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Stateside: Two Movies And A Lecture

Stateside with Rosalea

Two Movies And A Lecture

'The Business of Fancydancing'

"I can't slip you the tomahawk 20 minutes of the day, but I can give you a wonderful life the other 23:40," says Sy to the woman he loves but has just told he is "two-spirited" (gay). They are both students at a university in Seattle, Washington, and he will later become a famous poet. She - at first denying the Indian half of her mixed parentage - will become a teacher and move to the reservation Sy grew up on, living with one of his childhood friends.

It is the funeral of this friend, Mouse, who has died from substance abuse, that is the touchstone of the movie. With wry humour and unflinching, unpitying straightforwardness the script examines what it means to be a success in a world of strangers and considered a failure and a thief at home. In the eyes of the guys back on the rez, Sy has appropriated shared experiences and gotten rich off them. "I'll be a bad-ass whore if I wanna be," Sy says to an interviewer who has suggested much the same to him. But he breaks down later in the interview when he describes the utter disappointment he felt one Christmas when the exciting-looking gift he got was... a dictionary. His mother saw it as his ticket off the reservation.

This is no plodding, angst-ridden diatribe, nor is it a gay movie. It's a film about people with values, community, love, and hopes - both disappointed and fulfilled - and the story is engaging. At times the cinematography and the sound is sublime - as in the kitchen scene with Sy's leather jacket creaking and the crisp bite of his teeth into a strawberry. It's not a movie ABOUT American Indians - it's a movie BY American Indians - and its themes are the eternal stuff of drama. Innit!

'The Fast Runner'

Do you remember that song from the seventies with the line: "Watch out where the huskies go and don't you eat that yellow snow"? It leapt to my mind a couple of times during this movie, which must've been one helluva shoot to work on. I swear the cinema owners collaborated in the experience by having the airconditioning turned to Arctic levels and showing the movie in a shoebox - only eight seats wide - using a video projector that maximised the snow! It's an Inuit movie set in pre-European times, and taking place mostly during winter. In one scene, the people in their bearskin-suits on the flat snow plain looked uncannily like astronauts on the moon.

There is nothing familiar about anything in this movie, except perhaps the sight of igloos and dogs pulling sleds. The usual codes we rely on in movies to signify who is important and rich and who is good or bad are entirely absent, but you quickly learn new ones. The important person has the necklace, poor people with no hunter to care for them have dirty suits, and the bad man beats his dogs. Life was incredibly hard and you'd better not get thrown out of the house or where the hell will you go in that landscape? Even in summer when the snow has melted off the tundra and there are birds eggs' to be had and caribou to be hunted, life is hard and who knows what turn it will take.

'The Last Runner' is three hours long, but it doesn't seem that way - largely because it takes the first hour to adjust to the unfamiliar territory you find yourself in and figure out who is who. Then the story - involving covetousness and murder - begins to reveal itself. The film's title refers to the hero who escapes his would-be murderers by outrunning them, then is later hidden from his pursuer under a pile of seaweed being dried in the summer sun. "At least he won't smell you," says the host as he offers our hero this pungent hiding place.

Despite the touches of humour and warmth, the movie still conveys what a monumental task it is to survive in such a harsh and ungiving landscape. Perhaps because of the difficulties of filming in bright white conditions with no shadows, quite a few scenes in the movie are shot from below, so the actors' faces are against the blue sky, or filmed near sunset so there's a golden hue to the flesh tones. Again, this is a film BY American Indians - in this case, those living in the part of the continent called Canada - not ABOUT them and it is an extraordinary testament to their resilience and to their survival techniques, both then and now.

Native American Graduate Students Lecture Series

Friday evening at UC Berkeley I attended the first in this series of public lectures. The guest was Winona LaDuke, who is best known in mainstream media as Ralph Nader's running mate in the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections. But since the age of 18 - and she is now 43 - she's been involved in issues to do with indigenous peoples, and in 1982 graduated from Harvard with a degree in Native American economic development.

At a reception held at the Boalt School of Law earlier in the evening she lamented the lack of encouragement given in schools to Indian students, and opened her lecture by welcoming the news that this year sees the largest entering Native American graduate group in the university's history with more than 30 new grads plus 31 new undergraduates. The theme of her address was an Anishinabeg phrase that roughly translates as "positive window-shopping for your future". A mother of three, but bringing up seven children, LaDuke is involved with the White Earth Land Recovery Project in Minnesota, which has so far bought back 1500 acres of ancestral land on a willing seller/willing buyer basis.

In the course of the lecture she touched on what motivates activism in her community, and in herself. "Just to be a responsible parent politicises you," she said, "I tell my kids not to steal so I find I have to tell my government not to steal." Ninety percent of her tribe's land is owned by federal, state and county governments. Telling her kids to tidy up their rooms means she has to tell her government not to dump nuclear waste on tribal lands.

Back in a 1996 'Mother Jones' interview Winona LaDuke said "Spirituality is the foundation of all my political work." At the lecture she said that Anishinabekwe prophecies speak of the "people of the seven fires" who will be confronted with two paths - a well-worn, scorched path and another path which is not well-worn, but clean. This seven-fire generation needs to choose the second path, she says, and parlays that into a choice between clean and dirty energy. The Great Plains could produce half of US energy needs with wind power, and 28 tribes have formed a cooperative to make that choice a reality. Musicians like Dave Mathews and Bonnie Raitt already pointedly use green power at their concerts, and LaDuke hopes to see that choice made by other musicians too, as a way of raising public awareness that there is an alternative to going to war for energy.

"Change is inevitable," she says, "it's a question of who controls the change." Later, in response to an audience question about "what's the antidote to apathy?", LaDuke suggests getting people involved in issues that get them mad, involving teenagers, and giving people different levels of engagement. But, she says, she hasn't done any urban organizing, focusing instead on rural problems, especially those of reservation Indians. Problems like the 70 percent increase in youth diabetes and the fact that 50 percent of her community over the age of 40 have that disease. One hundred and seventy-five families are now provided with a traditional food bag each month, and they're trying to re-traditionalise the commodity program through which people get their supplies.

Biopiracy - the patenting and modification of wild rice genes to enable mechanisation of the harvest - is another spur for her activism. But it's not sufficient to talk about what is wrong; "talk about what is right and illustrate it." Winona LaDuke is so busy with doing just that, and with raising those seven children, that she said it's unlikely she'll run for vice president again in 2004. Nonetheless, the loud applause for her comments: "We are a society that has a lunatic for a president... if we do not support terrorism, let's not fund it or supply it... why do my kids go to school in trailers and we can afford missile systems?" indicates that her voice will be sorely missed if she doesn't stand.

Speaking: (a 1998

Lea Barker
Sunday, 8 September 2002

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