Fact or fiction? (Genre) border crossing in American Indian film.
Article Type:
Native Americans (Portrayals)
Native Americans (History)
Native Americans (Social aspects)
Filmmakers (Criticism and interpretation)
Schweninger, Lee
Pub Date:
Name: Post Script Publisher: Post Script, Inc. Audience: General; Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Business, international Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Post Script, Inc. ISSN: 0277-9897
Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 29 Source Issue: 3
NamedWork: Imagining Indians (Motion picture); Skins (Motion picture); Tkaronto (Motion picture); Wounded Knee (Motion picture) Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Named Person: Masayesva, Victor, Jr.; Belcourt, Shane; Nelson, Stanley (American documentary filmmaker); Eyre, Chris
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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In several feature-length American Indian films the filmmakers can be said to blend genres and thereby effect the embedding into their films certain lessons about American Indian history and culture. This border crossing or blending of genres can be seen to serve as a means for the filmmaker to educate (primarily non-Native) viewers. The border crossing occurs in both narrative fiction films and in documentaries; that is, just as the fiction films assume, to a certain extent, the role of documentaries in their efforts to "educate" the viewer into the specific Indian culture or history needed to appreciate the everyday or the contemporary complexities depicted in the film, so too documentaries can be seen to embed particular "lessons" which are not necessarily immediately a part of the main narrative of the documentary, or--in the case of Victor Masayesva, Jr.'s Imagining Indians, for example--which actually take on characteristics of fiction film. In a cinematic environment in which the vast majority of films concerning American Indians are either Westerns set in the nineteenth century or are documentaries about pre-twentieth-century American Indian peoples and cultures, these recent films offer refreshing and much needed antidotes.

In this essay I look at several films to suggest how the embedding of such history lessons is at work. The selection of films is limited by space not by available source material, but I have chosen a range of films, including both U.S. and Canadian productions, as well as both documentary and narrative fiction films: Victor Masayesva, Jr's Imagining Indians (1992), Chris Eyre's Skins (2002), Shane Belcourt's Tkaronto (2007), and Stanley Nelson's Wounded Knee (2009), an installment in the PBS documentary series "We Shall Remain." These films are not necessarily intended to be representative but are meant to suggest an array of genres and types that speak to the issue of genre border crossing. What the films have in common, one discovers, is that each embeds cultural and historical information as a means to educate the viewer and thereby destabilizes any notion of fixed genre. Feature-length American Indian film is, after all, with a few exceptions, a relatively new form. Although Masayesva's documentary Imagining Indians came out in 1992, and Phil Lucas wrote and co-produced Images of Indians for PBS as early as 1979-1981, many see 1998 with the debut of Smoke Signals as marking the beginning of truly American Indian film, a film for which director, writer, and actors are of Native American descent. After decade upon decade of Hollywood's distortions and misrepresentations, it is only natural that the writers, directors, and/or actors in these American Indian films would take it upon themselves to offer explicit correctives while they at the same time tell, insist upon telling, their own, contemporary stories. Steven Leuthold points out that "as late as the 1970s, American Indians were consistently portrayed as savages in popular culture," and that the "growth of indigenous media illustrates how conventional portrayals of the cultural 'other' can be challenged through the presentation of alternative portraits.... Native Americans are currently engaged in this process of re-representation through native-produced film and video documentary" (154-156). According to Kirsten Knopf in her study Decolonizing the Lens of Power, these indigenous films "cannot undo constructed cliches, but they can offer autonomous images that subvert ... colonialist presentations" (358). And part of that effort to subvert, I argue, consists of re-educating the viewer.

In a discussion of Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjua: The Fast Runner, Jennifer Gauthier refers to Mikhail Bahktin to introduce her argument concerning the ways two films challenge rigid boundary definitions between documentary and fiction film, writing of "the discourse that sets up an opposition between documentary and fiction film" (109). She maintains that The Fast Runner (as well as Pierre Perrault's Pour la Suite de Monde, 1963) calls attention to "the artificial boundary that separates documentary from fiction film" (109). Although Bahktin writes about discourse in the novel, not in film, his ideas concerning heteroglossia in the novel can be extended to film and can help us understand an analogous dialogism. In his discussion of different dialects, for example, he writes that "Distinctions between genres frequently coincide with dialectological distinctions...[Dialects as used in novels, he writes,] are deformed and in fact cease to be that which they had been" (294). On the one hand Bahktin denies the possibility of a closed system (since all boundaries are artificial), but on the other hand, he does distinguish between different genres of the novel, maintaining that they have unique or particular characteristics. Within a given novel, however, the author can incorporate any number of other genres (poetry, sermon, and/or historical anecdote, for example). Thus, according to Bahktin,

In this sense, then, one can argue that the incorporation of elements of fiction film into a documentary or documentary elements into a fiction film also "express simultaneously two different intentions." The difference, of course, is that the filmmaker has intentionally fused or confused the two genres. They speak to each other. Because of the multi-faceted baggage associated with over one hundred years of Hollywood's and anthropologists' depictions of American Indians, however, any filmic representation of Indians necessarily and immediately constitutes a heteroglot. Context is everything. Every image has the previous one hundred years' images of noble or ignoble savage to contend with, and the American Indian filmmaker must therefore re-educate the viewer. As Vine Deloria, Jr. posited decades ago in the opening paragraphs of Custer Died for Your Sins (1969), concerning the prevalence of stereotypes of American Indians, "People can tell just by looking at us what we want, what should be done to help us, how we feel, and what a 'real' Indian is really like. Indian life, as it relates to the real world, is a continuous attempt not to disappoint people who know us" (1). The filmmaker's task is thus to re-educate that viewer who already knows Indians and at the same time wants not to be disappointed.

Imagining Indians (1992), directed by Victor Masayesva, Jr. (Hopi), is an interesting place to begin an analysis of border crossing or of heteroglossia in American Indian film because it is primarily, generically a documentary whose subject is in large measure Native Americans in film itself. Between several brief fiction scenes set in a dentist's office, the film is very much a straight-forward documentary. As documentary, the film demonstrates how the dominant culture imagines American Indians, especially as extras in Westerns, and it moves gracefully between interviews with men and women who have worked as extras in Westerns and specific clips from several of the films themselves. The basic information of the film's documentation concerns a "real world" outside the film itself, and its audience inherently accepts this dichotomy between "real world" and filmic world. Documentaries present much of their information rhetorically via interviews with "authorities," eyewitnesses, or persons directly involved in the subject, as opposed to actors playing roles. In the case of Masayesva's film, much of the interviewees' authority comes from the actors' having worked as extras. Documentary typically also offers recording of events as they actually occur or the use of archival material. Similarly; in Imagining Indians, Masayesva employs clips from actual films as archival material, and he incorporates interviews with non-Indian tourists buying Indian art.

Jacquelyn Kilpatrick offers a detailed plot summary of Imagining Indians, and Fatimah Tobing Rony implies, but does not make explicit, the connection between fiction and documentary styles, arguing that the film "addresses the absurdity and indignity of dominant culture's appetite for images of Native Americans" (27). Joanna Hearne mentions the thematic connection between the fiction and documentary aspects of the film, arguing that Masayesva's project counters "the psychological muting/mutilation caused by popular images of Indians" (200). But these responses are not concerned with Masayesva's innovative genre border crossing. At the same time, the film is a documental, it also immediately challenges the genre by incorporating a fiction narrative, and in light of this fiction element, it is possible to "read" this "documentary" as a fiction film, to read it, that is, as a fictional story about a young American Indian woman's visit to a non-Indian dentist. The actor Patty Runs After Swallow plays a patient who--in the course of her visit--"relives" or experiences many of the ways Indians have been imagined both on screen and at the marketplace.

In this sense, the embedded fictional dentist-office plot marks a reversal of the typical Western in which the Indian Maiden is attacked by the white man. The Indian woman is not literally tied to the dentist's chair, but she is, in a sense, tortured by the white, male dentist as he pulls a tooth. The dentist assaults the female patient with his drill and pliers, but, even more invidiously perhaps, he debases and demeans her by his ignorance and concomitant arrogance. Ultimately, the patient rebels, first by attacking the dentist himself with his own dentistry tools and then by scratching out (whiting out) the camera lens that represents her. Ironically, one could argue, she destroys the very camera that records her actions and makes any of the story possible. Masayesva's narrative refutes the typical Western narrative, in which, as Elise Marubbio points out in another context, "the Celluloid Maiden always dies" (19). The film also complicates the notion of strict genre distinctions.

Offering a fine close reading of the final scene in which the patient turns against the camera, Karen Jacobs maintains that the scene "expresses so economically an exemplary representational conflict." By scripting the patient's confrontation of the camera, the filmmaker "suggests that the inscription of any particular native point of view dialectically weds destruction with liberation in terms that resist translation into Western perceptual models" (297, 300, emphasis in original). In this sense, Masayesva can be said to use the fictional component of his documentary as a rhetorical ploy to drive home the point about the destructive nature of the way American Indians have been imagined (misrepresented) in film and how their artwork has been co-opted on the marketplace. The genre border crossing in the film thus provides the viewer with a factual, specific context as well as the more universally applicable context provided by the fictional nature of the interpolated story.

In Imagining Indians, the contrast between the documentary sections and the fictional sections is sharp: actors play the parts of dental patient and dentist however real or unreal the depiction of the experience in the dental chair may be--whereas the actual informants offer information about their putatively real experiences in films depicting American Indians. One of the fascinating characteristics of Masayesva's interpolation of the two genres is that the patient takes over not only within the confines of the dental office (she ultimately successfully attacks the dentist) but she also attacks and whites out the camera lens, adding a meta-filmic dimension to the whole. She survives the ordeal in the dentist's office, and she rebels. Her rebellion, in part, consists of obliterating not only the immediate image but also the possibility of making further images. In this sense the two generic elements of the film interact, are interrelated. They speak to and inform each other.


In contrast to Imagining Indians, Stanley Nelson's Wounded Knee (2009)--part five in the five-part PBS "We Shall Remain" series--does not include a fictional element. Nelson makes full use of the conventional documentary devices: he incorporates actual existing news footage and includes interviews with participants in the 1973 takeover of the Pine Ridge community. Although it is straight documentary, the film also seems to accept as part of its task recalling American Indian history lessons which lie outside or beyond the immediate issue at hand. For the education of the viewer and in addition to a thorough report on the 1973 takeover, the documentary includes narrative and visual accounts of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, of Boarding School experiences of American Indians, of the litany of U.S. betrayals and broken treaties, and of a presentation of the government's urban relocation efforts of the 1950s and 1960s. These glimpses into past U.S.--American Indian relations are only tangentially linked to the main subject, the 1973 takeover, and they thus offer two voices which are dialogically interrelated. They speak to each other, as it were, yet they simultaneously offer different intentions. They offer the filmmaker the space to educate the viewer outside the immediate issue of the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee, and at the same time do not necessarily support the main argument of the documentary as a whole. As the following examples from the film suggest, this apparent contradiction is especially apparent in the context of what constitutes Native American armed resistance to the United States.

Using the context of the decision to occupy this particular community, the documentary departs from the 1973 scene at Wounded Knee to provide the viewer with a history lesson concerning the 1890 massacre at the same site. Nelson leads into this history lesson on the Wounded Knee massacre with a comment from an interviewee: "Americans like to think that American Indian history is something in the past. I'm one generation removed from the genocide of my tribe. And every tribe in this country has a time of horror, I mean a time of absolute horror when they were confronted by this invader. And for some it happened almost 500 years ago. But as they came across the Plains, our time of horror came in the late 1800s. And we remember it very well." Charlotte Black Elk (Oglala Lakota) describes the experience of her great-grandmother (Katie War Bonnet) and her great aunt who survived the attack. They were two of the few survivors, for, as the narrator tells the viewer, U.S. soldiers killed more than 300 Indians that day. Charlotte Black Elk's narrative is accompanied by depictions of stills from the aftermath of the slaughter. In closing the sequence, the narrator notes that this particular massacre marked "the end of centuries of armed Indian resistance."

Nelson includes this statement about the end of armed resistance without qualification, even though the documentary proper is very much about an armed resistance in 1973. Insofar as this particular embedded sequence ignores the fact of an armed 1973 Wounded Knee takeover, it is a separate history altogether rather than an integral part of the larger documentary narrative. Interestingly, Nelson departs from the main narrative again in the context of Indians coming from around the nation to participate in the 1973 occupation, and again he includes and essentially overlooks a comment about armed resistance ending in the nineteenth century.

In this second instance Nelson interjects a brief history of American Indian boarding schools, schools in which over 100,000 Indians were housed between 1870 and the 1960s. In this approximately five-minute sequence, Nelson cuts between actual footage of old film, shots of sepia stills, interviewees' comments, and visuals of animated crayon drawings of Indian children being separated from their families, riding in school busses, and getting their hair cut, for example. The sequence begins with and is framed by non-diagetic music: a recording of Indian children singing "Ten Little Indians." As the song begins, the film fades from a glimpse of what seems to be an intertribal to a black and white still of Indian children, dressed in their school uniforms, lined up in front of the school house. This shot fades to a ledger book cover which opens to show an animated school bus moving across the ledger-sheet page. Along with the shots of the drawings thus reminiscent of ledger books, commentators--such as Nowa Cumig (Dennis Banks) (Anishinabe), Walter Little Moon (Oglala Lakota), and others--give accounts of their boarding school experiences.

Nelson's link between the boarding school sequence and the main Wounded Knee occupation narrative is only tangential. Speaking in the context of the 1970s generation of Indians, those occupying Wounded Knee, interviewee Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) relates that "for the most part, they'd been to boarding school or their parents had been to boarding school, which was explicitly about getting the Indians off the reservations, to not be Indian, to not speak their language." Despite the verbal link, however, a voice over introducing the topic of boarding schools actually disregards what has come before to say that "by the late nineteenth century, the Indian wars were over." Once the "Indian wars" were over, forced removal for schooling began. This voice over comment, like the previous one concerning Wounded Knee's marking the end of armed conflict, again essentially ignores the main narrative. Earlier in the documentary, for instance, an archival clip shows an unidentified man being interviewed in the context of the demand for an appearance by the then-Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Evidently unaware that armed conflict ended in the previous century, the interviewee says "We've been fighting this war for 400 years."

The point to be made in the context of the apparent contradictions between the main narrative and the embedded sequences is that the former insists that a war or armed resistance between American Indians and white America or the United States' government continues through 1973, while the latter, made manifest in two different interpolated or embedded sequences, disregards that narrative. In so doing, it offers its own historical, "educational" account. In this sense, then, Nelson steps outside the strict documentary in order to include educational segments and challenge the very thesis and can thus be seen as dialogically interrelated. They are distinct enough to be expressing two different intentions, yet ultimately constitute a dialogue.

This 2009 PBS documentary is typical of documentaries in that its fundamental purpose is to present factual information about a history that exists outside the film itself: thus, "educational" sequences are perfectly appropriate and expected whether the film is primarily documentary or documentary mixed with narrative or whether or not certain embedded sequences stand apart from the main narrative. In the context of blending of genres, however, one could look at another of the installments in the same "We Shall Remain" series, The Trail of Tears (2009) directed by Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapahoe). Here the director offers a dramatization of the events surrounding the Cherokee Removal of the 1830s, interspersing the "story" with factual background information from interviewees, anthropologist Russell G. Townsend (Cherokee) among many others, and providing voice overs and cuts to shots of maps, for example. The final effect is educational, of course, but at the same time the primary historical Cherokee players of the removal are enacted or represented by actors. As a result, the viewer enjoys acting performances by Wes Studi (Cherokee) who plays John Ridge, Wesley French (Anishinabek) who plays young Ridge, Carla-Rae Holland (Seneca/ Mohawk) who plays Suzanna Ridge, as well as Benjamin Bratt (Qechua) who narrates. Although such staging of events and representation of historical personages is a perfectly acceptable and typical form of presenting documentary, the actual product inevitably involves crossing lines of genre distinction. Nineteenth-century Cherokee planter Major John Rollin Ridge and Wes Studi will forever be linked, if not inseparable, in the viewer's imagination, for example, and the realm of fiction and that of documentary combined, questioned, and challenged.

Given the relatively recent proliferation of American Indian films, such retelling of history from a Native point of view is not limited to documentaries. In several narrative fiction films, it seems, the filmmakers also take it upon themselves to interject into their stories sequences of a similar ilk in an effort to review and retell American Indian history or contemporary Indian politics and thereby to educate the primarily non-Native viewer. In so doing, it can be argued, they step outside the strict limitations of specific fiction-film parameters.


Though a fiction film, Tkaronto (Breath Films, 2007) opens as if it were a documentary. That is, the opening sequence recalls the genre of documentary in that it depicts an interview very typical of documentaries in general. In an extreme close up, the elder Max (Loren Cardinal, Cree) talks to a young woman, Jolene (Melanie McLaren, Ojibwa), about identity. With cuts between Max and the interviewer, director Shane Belcourt (Metis) makes stunning use of the documentary style. The interview in the opening scene is so much in the style of a documentary, in fact, that the viewer cannot know that the film is not indeed a documentary. The effect, of course, is the suggestion on some level that the film offers an "education" to a reality of Indian life and ideas about identity that exist in the world outside the film.

Tkaronto is very much a film about identity. Its opening lines, spoken by Max, are these: "Who are you and I? Are we what people see? What do they see when they see us?" Presentations of identity issues and issues of representation have been very prevalent in American Indian film and literature of the past two decades. As Beverly Singer maintains in introducing her book about Native American film, "One of the most important issues facing American Indians concerns the question of identity," and in this context, she writes that "What really matters to us is that we be able to tell our own stories in whatever form we choose" (1-2). Indeed, issues of identity are very much at the center of Belcourt's film. In addition to recalling the documentary, then, such an opening scene sets the stage for a major component of the film, that of the two main characters--Jolene and Ray (Duane Murray, Chippewa), as they both rely on Max to help them understand who they are and what it means to be "Indian," or in this case First Nations and Metis respectively. They turn to him with their concerns: Jolene is concerned about how and what it means for an Ojibwa person to pray, and Ray is concerned about what it means to be Metis and to be a father of a Metis child. As the characters are educated so too is the viewer.

After the opening interview, Max presents Jolene with an eagle feather as a way to thank and honor her for the work she is doing, the work that is, as he says, helping to heal "all our people." Jolene's project, the viewer soon learns, is to interview and then paint portraits of several elders. She listens to the taped interviews as inspiration while she draws from photographs she has taken during the interview process. With the presentation of the feather comes a lesson detailing its significance. Belcourt uses this moment to inform the viewer of the importance of the feather from Max's perspective, and the passage thus merits citing at length:

This embedded "lesson" is in a way germane to the plot, but it is nonetheless a moment for the film to instruct the viewer in the proper way to understand and appreciate the meaning of an eagle feather. The documentary genre is evoked through the embedded scenes of Max's interview and tutorial, and there is a similar documentary-tutorial moment later in the film when Jolene again goes to Max to ask about how to pray with that eagle feather. In a sequence in which Belcourt cuts between Jolene with the feather in a grassy meadow and scenes at Max's house with extreme close ups of both Max and Jolene, she confesses that she does not know how to pray: "I feel like I should know how to do this. You know, I'm Anishanaabe. My parents are First Nations. My ancestors were First Nations. Isn't this something that all aboriginal people should know how to do?"

In response, Max instructs Jolene (and thereby the viewer) in what it means to pray. He responds to Jolene's very detailed explanation of her ignorance about smudging, holding an eagle feather, or praying. Belcourt once again uses the opportunity to instruct the viewer as well as Jolene. Max begins his lesson with a story, a parable, so to speak and his response is again worth quoting at length as a demonstration of how much the film focuses on this instructional moment:

The detail and length of Max's response suggests its importance. In film time alone, it holds a relatively important place. Max offers his parable, then gives a nod to the significance and role of "Mother Nature" in his life as well as in the life of the Anishinaabes, and finally he comes back to Jolene's specific question about how to pray.

As Jolene takes lessons, as it were, and learns how to pray, the character Ray worries about what it means to be Metis, the child of a Metis man. Ray worries about fatherhood in general, and especially about how he will explain to his yet-unborn child that even though he has a white mother and a white grandmother, he is nevertheless Metis. Like Jolene, Ray turns to Max for advice. And Max is again in the position to offer a lesson concerning identity:

Max's wisdom plays out when the two agents Ray is working with present to their boss their ideas for a television program based on what Ray has written. They suggest that the lead need not be played by an aboriginal, for example, and in the course of the presentation, Gail, the boss, and the others combine to contribute this: "It would be really great to have some fun with Indians again. It's all gotten so serious.... The whole residential school situation, for example.... Or the various whales. Or the booze. Or the being raped by the white man of history. Been there, done that." Ray is disgusted by them, and he says he cannot do this. He gets angry and confronts and challenges them: "You know who should play the aboriginal in an aboriginal story?" he asks. "How about a goddamned aboriginal? How does that float you, huh?" As he is leaving the room in disgust, he pauses at the door to add this:

Ray's act of quitting the project, his rebellion as it were, suggests that he has indeed imbibed from Max the lesson that blood relations cannot be measured, and the act also indicates his refusal to let non-Natives represent him or the Metis characters in his script. The business end of his trip fails at this moment, but that failure marks Ray's personal triumph, much like the triumph of the dental patient at the end of Masayesva's film. Both refuse to be represented in prescribed ways.

Clearly not a documentary, Tkaronto nevertheless imparts important "real world" information about some of the identity issues that are very real for the people at the center of the film and for viewers as well. The film espouses a documentary style and interrupts the plot any number of times in order to relay information applicable in the world outside the film itself. The very length of the embedded scenes insists on their importance, and the film's designation of Max as source of knowledge, established in the opening scene, lends credence to his authority throughout the film.


Even more so than Tkaronto, Chris Eyre's Skins (First Look Media, 2002) opens as if it were a straight documentary, complete with audio-voice overs and fly-over shots of the Badlands and of Pine Ridge. After the introductory sequence, the film turns abruptly to narrative fiction in this adaptation of Piaute writer Adrian C. Louis's 1995 novel by the same title. Here the "history" lesson is on contemporary Pine Ridge. Skins, the film acknowledges as immediately as in the opening credits, is a narrative fiction film based on a novel, but despite this premise and acknowledgement, it actually opens with a forceful evocation of the documentary genre.

That opening includes no fewer than three documentary-style voice overs and several fly-over shots, typical of documentaries. As in Tkaronto and as in straight documentary, the depiction suggests a "real" world outside the film. First the viewer hears the actual voice of President Clinton, recorded from an actual 1999 visit to Pine Ridge:

Immediately following the voice over of Clinton's speech, an aerial shot of the Mount Rushmore memorial depicts the four presidents' heads carved into the mountain. At the same instant the shot depicts the national landmark it, of course, also depicts and implies the desecration of Lakota sacred ground. This shot is followed by an aerial view of the Badlands north and west of the community of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and shots of the Pine Ridge community itself follow. (In Wounded Knee, Nelson uses the identical technique of fly-over views of the badlands in some of his establishing shots.) Further evocation of the documentary emerges as a male voice over explains exactly what the viewer is seeing: "In the shadow of Mount Rushmore lies the poorest of all counties in the U.S., the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation." Following this information, a female voice over explains in detail that 40% of Pine Ridge residents live in substandard housing; that there is 75% unemployment on the reservation; that the rate of deaths from alcoholism is nine times the national average; and that life expectancy is fifteen years shorter for people on Pine Ridge than for people across the nation at large.

Indeed, as the viewer is about to witness, the middle-aged character Mogie (Graham Greene, Oneida) lives in "sub-standard" housing, he is unemployed, and he dies as a result of his alcoholism. In this sense, the specific "educational" or documentary segment is closely tied to important aspects of the film's plot and thematic concerns. To emphasize the "reality" of the issue outside the world of the film itself, the narrative includes a television news interview in situ concerning Indian drinking and alcoholism on Pine Ridge. The reporter is especially concerned with the border-town liquor stores in White Clay, literally only two miles from the center of the community of Pine Ridge. The reporter interviews Mogie while his brother Rudy watches that interview on television, and this "fictive" television news interview scene is presented as if a real interview, a ploy which recalls the documentary style of the opening sequence.

Rudy (Eric Schweig, Inuvialuit) sees the television newscast about his brother on television and springs into action. He reasons thus: his brother is an alcoholic; a liquor store in White Clay sells alcohol; one must destroy the liquor store. So under the cover of night, Rudy, the tribal policeman by day, commits his second destructive act as a vigilante: he sets fire to the store. All the while, he blames Iktomi for the fact that he has become a vigilante, and he tries to free himself of the spell that Iktomi has cast. To do this, he turns to traditional medicine and the young "medicine man" Ed Little Bald Eagle (Myrton Running Wolf, Blackfeet). Chris Eyre uses Ed's effort to clarify the workings of Iktomi to Rudy as an opportunity to educate the viewer:

ED: Skins have forgotten the forces that live around them.

RUDY: I think Iktomi's playing with me.

ED: Most people think of Iktomi as coming in the form of a spider. He could just as easily be a rock. And maybe he entered your brains when your head hit that rock.... Remember, human beings don't control anything. Spirits do.

The film suggests that spirit power controls Rudy's actions as he destroys the knees of two young Indian men: punishment for their having sodomized and murdered a fellow member of the tribe. And the film also suggest that spirit power forces or inspires Rudy to set fire to a liquor store, thereby causing him accidentally to burn Mogie almost to death. After Mogie dies (of liver failure, not as a result of the burning), Rudy carries out yet another trickster act, a watered-down version of his brother's last wish to deface the Mount Rushmore National Monument. Rudy's culminating act is to splash some red paint on Washington's nose. Although some might read Rudy's final act as triumphant, the film ends almost as darkly as it opens, and Rudy's act is ultimately futile: Mogie is dead, his son is leaving the reservation, and Rudy's triumphant final act is mere vandalism.

The effect of fusing fiction film with a documentary-style opening and the subsequent interview within the fiction of the film is nevertheless in large measure to educate the reader. In a sense the documentary style also serves to "authenticate" the narrative to follow. This is real, the film insists; it exists in the world outside the film: Mogie and his drunkenness are real, and by extension, given such a documentary-style context, "Iktomi" the trickster spider, which plays such an important role in the film, is real as well. The viewer needs to be educated that such is the case. One might ask how do the "facts" in the documentary-style opening sequence affect the viewer's perception and understanding of the "fiction" in the narrative fiction that follows? And one might respond that the documentary-style opening situates the viewer in a special relation to the narrative about the power of Iktomi in the life of a tribal policeman.

The dialogue between the fiction film and the documentary (real world outside the film) can be seen to suggest that Rudy's inability to incorporate Iktomi into his life results in the demise, or even furthers the demise, of his own community: a community so grimly described in the film's documentary-style opening sequence and depicted throughout the film. Unlike a non-Indian film like Thunderheart (Tristar Pictures, 1992) which corrupts the historical record as it turns from the promise of history to a romantic tale of a lost Lakota son who finds his true home, Skins insists on the very "real" nature of a spiritual life and the very real power of Iktomi. With its blending of documentary and narrative film forms, it insists that one must come to terms with the traditional Iktomi in order for the culture and the people to survive. If one lacks the ability to incorporate and control the traditional in the contemporary world of border-town liquor stores, into the day to day on the reservation, the result is alcoholism, alienation, and death.

Some of the "educational" texts might be a bit more subtly embedded in Skins than in (say) Tkaronto, but the import of such texts is similar. A primarily non-Native or unschooled viewer needs to hear and know the history and the politics from an indigenous person's perspective in order to understand and appreciate the film itself. The borrowing of or allusion to the genre of the documentary and the genre border crossing are important elements in offering that education; they prime the viewer for the "truth" or the "reality" outside the film. The depiction of life at Pine Ridge in Skins might be grim, but couched as it is in documental, it must be taken as valid. And closely associated with the "real" life on the reservation as depicted is the equally real, in its context, existence and power of Iktomi. If the film does indeed work on this level, it owes its success to a blending of genres.

By way of conclusion, I want refer to and extend an idea Jace Weaver presents in his study, That the People Might Live (1997). He quotes James Ruppert in the context of how "'texts aspire to change readers. The more complete the fusion between implied reader and the real reader, the more complete the change.'" Weaver then adds: "Native writers ... write to and for Native peoples. They take cultural endurance as a priority and provide an 'abiding sense of remembrance.' They write that the people might live" (Weaver 160 [Ruppert 11]). By extension, one can certainly argue that Native American films as texts bridge a gap between fiction and reality and reach toward both implied viewers and "real" viewers. Through their fusion or blending of fact and fiction they challenge stereotypes, they attempt to set the record straight, they educate, and thus they have the power to transform the viewer.

Works Cited

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Dir. Zacharias Kunuk. Igloolik Isuma Productions, 2001.

Bahktin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Gauthier, Jennifer L. "Speaking Back with Similar Voices: The Dialogic Cinema of Zacharias Kunuck and Pierre Perrault." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 27.2 (March 2010): 108-120.

Hearne, Joanna. "John Wayne's Teeth: Speech, Sound, and Representation in Smoke Signals and Imagining Indians." Western Folklore 64.3&4 (Summer and Fall 2005): 189-208.

Images of Indians. Dir. Phil Lucas. PBS, 1980.

Imagining Indians. Dir. Victor Masayesva, Jr. IS Productions, 1992.

Jacobs, Karen. "Optic/Haptic/Abject: Revisioning Indigenous Media in Victor Masayesva, Jr. and Leslie Marmon Silko." Journal of Visual Culture 3.3 (2004): 291-316.

Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native American and Film. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999.

Knopf, Kerstin. Decolonizing the Lens of Power: Indigenous Films in North America. Amsterdam--New York: Rodopi, 2008.

Leuthold, Steven M. "Native American Responses to the Western." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 19.1 (1995): 153-89.

Marubbio, M. Elise. Killing the Indian Maiden: Images of Native American Women in Film. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 2006.

Rony, Fatimah Tobing. "Victor Masayesva, Jr., and the Politics of Imagining Indians." Film Quarterly 48.2 (1994-95): 20-33.

Ruppert, James. Mediation in Contemporary Native American Fiction. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1995.

Singer, Beverly R. Wiping the War Paint off the Lens: Native American Film and Video. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001.

Skins. Dir. Chris Eyre. First Look Media, 2002.

Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Written by Sherman Alexie. Miramax, 1998.

Thunderheart. Dir. Michael Apted. TriStar, 1992.

Tkaronto. Dir. Shane Belcourt. First Nations, 2007.

Trail of Tears. Dir. Chris Eyre. Installment three in series "We Shall Remain." PBS, 2009.

Weaver, Jace. That the People Might Live: Native American Literatures and Native American Community. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Wounded Knee. Dir. Stanley Nelson. Installment five in series "We Shall Remain." PBS, 2009.
Heteroglossia, once incorporated into
   the novel ... is another's speech in another's
   language, serving to express
   authorial intentions but in a refracted
   way. Such speech constitutes a special
   type of double-voiced discourse. It
   serves two speakers at the same time
   and expresses simultaneously two different
   intentions: the direct intention
   of the character who is speaking, and
   the refracted intention of the author.
   In such discourse there are two voices,
   two meanings and two expressions.
   And all the while these two voices are
   dialogically interrelated, they--as it
   were--know about each other ... it is as
   if they actually hold a conversation with
   each other. Double-voiced discourse is
   always internally dialogized." (324).

The eagle feather is the highest honor we
   have within our culture. He is admired
   by our people because he flies higher
   than all the other birds. He's considered
   to be a messenger for us; he takes our
   prayers to the Creator. The eagle has
   great strength and represents honesty,
   and when you hold an eagle feather,
   you are compelled to speak our truth.
   The wings of the eagle feather represent
   balance, and the quill at the center represents
   the path you are on in this life
   from birth to death. And no matter how
   far you stray in one direction or the other,
   you'll always return to the center, the
   path you were meant to walk on.

You know, when we first moved here,
   there was no tree out front; it was just
   lawn. And then one day I saw this seedling
   in the corner, and I decided, "I'm
   going to let that grow." And it's been
   many years, and over the years that tree
   has become my friend and my teacher.
   And there's still lots I'm learning from
   her. You see, our people, everything we
   learned, we learned from nature. Our
   songs. Our dances. Our ceremonies.
   Even our prayers. We observed the
   plants and how they grew. And the
   animals. What they did. What they ate.
   How they survived. So when we pray,
   we give thanks to Mother Earth for giving
   us life, and all life depends on her.
   And we give thanks to the plant life, to
   the trees, the medicines, everything that
   grows. Because all animal life depends
   on plants. And we give thanks to the
   insects. The animals. The fishes. The
   birds. Because we need them to survive.
   You see, human beings are the weakest
   in creation because we depend on
   everything for our existence. When we
   pray, we give thanks to the Creator and
   all these things. We acknowledge their
   gifts. And the gratefulness that we feel
   because they give of themselves, so we
   can live. You see our people like to keep
   things very simple. Nothing was very
   complicated. So when we pray, it's just
   a matter of gratefulness. And everyone
   can do that.

I tell you, it can be tough for people
   with mixed ancestry. But there is such
   a thing called "blood memory." The
   same blood that's in me, in this part of
   the world, it's also in you. And it will
   be in your son, or daughter, and that
   blood memory will know what to do.
   And it will feel the call to come and
   join the same circle that you and I sit at
   together. These blood relations can't be
   measured. But as long as you come to
   the circle, your kids will follow.

You say I'm twenty-five percent Indian.
   What the hell does that mean? Tell me,
   what does it mean? Point to it. Point to
   me the part that's twenty-five percent.
   Is it my foot? Is it my arm? Is it my face?
   You know what? You stole our bundles.
   We bided our time. You stole our land.
   We bided our time. Now you're trying
   to steal our stories? You know what, the
   time for you people telling our stories
   is over. We all said our nation would
   sleep for a hundred years. Guess what
   people? Time's up. I'm done being

We're not coming from Washington to
   tell you exactly what to do and how to
   do it, we're coming from Washington to
   ask you what you want to do and tell
   you we will give you the tools and the
   support to get done what you want to do
   for your children and their future.
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