When I was asked to guest edit a special edition of Studies in the Humanities centered on American Indian Studies, I knew immediately I wanted to focus specifically on the always problematic issue of representation of Indigenous peoples, especially in the Americas. Who is saying what about whom, whom does it help, and whom does it hurt? I also knew I wanted to offer readers not only the problem, but "tried and true" alternatives to the many misrepresentations and misunderstandings which abound both inside and outside of academia today.
Most folks get their ideas about "others" from popular culture, and, if they are fortunate enough to attend higher ed, from their classes. Luckily, as I was working on organizing the journal, the Distribution List, which is connected to another excellent journal, Studies in American Indian Literatures, featured a brief but incisive critique of two new "big budget" Hollywood films helmed by powerful and respected directors and production companies. Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (2006) and Terrence Malick's The New World (2005) are precisely the kind of popular culture fare that mediates the way many people generally come to think, both consciously and subconsciously, about American Indians as well as about "first contact" stories. As bell hooks says in Real to Reel, whether we like it or not, movies assume a pedagogical role in the lives of many, and even if it is not the intent of the film maker to instruct viewers, it does not mean that lessons are not learned. In fact, movies don't just offer us an opportunity to re-imagine culture, they create culture. Because of this, I asked two of the contributors to the Distribution List, both experts in the field of American Indian Studies, to send me an expanded version of their critiques to use for the introduction to the journal.
Below are the reflections of Drs. Penelope Kelsey, Lindsey Smith and myself (and we cite three other folks from our Distribution List) on the two films, in dialogue format, in the spirit of Paulo Freire and others. Following this introduction are readings which are a compilation of articles about Native representation in film and literature and the history of US Indian education, informed and practical descriptions of "Native-centric" classes, including reflections on effective pedagogical styles, and finally, some creative writing that showcases the oldest and best form of Indigenous education: story telling by master story weavers.
The New World and Apocalypto: Updates of Old Stereotypes for the New Millennia
Judith: For the most part, US education is shaped by the dominant culture, which as we know, is unapologetically Anglo and patriarchal; this is the lens through which our most popular stories are told, including stories about western Europeans coming to the "new world." This is especially true when it comes to American Indians; what we learn in most US schools is sketchy and incorrect, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. A former student of mine told me her mom, a third grade teacher, refused to tell her Anglo students the truth about Thanksgiving because she didn't want to make them "feel bad." This means that when we see movies such as The New World and Apocalypto, it is important to be aware of exactly who is telling the stories and to "talk back," even if it is in a journal which not many pop culture consumers will read.
To this end I have been thinking about an idea of Toni Morrison's which she discusses in Playing in the Dark. Morrison talks about how she believes that Steven Spielberg, who directed The Color Purple, simply could not imagine a strong, positive Black man as a character and thus what Morrison says about Spielberg is also true of most Anglo men who make movies about Native peoples; they simply cannot imagine stories and people who are any different from the old stereotypes, whether they be the innocent "nature boys" and brutal thugs we see in Apocalypto, or The New World's forest-dwelling simpletons. Malick's happy brown folk (or "naturals," as they are dubbed in the movie) are characterized as "gentle, loving, faithful, and lacking in all guile and trickery," by Colin Farrell's John Smith, as he watches them dance Malick's version of the Indian Funky Chicken with a little bit of S and M spanking thrown in. They also bark like dogs, climb like monkeys, and play all day in their almost-empty Eden, seemingly oblivious of the gun-totin' evil Anglo men down river. The excellent actor who plays Pocahontas, Q' Orianka Kilcher, is given embarrassingly horrible lines such as, "A god he seems to me" and "What else is life but being near you?"
When we began this discussion on-line, Lisa Marling, who has a PhD in Interdisciplinary American Indian Studies and Creative Writing and has lived for a long while on the Dine' reservation, said that although The New World was a stunning piece of cinematography, in the end, it was full of the same old stereotypes. Most notable, she said, was the colonization of the Indigenous Nation through the seduction and use of a woman's body.
Others on the Distribution List agreed, remarking that not only is the representation ugly and wrong, the film is distressingly dull, confusing, and poorly edited. I wondered what non-academic viewers thought, so went on-line and read some reviews. There seems to be a consensus that this is indeed a tedious film; my favorite comment was made by a man who wrote that he would rather have Tabasco rubbed in his eyes and be kicked in the groin than to ever have to watch The New World again. Maybe I could laugh at all of Malick's overblown romantic claptrap if there were any other 30 million dollar movies out there to balance this skewed representation of an already damaging piece of US mythology. Like Marlon Riggs says in Ethnic Notions, the real problem is that there are not easily accessible correctives to most popular non-Anglo stereotypes; in this case, Malick's and Gibson's "visions" of "naturals."
Lindsey: I know exactly what you mean about sitting through...