Political Matters – May 2023


Native representation

In late April, I made it over to The Main Cinema in Minneapolis for a screening, “Indigenous Portraits,” a selection of short documentary films as part of the 2023 Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF). There was a decent audience for the program of films highlighting Native lifeways, with an emphasis on emerging artists.

The first film, “Language Keepers,” directed by Ajuawak Kapashesit, focuses on Ojibwe language activists using digital technology to preserve the language. Among those profiled in the 10-minute film is James Vukelich, whose “Ojibwe Word of the Day” videos on Instagram are seen by more than 100,000 viewers.

“Lily Gladstone: Far Out There,” directed by Brooke Pepion Swaney, profiles Gladstone (Blackfeet Nation), a film and TV actress with a rising career (“Winter in the Blood,” “Certain Women”). Her public profile likely will grow with the upcoming release of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the Martin Scorsese film based on the David Grann book about the mysterious murders of newly-oil rich Osage tribal members in 1920s. The film also stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. In the 14-minute documentary, Gladstone reflects on her journey and the occasional difficulty of negotiating the demands of the Hollywood film industry.

“Jonathan Thunder: Good Mythology” is brief profile of Jonathan Thunder, an Anishinaabe (Red Lake Band) artist who paints wildly imaginative, colorful scenarios with broad appeal. One large-scale work shown in the film is an animated video installation at Terminal 1 of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Director Sergio Mata’u Rapu was present for a Q&A after the film screenings and pointed out that he’s not Native; rather, he’s a Pacific Islander, from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the most remote island in the South Pacific.

Despite its cliché title, “Walking Two Worlds” is a fascinating look at high-fashion model Quannah Chasinghorse, who was born on the Navajo Nation and raised on the reservation, Mongolia and New Mexico. At the age of six, she moved to her mother’s Han/Gwich’in village in Alaska. The 29-minute film shows traditional village life, hunting and mushing dogs, and Chasinghorse walking on the Chanel runway in Paris and participating in New York Fashion Week, when she was just 19. The slickly produced short film directed by Maia Wikler, which was screened last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, covers Chasinghorse’s environmental activism in the face of climate crisis and energy development impacts on Native life in Alaska. (If you’re wondering about Chasinghorse’s surname, she’s Lakota on her father’s side.)

The final, longer short film on the program was “Cara Romero: Following the Light,” directed by Kaela Waldstein. Romero, a talented fine art photographer, is from the Chemehuevi people in the land now known as California. The film provides a brief sketch of the brutal colonial history of The Golden State, as it portrays Romero’s overcoming addiction and developing as an artist. I wasn’t familiar with her work, but I’m now a fan.

“I embrace photography as my tool to resist Eurocentric narratives and as a means for opening audiences’ perspectives to the fascinating diversity of living Indigenous peoples,” Romero says, in a statement on her website (cararomerophotography.com).

Romero’s early work is somewhat derivative of the photography of Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), the famous photographer of Indian life in the American West. Then Romero’s work took a turn to illuminating the contemporary spirit of her subjects.

To “counter photography’s exploitive past,” Romero writes, “I actively collaborate with my models. Hailing from many tribal backgrounds and many geographic regions, these subjects are my friends and relatives. Together we stage photographs to tell stories that we feel (together) are important and give back to our Native community. My photographs explore our collective Native histories, and the ways in which our indigeneity expresses itself in modern times. I firmly believe Native peoples are as Indigenous today as we were prior to the advent of colonialism.”

Many people in the dominant society still cast Native people in terms of the 19th century stereotype of the “noble savage” (cf. Atlanta Braves of Major League Baseball). At Halloween every year, we’re treated to a parade of Native appropriation in tasteless costumes that basically lampoon authentic culture. And, as previously mentioned, Native lands and ceded territories are under siege by rapacious corporate interests intent on digging up precious ores (increasingly for “alternative energy” technologies) and drilling for oil and building pipelines. So, these cinematic portraits of Indigenous lives serve as a corrective to popular ignorance and indifference. The films are worth seeking out and watching.