of American Indians that speak more about the current interests of the dominant culture than they do about the Indians.”(27-8).
Annette Kolodny’s parting words in her “Rethinking the Ecological Indian” may shed some light on the significance of the changes found when Indigenous filmmakers take the helm. According to Kolodny, when reading Kreck alongside both Joseph Nicolar’s The Life and Traditions of the Red Man and historical documents on which they both draw, she and her students discovered, “Together they argue for cultural traditions that self-consciously promote ecological sanity. Dams could still be built on rivers, but they would be opened periodically to accommodate seasonal spawning migrations. Hunting would not be eliminated, but it would be regulated so as to allow the game populations to survive for future generations. And rather than use up or pollute the earth’s resources merely ‘for comfort’s sake,’ the land’s bounty would be husbanded ‘for love’s sake.’” (18).
Instead of embracing either the Noble or Savage representation of Indigenous people, the films we saw this evening complicate and, perhaps, break down this binary. Through narrative, as in Shirley Cheechoo’s Silent Tears (1997), different forms of animation and storytelling, as in Daniel Janike’s How People Got Fire (2009) and, especially, the experimental performance art of Shelley Niro, the identities of Indigenous people and filmmakers are represented as complex and pluralistic. Niro’s films draw on and deconstruct stereotypical images of Indians, but they also highlight Indians’ ambiguous stance toward their identity in a modern or postmodern world.
Niro’s Overweight with Crooked Teeth calls stereotypes of Indigenous people into question with humor and a reversed version of “the gaze.” The male aboriginal figure in the short film gazes at us in increasing close-up shots. The opening view of trees and a barren road suggest a typical view of Native Americans’ connection to the natural world, but as he comes closer and looks directly into the camera, the drums and wind that accompanied his walk up the road end with the slam of cymbals and a voiceover asking, “What were you expecting anyway, a Noble Savage?” With this one line, stereotypes are deconstructed, and the film visualizes this clash when a potato chip bag is thrown to the wind. Even though the film also explains some of the atrocities Native people endured (they are “victims of a lot of bad breaks,” according to the film), it also highlights the broader and more human identity of a Native figure in a modern world. “Re-Chargin’” also includes the wind sounds and drums, but the female figure here dances in front of a mirror, seemingly gaining strength from confronting her own image, again in a modern, this time interior, setting.
The Shirt (2003) plays off both messages, highlighting the “bad breaks” but also showing signs of the influx of the modern world on Indigenous identity, a point that’s even further emphasized by “Hunger” where the female Indigenous figure seems to merge nature with an urban landscape and come out wearing sunglasses and eating chips. That effect is reinforced by the female figure who nearly becomes a tree in the film of the same name. Although “Sky Woman With Us” (2002) and “The Flying Head” (2008) take a more mythic approach to Indigenous identity, they too demonstrate the complexity of Aboriginal identity, an identity that is moves beyond stereotypes and binaries in the hands of Indigenous filmmakers like these.