I just finished making a film with the Native American community in Browning, Montana for UK dance producers Chase and Status. Check it out here
There has been some controversy surrounding the video and one of our collaborators, Sterling HolyWhiteMountain wanted to have his say...
There has been some controversy surrounding the video and one of our collaborators, Sterling HolyWhiteMountain wanted to have his say...
1. What did you do for the Alive video? How should we describe you?
I was the casting director, a production assistant, one of the primary in-community contacts, occasional truck driver, and loudest laugher on the set.
2. Why did you get involved in its production?
I got involved because I wanted to be part of this video that was going to be shot in my homeland, in the place that made me and is always with me no matter where I go or what I do. But also because I thought I might be able to offer advice / provide ideas regarding authenticity – and I mean that in the broadest sense. I'm fully aware of the difficulties American Indians face when it comes to issues of misrepresentation, and so if I can do something to alleviate that I will. Also, because this is a world where people need work to survive, I needed a temporary job to get me through the end of the fall semester.
3. What did you think of the storyline when you saw it? How do you think it portrays your community?
The storyline brings up a difficult question for me, and that is - how would I like our community to be seen? From an internal, on-rez perspective (namely mine), I think the story is eminently familiar, in part because various types of addiction are a serious problem in many reservation communities. Ours is no exception. And the juxtaposition of the healing power of traditional ceremony with these difficulties is also familiar - it's relatively easy to find people on the Blackfeet Reservation whose lives have been turned around in a good way through ceremony. I think this is a really important aspect of the narrative - that this young man, lost in drugs and violence, turns his life around through involvement in ceremony. People might say, Well, yeah, but he dies in the end – but everyone dies in the end, the question for me is how you lived the time you had. One of the difficulties, I think, comes in that this issue of addiction and poverty and violence on reservations is, in a way, a common story in Indian Country. Some Indian people are going comment that they want to see another aspect of our various communities represented - because reservation communities are in fact very diverse, and very complex, and there are many things, some quite beautiful and some quite banal, that get very little attention when it comes to national or global media. And I agree – these things do need to be shown. I want them shown as much or more than others. I’m a writer – my head is full of stories I think need to be told, and all of them are stories from Indian Country, and all of them are stories I want told as truthfully as possible. And sometimes truth hurts, but also in my experience healing usually begins with the pain of recognition.
So herein lies one of the great difficulties of the social demand for "realistic" representation vs. artistic / narrative demand. While there is shared space between the two, they are, I think, fundamentally different perspectives with ultimately different goals. The social demand is one of improved human rights, improved living conditions, better political and legal representation, etc. – and all of these things without ambiguity. There’s no way for me to call myself an American Indian and not be concerned with these things. On the other hand, the artistic demand is primarily a demand for successful art, and that demand falls into the realm of aesthetics – a realm that, for what it's worth, is almost always immediately thrown out when discussions like this come up. If the video weren't aesthetically successful, I'm not sure we'd be having this discussion at all, because it wouldn't be worth our attention. But because Josh Cole et al. shot a successful video, we’re having this dialogue which has nothing to do with the aesthetics of the thing. Ironic, to say the least. This is also why the goals of agents of social change are not necessarily going to line up with the aims of an artist, native or non-native. And this difference is why there is likely always going to be a degree of conflict between their disparate aims. Long story long, what I'm saying is that while the content of the video may in some ways be a relatively common story in Indian Country, to say that kind of story should not be shown simply because it's common is ridiculous. The answer to the problems of misrepresentation is not to stop representing difficult things that are still happening in Indian Country - the answer is more and more representation of the many different things that are happening. And this includes things like addiction and the power of ceremony and the way our pasts continue to haunt us long after we want them to. And that increase in representation is happening, right now, all over North America. And it’s beautiful that I’m around to see it happen, and I’m very fortunate to be part of it in the various ways I am. This wasn’t happening even one generation ago – our parents’ were not having these discussions in any widespread manner on any kind of national or global stage.
Where I differ from some Indians who talk about this issue is I don't believe only Indians should represent Indians - I think anyone should be allowed to represent whatever they want to represent, artistically speaking. I’m aware this is a dangerous statement, so let me explain. I need to be really clear I’m talking about art here, and not merely social or public representations of American Indians in the US – mascots and team names derived from this country’s racist history are unacceptable, and the issue of a professional football team in the nation’s capital bearing the team name it does is so fucking appalling to me that I’m at a loss for words when I hear people say it’s not a big deal. And the majority of these people are non-Indians! It’s so common for everyone to speak for us I sometimes feel like I missed something along the way, that somewhere back in time we legally became part of the cultural commons, and anyone gets to use us however they want. So I want that to be really clear that I’m making a distinction between these social representations and artistic representation. Yes there is crossover between the two, but no, they are not one and the same.
But back to the topic of artistic representation – I also think, such as in the case of the recent book of photos of "disappearing tribes" by Jimmy Nelson, you should be ready for a serious backlash when you do something as stupid as putting a book like that together. (For what it's worth, Jimmy Nelson, tribes don't disappear – they typically transition into economic destitution, poverty, and extreme marginalization, a situation so desperate in some cases the only hope for the future involves individuals leaving their community to join the larger society & economy that is in the process of destroying said “disappearing” tribe.) I had the privilege when I was much younger of hearing the late Blackfeet writer Jim Welch speak - someone asked him what he thought about non-Indians writing about Indians. His response was that anyone should be able to write about anything - but if you're writing about something you don't know anything about, be ready to be told your work isn't any good. First off, this is fundamentally an artist's view, it speaks to the artist’s need for freedom of imagination and expression. Second, this is basically my perspective regarding the issues at hand. I don't believe in trying to control artistic representation. I do believe, however, in critiquing art from as many different perspectives as one can muster, which sometimes involves telling an artist he or she has egregiously misrepresented the subject matter. And neither do I think, for what it’s worth, any of these perspectives hold exclusive rights on truth. In the case of this video, I think it's really difficult to say it’s a misrepresentation, given no one in the video is not from the community, and given that the ceremonial aspects were filmed according to the Crazy Dogs' wishes, and given that nothing represented isn't happening somewhere in Indian Country right now.
Lastly, the difficulty I have with people who want to control all Indian representation is twofold. One, it can't be done; I think it's naive, actually, to believe all representation can be controlled. That's like saying anything, or anyone, can be entirely controlled. It's never happened in human history, and I don't think it's about to happen any time soon. But you will see this, if you track conversations among natives on this topic, this idea of total control over representation – the problem of course is that it’s a dream that bears no relation the world as it works. Somewhere someone is bitching at me for being part of this project, as if me not being part of it would have made things better, or as though if they had been part of it things would have been dramatically different or better.
Two, when I hear people talking about total control of native representation, while I know their intentions are good, and while I very much agree with some of their sentiments, I also hear the distant echoes of fascist thought in relation to art - i.e., only the art with our stamp of approval can be produced. Such thinking is the death of art, or at least the beginning of that death. Not to mention, what I think such people really want is control of interpretation, and the only way to control interpretation is to control the way people think, behave, etc. Which is, incidentally, the exact approach the makers of US federal Indian policy took for well over a century: We are going to turn these Indians into who we want them to be. I guess it just goes to show it doesn’t matter what culture you come from, the specter of control is always there.
Also, as someone involved in the art world primarily in the role of a creator, I find this desire for control over art deeply disturbing. I'd rather be part of a complicated art world (and world) where people are actually trying to figure out what's going on than be part of a world where certain subject matters and questions are off-limits because of various ideological rules. I think art should be able to show us all the things about ourselves we don't want to look at, and this video is no different - it shows a part of Indian Country people don't want shown. Which is exactly why I think it should be shown. Does this mean I think the video is perfect or without flaws? No. But I have yet to see a perfect work of art, and I'm not sure that I have any interest in seeing such a thing - it would probably be a monstrosity. People who don’t see what they want in art and take that as a problem with the art must have a hard time in this world.
4. How does the video compare to other representations of your community?
I think from a primarily aesthetic perspective that the video is beautiful - a quality that's very important to me when it comes to representations of the Blackfeet Reservation. It's a stunningly beautiful area of the earth, and one of the major reasons people who grow up there have such a difficult time leaving, and also one of the reasons people who visit never forget their time there. So in terms of physical space, in terms of geography, I think the video can't help but be accurate – all you have to do is point the camera and you're showing a part of the truth. But the credit here goes to Josh Cole and the film crew – these guys weren’t tourists stumbling around with disposable cameras, they were consummate pros who performed their jobs with the kind of intensity and focus necessary to create a successful work of art. When I say success, also, I’m not talking about money – most art doesn’t make any money at all. The idea that art of this sort, that it’s primary purpose should be to funnel money into the community – I don’t like that either. The reason being, it’s this unspoken idea so prevalent among people who are usually not artists, the idea that art isn’t enough on its own – it has to do something. And that doing something usually means making money, or creating massive social change, which are apparently the only viable ways to participate in this world. I think art is enough on its own. The experience of watching the video, reading the book, seeing the painting or sculpture, that experience is enough on its own. If you want social change, work on social change – but don’t tell artists they need to be mouthpieces for your political agendas. The fact that some people continue to treat art as if it should have a social or political purpose in order to be valid tells you a lot more about how those people relate to art than it does about the art.
From a social perspective, the video necessarily shows a limited aspect of the contemporary reservation community - not everyone there is like the characters in the video, not everyone is involved in ceremony, etc. However, this can be said about any narrative ever made - narrative is necessarily limited by the need to create a coherent story, the same way a painting is limited by the size of the frame, or a singer is limited by her vocal range. We're always only getting a piece of the whole, and in the case of this video, the major factor limiting the narrative is the length of the video. It's easy for someone who has never dealt directly with the creation of narrative to say, "I think it should have been like this." One, if that’s what you think, then go do it yourself, don’t ask other people to do it for you. But two, the second you start dealing with the actual creation of narrative, you immediately realize the process of creating story brings with it a set of demands you could never have seen from the outside looking in. And part of that realization is, if you're going to create something coherent, there's only so much you can say. You could write a 700 page novel about the Blackfeet Reservation and you would still have to leave out a tremendous amount of what's going on there now, what happened in history, etc. What I hear when I hear people complaining about stuff like this is, "Things aren’t the way I want them to be." Well, join the club. I have no problem with people saying they don't like something; I have a problem with people not liking something, and then developing a specious philosophy to back up their belief that everyone should be just like them. And in that way, I'm very Blackfeet - I can't stand being told what to do, by anyone, ever.
The thing about this video is, it was going to get made no matter what, whether I helped or not. I knew there would be controversy, and I knew what the arguments against it would be - they're not unfamiliar at all. But I also knew that if I took the job, I might be able to do my small part to make the representation as authentic as possible. And the person who made this possible was the director, Josh, who I realized right away was one of those rare non-Indians concerned enough with authenticity that he was willing to listen. He talked extensively with the members of the Crazy Dogs Society about what they would be comfortable with regarding representation of ceremony, and whether they were comfortable with it at all. And he was surprisingly open to my few suggestions - I say surprisingly because the last film I worked on in Blackfeet country was a French film, with a much larger budget, and a much larger crew, and some of the people involved in that film were stunningly uninterested in input from any of the Blackfeet involved in the production - which is ironic enough to induce uncontrollable screaming, because here are these people making a film about a Blackfeet man in a Blackfeet community, and some of the crew could have cared less about that fact. There was a lot of them telling us what we were like, which is always tons of fun. So I believe Josh deserves a great deal of credit for being open to making something that mirrors reality to some degree, while simultaneously attempting to meet the demands of the narrative he imagined when he got going on the project. You have to imagine, after a lifetime of being told who I am to my face by non-Indians who have no clue whatsoever who I am or what’s going on inside of me, it was a relief and a privilege to work with him. Not to mention one of the producers, Jake Bowers, is a Romany Gypsy, an extremely marginalized culture in Europe, and is also a well-known and respected activist over there – and by that I mean someone who gets out there and does things, not someone who sits around filing numerous complaints on Twitter or Facebook. My conversations with him made me realize how lucky we are to have a place we can call home. The parallels between the condition of the Gypsies in Europe and American Indians in the US are striking, and gave me a lot to think about, exposed me to my own ignorance. But also, these parallels allowed Jake to inherently understand certain essential elements of the situation in Indian Country, and that kind of understanding necessarily feeds into the final product.
5. What do you think about the fictional representation of the sundance in the video?
I don't have a problem with it. Again, I knew some people would have a problem with, and I knew others wouldn't. Of course, many of the people who don't like it will make it sound like they represent the vast majority, which I've found over a lifetime in Indian Country is simply not the case. One of the reasons I know this is not the case is you can't get Indians to agree on anything for more than about 3 seconds. But also, and this is really important, the sundance, along with the sweat lodge, are mock ceremonies. There's nothing real about it. And anyone who has seen an actual sundance will tell you, they don't look like that. I could go into great detail as to why this is the case, but I won't. If somehow these had been real ceremonies - in the case of the sundance this would have been impossible, sundance season was over months ago - then I wouldn't have worked on the project. I think it's really important to make intelligent distinctions between a project like this and, say, what Aaron Huey did in photographing actual ceremonies, regardless of whether or not he had permission to do so. These situations are fundamentally different, and to simply see them as identical is a case of generalizing to a fault for the purposes of making a political point. And, as I already said, the mock ceremonies were set up exactly to the specifications of the Crazy Dogs involved, the men who led those mock ceremonies. And they believed this was a good thing to do, to show the potential power of ceremony for healing troubled people. And I agree with them. It’s also important to say, since we’re trying to address a number of different perspectives here, that for the members of the Crazy Dogs themselves, this video is about more than mere show – it’s about drawing attention to and contributing to their work with people in the Blackfeet community who have substance abuse issues. They want to use this video as a way to make inroads for the rehabilitation work they do in our community. In fact, my understanding is they are going to be doing a presentation at the high school about the work they do, and they want to use the video to get that conversation started. So for people who say this video isn’t directly benefitting the community, that’s an erroneous accusation. Not to mention the money that was paid to the Crazy Dog Society for their work in the video is being used to buy Christmas presents for kids in families that don’t have the money to do it themselves.
As for whether or not outsiders will be able to make this distinction between actual ceremony and mock ceremony, most will not be able to – is that a valid reason not to make the video? I don’t think so. It’s worth noting that the same people who are making this criticism are also criticizing the film crew itself for not being Native American. The thing these people don’t know about the film crew is they’re from Wales, not England – and Wales is a colonized space. I had some profound discussions with the cameramen about language loss and language revitalization, and just how devastating losing language can be to a colonized community. Simply because the guys working on the shoot weren’t native doesn’t mean they had no understanding of the situation. I’m not one of those people who think the only way to tell our stories on film or video is to tell them using an entirely native cast and crew – that to me is an overly simplistic perspective that denies the reality of the world, and that reality is this: We have to work together to make anything good happen. My dad, who is a successful businessman on the reservation, has said to me many times regarding the issue of poverty in our community that the only way out of this is with outside money and influence (not to mention a stable tribal government, but that is another story entirely) – and the truth is, the majority of that money and influence is in non-native hands. I don’t like it, but that’s how it is. To place this comment about collaboration against another, more specifically political background, let’s consider American Indian sovereignty for a moment. One of the first things you will learn if you start educating yourself in native sovereignty is that what sovereignty we have is what sovereignty we’ve been allowed – the federal governments in both the US and Canada are the ultimate arbiters of this issue. Talking specifically about American Indian sovereignty, what we do have is almost entirely dependent on the whims of the US Congress, the branch of the government that was handed plenary power through a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 19th and 20th centuries. In other words, if we don’t find ways down here in the US to work with Congressmen & women, 99.9% of whom are non-Indian, to get better representation, then we might as well stop talking about sovereignty altogether. The current situation in Canada sheds some light on this issue – consider for a moment what the Harper administration has been doing for the last year to our relatives in the north. The current policies and behaviors in relation to First Nations peoples are basically a combination of 19th century US allotment policy and mid-20th century US termination policy, with a few extra treats to mix things up a bit. And all of this without any real input from First Nations people. If we think we’re going to get anywhere without collaborating with non-natives who understand our various agendas and want to help, well I think we’re being politically naïve. To bring this back to the issue at hand, does this mean I think all-native casts and crews are a bad idea? No, absolutely not. But I don’t think that’s the only way it can or should happen for the creation of significant or meaningful art. This world is stunningly complex and large, and either/or stances don’t do a lot for me – and I don’t think they do much for anyone, frankly. Reservation and reserve communities and peoples, not to mention the people who live off-rez (well over 60% at last count), are more complicated than that, and deserve better, more complex responses than the standard 10-second sound bite.
Finally, the idea is out there, also, that this video will bring Europeans in droves to Indian Country looking to participate in ceremonies – thoughts like this are so simplistic I’m not sure what to do with them. First of all, people need money and time to travel, and the truth is most people in the world don’t have enough of either to spend it trying to find a native ceremony to participate in. Second, the assumption that even a few people who watch this video would actually want to participate in these things – show me proof. And not one or two or three people you heard about from your cousin’s wife’s cousin, but proof – evidence that tons of people who watch this want to be part of it. My guess is almost no one, relatively speaking. And the truth is, my guess is just as good as the absolute assertions made by people who are somewhat xenophobically afraid of “the Europeans” – and this because no one has any direct evidence to the contrary (the video just came out a few days ago), no one here has a crystal ball, no one knows exactly what’s coming. Thank god.
6. What do you think audiences will gain from seeing a contemporary representation of reservation life in a mainstream music video.
This to me is a question of which perspective we're talking about here - insider or outsider. For people connected to Indian Country, it will (and already has, judging by the comments online in various social media forums) incite discussion that has the potential to be very valuable, as long as people can remain rational and are willing to talk with an open mind. Which, unfortunately, is often too much to ask when dealing with complex, emotionally charged issues. The sharks came out immediately, of course, and are circling right now searching for blood. The disappointing thing about this to me is that people who are simply looking to point fingers, lay blame, and force their perspectives down our throats without taking the time to think are usually so loud that the people who are willing to have an actual dialogue about this stuff are drowned out in the clamor. And the majority of people, I think, fall into the latter category, much in the same way that there are many conservatives in the US who don't agree with the most extreme iterations of Republican ideology, but who can hear them? That small group of extremists is so loud and overbearing no one else gets a chance to speak, which is exactly how they want it. And of course there are people who don't care at all, which may actually make up the majority of humanity - an awful thought, obviously.
As for the outsider perspective, until talking with Josh and the crew I was unaware Europeans have such a limited vision of American Indians – like, even more limited than most Americans. Because my whole life has basically been in and around Indian Country, I'm more accustomed to dealing with the American version of ignorance regarding the issues that make up the majority of my heart and mind. Which is also to say, it's still baffling to me these issues that take up so much space in me are so alien to almost everyone else. It's always difficult to find out what you care about most is just something you care about, and not something everyone in the world goes to sleep thinking about. The concern with people who are outsiders not understanding the content, again I think this is the concern over control of interpretation, something I’ve already talked about. You can’t make art when your primary concern is how it will be interpreted. The truth is some people will understand, and some won’t, and that’s it. You have to do what you have to do. At the very least this video will say, Here we are. We are here. We are dealing with our own sets of problems, we have our own peculiar beauty, and we are humans just like everyone else on this planet, for better or worse.