Visualities: Perspectives on Contemporary American Indian Film and Art

Visualities: Perspectives on Contemporary American Indian Film and Art

by Denise K. Cummings (Editor)

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In recent years, works by American Indian artists and filmmakers such as Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Edgar Heap of Birds, Sherman Alexie, Shelley Niro, and Chris Eyre have illustrated the importance of visual culture as a means to mediate identity in contemporary Native America. This insightful collection of essays explores how identity is created and communicated through Native film-, video-, and art-making; what role these practices play in contemporary cultural revitalization; and how indigenous creators revisit media pasts and resignify dominant discourses through their work. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, Visualities: Perspectives on Contemporary American Indian Film and Art draws on American Indian Studies, American Studies, Film Studies, Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, and Postcolonial Studies. Among the artists examined are Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, Eric Gansworth, Melanie Printup Hope, Jolene Rickard, and George Longfish. Films analyzed include Imprint, It Starts with a Whisper, Mohawk Girls, Skins, The Business of Fancydancing, and a selection of Native Latin films.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780870139994
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 06/01/2011
Series: American Indian Studies Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 243
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Denise K. Cummings is Associate Professor of Critical Media and Cultural Studies at Rollins College, where she teaches film history, theory, and criticism, critical media and cultural studies, and American and Indigenous literature, culture, and film.

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Perspectives on Contemporary American Indian Film and Art

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2011 Michigan State University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87013-999-4

Chapter One

Visual Prophecies: Imprint and It Starts with a Whisper


For over five hundred years, the literature and visual culture of the Americas has circulated the image of the ghostly Indian as a figment of an American imagination invested in native Americans as spectral entities of a tragic and mostly elided past within a broader field of historical amnesia. according to Renée L. Bergland, work by European American writers and artists "has been haunted by ghostly Indians" in order to discursively dispossess native Americans of their land and to deny them a contemporaneous existence. Drawing from Donald Pease's assertion that scholars of American studies, including postcolonial critics, "have fallen into the ideological trap of American exceptionalism by concluding 'that colonialism had little or nothing to do with the formation of the us national identity,'" Ali Behdad argues that euro-American "anamnestic disavowal" of U.S. national origins and history of genocide against indigenous peoples is both intentional and "a crucial component of its national culture." Native Americans become apparitional excesses in the dominant culture's repressed imagination, which seems perpetually unable to confront the violence of its founding. Native American ghosts haunt the north American literary and visual cultural imagination simultaneously to remind settler nations of the unspeakable, horrific past and to commit representational genocide by writing contemporary native American people out of the present and future.

Native American writers and visual artists have also deployed the figure of the ghost and representations of the supernatural, although to differing ends. Native American–generated engagements of ghostly images remind the nation of its brutal past, but also give lie to the concerted national effort to render native American communities extinct. two recent native American films perform this double function, at the same time as they provide a way to represent native American spirituality on tribally specific terms. In Chris Eyre's Imprint (2007) and Shelley Niro's It Starts with a Whisper (1993), gendered ghostly images invoke a violent past, in order to trouble conventional readings of historical events, but also to reconfigure temporality in radical ways. Imprint offers a reading of the horrors of events at Wounded Knee in south Dakota in 1890 as an allegory for a vibrant Lakota future, rather than only as a melancholic elegy of the past. likewise, It Starts with a Whisper evokes spectral Tutelo tribal members as a means to engage with Mohawk aesthetics in the past, present, and future. as Bliss Cua Lim asserts, "The hauntings recounted by ghost narratives are not merely instances of the past reasserting itself in a stable present, as is usually assumed; on the contrary, the ghostly return of traumatic events precisely troubles the boundaries of the past, present, and future, and cannot be written back to the complacency of a homogeneous empty time." Images of Native American ghosts in dominant culture representations can compel audiences to an emotional economy of guilt and remorse, but they do not serve contemporary indigenous communities invested in visual technologies that reflect the creative, robust vitality of living people. I discuss the work of contemporary Native American filmmakers whose projects stimulate discourses that take the figure of the ghost and its attendant evocation of spirituality seriously, attempting not to fall prey to the kind of nostalgic, past-tense vision of indigenous culture that bolsters the myth of the Vanishing Indian. I do so by welding a discussion of indigenous mass-mediated ghosts to discourses of prophecy in order to argue that film and other forms of new media operate as a space of the virtual reservation, a space where native American filmmakers put the long, vexed history of indigenous representations into dialogue with epistemic indigenous knowledges.

After contextualizing how the virtual reservation signifies in film, and then how indigenous prophecy works as an embodied discourse in visual culture, I examine two films that foreground the importance of spirituality as an enabling tool for combating colonialism and reengaging indigenous epistemologies without attempting to explain particular aspects of specific tribal practices or inviting spectators to partake of indigenous spirituality through commodification and consumption. Imprint and It Starts with a Whisper are two key films that create and intervene into discourses surrounding the supernatural. These films overturn the image of the static ghostly Indian through indigenous manifestations of the spirit and conflations of time that challenge hegemonic Western understandings of human relationships to the metaphysical and prophetical. As Lim argues, "The ghost narrative opens the possibility of a radicalized concept of noncontemporaneity; haunting as ghostly return precisely refuses the idea that things are just 'left behind,' that the past is inert and the present uniform."

In this essay, I do not extract "authentic" spiritual traditions of particular indigenous communities. Rather, I emphasize how contemporary native American filmmakers produce narratives about spirituality that contest national discourses of native people as primarily concerned and vested with spiritual matters. Additionally, these filmmakers create narratives of native relationships to spirituality that attempt to represent core principles of the spiritual, in this case Lakota and Mohawk, in a way that does not offer these representations up to a colonial gaze and consumption, but rather invites the spectator to rethink both native American spirituality on its own terms and the viewer's relationship to it.

I suggest a reading of contemporary native American cinematic practices through the lens of a particular indigenous epistemic knowledge—prophecy—on the virtual reservation. Discursive prophecy is intertwined with the broader notion that twentieth-century mass-mediated images of Native Americans, as inaccurate and offensive as they sometimes are, create the possibility of a virtual reservation where indigenous people can creatively reterritorialize physical and imagined sites that have been lost, that are in the process of renegotiation, or have been retained.

Because spirituality and the figure of the ghost have been employed to filmically equate absence and alterity, an examination of indigenous filmmakers' use of these images serves as a way to reinhabit and reimagine colonized terrain. I interrogate how Native American filmmakers represent the spiritual realm without either absenting contemporary native American bodies within the paradigm of the Vanishing Indian or invoking stereotypes of the mystical Indian that offer a spiritual supplement to a non-native audience at odds with spiritual belief systems practiced by native Americans. Indigenous filmmakers instead demonstrate that seemingly discordant discourses of spirituality and prophecy can be put in conversation with each other, without promising access to a fetishistic world of hidden, "authentic," and mystical native American epistemologies.


The virtual reservation is as complex and paradoxical as its geographical counterpart. It is a site where indigenous knowledges and practices are displayed in sharp relief against competing colonial discourses. By doing so, it opens up multiple narratives for dialogue within and outside the community on a site that is less invested in the traffic in authenticity than in reconsidering the relationship between the visual image and larger cultural and political contexts. Indigenous people at the same time recuperate, regenerate, and begin to heal on the virtual reservation directly under the gaze of the national spectator.

The virtual reservation is an imagined space, in this instance, for the film industry, but has also been transformed by indigenous people into something of value, a decolonizing space. Lorna Roth describes "media reservations" as negative sites of segregation, isolation, and the televisual equivalent of the stereotypes structuring representations of reservation/ reserve life in North America. For Roth, Native Americans have been consigned to an indigenous form of what amounts to a ghetto. They compete for small pools of funding, and their self-generated images generally appear only on programs broadcast by the Public Broadcasting service (PBS) and the aboriginal People's television network (APTN).

Gerald McMaster observes that the historical role of the real-life territorial reserve in Canada has been more nuanced. The reserve is, according to McMaster, "a negotiated space set aside for Indian people by oppressive colonial governments to isolate them, to extricate them from their cultural habits, and to save them from the vices of the outside world. Paradoxically, isolation helped maintain aboriginal languages and many other traditional practices. The reserve continues to be an affirming presence despite being plagued by many historical uncertainties." Following McMaster's lead, I suggest that the virtual reservation is a more creative, kinetic, open space where indigenous artists collectively and individually employ technologies and knowledges to rethink the relationship between media and indigenous communities.

For indigenous people, the reservation is a complicated and often vexed marker of the enabling conditions of collective and personal homeland and site of cultural retention and renewal, seemingly far from the intervening pressures of the dominant culture. Often conceived of as bounded, sovereign physical space, native American spaces also include urban and exurban enclaves, where more than half of the indigenous peoples of north America live, and rural regions sometimes adjacent to reservations. These on- and off-reservation locations serve as places of cultural, physical, and spiritual continuity, improvisation, and survival where "traditional" practices can be protected and revised.

The reservation, often created under punitive conditions that represented a small fraction of traditional tribal homelands or a space to which Native Americans were relocated, is also in some cases akin to what some have called north America's version of concentration camps—loci of limited mobility, disproportionate rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, unemployment, suicide, and poverty. Located in a historical period of over two hundred years, the reservation has structural and metaphysical similarities to the state of being Giorgio Agamben describes for the European concentration-camp inmate of World War II. "Precisely because they were lacking almost all the rights and expectations that we characteristically attribute to human existence, and yet were still biologically alive," Agamben contends, "they came to be situated at a limit zone between life and death, inside and outside, in which they were no longer anything but bare life. Those who are sentenced to death and those who dwelt in camps are thus in some way unconsciously assimilated to homines sacres, to a life that may be killed without the commission of homicide." Isolated from the outside world and created as an inherently unequal simulacrum of Euro-American institutions, the reservation, particularly in its nineteenth-century manifestation, signified the condition of "bare life" as native Americans were disciplined through state-sanctioned violence to assimilate, with the intention of social death.

As geographically isolated metaphor and physical and imagined space, the reservation exists for the dominant culture somewhere out there, beyond the limits of national and popular memory, a repository of the repressed and spectral, a homeland for America's ghosts. Avery Gordon argues that ghosts act as an indexical critique of still unresolved historical violence and trauma. As such, ghosts have demands, and push us to reckon with such demands "not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition." "If the ghost is a crucible for political mediation and historical memory," she contends, "... the purpose of an alternative diagnostics is to link the politics of accounting, in all its intricate political-economic, institutional, and affective dimensions, to a potent imagination of what has been done and what is to be done otherwise." Referencing native Americans in particular, Susan Scheckel posits that the nation's haunting by Indian ghosts "marks the limits of that forgetfulness out of which the nation arises." The reservation (and its northern cousin, the Canadian reserve) is imagined in popular culture to be a space of dysfunction and defeat. It is a place the nation needs to continually invoke as a metaphor of its own imagined triumph and Native American defeat, and subsequently forget about in order to maintain its originary fantasies.

While the virtual reservation still contains within its permeable boundaries the violent and violating representations that exist on territorial reservations, it also provides a creative, imagined space with critical ties to physical places that have protected what might be called "traditional" practices and permitted the maintenance of some indigenous languages and knowledges, such as prophecy. Marie-Laure Ryan suggests three modes of interpreting the virtual: "an optical one (the virtual as illusion), a scholastic one (the virtual as potentiality), and an informal one (the virtual as the computer-mediated)." The virtual reservation can be considered to occupy these three modes: the realm of the filmic as a field onto which an alternative vision of the world can be projected; as a meeting space for tribal intellectuals and scholars to workshop, debate, and define new projects for sustaining indigenous knowledges; and as a network of computer-assisted transnational indigenous communities who exchange and create information. unlike Jean Baudrillard's notion of the virtual as simulacrum, fake, and substitute for the "real," the virtual reservation is a supplemental arena of the possible that initiates and maintains a dialectical relationship between the multiple layers of indigenous knowledge systems—from the dream world to the topography of real and imagined landscapes. The virtual reservation does not stand in opposition to, or as substitute for, the material world, but creates a dialogue with it. It helps us see things in the material world in a different dimensionality, thus enhancing our understanding of off-line and off-screen communities.

On the virtual reservation, which can be located in a multitude of different discourses—from the internet, where native Americans meet as disembodied, often anonymous voices and personas to engage in profound and profane dialogue, to films that stage alternate "communitarian" scenarios—indigenous people workshop on sites where they can recuperate, regenerate, contest, and begin to heal, under the radar of the direct gaze of the national spectator. The virtual reservation in its ability to transcend time and space has also been transformed by indigenous people into a utopic geography of possibility and renewal, as films like Smoke Signals (1998); the humorous, heterodox sculptures of Santa Clara Pueblo artist Nora Noranjo-Morse; and the exuberant, life-affirming work of Mohawk dancer and choreographer Santee Smith demonstrate.

But beyond their potential to reframe, reappropriate, and reimagine the tribal world joyously with hope and healing, Native American media makers on the virtual reservation also challenge and complicate representations of indigenous people by voicing dissent, offering counternarratives that reveal the often dismal and depressing aspect of inhabiting homelands that are still colonized in an otherwise seemingly postcolonial world. James luna's performance art, for example, is a scathing indictment of a dominant culture that renders Native American aesthetic production a safe, exotic, and quaint cog in the wheel of multiculturalism, as well as of indigenous people who surrender to mass-mediated representations of themselves. Luna's Petroglyphs in Motion (2001) is a performance piece that animates several different, often discomfiting characters—a lascivious coyote/trickster, an ailing emphysemic pulling an oxygen tank, and a drunken cholo panhandler who solicits money from the audience on the catwalk-like stage, among others.


Excerpted from VISUALITIES Copyright © 2011 by Michigan State University. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Indigenous Visualities....................xiii
Indians Watching Indians on TV: Native Spectatorship and the Politics of Recognition in Skins and Smoke Signals Joanna Hearne....................41
Sherman Shoots Alexie: Working with and without Reservation(s) in The Business of Fancydancing Theo. Van Alst....................73
Elusive Identities: Representations of Native Latin America in the Contemporary Film Industry Rocío Quispe-Agnoli....................95
Condolence Tropes and Haudenosaunee Visuality: It Starts with a Whisper and Mohawk Girls Penelope Myrtle Kelsey....................119
Videographic Sovereignty: Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie's Aboriginal World View Joseph Bauerkemper....................131
Indigenous Semiotics and Shared Modernity Dean Rader....................143
Seeing Memory, Storying Memory: Printup Hope, Rickard, Gansworth Susan Bernardin....................161
Aboriginal Beauty and Self-Determination: Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie's Photographic Projects Cynthia Fowler....................189
Text-Messaging Prayers: George Longfish and His Art of Communication Molly McGlennen....................207

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