Breaking Out of the Lens
- Peter C. Rollins (Editor) and John E. O'Connor (Editor)
Hollywood's Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film. University Press of Kentucky (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Simon Ortiz (Editor)
Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing. University of Arizona Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Deena Rymhs
Beyond the observation that these are both collections of essays written by various stakeholders in the field of Native studies, only a few similarities exist between the two books. Hollywood’s Indian examines the representation of Native Americans in film with attention to how such depictions have reified values of the dominant culture or, alternatively, allowed for the expression of a counter-culture. In the genealogy of films the essays trace, the Indian on the screen has served as a repository of the concerns and interests of modern Western society. While the essays in Hollywood’s Indian focus on the politics of representation—and specifically on instances where Native Americans have been objectified by non-Native filmmakers for the American popular imagination—Speaking for the Generations is concerned with the potential for self-representation offered by the medium of writing. The Native authors who appear in Speaking for the Generations perform an act of self-definition within then individual rcllcctions. Al the same time, they conceive of writing as a collective enterprise, one that ensures cultural continuance and demonstrates commitment to communal values. In the amount of self-situating the writers carry out within this volume, and in its emphasis on Native artists who promulgate their own representations, Speaking for the Generations offers a different type of critical contribution from Hollywood’s Indian.
The two books differ in the subjects they explore as well as in their presentation. Speaking for the Generations consists of interconnected, autobiographical reflections by Native American and Canadian novelists, poets, playwrights, and scholars on the role their writing plays for them and for their cultural communities. Writing provides a link between the past and present: it can honour past traditions at the same time as it secures a place in the modern world. All of the authors in this volume acknowledge the historical consequence of their writing and all draw on various forms to dovetail their personal and collective histories. Esther Belin’s "In the Cycle of the Whirl" turns to poetry, poetic prose, traditional knowledge, "facts," and autobiographical reflection to bring her personal story "homeward" to her forebears. In similar fashion, Gloria Bird’s "Breaking the Silence" and Roberta Hill’s "Immersed in Words" counterpoint personal reflections with collective histories. This amalgam is then brought into dialogue with Western piecings of history.
Many of the self-reflexive essays in Speaking for the Generations also emphasize an organic creative process that links writing to the land—the place of origins for a people. Jeannette Armstrong, in "Land Speaking," draws attention to the way in which her mother language of N’silxchn emulates the natural world—a connection that manifests itself on both a phonetic and phenomenological level. The same vitality many of the authors attribute to their indigenous languages is translated into an energy and movement within the essays. This sense of living, breathing speech contributes to a conversational quality of the text as a whole. As editor Simon Ortiz suggests in his introduction, this work is a collective utterance, a moving and spirited exchange among an assembly of writers who all take to the floor to stand and speak.
In contrast with the experimental, momentous writing in Speaking for the Generations, most of the essays in Hollywood’s Indian exhibit a more detached scholarly approach. The contributors either survey a number of films depicting Native people, or focus on a specific film, filmmaker, or genre. The overviews provided by such critics as Ted Jojola are useful, and the book presents two annotated bibliographies of films that serve as a good resource. While the essays of this volume show good critical stamina, some of the articles tend to overlap in the films they discuss. The articles are stronger individually than as a whole, an observation that calls attention to the lack of design or conception behind the arrangement of the essays. For instance, Hannu Salmi’s illuminating essay on the translation of the American Western in Finnish film is a conspicuous, albeit welcome, departure from the otherwise American-centred criticism. There is some discontinuity among the essays, a structural weakness that becomes apparent next to the natural, easy movement of Speaking for the Generations.
The foreword to Hollywood’s Indian by Wilcomb Washburn of the Smithsonian Institute does little to establish an adequate framework for the discussions which follow—in fact, I would argue that he misrepresents the otherwise complex and ambitious examinations put forth by the contributors. Not unlike the films he indicts, Washburn assumes that his reader adopts a singular position, one that seems to exclude Native people and minority cultures. His repeated reference to "the American Indian," a term that reduces Native people to a concept, a stock image, turns a cursory blind eye to the existence of real American Indians. Can the filmmaker, as Washburn asserts, legitimately continue to represent Native people and concurrently disavow any sense of responsibility? Sadly, Washburn’s preface causes the reader to ask at the very onset of the book, "Where are the Indians in Hollywood’s Indian?."
Fortunately, the subsequent essays in Hollywood’s Indian are more edifying than this unpromising opening might suggest. Pauline Turner Strong builds her critique of Pocahontas and The Indian in the Cupboard around her experiences as a mother who has viewed these films with her children and taken pleasure in the activities and products marketed with the films. Turner Strong’s self-situated analysis, though somewhat overdone, generates a number of worthwhile issues. Her overall conclusions about Disney’s commodification of a real-life Native figure and Columbia/Paramount’s distorting simplification of Lynne Reid Bank’s children’s novel are intelligent and critically engaging. In a similarly innovative vein, James Sandos and Larry E. Burgesss call upon Chemehuevi oral telling in their discussion of Polansky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. The spoken accounts provide background information about the real Willie Boy who became a sort of renegade by defying tribal taboo and running off with his cousin.
Despite their apparent differences, the books intersect in some important ways. Many of the archetypes, themes, and generic conventions identified in mainstream films originate in literary works, and both books grant importance to the re-visiting of history. Hollywood’s Indian looks at the history of film as well as at the histories depicted in film. Yet the question remains: "What is the responsibility of the filmmaker?" The writers in Speaking for the Generations unquestionably agree that it is a serious responsibility to write, to leave a legacy that speaks to the generations past, present, and future. On this very central issue, however, the critics in Hollywood’s Indian cannot concur.
- A Fur Trade Narrative by Alan D. McMillan
Books reviewed: A Voyage to the North West Side of America: The Journals of James Colnett, 1786-89 by Robert M. Galois
- Telling Lives by Joel Baetz
Books reviewed: Threads of Life: Autobiography and the Will by Richard Freadman and Living Narrative: Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling by Lisa Capps and Elinor Ochs
- Taboo Intimacies by Maya Simpson
Books reviewed: Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America by Renee C. Romano and Interracial Intimacy: the Regulation of Race and Romance by Rachel F. Moran
- Lyrical Arguments by Jamie Dopp
Books reviewed: Thinking and Singing by Tim Lilburn
- Taming the West by Albert Braz
Books reviewed: The Trade by Fred Stenson and The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920 by Andrew C. Isenberg
MLA: Rymhs, Deena. Breaking Out of the Lens. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 13 Aug. 2012. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #167 (Winter 2000), First Nations Writing. (pg. 139 - 141)
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