*Indian Country is an American term. In Canada, the term Indian is considered a racial slur. I’m using it here as an American Indian, but I recognize it’s a loaded term.
Two movies that have recently taken Indian Country* by storm are Winter in the Blood and Rhymes for Young Ghouls, both featuring Indigenous, rez-living characters from the 1970s who fight the power and stick it to the man, albeit in very different ways. From Ghouls, Aila is a sixteen-year-old dope slinger who’s most commonly seen in a gas mask, the actress who plays her delivering lines sneeringly, a bad-ass in boots and braids, quipping things like, “You two gotta be the dumbest Indians since Bugs Bunny put on a headdress,” and, “No. No way. You’re gonna grab your balls and finish this shit.”
Virgil, of WITB, is a thirty-something who carries a yellow toothbrush in his pocket at all times, because he never knows when he’ll need to induce vomiting after a bender, a man who wakes up in ditches, or in the room he used to share with his brother, unchanged all these years, and murmurs, in a deep, throaty voice-over, “I was as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon.” Both are recognizably Indigenous-presenting. You wouldn’t mistake them for another nationality. Both are struggling to find catharsis, to heal from trauma, and to make a life worth living. The stories, however relentless in their persistent insistence on putting the reality of lived trauma on the screen, are ultimately redemption narratives. And, while real issues in Indian Country are constantly and fearlessly addressed, something is absent – I believe intentionally – from these stories, something modern Urban NDNs call “Leather and Feathers.”
Certainly, the Leather and Feathers phenomenon has plagued urban, and even rez-living Indians since the dawn of cinema and, perhaps, storytelling in general. Though powwows are thought to go back as far as four-hundred years (maybe more), the modern powwow owes much to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The Wild West Show perpetuated the tale of the intensively dancing, spinning savage, one that Hollywood was glad to take on – after all, this myth sold tickets. The show may have been little more than a show, a trick of light, a song-and-dance routine. And yet, it is more complex than that. These dances – ancient, traditional, and yet also new and changing – gave the Indigenous people a platform to show their amazing skill, their beadwork, their art, and their bitchin’ dance styles. Buffalo Bill was a supporter of Native American rights, and put these real, living beings — a people for whom, as scholars have noted, the United States had already written an obituary –at the forefront of the red, white, and blue’s imagination. From this show, came the men’s fancy dance. It inspired other medicine dances, and even after Buffalo Bill walked on, the evolution of dance, beadwork, and styles continued. Now, we have powwows every year in the United States in which as many as 10,000 Natives dance in week-long celebrations of culture, ceremony, and Nationhood. Are these powwows, put on by and for the People, also a song-and-dance routine? Are these dances tricks of light, exhibitionist flair? After all, non-Natives flock in hoards, as they must have in Buffalo Bill’s day, to see the Indians dance. They sit down at the wrong times (during honor songs, Elder dances). They take pictures during ceremonies. They talk on their phones while Elders pray. That is a hyperbolic statement, of course – many non-Natives come to powwows and are respectful and decent – but many are not.
To what end, then, powwows, leather, feathers? Sherman Alexie, in an interview with Time Magazine, stated that there’s no such thing as a Traditional Indian, just someone who wears the stereotype like their grandfather’s old coat. It’s easier, he says, to be the shaman, the Dr. Dolittle, animal-whisperer, than to face the reality of the modern Indigenous experience. “My spirit animal is the squirrel,” Alexie said on the Colbert Report.
Sherman Alexie also speaks in hyperbole. The idea that Indians exist in the past, that we speak broken English and live in teepees, is outlandishly antiquated and completely false. Yet, this new wave of Indian art that I’m seeing, and the Native artists I’m beginning to know, insist on withdrawing the Native American from their cultural context. There are no Eagle feathers. There are no Spirit Visions, Spirit Animals, Totems. The burning of sweetgrass and sage is not to be written about. Write about the Urban Indian, Alexie insists. Stop talking about Eagle feathers and your grandmother’s beadwork, Facebookland declares, as if by decree. Do not perpetuate stereotypes.
But what about my lived experience? When I think about Native American art, I think, hey, if you’re an Indian, and you make art, that’s Indian art. Someone told poet and musician Joy Harjo that the saxophone isn’t an Indian instrument, and she said, “When I play it, it is.” If you grew up Urban, you didn’t know your rez, you never sat at a break-room table with an Elder at midday, fetched them coffee, and listened to their stories, then okay. If your experience as a Native person is isolated from community, or is one of virtual community, community-through-art, that’s okay. But I was born on the Indian reservation. I was on the shores of Shoalwater Bay since I was still foetal, soaking in amniotic fluid, feeling, just heartbeats away, the sound of waves crashing against the shore. I was born into a family of dancers, a family of beadwork artists, a family that loved the Eagle feather and the drum. I don’t remember my first powwow, because powwows were always a part of my life. When I was nine years old, I remember being all agog and aghast at a friend from church, exclaiming, “You’ve never been to a powwow?”
Now, what I’m sensing is a strong move, a pull from the Native writer’s community, to either withdraw from that culture in order to not perpetuate stereotype and myth, or to simply mute it out – don’t write about that, or you’ll make the very sacred profane with your longing. I can’t live with either of these. I can only say that if your lived experience wasn’t that of the reservation and the powwow, then that’s okay, and it doesn’t make your writing any less Native American. And if your lived experience was of the reservation and the powwow, of the leather, the feathers, the sweetgrass, and the sage, and you want to write about that, it’s okay, too, and it doesn’t make you an exhibitionist, it makes you an artist.
I will conclude by saying that although critics are stating that Winter in the Blood and Rhymes for Young Ghouls are wonderful because they push back against the Leather and Feather ideology of Native Americans, I don’t think it’s fair to divorce either of these movies from a quote-unquote Traditional way of thinking. At the end of Winter in the Blood, Virgil climbs the mountain behind his reservation to find his truth and earn his name. If that isn’t a Spirit Quest, I’m not sure what is. And in Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Aila and her father take a boat out onto the water to find a place of peace and catharsis. If you wanted to, it would not be difficult to make a case for Bird, Virgil’s horse, as an embodiment or representation of his Spirit Animal, and Aila, who is deeply, mockingly uninterested in Natives who “like to keep it au natural, and smoke down close to the Great Spirit…or whatever,” still finds herself, often, in the woods, listening for the sound of nature, the spirit of her mother.
To divorce Indigenous storytelling from cultural commodities — like drums, like leather, like feathers — would be to silence those for whom these commodities are essential to their understanding of themselves, their people. For those of us who still live this way, it seems remiss to dismiss our way of life as a stereotype to be silenced, rather than a tradition to be lived, celebrated, and yes, written about.
And even Sherman Alexie utilizes these same commodities. Take, for instance, his early poem, I Would Steal Horses, and note the horses, the treaties, the blankets, and the diseases. And then tell me this is not a traditional understanding of our place in the world, contextualized within insider cultural signifiers. Didn’t think so.
I Would Steal Horses
for you, if there were any left,
give a dozen of the best
to your father, the auto mechanic
in the small town where you were born
and where he will die sometime by dark.
I am afraid of his hands, which have
rebuilt more of the small parts
of this world than I ever will.
I would sign treaties for you, take
every promise as the last lie, the last
point after which we both refuse the exact.
I would wrap us both in old blankets
hold every disease tight against our skin.