Sunday, January 11, 2009

Indian Mini-Film Festival

The Seattle Art Museum put on a two day mini festival of recent films by and about Northwest Native Americans. This was part of an exhibit of arts and culture of the Salish people of Washington State which includes at least 39 recognized tribes.

Fry Bread Babes
Fry Bread Babes was a series of interviews with six Native women about their self image, especially their body concept, today, and as they were growing up. Uniformly, the women said that in their youth they aspired to the mainstream, white ideal presented by mass media, but with age came to various degrees of self-acceptance. It is the same tragedy of female socialization we see in mainstream culture, except there are proportionally more overweight Native women, due to the modern diet and lifestyle. In a way, it might be easier for them to find self-acceptance within the Native culture. This accounts for the title. A fry bread babe, it was explained, is a “round” woman, and I got the sense that it is not entirely pejorative.

Some interesting things: I noticed nearly all the women laughed when they were embarrassed, and it was not the nervous, embarrassed laugh you see in Asia, but a genuine giggle that conveys hilarity, but nevertheless was designed to cover up embarrassment. Then afterward they would say “Excuse me.” I did not know that was a cultural trait.

Another interesting point was that none of the women seemed overly concerned about skin color. It was discussed, but it did not seem a critical issue, as it is among African Americans, for example. Hair quality seemed almost more important to them than skin color. The women were generally not aware of Indian stereotypes until adolescence or later. As with all children, they did not think of themselves as “Indian” until they were identified in school. They were vaguely aware of “Cowboys and Indians” movies and short clips were shown from old movies. But these women did not seem deeply affected by the stereotype, perhaps because Indian women were seldom shown in those movies. They were much more affected by prejudice in school.

This film gave some great insight into Northwest Native culture, from a woman’s point of view, and it is pretty impressive how honest and open the women were, a tribute to the filmmakers’ skills. It would be interesting to do the same project with much younger women and girls.

Directed by Steffany Suttle. color, 30 min. See

Princess Angeline
Princess Angeline was the daughter of Chief Seattle. Even after the Chief died, she continued to live downtown, selling clams and baskets on street corners until her death in 1896. It was an ignominious end for a princess of any kind. The early white settlers drove the Duwamish tribe out of their homeland, which included the whole Seattle area. Houses were burned, people were murdered, and the Duwamish river, which enters Puget Sound at the heart of the city, was re-engineered for ships, killing the Salmon runs and destroying tributary rivers. This movie gives an honest historical account of the Duwamish tribe’s ordeal, including the treaty that Chief Seattle signed with the territorial governor that essentially gave the Seattle area to the settlers. It is a fascinating and sorrowful history. Princess Angeline refused to leave town, staying in her wooden shack on the waterfront at the base of Pike street until her death.

The Duwamish tribe has never been recognized by the federal government because they can’t prove that they have been a coherent culture through history. As several professors and lawyers pointed out, that is not surprising, since they were willfully dispersed and destroyed as a people by the early settlers. Today the Duwamish have an association with over 500 surviving members but they are still not officially recognized and have no reservation, rights, or government support. Beside the history lesson then, the film is an advocacy piece for formal recognition of the tribe. They did gain recognition at the end of the Clinton administration, but that was immediately reversed by GW Bush.

I enjoyed the historical photographs, especially the old pictures of Seattle, my home town. Actually, Chief Seattle is buried in Suquamish, a small town next to mine, and my house sits where the Chief himself surely trod at one time. The film made me aware of my historical moment. Had I been born 150 years ago, or 150 years hence, I would have very different attitudes and values about the Duwamish and their plight.

One criticism of the film is that it failed to address the significance of getting government recognition for the Duwamish. The people in the film said it was important for their individual and cultural self-esteem, but that begs the question, why? Nobody doubts that the Duwamish are a people. Why do they specifically need the blessing of the federal government to shore up their self-esteem? I think a partial answer was given in a scene showing a group of descendants of the pioneers, all prominent, well-dressed, rich white people, handing over a check to fund a Duwamish tribal center in Seattle. At the ceremony, a bejeweled and sequined woman said, as sincerely as she could manage, something like “On behalf of the pioneers, we are sorry for what we did.” I think that probably goes a long way in helping self-esteem, and maybe that is all the Duwamish want to hear from the feds. But I don’t think that is the whole story.

It is probably more about land, money, and natural resources. If the Duwamish were federally recognized, would that mean they could exercise land claims to most of the Seattle Area? There surely would be legal and financial consequences of federal recognition, but the film focused only on the need for cultural self-esteem. I thought that was disingenuous. I realize a short documentary must have boundaries, but it was just not believable that the only, or main thing the Duwamish would like from the federal government is an apology. I sensed a hidden agenda and was disappointed it remained hidden.

Directed by Sandra Osawa. color, 42 min. See

Where I’m From
This was a short piece created by students in a workshop by Longhouse Media, a youth program that supports the expression of Native youth through movie making. If I understood correctly, this group of about 10 teenagers designed and produced this film in five days, which is pretty amazing.

The film was nominally designed to address the question, where is home? The question was addressed mainly in voice-over and printed titles. There wasn’t much coherence to the visuals: a girl doing tai chi or some such, interspersed with shots of seagulls, for example. That juxtaposition itself was actually interesting, and even though it did not seem to mean anything, it hinted at a style of visual nonsequitur that could be something new and interesting in the field of editing. Other pictures were of the Pike Place Market and the district there around First Avenue. I think only two of the students were in front of the camera, the rest behind the scenes.

Sadly, the projectionist was tuned out and did not realize that the aspect ratio was wrong for this showing. What a shame for such a sincere effort to not be seen under ideal conditions. It was a respectable effort and I was pretty impressed by what can be done, with expert guidance, in such a short time. They should have had a second crew film “the making of” and tacked that on the end! See

March Point
This feature-length documentary followed three boys, aged about 15 to 17, from the Swinomish Tribe, which is located on Fidalgo Island, north of Seattle, as they learned how to make a video documentary. They interviewed each other about their difficult past, how they got involved with drugs and drinking, got in trouble with the law, and ended up in rehab. During treatment they found the opportunity to learn how to make videos. They took it up with disinterest at first but then became committed to their work.

Their work was to document the circumstances of the Shell Oil refinery on March Point, a peninsula that according to an 1850 treaty, belongs to the Swinomish. The executive they interviewed at the refinery explained that Shell bought the property in the 1950s from the legal, registered owners. It’s an interesting situation in which the land was stolen, but since the thieves’ society is the one that writes the laws, they had legal ownership and Shell’s purchase of it was therefore perfectly legitimate. So the Swinomish claim to the land, while valid, is hopelessly doomed.

Alongside that theme, the film documents the lifestyle of the Swinomish people, whose reservation is right next to the refinery. They are, and always have been a fishing people. They still live on a diet almost exclusively of seafood, including clams, crabs, salmon, and so on. But the water around their reservation has become so polluted that all the fish are seriously contaminated. Yet as a tribal elder says, we can’t stop eating it. We can’t stop fishing. It has been our way of life for a thousand years.

The boys film all this and I felt that I got a rare glimpse of the inside of everyday tribal life on the reservation. It’s one thing to appreciate the art and culture of Native people through museum exhibits and quite another to understand the everyday life. The view this film gave was not idealized or trying to make any political statement about tribal life. Although a lot of it was heart-rending, it was not intended to be. I think only young people could have made this film Any adults would have been far too self conscious.

The boys mount a fruitless letter writing campaign to the governor, about the status of March Point and they travel to the state capitol to interview her, unsuccessfully. Eventually, they do find an audience with Washington State Senator Patty Murray and their representative in congress. They spend a week or so in D.C. with their camera. On a park bench on the Capitol Mall, they agree that they “didn’t fit in,” mainly because they didn’t have suits like everybody else. Upon returning home, one of the boys comments, “When we got back, everything was the same, but we had changed.”

It’s an interesting, competent and inspirational film that speaks volumes about the quality of the support the project had from the Native Lens organization. Of course the boys believe the project was about March Point, unable to see that the real story is their own socialization into responsible adult life, and their journey from hopeless despair to caring about the future.
Color, 60 min. See

None of these movies is easily available. I could not find any of them on IMBD, Netflix or Amazon. If you are interested in documentary films about native issues, your best bet is probably to keep an eye on the American Indian Film Institute, which sponsors an annual film festival. See

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