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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

03/22/2017

Gerald Schmitz

 

Empowering indigenous people’s voices on screen

 

Rise (Canada, 2017 Viceland TV series)
100 Years: One Woman’s Fight for Justice (U.S. 2016)
Koneline: Our Land Beautiful (Canada 2016)
Rumble: The Indians that Rocked the World (Canada 2017)


The right to prior and informed consent should always prevail. Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful co-operation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict. . . .For governments, this means recognizing that indigenous communities are a part of the population to be appreciated and consulted, and whose full participation should be promoted at the local and national level.
— Statement of Pope Francis, Feb. 15, 2017

Canadians are being challenged to come to terms with historical wrongs arising from the subjugation of Aboriginal peoples, as in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report on the “cultural genocide” perpetrated by residential schools. The “Idle No More” movement has spurred a renewed indigenous activism demanding redress. First Nations are centrally involved in many sites of protest, notably concerning large-scale resource development projects within their traditional territories. Peoples long cast aside by the forces of “progress” are reclaiming their place.

In finding their voice, indigenous peoples are also increasingly determined to tell their own stories. That is evident in the impressive Canadian-produced eight-part docuseries entitled appropriately Rise. It began airing in late January on Viceland, the television arm of VICE Canada. The other broadcast partners are the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and Rogers Media. Supported by the Sundance Institute’s indigenous voices program, the first three episodes had their premiere showing during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, including a post-screening discussion with many of the featured indigenous activists. The series is directed by Toronto-based filmmaker Michelle Latimer, who is of Métis-Algonquin ancestry. The narrator host is Sarain Carson-Fox, a dancer and choreographer with Anishinaabe roots who travels with a camera crew to the frontlines of contemporary indigenous resistance.

The first episode, “Apache Stronghold,” observes the generational struggles of the Apache people suppressed by the armed might of the U.S. government leading up to the current flashpoint at Oak Flat, Arizona, where the Apache are fighting to save a protected sacred site from encroachment by Rio Tinto’s copper-mining operations.

The second and third episodes, “Sacred Water” and “Red Power,” are devoted to the fight of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North and South Dakota to block the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline from risking contamination of the Missouri River as well as disrupting sacred sites and burial grounds. Their cause has attracted international attention and large numbers of protesters. With representatives of some 200 tribes in solidarity, it became the largest indigenous gathering on American soil in a century. It is also the latest “war story” in a history of violations of native rights that includes Wounded Knee. A victory for people power over corporate interests was celebrated in December 2016 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revoked a necessary permit. However, the Trump administration strongly backs the project and new approvals have been granted to complete the pipeline. The Sioux won’t give up the fight however hard it becomes.

What these episodes reveal is a deeply spiritual aspect of the struggles that are connecting the elders to a new generation of activists often led by dynamic young indigenous women. A parallel can be made between the violence being done to mother earth and the violence against women that is a symptom of the intergenerational trauma suffered by many indigenous peoples. A healing process is needed that connects both.

When I interviewed Ms. Latimer at Sundance she also spoke about how a movement that is truly multi-generational is galvanizing solidarity networks across borders. It will not be bought off by divide-and-rule tactics such as the promise of economic benefits to communities suffering high rates of poverty and unemployment. Such promises have proved to be empty and short-lived. All citizens can help to advance this movement by standing with it. That includes not supporting the corporations and politicians behind developments that fail to respect the rights of indigenous people.

Director Melinda Janko’s 100 Years: One Woman’s Fight for Justice (https://www.100yearsthemovie.com) is a penetrating investigation into over a century of gross mistreatment of Indian reserve lands by the U.S. government. It is also a stirring profile of Montana Blackfeet elder Elouise Cobell who was the driving force in seeking redress through the largest class action suit in U.S. history on behalf of some 300,000 Native Americans.

The native peoples who, as one says, “could not imagine that one day Earth Mother would be real estate,” had their lands broken up. Their territories were reduced to defined scattered reservations and they were also reduced to a state of dependency and control. The millions of acres of reserve land was henceforth to be managed for them by an Indian Trust Fund responsible for revenues from resource development (oil and gas, mining, timber, etc.) on these lands. What actually happened was that much of this accrued wealth was stolen while many Native Americans lived in deplorable conditions. They were effectively defrauded of what was rightly theirs at the same time as they faced other forms of deprivation, loss of culture and respect. (The youth were sent to boarding schools for assimilation similar to Canada’s residential schools).

This sorry history finally provoked a series of legal actions, notably the class action launched by Cobell and others in 1996 seeking damages of $27.5 billion. Along with pressure through the courts, the mismanagement of funds also attracted attention in Congress. There were setbacks and stalling tactics by the George W. Bush White House. But in 2009 - 2010 under the Obama administration a settlement was finally approved, albeit for the much smaller amount of $3.4 billion. A measure of justice had been achieved thanks to the tireless efforts of women like Cobell who died of cancer in 2011. Her legacy was recognized by the posthumous awarding of the presidential medal of freedom by Obama in 2016.

Director Nettie Wild’s KONELINE: Our Land Beautiful (https://www.canadawildproductions.com/film/koneline/), awarded best Canadian feature at the 2016 HotDocs festival, captures indelible images of what is happening in the mountains of northwestern British Columbia. This unceded traditional territory of The Tahltan First Nation is increasingly being impacted by mining operations for copper and gold along with major infrastructure projects such as roads and electrical power lines. Watching the enormous transmission towers being put in place by helicopter gives a sense of the transformation.

Koneline comes from a Tahltan word combining beauty of the land and the mind. Their language encompassing this magnificent wilderness had needed no word for “wild.” Wildlife was so abundant that the region has been called the “Serengeti of the north.” But big changes are happening while some remain determined to preserve their language and cultural traditions along with the lifestyles dependent on the land. The promise of economic benefits from large-scale development can create divisions within indigenous communities as well as with other residents. Wild’s stunning cinematography makes the land itself a character in this ongoing drama, which raises the question of how to preserve the land’s natural beauty and integrity in the face of increased commercial activities. Wild worries about different viewpoints growing farther apart. What does responsible development mean in this context? It’s clear that an adequate inclusive process is still lacking to resolve outstanding issues in a way that truly respects the land and its people.

Rumble: The Indians that Rocked the World is a Canadian production of Montreal-based Rezolution Pictures (makers of the documentary Reel Injun). Co-directed by founder Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, it received a Sundance special jury award for “masterful storytelling” in bringing to light the little-known indigenous contribution to popular music. She observes that “native American music — born of this land — was violently suppressed for many years as both American and Canadian governments outlawed native ceremonies and rituals in a deliberate attempt to break the people. As a result, the music was forced underground and found its expression in alternative ways.”

As the Sundance press notes state, “the early pioneers of the blues had native as well as African American roots, and one of the first and most influential jazz singers’ voices, was trained on native American songs. As the folk rock era took hold in the 1960s and ’70s, native Americans helped to define its evolution. . . . For the most part, their Indian heritage was unknown.”

That was true of the seminal and disruptive influence virtuoso guitarist Link Wray (Shawnee ancestry), creator of the legendary 1958 instrumental “Rumble,” had on the biggest rock stars that followed including Jimi Hendrix, who was proud of his Cherokee heritage. The music industry, though, wasn’t interested in indigenous roots or issues. A case in point were the troubles encountered by iconic country singer Johnny Cash in getting released his 1964 album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.

Canadians may already be aware of the indigenous ancestry of folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree), and musician-songwriter-composer Robbie Robertson (Mohawk), who came to prominence with The Band. But they will be surprised at how many other great artists appear in this revelatory account that draws on concert footage, archival materials, interviews and stories.

Fittingly, “Rumble” also brings that rousing influence forward into present-day indigenous rights struggles such as the Standing Rock protests explored in Rise. We see it in the music video “Stand Up/StandNRock” organized by Taboo, a member of the hip-hop group The Black Eyed Peas who is of Mexican-American and Shoshone ancestry. And there’s a stirring power in the blood hearing Buffy Sainte-Marie singing “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” A movement is rising that will no longer be denied.