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Imagic Moments

Imagic Moments: Indigenous North American Film

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Imagic Moments
    Book Description:

    In Indigenous North American film Native Americans tell their own stories and thereby challenge a range of political and historical contradictions, including egregious misrepresentations by Hollywood. Although Indians in film have long been studied, especially as characters in Hollywood westerns, Indian film itself has received relatively little scholarly attention. In Imagic Moments Lee Schweninger offers a much-needed corrective, examining films in which the major inspiration, the source material, and the acting are essentially Native. Schweninger looks at a selection of mostly narrative fiction films from the United States and Canada and places them in historical and generic contexts. Exploring films such as Powwow Highway, Smoke Signals, and Skins, he argues that in and of themselves these films constitute and in fact emphatically demonstrate forms of resistance and stories of survival as they talk back to Hollywood. Self-representation itself can be seen as a valid form of resistance and as an aspect of a cinema of sovereignty in which the Indigenous peoples represented are the same people who engage in the filming and who control the camera. Despite their low budgets and often nonprofessional acting, Indigenous films succeed in being all the more engaging in their own right and are indicative of the complexity, vibrancy, and survival of myriad contemporary Native cultures.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4576-5
    Subjects: Sociology, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. INTRODUCTION Where to Concentrate
    (pp. 1-20)

    “Native ceremonies, and imagic moments,” contends Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor, “create a sense of presence, and, at the same time, mask an absence: the rites of presence are ecstatic unions of time and place, and the absence, virtual masks of sorcery. Alas, the images of Indians are simulations” (“Interimage” 231). In another place, he writes that “clearly, natives are the storiers of natural reason on this continent, and their stories are, as they have always been, the imagic moments of cultural conversions and native modernity” (“Ontic” 161). I take the phrase “imagic moments” as the title of this study in...

  6. ONE He Was Still the Chief: Masayesva’s Imagining Indians
    (pp. 21-35)

    The documentary film Imagining Indians about Hollywood representations of American Indians, directed by Victor Masayesva Jr. (Hopi), includes a narrative, fictional frame that tells the story of a Native American woman’s visit to a dentist’s office. This narrative plot, such as it is, revolves around the dentist’s chair, and the unnamed patient (Patty Runs after Swallow). She sits in the chair surrounded by walls plastered with posters advertising classic Hollywood Westerns; she listens to diatribes against Native people on the dentist’s radio; and she endures the anesthetic, the drill, the pliers, and the male, non-Native dentist’s monologue about his having...

  7. TWO Into the City: Ordered Freedom in The Exiles
    (pp. 36-50)

    In the course of a postscreening conversation during part of the Film Indians Now! series in Washington, D.C. (November 28, 2008), Melissa Bisagni, film and video program manager at the National Museum of the American Indian, stated that Kent Mackenzie’s film The Exiles is “essentially a Native film” (Bisagni). Following up on her comment, Native filmmaker Chris Eyre as respondent identified director, writer, and producer Kent Mackenzie as a “non-Native filmmaker who made an Indian film” (Eyre). Although the filmmaker is non-Native, his lead actors, none of whom were professionals, are Native Americans. They contributed the basic information upon which...

  8. THREE The Native Presence in Film: House Made of Dawn
    (pp. 51-67)

    N. Scott Momaday published his novel House Made of Dawn in 1968, and in 1972 non-Native filmmaker Richardson Morse directed a film adaptation. The respective receptions of novel and film could hardly have been more different. The year after its publication, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and has been in print and widely available ever since. In addition to clearly launching Momaday’s own literary career, the novel initiated “what is called the renaissance of American Indian literature,” according to LaVonne Ruoff , who also writes “Momaday became the most influential American Indian writer in the late 1960s...

  9. FOUR A Concordance of Narrative Voices: Harold, Trickster, and Harold of Orange
    (pp. 68-82)

    The thirty-minute film Harold of Orange, which won a Film in the Cities competition, premiering in Minneapolis on May 17, 1984, is set in Minneapolis–St. Paul, one of several urban areas to which American Indians were relocated throughout the middle of the twentieth century. But this film offers a reversal of the relocation stories told in The Exiles and House Made of Dawn. Unlike House Made of Dawn, which is in large measure a story about how the city defeats the protagonist before forcing him home, Harold of Orange depicts a group of reservation men, the Warriors of Orange,...

  10. FIVE I Don’t Do Portraits: Medicine River and the Art of Photography
    (pp. 83-97)

    Medicine River is a feature-length, made-for-television, Canadian Broadcasting Company mass-market narrative film, in contrast to the short film Harold of Orange, which was not necessarily intended for a mainstream audience in the first place, or to the films House Made of Dawn and The Exiles, which found no distributor. In other aspects, however, Medicine River shares many similarities with these others. Like them it deals with Indigenous issues and is based on an Indigenous-authored work, Thomas King’s 1989 novel by the same title. King, of Cherokee and Greek heritage, also wrote the screenplay as well as the teleplay, and he...

  11. SIX Keep Your Pony Out of My Garden: Powwow Highway and “Being Cheyenne”
    (pp. 98-112)

    The exchange between Philbert (Gary Farmer) and his Aunt Harriet (Maria Antoinette Rogers) early in the film Powwow Highway suggests that Jonathan Wacks’s film adaptation of David Seals’s 1979 novel, The Powwow Highway, combines a man’s search for identity with both sarcasm and humor. As an early indication of Philbert’s quest for a sense of self and an understanding of his Cheyenne heritage, the exchange also implies that along with that humor the film raises serious questions about appropriation as well as about genuine cultural and spiritual renewal. Aunt Harriet’s reference to Dull Knife foreshadows the film’s emphasis on historical...

  12. SEVEN Feeling Extra Magical: The Art of Disappearing in Smoke Signals
    (pp. 113-127)

    Smoke Signals is unique among the Indigenous films examined in this study in that it is one of the very few to have been widely released and to actually become a moneymaker, grossing between six and seven million dollars. By Hollywood standards the gross is miniscule, of course, but the film did indeed pay for itself and did reach audiences in mall movie houses throughout the United States in ways that few other Indigenous films have done.

    Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals marks a pivotal moment in the history of American Indian film as the first American Indian film to achieve...

  13. EIGHT Making His Own Music: Death and Life in The Business of Fancydancing
    (pp. 128-141)

    Sherman Alexie’s film The Business of Fancydancing tells the story of Seymour Polatkin, a Coeur d’Alene man, played by Coast Salish actor Evan Adams, who leaves the reservation to attend a university in Seattle. Through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, the viewer learns that Seymour acknowledges and comes to terms with his homosexuality while still a student, and that he achieves a successful career as a poet. Ten years after leaving the reservation, he returns only once and only briefly for the funeral of his long-time, former friend Mouse. A major theme driving the film considers the problems inherent...

  14. NINE Sharing the Kitchen: Naturally Native and Women in American Indian Film
    (pp. 142-157)

    Following a title that reads “1972,” in the opening shot of Valerie Red-Horse’s Naturally Native, the camera zooms to a folder containing adoption papers and to a black-and-white snapshot of two girls holding a baby. A male voice-over informs the viewer that in 1972 the children are up for adoption. From the voice-over, the viewer learns that the “real mother” has died: “It was the alcohol that killed her” (Naturally). Like The Business of Fancydancing and House Made of Dawn, among others, Naturally Native takes as its point of departure the death of Indian characters who will nevertheless have significant...

  15. TEN In the Form of a Spider: The Interplay of Narrative Fiction and Documentary in Skins
    (pp. 158-172)

    Chris Eyre’s film Skins is about the relationships between siblings, like Naturally Native. And like Powwow Highway and Smoke Signals, it tells the story of the relationship between two very different men, in this case, the two Yellow Lodge brothers: the hardworking tribal policeman Rudy (Eric Schweig) and the older Mogie (Graham Greene), an unemployed Vietnam veteran and chronic drunk. The plot of Skins, like the plots of the other films, moves toward and revolves to a large extent around a specific death. Mogie dies of alcohol-related liver failure only near the end of the film, but the viewer gets...

  16. ELEVEN The Stories Pour Out: Taking Control in The Doe Boy
    (pp. 173-187)

    The opening sequence of Randy Redroad’s film The Doe Boy depicts three young boys as they race one another through the woods. A series of alternating shots make up the scene: a handheld camera lets the viewer see what the running boys see; medium close-ups of their running show them exerting themselves, and long shots provide the viewer a sense of perspective. A crane shot zooms to an asthmatic runner as he pauses to use his inhaler. Preceding these opening shots of the boys is a very brief shot of a deer, and a medium close-up shows the buck to...

  17. TWELVE Telling Our Own Stories: Seeking Identity in Tkaronto
    (pp. 188-201)

    Métis director Shane Belcourt’s feature-length narrative film Tkaronto tells the story of two young urban Indigenous Canadians who arrive in Toronto, and because they stay at the same house, they meet, spend time together, and share with each other their stories. Jolene (Melanie McLaren) has come to the Canadian city from Los Angeles to interview Max (Loren Cardinal), an Ojibwa elder, as a part of her project to interview, photograph, and paint portraits of several such elders. The Métis man Ray (Duane Murray) has come from Vancouver to market his idea for an Aboriginal television series. The film’s plot traces...

  18. THIRTEEN People Come Around in Circles: Harjo’s Four Sheets to the Wind
    (pp. 202-215)

    Four Sheets to the Wind, writer-director Sterlin Harjo’s first feature-length film, tells the story of two young adult siblings in the days and weeks just after the death of their father. The opening scene depicts the son, Cufe Smallhill (Cody Lightning), as he drags his dead father into a pond, where he lays him to rest. Following this internment, Cufe, his mother (Jeri Arredondo), and his cousin Jim (Jon Proudstar) improvise a funeral complete with a coffin and singing, but without the father’s body. After the funeral Cufe travels to Tulsa to visit his sister, Miri (Tamara Podemski), and there...

  19. EPILOGUE Barking Water and Beyond
    (pp. 216-224)

    Sterlin Harjo’s second feature film, Barking Water (2009), like Four Sheets to the Wind, is very situated and centered in Oklahoma. The earlier film is set and filmed in Holdenville and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and as one reviewer points out “almost the entire cast and many of the crew members are American Indians” (John Anderson). Barking Water too is set and filmed entirely on location in Oklahoma, and it is in every way local. From the opening shot of an Oklahoma river onward, the film is replete with shots of rural Oklahoma. The actors too are from the land. Richard Ray...

  20. Filmography
    (pp. 225-228)
  21. Works Cited
    (pp. 229-238)
  22. Index
    (pp. 239-247)