As a contemporary person of Native decent, as a sometime academic, as an engaged community member, it is often difficult not to take the frequent and, shall we say, questionable material presented about Native folk personally. There was a time when I’d look at the “Find Your Totem” extra at the end of the Brother Bear DVD and think: ‘Ok, how many hours of lecturing will it take to set THAT one straight?’ Wampum Injun Corn Chips (sic) were another personal favorite. Loved the Big Chief Wampum cut out mask. I was a kid in San Francisco during the hippy 60s and early 70s… the no underwear at the playground 70s, the granny dress 70s, the birthday party at Rain and Lemon Sage’s house 70s. People expected things of a woman of Native decent, and they still do. In the spare moments when I am not crying at the roadside trash, or singing depressed songs about my mixed race identity I like to spend a little time contextualizing these sorts of images for my students and my own kids.
I like a good joke as well as the next person. It’s just that, some kinds of jokes don’t seem to apply to all equally. Why is it that Wheat Thins or Saltines or Ritz don’t have Big Joe Cracker as a mascot? The marketing opportunities are legion. They could package them in a little box painted like a doublewide. There could be road kill recipes on the side panel. Maybe I should trademark that right away… Do these people mean to be offensive? I doubt it. They want to buy into the mystique of the Native stereotypes and they don’t think about the subtle effect on actual 3-D Native people. After all, we’re dead now right?
For a few years I was in charge of outreach and retention of Native Students at SF State University. It was an interesting challenge. The number one problem that my students had with their education? Outrage and heartbreak ran about even. We came up with some emotionally mediative solutions. One that never got off the ground was the Rubber Tomahawk Award. Tommies were to be awarded to the most glaringly hideous case of insensitive material involving Native people of the semester. I’d even designed a cool award statuette. Ah well, some of the best ideas are before their time I guess. It would have been difficult to give one of the anthropology professors her Tommie for asking one of our students if she could take a cast of her teeth for the collection. What’s the student supposed to say being asked in class? As if she were a subject rather than a student. So how does an advisor help someone process that? I found out quite early on that the phone calls did not help. Neither did complaints to their supervisors, letters to the school newspaper or leaflets. The idea of a Tommie award, however, let my students laugh at things that otherwise caused huge tension and mistrust of the university.
When I was a student at SF State I took Lakhota language classes. This was roughly the time that Dances With Wolves came out. Now I know… some people enjoyed the movie for other reasons, but my professor LOVED it for the sometimes horrifying misuse of Lakhota. For about a month’s worth of classes he’d play small sections of that movie and we’d all laugh. If I’m not mistaken he played bits of it during a test and we had to directly translate. The results were hilarious. It was medicine. So when I became the advisor for the student organization I tried to guide my students less in the direction of protests and more in the direction of creative and sarcastic social commentary. We had Bad Indian Movie Night.
The night would go like this: a group of students and friends would gather, we would pop some popcorn, and then we’d play the movies. There were three fantastic aspects to bad Indian movie night. There is an endless supply of bad Indian movies, so we could do them whenever we wanted without threat of running out of material. Popcorn is a fun and lowfat snack that does little damage when thrown. The group catharsis was deep. Now before I continue, I know and like many Native actors who have been in some of the bad Indian movies we ran. In fact, a movie lost points towards the Tommie award if they had talked actual Native people into participating in their film. Some of my students couldn’t believe that the people we knew were in these things… I’m older, more cynical and I know I’ve been in books I regret. Blessings on the actors, I’m sure you needed the work. Having said that, I’d love to have been in the mind of Adam Beech when he agreed to star in Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale. For those unfamiliar with this classic bit of cinema, Beech plays Squanto who, at one point in the action, is thrown into a bear baiting pit and manages to calm the bear down with… we’re not really sure, perhaps his inherent and mystical Native powers. This scene still plays to enthusiastic laughter at my house. No movie night was complete without the “What Makes the Red Man Red?” song from Peter Pan. Polly wolly gumdrop indeed, “ squaw getum firewood “(sic). If you missed it or remember it not, go see… My very favorite, even in a field of serious contenders, still has to be White Commanche with William Shatner. Shatner plays half Commanche twins, the darker of whom leads a renegade band against white settlers. The lighter twin helps to subdue his evil brother, and hooks up with the blond woman his brother raped in an earlier scene. Fantastic stuff. Half naked young Shatner, stilted dialog and at least one glaring continuity error lock this bit of cinema into a probably permanent location at the top of the Tommie charts. Considering what movies don’t get made I marvel that this one did.
Children’s movies occupied more than their share of “Bad Indian Movie Night”. This is probably because of the recurring eras in which a kids adventure book just isn’t a kids adventure book without pirates, magic of some sort and –you guessed it- wild Indians. Wild here having the meaning of painted, half naked and with long hair. Humans are pattern recognition animals, it’s one of the things that we do well. Children, in particular, are taught to pick up on those sorts of patterns. This is how we get Peter Pan with Indians, the Brady Bunch visiting Indians, the Partridge Family visiting Indians… the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew probably even the Bobbsey Twins everyone takes a turn, although in this moment I can’t think of the actual book. We are mysterious, natural and whenever there needs to be the voice of lost wonder in a story… we are there.
So ok, the English have their teacup and pith helmet, the French their baguette and beret… and we have our loincloths and feathers. No one is immune to the stereotypes so what am I going on about? Last month my youngest child’s High School had ‘spirit days’. In order to show school spirit the students are expected to dress in whatever way is specified for the day. So there was nerd day and pirate day what have you. There was also wild west day… you guessed it: cowboys and their counterpart. My youngest has worked terribly hard at school. He maintains top grades and a low profile. He’s in the process of getting tall, which makes him a bit of a throwback and he’s not quite comfy in his skin yet. Unlike his older brother, he doesn’t know how beautiful he is, nor would he be interested if he did. My son made it into the most challenging and competitive public school in San Francisco. For the entirety of spirit week he dressed, in his words, as if he were forced into clothes at knifepoint, in the dark… by a ninja. He did this on his own as a protest. It probably made him stand out even more, tall and good looking as he is, but he felt that his sarcasm went unnoticed. Every day he walked past a poster of the Tasmanian Devil dressed in feathers ooping it up. He characterized the experience as disappointing. It would be one thing if there were the Native stereotypes and then the students had to read some high end Native Lit, as they do with British and French examples. But no, it’s just the stereotypes and I agree with my boy. That really is disappointing. I can’t fix the world for him. I’ve been an activist for years and I’m getting tired… but I can offer his school a Rubber Tomahawk Award for their achievement. It may be time for another Bad Movie Night too… just for the giggle of it.