Tuesday, February 22, 2011

An extremely rough draft...

The Revolution Will Be Filmed: American Indian Response to the Colonizer’s Rhetoric
When speaking of an American Indian revolution, one must understand that it cannot occur in the same fashion or form that the French, Russian, or Haitian Revolutions took place in. The armed taking of Alcatraz, the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C., and the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee in North Dakota highlight both a rising political consciousness within American Indian communities as well as a rising consciousness of Indian presence within American society at large. However, as evidenced by the outcome of these armed entanglements between the United States government and the American Indian during the 1970s proved, the American Indian was simply far too outnumbered to reclaim their lands in the fashion in which it was taken from them. Instead, American Indian artists began reclaiming their cultural heritage via the arts by responding to the written and visual forms of rhetoric utilized by colonizing forces in claiming the land as their own, as well as offering a counter narrative to the decades of inauthentic and problematic portrayals of the Indian in film since the early days of cinema. Within the last thirty to forty years, a growing number of American Indian filmmakers have artistically responded to the rhetoric of colonizers and their Eurocentric descendants, effectively reclaiming land and historical presence from the colonizer working under the concept of Manifest Destiny.
In establishing the American Indian as the Other, European colonizers and settlers have a very long history of classifying and debasing the American Indian in an attempt to subjugate them. This tendency in the European settlement and colonization of America can be traced as far back as Columbus. “’So tractable, so peacable are these people,’ Columbus wrote to the King and Queen of Spain, ‘that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation…and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners and decorous and praiseworthy.’”[1] Though Columbus indeed compliments the manners of the Taino, he also refers to them as tractable, later claiming that they should be “made to work, sow and do all that is necessary to adopt our ways.”[2] David Spurr has written that, “the classification of indigenous peoples according to their relative complexity of social organization becomes more systematic and articulated as it directly serves the interests of colonial administration.”[3] By classifying the Taino as peaceful and tractable peoples, they are portrayed as unlikely to rise in rebellion and fit for colonization and slavery. Hundreds of years later, debasement along the western frontier in the new country known as the United States of America served to further distance the colonizer from the American Indian Other and facilitate the concept of Manifest Destiny, in which it was God’s will for the Ango-Saxon races to spread across the face of America. At this point in history, the words “decorous” and “praiseworthy” stopped being used in reference to American Indians, and rhetoric such as Philip Sheridan’s statement, "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead” became the normative. Spurr has also stated that, “when notions such as ‘civilization’ and ‘reason’ are in danger of being called into question, their definition, as well as their identification with a particular people, is established by pointing to their supposed opposites, to what can be designated as ‘savagery’ or ‘madness.’”[4] American Indian stereotypes were created out of forms of debasement that took hold during this era. These stereotypes and tropes regarding the savage Indian were in face created by the concept of Manifest Destiny. If it is God’s will for the Anglo-Saxon race to spread across the American landscape, then surely any obstacle to this colonization must be evil, uncivilized, and savage. Hence, the savage Indian stereotype was created out the very real resistance performed by western American Indian tribes in the face of colonization.
The birth of the cinema provided a dynamic new way to reinforce the nature of the Indian as Other to new generations of European descendants. Berger has claimed that, “When we see a landscape, we see ourselves in it. If we ‘saw’ the art of the past, we would situate ourselves in history.”[5] While the early days of cinema are indeed replete with images of the American Indian as obstacles to the Manifest Destiny of the white race in America (examples such as Griffith’s The Battle of Elderbush Gulch and William F. Cody’s The Indian Wars come to mind), it is really the genre of the American western which illustrates Berger’s argument so well. As a form of American myth building, no other genre is as powerful as the western in terms of placing the Eurocentric colonizer within American landscape as owner while also classifying and debasing the American Indian as Other. John Ford’s film Stagecoach is an excellent example of the visual rhetoric utilized by European descendants in classifying and debasing American Indian while simultaneously romanticizing American colonization and settlement…placing the white man as owner and caretaker of the land. As a group of settlers travel via stagecoach from Arizona to New Mexico (eastbound, interestingly), they are told “You’re all going to be scalped and massacred by that old butcher, Geronimo.” When the Indians do finally appear and begin to chase the stagecoach, Ringo (John Wayne) proves his courage by killing the Indians and saving the coach. “This is all made easier by inept Apaches, who seem incapable of hitting anything except by accident, while every shot fired by a white man not only kills the Indian but knocks his horse to the ground.”[6] These visual metaphors work to reinforce the concepts of classification and debasement. The Indians are classified as less than the white man due to their inability to shoot, and the white man is superior due to not only his superior aim, but also the power of his weapons (strong enough to knock over horses when the Indian riding one is hit by a white man’s bullet). Additionally, they are further debased as their spiritual and political leader Geronimo is referred to as a “butcher.” This newer medium of film, however, also privileges the white race in that these colonizers are shown as the historical owners of the land within the context of American history. The Indian has been vilified and/or removed within/from the historical record via the filmic image popularized by the American western.



Film has increasingly become the form used by American Indians in offering a counter narrative to the rhetoric utilized by colonizing and settling forces. American Indian filmmakers have utilized the written and visual rhetorical tropes of the colonizer in a number of interesting ways. Perhaps the most important and single most apparent, however, is the utilization of the characteristics and tropes of the road film. If the colonizer appropriates the land through the placement of the Eurocentric presence within the context of the landscape historically, then no other genre of film counters these images and tropes as well as the road film does. Though the general format of the road movie can differ greatly from film to film, and from one culture of origin to another culture, the genre has a specific set of conventions that make it immediately identifiable as a road movie. “The genre of the road movie explores the ‘borders’ (the status quo conventions) of American society. Often from a culturally critical perspective, the road movie asks, What does it mean to exceed the boundaries, to transgress the limits, of American society?”[7] In order to answer this question, the American road movie focuses on the journey of the individual or the couple (and occasionally the collective) while on the road and traveling through American landscapes and communities. Since 1987, three films stand out in their use of the road film genre in telling an American Indian story, two of which were written and directed by American Indian filmmakers. These films are Powwow Highway, Smoke Signals, and the recent (as yet unreleased film) Barking Water. Each of these films employs the genre conventions of the road movie, however, they also operate within the genre in a way specific to the American Indian filmmaker offering a counter narrative to the rhetoric of the colonizer and the colonizer’s gaze. Each of these films portrays a duo of American Indian traversing through the American landscape, and are replete with landscape shots in a film telling uniquely American Indian stories. By placing the modern American Indian within the landscape of modern America, these filmmakers are in essence not only reclaiming a filmic history in which their race has been vilified and then forgotten, but is also making a visual claim to the land by having their characters intimately tied to it.


These films also call into question the written and spoken rhetoric of the European colonizer by making either the statement itself ridiculous or by calling into question the character of those who have made or have been part of the colonizer’s rhetoric. Instead of the uncivilized “bucher” that simply halts the development of the west…an obstacle to the Manifest Destiny of European settlers…the Indians within these three films are modern, intelligent, and civilized. This alteration of the normative portrayal of the American Indian in cinema effectively flips Spurr’s conception of debasement. Since the Indian is portrayed as a member of civilized society, the European descendant within society suddenly becomes barbaric. While not every white character is vilified within these films, this liars, cheats, racsists, and the ignorant white characters that illustrate the centuries old tenements of colonial rhetoric are vilified. The two cowboys who steal Thomas and Victor’s seats in Smoke Signals, the racist car dealer and stereo salesman in Powwow Highway, and the ignorant (but ultimately friendly) farmer in Barking Water all stand in comparison to the praiseworthy and decorous manners of the American Indian characters
While many revolutions have indeed been televised, the American Indian revolution has been quietly filmed and is making itself heard and known through the works of American Indian filmmakers and actors. Centuries of colonial rhetoric went by without response. Armed conflicts during the 60s and 70s went nowhere quickly, as the descendants of the colonizer mediated them. However, this filmic response to the colonizer’s rhetoric is the most interesting, and possibly the most solid and sustainable revolution that could be hoped for. This theory deserves much more intense focus and research; however, I do believe that a sustained study of American Indian cinema provides enough response to the colonizers rhetoric and gaze to be defined as revolution.


[1] Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (New York: Henry Holt and Company LLC, 2000). P. 1.
[2] Ibid
[3] Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993). P. 68.
[4] Ibid. P. 76.
[5] Berger, John. Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1977). P. 11.
[6] Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999). P. 54.
[7] Laderman, David. Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002). P. 2.

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