We began our classroom journey this week in the company of Rand Valentine, associate professor of American Indian studies and linguistics, here at UW-Madison. Valentine came to speak to us about the ever-present need to fight a battle to save Native cultures, not only in our own country but all around the world. Although many languages have already been lost, there are a few that are involved in efforts towards revival here in our region. One of our teachers, Omar Poler has been learning his own beautiful and complex language, Ojibwe, with Valentine. We had a chance to read many insightful articles on Native languages and began reading Patty Loew’s book, Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal. Rand Valentine enthusiastically taught us about the many ways in which Ojibwe is one of the most sophisticated languages that he has ever encountered. We all listened intently, captivated with Valentine’s highly contagious exuberance and moved by his thoughtful presentation.
We also had the opportunity to watch a movie at the Chazen Museum of Art, here on the UW-Madison campus, called Reel Injun. We were presented first with a short film produced by the Screen Actors Guild, and its President’s National Task Force for American Indians which is chaired by the immensely charming, intelligent and talented actress, Delanna Studi, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. We were lucky enough to be joined by Delanna as one of the three accomplished presenters who were asked to lead a panel discussion after the film was shown.
We all sat in a theatre full of people from all different places, and cultures. My husband and I, a white couple of German-American descent, could have felt very uncomfortable sitting in the front row; instead, we were made to feel incredibly warm, and welcomed into the conversation. J.D. , our emcee for the evening and a graduate student here, asked us to think of what we knew or thought we knew about Native American people before the film began. He asked us to think about all of the images we had held in our minds up until that point and then after the film, he would ask us to come together and discuss what had changed.
Reel Injun is a film by the Cree documentarian, Neil Diamond. Diamond steps us through a long and complicated history of Native American actors in films, or the lack of them, from the first days in the silent era through today; when many indigenous film makers are getting recognition for their contributions to this important and far-reaching art form. What we see in the film, is that there has been a lot of ground lost along the way. Despite early positive representation in silent film, Hollywood began to stereotype the Native American in popular westerns, and even children’s cartoons. This created a dangerously skewed image and this negative depiction unfortunately still exists in the minds of the masses today. Furthermore, the film shows us through true journeys into the heart of the American West, just how much this image has damaged views of Native people’s around the world. Instead of being thought of as distinct and sovereign nations living in a contemporary world, many indigenous peoples are seen as caricatures from the past, lost in the dust and forever suspended in some daguerreotype image. His film shows us how, through Hollywood’s lens, many people around the world view all native Americans as being Plains Indians in dress and having the same histories and cultures despite being in actuality, very distinct. Most of these films take place in the American Southwest. Movies like John Ford’s, The Searchers, create sub-human images which are then projected onto all the distict cultures of Native Americans at once—as a whole. The filmmaker travels across the country to speak with some of our real-life heroes about how they became activists who have lived to tell the real stories of many Native cultures.
After the film, we concluded with a thoughtful panel discussion by our three presenters, J.D., Delanna Studi, and Richie Plass. Plass, a member of the Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee Nations and an educator and musician, seems to me to be one of the funniest and most sincere people on the planet. He informed us of his work, trying to fight the depiction of American Indians as used in mascots and logos. These unfair depictions further perpetuate the stereotypes which may have been begun by Hollywood in an attempt to erase a part of American history which reflects badly on us as a nation. This history, as we all know, needs to be discussed fully and openly amongst all people and not left for Hollywood to decide. Just like our meeting at the Chazen, people need to talk about the issues to begin resolve some of these wrongs.
One of the most important parts of our discussions during this evening centered around Native actors and filmmakers increasing presence both in front of and behind the camera; writing, directing and producing these films to try and undo some of this damage. Delanna Studi is working to improve the quality of acting by making sure that Native American actors are seen by casting directors. These directors and writers can no longer say that there are no Native actors to take these roles, or to write stories for. She says that it is our duty to encourage talented writers of any age to provide good stories for the world which will help to represent Native voices in this business.
As the evening wrapped up, I looked around the room of people all chatting happily with one another and felt grateful for being invited to participate in this truly enriching event.
1. PBS.org website for Reel Injun
2. Reel Injun at the Chazen Museum advertisement
3. Richie Plass’s Native Voices website and also his STAR page
and you can watch a little video of him here
4. Rand Valentine’s AIS faculty page
5. Website on the first 8-minute film, American Indian Actors
6. Delanna Studi IMDB