IN THE MOVIES
Where is our Indian Spike Lee?
THUMBS UP, THUMBS DOWN
Tony, the boy who wanted to liberate the Doc's horses, loved John Wayne beyond all other heroes. His all-time favorite movie was “The Cowboys,” an account of John Wayne taking a cattle herd to market with only boys for crew. The climax of the movie is the Wayne character stoicly walking away from the bad guys while those varmints slowly shoot him to pieces. When we got to this part, though he'd seen it many times before, tears ran down Tony's face. "Don't cry," he would say to the others. "This is only a movie. It's not really happening." None of the others were crying.
Not many movies about Native Americans were around on tape in 1989 and many of the ones available were old. Recklessly, I plunged into the mass of them, ordering one after another and enlisting the kids in critiquing them. We screened “The Searchers,” which is praised by critics as being so meaningful and enlightened. I thought that since John Wayne was the hero, at least Tony would like it. But the movie turned out to be unintelligible for these Blackfeet kids. They simply couldn't grasp the plot line. All the assumptions of the screenwriters now seemed so cock-eyed that we couldn't figure out why things happened. Wayne's obsession with his niece, his determination to kill her if she had "turned Indian," his preoccupation with "honor" and so on -- it was like watching a foreign film.
Canadians, presumably a foreign country, actually produced movies closer to our experience and more appealing in their philosophy. The kids loved ‘Where the Spirit Lives,” an account of a young girl kidnapped and kept captive by a Church of England boarding school. She fights hard to keep her culture and identity and one woman teacher is sympathetic but helpless. The kids had heard these kinds of stories from the older members of their own families, so to them it had the ring of truth.
They also liked “I Heard the Owl Call My Name” from the book by Margaret Craven, who was a Montana writer. The story is about a young, fatally ill priest who is sent by a wise supervisor to a coastal Indian village where he comes to understand life in time to die with dignity. The feel of that coastal village was very much like the earlier reservation I knew when more of the old people were still living.
One of the all-time recurring favorites was “Alkali Lake,” the name of a small community in British Columbia where universal alcoholism was gradually replaced by reform because of one stubborn woman who stopped drinking, got her husband to stop, and then -- one-by-one -- converted everyone else. The drunken priest is driven out and the bootlegging shop-owner is also punished. Always there was a lot of debate about whether Heart Butte could do the same thing, but the consensus was that Alkali Lake was a truly secluded town and could control who came in and out. Heart Butte, the claim went, was too close to civilization. (This was the opposite of the usual opinion.) Just the same, we all saw this movie several times and people came back and back to it in a hunger to see how it could be.
My own all-time favorite Indian movie was also Canadian, but no one ever heard of it. “Loyalties” is about two women in a small far-north bush community. One is a white doctor's wife and the other is a local native woman who is hired to help her, but who gradually slips into being more friend than servant -- mostly because she never sees herself as a servant. This was my first acquaintance with Tantoo Cardinal. In the story she is unmarried with kids, but has a boyfriend. One scene shows them frankly in bed, smoking and talking about life in general. I can't think of another straightforward scene of contemporary Native American adults in a moment of nondramatic privacy and intimacy, just like everybody else. This is definitely a woman's movie and the plot crisis hinges on the white woman choosing between protecting her husband or her good friend's Indian family. It is a real ethical dilemma, presented thoughtfully. I never showed it to the kids. I wouldn't have known about it except for having lived several years in Saskatchewan.
“Clearcut”, which found an audience even in the States among environmentalists, didn't come out until I had left Heart Butte, but I wish I'd had it earlier. It is a trickster story, but from a "tree-hugger" point of view so that most of the bad stuff -- human "de-barking" (not getting out of a boat, but having one’s bark peeled off) -- happens to the plutocrat timber-clearcutter. Graham Greene makes a wonderful trickster, but the character I fell in love with was a little Native American girl who gradually converts the liberal lawyer's briefcase into a Sacred Medicine Bundle by carrying it around, putting Significant Objects into it.
The contrast to the realistic Canadian movies might be the Raquel Welch movie, “Walks Far Woman,” which some girls claimed they admired because the main character is independent. I can't comment on the love scenes because I watched the movie in Browning as part of a junior high "film festival" for Native American Days and the supervising teacher hit the fast-forward everytime we came to any kissing. The plot is suspect: the heroine's kicked out of her own tribe, stays with the Sioux, has a baby, loses it, loses her Sioux husband, ends up with a white man and her descendents become US soldiers.
Besides “The Searchers,” I had two other popularity failures. One was “Soldier Blue,” which was meant to comment on the Vietnam War. Some shots of atrocities-- a child on fire running, a head rolling towards the camera, a man being executed by a revolver to the side of his head-- were re-enactments of famous film shots of the war most American people viewed on the network news while eating supper. The kids found them shocking and repulsive. They had no memory of the Vietnam War and certainly had not seen the original atrocity pictures. They just saw terrible things happening to "themselves," the Indians.
The truest subtle betrayal of the People that I saw in that movie and tried to explain, was that real American Indian actors were not used except for one scene in which a woman is stripped naked and raped. No Anglo actors were asked to be nude. This was racism on the part of the producers, and I thought I was very clever to spot it, but the kids couldn't understand what I was talking about. They just hated the movie--were genuinely shocked. To understand that they had no frame of reference, I had to go back in memory to an art show at the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning. The curator, Ramon Gonyea, who was an Onondaga and a trained anthropologist, had painted an Asian woman screaming in the style of Picasso's "Guernica." The title was "My Lai," which made no sense to me: who’s "Lai?" A tourist finally explained it. The news in Montana had not spent much time on Lieutenant Calley's Vietnam massacre. At least the tourist didn’t have to tell me that Gonyea’s sympathy for the Vietnamese came from parallel Native American history.
The other flop was one of my favorites, “Journey Through Rosebud.” A young idealistic whiteman stumbles by chance into the tangled lives on the contemporary Pine Ridge Reservation and barely survives. His hero-with-a-fatal-flaw Sioux friend dies. When I saw this movie the first time in the Seventies, still fresh from teaching in Browning, I was overwhelmed with admiration and called the screenwriter by using L.A. information. He was startled, saying he didn't think anyone had ever seen it at all. The version I showed the kids had been re-edited. The kids didn't hate it-- they were just totally bored. The movie was shot at the beginning of Indian Empowerment, so there was a lot of political talk. Unless there was an explosion, a fist-fight, or a shoot-out on screen, the classroom was full of movement, talk, and covert poking and tweaking. If the fidgeting were suppressed, they went to sleep. I forced the older kids through some detailed worksheets about what happened, why, whether it was true-to-reality, and so on, but they bucked and objected all the way.
“A Man Called Horse” and its sequel, “The Return of a Man Called Horse” didn't attract much interest, though the author of the original story, Dorothy Johnson, had lived just over the mountains and once spoke at a Browning High School commencement. “The Big Sky” was more interesting, though by now the movie is so old that many scenes are ridiculous, like the sling-shot method of loading a deer carcass onto the riverboat which Guthrie himself thought was ludicrous. Some kids liked “Winterhawk,” or “Wind Walker,” which are beautiful romantic stories, the 19th century stereotype.
We never found tapes of “Stay Away, Joe” (starring Elvis Presley!) or “Billy Jack,” which I originally saw the Browning show house with a roaring, appreciative audience. But a tape of “Pow-Wow Highway” surfaced from among the kids and we all loved it. It's a "picaresque," meaning an on-the-road, episodic cliff-hanging story starring "Philbert," who is a kind of Holy Fool (I would use Parsifal as a comparison) who takes off with the others to rescue a sister. It's a low-budget -- and some say a low-class -- movie, but we all loved it. Then I tried reading the novel out loud and discovered what it was that David Seals, the writer, was complaining about when he said the movie censored his book. At first I was editing out the rougher language as I read, but soon I had to stop because the actual plot line was too raunchy. Still, it had a lot of energy and looking for the book lead me to some other less shocking but equally picareque novels like Thomas King's tales of the Alberta basketball players. “Medicine River” is on videotape now. It was filmed on the Canadian Blackfoot rez.
Since I left Heart Butte, there have been other valid movies about Indians. The Canadian film loosely based on Kinsella's “Dance Me Outside” is particularly powerful in showing how young people depend only upon their peers for help and guidance, sometimes with tragic results. Two movies came out of the Wounded Knee II events, one a documentary and the other, “Thunderheart,” a fictionalized parallel. Both are full of energy and ideas. These films are not just for entertainment, but also for reflection. They would be fascinating to discuss with the whole town at once. “Where the Rivers Run North” is probably a little too mature for young students -- not because of sex and violence, but because it is thoughtful about the relationship between Tantoo Cardinal's character and Rip Torn's character, about time passing, opportunities missed, and what endures in old age.
THE MOVIES COME TO THE REZ
“Blackrobe” and the James Fenimore Cooper movie, “The Deerslayer,” began to move focus away from the stereotype epitomized by the horse/buffalo culture of the Plains Indians, and illustrate the earlier lives of Eastern woodland Indians. Butch Lunak, a local Blackfeet rancher, was by now an established stuntman with lots of work. School house rumor had it that Joey Tatsey was going to be Uncas, but that was wrong. Just the same, the kids always knew what movies were hiring real Indian actors before I read anything about it. One seventh grader carried around her father's casting directory, a kind of yearbook produced by an association of Indian actors. It was just in these years at the end of the Eighties that movies took a leap forward when it came to native peoples.
In 1973 a school bus of hippie types had showed up in East Glacier briefly, scouting sites of a movie that turned out to be “Heaven's Gate.” Local people were in it, but mostly whites in Glacier Park and on the west side of the Rockies. The story was about the Wyoming sheep-versus-cattle wars, and no Indians were featured in the plot or appeared as extras. My students of the time wrote some stirring accounts of range wars, but we only heard rumors of how badly extras were treated -- mostly by too much waiting under trying conditions. The movie, of course, was a notorious flop.
Movies had been made in Glacier Park before. Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan made “Cattle Queen of Montana” at St. Mary's and Bob Scriver's generation would confide what a dirty mule-skinner's mouth that Barbara had, but what a total charmer that Ronnie was. Even Shirley Temple once made a movie in the park and was given a fabulous and authentic buckskin dress as well as a name.
In 1987 the cast and crew of “Warparty” came to the Blackfeet Reservation, making a lasting impact as a local event. The main actors were Hollywood second-generation youngsters: Matt Dillon's younger brother, Kevin; Will Sampson's son, Tim; and Billy Wirth who had been in “The Lost Boys.” This movie also turned out to be about lost boys. A nearly unknown actor named Rodney Grant played a sidekick to the main villain, a white man who was a tracker of criminals. Actually, it was hinted that the relationship was more than just being friends, but that was a minor subplot point.
Everyone all the way down to Choteau, where some scenes were shot, became excited about being extras, or loaning furniture, or providing housing for cast and crew. That summer I was visiting in East Glacier where I often ended up eating breakfast at a table near the stars or the animal wrangler. The latter's conversation was more interesting. The waitresses were intelligent, pretty, self-confident mixed-bloods from Browning area ranches. At first they made it a point "to give those young men their space," but after a few weeks of getting to know them, the girls began to mother the young actors. "Now, you clean up your plate! And you'd better have some orange juice."
The producing company was Hemdale Film Corporation which originated in England and moved to LA in 1980. They were staying in rented summer cabins, some of them back up into the trees away from town. One morning an assistant director didn't show up for work. Someone called his cabin.
"I can't come right now," protested the unhappy man.
"There's a bear standing on my front porch."
"Well, then go out the back-- climb out a window-- just go around him and get in your pickup and get over here!"
"Well, I can't."
"There's another bear in my pickup." We locals repeated this tale with gusto.
“Warparty” was about young Indian men confronting racist feelings still left over from the wars of a century earlier. Few locals had read the script, and even people in individual scenes were unclear about how they all fit together, but everyone was high on the possibilities. Bob Scriver loaned bronze sculptures to dress up the Museum of the Plains Indian. I'm not sure that he realized the scene was one of theft from the Museum.
The writer of the film, Spencer Eastman, was working on an original idea, rather than adapting a book, and took the time to consult people like Jackie Parsons, a Blackfeet woman and Tribal Judge who ran the Crafts Store at the Museum of the Plains Indian. He died of cancer in 1988, before the film was released, which might account for the amount of re-cutting and mysteriously delayed distribution. The producer Bernie Williams described the movie as "an intelligent, sympathetic awareness movie." Other opinions differed rather sharply.
In the plot, a small group of boys get into trouble during a re-enactment of an Indian battle when they more-or-less accidentally kill a white who has been harassing them. They escalate from being actor-warriors to being real renegades full of violence. The white authorities hunt them and and kill them. That's it. Those film aficionados who defended the movie spoke in terms of fatalistic Samurai films. Those who criticized it talked about violence and promoting hatred. There was also a Neo-traditional critique of a drunken Holy Man who raised a lot of hackles in the traditional circles. "No Holy Man would drink," they insisted, though they knew some who did.
I first saw the movie in Choteau, where the audience was mostly white. Their reactions would not have been comfortable for my students. They were not exactly rooting for the renegades. Several times more I watched it on tape with Heart Butte kids, who picked up the new (to them) epithet "prairie nigger" with glee and used it constantly. (It was more popular even than calling their enemies, "you Cree!") One day, having just watched the movie again in another class, Augie Eaglespeaker said to me, "You know, Mrs. Scriver, after you watch this movie a lot of times, it doesn't seem so good after all." I could have hugged him. I only wish that more of the young men had felt that way.
It was a movie by outsiders who used local people for their own cynical statement of existential despair, offering death as the only deliverance. It was a perversion of Asian ideas, imposed on a stereotypical version of the reservation. I'm sure the producers felt that including a “berdache” as an Indian scout for the Great White Hunter was witty of them. (In the movie of Guthrie's “The Big Sky “ the “berdache” had to be converted to a half-wit. Strangely, today, making fun of a mentally disabled person is widely considered more despicable than accepting a gay person!) No doubt the writers thought that the cycles of breaking-in, running, and killing were exciting and innovative. They had no consciousness of what they were tapping in the local kids.
THE REZ KIDS DANCE WITH WOLVES
In the last spring I taught, when the drug counselor was there and had enough clout to get things done, she decided that we should go as an entire school to see “Dances with Wolves.” She was madly in love with the movie-- as were we all. It was the “Star Wars” of that decade. Somehow she managed to talk the movie theatre in Great Falls into a special private matinee and to talk the school board into a school-wide bus trip. There had just been a major highway accident that had killed three parents. We badly needed some new focus.
Two buses were enough for all the kids old enough who had permission from home. They were wary about the theatre, having been scolded and ejected from there in the past. Coming in as a group, looking around in the darkened auditorium to see all their classmates at once, awed them. They were on their best behavior. As soon as the movie began, we hardly moved or breathed. We were sore-hearted over the skinned buffalo carcasses and we danced with the wolf.
The end of the movie was hard to take-- not the very end where the People have managed to escape a little longer -- but all the animalistic behavior of the army beating up Costner. Even the violence-lovers among us were quiet. It was days before kids began to talk about bits and pieces.
They pretended sophistication. "Didn't that white woman know enough to comb her hair?" they said. Except for that, it seemed to have escaped us all that the central romance was about two white people -- not about tribal people at all. We had been drawn into the surrounding vision of an untorn culture, a way of life still whole and meaningful. Personally, I was deeply moved by the Graham Greene character's struggles to understand what was happening so he could help his people survive it. Once again I admired Tantoo Cardinal, who this time got to make love under a buffalo robe. A lot of women went nuts over Rodney Grant but almost no one linked his performance in this movie with his berdache part in “War Party.” I thought that was too bad, since comparing the two roles revealed how much he was really acting. At the end of the movie, when the shining Spanish helmet was taken out of its wraps, I got cold chills.
STILL WAITING FOR THE MASTERPIECE
Much has been written about Indians in movies and most people realize now -- at least in an intellectual way -- that Indians are not as they have been portrayed in the movies. They are far more various, distributed along the usual human spectrums. And they are not still living in lodges and wearing buckskin. Just the same, few movies show them as modern, educated, successful people. We like our Indians comfortably "in the cupboard," like the stereotypical little figure in the supposedly juvenile movie “The Indian in the Cupboard.” [This movie has been savaged by those who analyze patronizing assumptions. “Our people are not little Jiminy Cricket characters with no lives and homes of their own.”] In other words, movies are mostly about unassimilated Indians, because what would be the point of showing an assimilated Indian? How would we even know he were Indian if he wore no feathers or buckskin? “The Broken Cord” is an exception, but the focus was a disability especially common among Indians, another stigma. Indians in the movies are rarely like the Indians I have known in real life.
From “The Searchers” to “Dances with Wolves” one romantic thread of the movie-Indian genre has been counter-assimilation by whites to the idyllic Native American side. In the former movie it is Natalie Wood who has no wish to return to white life, though her family considers her to be living in hell. Dunbar, of course, longs to be a part of the tribal community from the first moment he spots them. Much has been written about the early portrayals of Indians as red devils circling the wagons, but not so much has been analyzed about the continuing insistence that early Native American life was innocent and noble -- more so than any other culture. Good Indians are always like children. Small, innocent and non-threatening.
The young and the French have always felt that film was valid as a form of literature and to be taken as seriously as books. Much serious criticism and cultural analysis comes from film. The medium is so vivid and now so portable, that as an English teacher, I don't see how it can be excluded. Films are often illuminating in a useful way.
For instance, looking back on my short teaching career at Heart Butte, I began to reflect on the genre of "schoolteacher movies." “Blackboard Jungle” was filmed in 1955, when I was a sophomore in high school. My alma mater, Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon, was just beginning to include blacks and at that point we tended to see them as noble pioneers rather like the Sidney Poitier character. It's interesting that Poitier's film career began as a classroom rebel-- though a natural leader. Recently he has been celebrated as a teacher again in a television feature return to his “To Sir With Love” teacher-persona. Both Poitier and Glenn Ford-- as well as the teachers in “Dangerous Minds,” “Stand and Deliver,” “The Water Is Wide,” “Dead Poets Society” -- are stereotyped as teachers in a way parallel to the way Indians are oversimplified. Movie teachers are always dedicated, resourceful, tough, unprejudiced, and able to turn the tide of student resistance in one clever lesson. For Pfeiffer the inspiration is a comparison of Bob Dylan with Dylan Thomas. For Ford it is an inquiry into the motives of cartoon characters -- Jack and the Beanstalk and the doomed giant. None of them have very good administrators. The break-out picture of the teacher genre is “Mr. Holland's Opus.” Mr. Holland trudges along, making mistakes, having the occasional bright spot, and doesn't even realize how well he has done until the day of his retirement. That's much closer to reality.
There is a sub-genre for schoolrooms, a thread that goes back to an Annie Oakley movie I remember from my childhood. Annie is somehow teaching a one-room schoolhouse of ruffians. The biggest bully defies her and she whips out her sidearm, forcing him to put his ink bottle on his head so she can shoot it, drenching him in ink. After that he is too ridiculous to be a threat -- according to the script. Some scriptwriters prefer to have the subdued bully become the defender of the teacher. Recent versions of this thread replace the teacher with an administrator armed with bullhorn and baseball bat. Thus the story moves over to the genre of the strong man who subdues the savage frontier. We're back to big dogs eat first.
In reality today there is a huge taboo on ever using force or even forceful language on young people. Teachers and administrators do it-- because it is sometimes the only thing that works-- but if they are challenged by parents, if public opinion is mobilized, they are through. Everyone feels good about force, so long as it used against someone else's kids.
EDUCATION FROM THE MISSIONARY POSITION
The tale of the redeeming teacher is revealing when applied to Heart Butte. Recently I rented a tape of “Blackboard Jungle.” My moment of insight came when Glenn Ford is tempted to leave his teaching job at an inner-city all-boys trade school, but first he goes for advice to his wise old mentor at a "mainstream" suburban school. Ford and the older man tour the classrooms where shining young people are hard at work making a future. The sound track throughout is "The Star Spangled Banner" sung by the kids. There it is! Movies about teachers who redeem and bring order are basically about assimilation. The problem kids are always "other:" immigrant, poor, dark, or weird. The teacher makes them become like us. Think about “Tea and Sympathy!” Public education is meant to impose a common fund of knowledge, skills and attitudes on pliable and willing students with a bright future as mainstream Americans. This is the meaning of America for immigrants. But not for the people who were already here.
Education is always seen as such an unmitigated good that it is hard for most of us to understand that Indian education has always been focused on the elimination of identity -- on annihiliation. For native Americans, who did not come to this country by choice and who WERE this country before we came, education was meant to be a cheaper way to get rid of them than killing them -- this was explicitly stated. Schools were intended for religious and cultural conversion to white ways -- just a kinder, gentler form of extermination, one that liberals could support. Much of school life is simply conditioning. "Do what I say, or I'll put you on detention." On the Rez it is the assimilationists, most often mixed bloods, who like the movies about principals who force conformity.
In only a few decades, the Poitier character in “Blackboard Jungle” would look to some like a sell-out, an Uncle Tom, a fool trying to act white. It would be Malcolm X who revealed him -- or maybe they were really the same figure -- Malcolm is that classroom leader who now claims his own goals. Blacks would want to stand alone, not in the white charmed circles. Black Power was soon followed by Red Power. Tribes wanted their own schools, their own curriculums. Major plans were made.
But already we have fallen back from those times, partly or maybe mostly because the larger culture has become pessimistic. The end of the Cold War and the reorganizing forces in cyber-society have thrown many assumptions into question. Post-Empowerment Native American young people are all too aware that their future is not necessarily bright. Even Native American graduate students who have found a place in the academic upper reaches refer constantly to “Bladerunner” and other cyberpunk classics as what they expect the future to be. In fact, many upper and middle class white young people have the same vision of coming apocalypse.
Teachers come to places like Heart Butte believing that, as in the movies, they will have found a simpler past when people were patriotic and kids were willing to work-- the way Bob Scriver remembers his band members. On some level the new people believe that they can be redeeming teachers-- I confess I did! Somehow they will invent that transforming lesson that makes all the lightbulbs come on. Once in a while maybe we were really there.
And I, among others, believed sincerely that school could protect and strengthen the Blackfeet identity, including their language. But the kids themselves--no matter what was taught-- felt that their identity was being taken, even by a simple request to sit down or be on time. The parents insisted that they be assimilated so they could make a living -- better unRed than dead. It was the parents, through the school board, who hired white men or assimilated Indians to be the tough missionary bosses. But to the kids, being grownup and being like white men were both selling out to the enemy. They sneered at their parents for wanting them to be what their parents had never managed to be: white. The collision was inevitable, even though the terms were never clear. Everyone had a strong sense of righteousness and a determination to make things happen their way. There was no willingness to discuss, much less terms in which to frame the dilemma, because it was too dangerous to talk about.
This is where religion enters the fray: the teacher functions as a missionary, striving for conversion. The Democratic Ethic -- the ideal of the melting pot -- takes on the urgency of salvation. “Black Robe” narrates this story, as does “The Mission” and even “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” where -- parallel to the disastrous attempt to convert indigenous people -- a key character, "Moon," re-assimilates to the Native American way. Re-assimilation -- native people, converted to white ways, but then returning to their heritage -- is an Empowerment theme. This theme proposes that Sovereignty is both desirable and possible in the face of all demands by the larger world. Tribes claim their right to be small internal entities, self-determined, entitled by treaties. And the students claim their right to be their own small, internal determinations. Teacher and curriculum are disempowered.
MY ROLE MODELS
Probably my personal deepest model for teaching is “Anne of Green Gables,” a child's book. Anne is a Canadian character and therefore does not promote the melting pot but rather the "mosaic" of many peoples. She does not address Aboriginal People, but she does address the deep loneliness of a person without family or community. She so loves the little town of Avonlea with all its eccentricities and inconveniences.
A slightly more sophisticated model for me is the New Zealander, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, whose books “Spinster” (fiction) and “Teacher” (non-fiction) were combined into a movie with the latter title. Her indigenous students were Maoris. She values in them exactly the things she is supposed to be eliminating: their creativity, their dramatic home lives, their energy. It comforts me that though she was thrown out, as I was, her ideas became quite popular for a while. Her books sell well! I tried to teach as I thought these two troublesome but inspired women would teach.
Leaning heavily on the Canadian films, one could organize a pretty good film course about teaching Native Americans. Canada has the model of the British Commonwealth, each unique location entitled to its color and myth -- so long as the Queen is revered. Recent Canadian films don't address the "assimilate or die" question or the escape to Eden fantasy. The Canadian understanding of wilderness, partly because their land is farther north, is that it is simply dangerous-- human community is the only protection.
Canadian aboriginal films turn on universal moral dilemmas. In “Loyalties” the red woman and the white woman face a common threat out of friendship and love for their children. In “Clearcut” the romantic hero struggles to understand that violence is sustained by his own determination to force justice. In “Medicine River” the man who has gone off to live a global life returns to be taken back in by his hometown roots, not quite against his will. In “Dance Me Outside,” a young woman commits murder in order to protect her lover. These are human themes and do not suggest that an idyllic life can be found by running away to some pristine place. They do not teach the inescapable violence and fatalism of American films like “Billy Jack” or “Geronimo” but end in earned community. Rather than demanding any particular belief system, these Canadian stories restore religion to universal moral force and awe at creation. Universal moral questions are at the heart of education in all cultures. Education and religion in the sense of moral world-view are always entwined. Or they ought to be.
For those Native Americans who have successfully assimilated to the dominant small-town rural white culture, the task of re-assimilating back to old tribal ways is often just too much. For other tribes, even as they have become ready to teach their own language and worldview, the old culture has nearly gone. Amskapi Pikuni are lucky that a great reservoir of their ways has persisted in Canada. But looking to the Canadians means giving up that dominant United States patriotism so characteristic of small American-side prairie towns.
Perhaps film can be one of the ways we teach ourselves how to keep our allegiance to our most central and unique selves at the same time that we also stay open to the new world culture that is coming out of the Internet, cell phones, faxes, video, and economic integration. We are ready for new visions.