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Imagic Moments

Indigenous North American Film

Lee Schweninger

Publication Year: 2013

In Indigenous North American film Native Americans tell their own stories and thereby challenge a range of political and historical contradictions, including egregious misrepresentations by Hollywood. Although Indians in film have long been studied, especially as characters in Hollywood westerns, Indian film itself has received relatively little scholarly attention. In Imagic Moments Lee Schweninger offers a much-needed corrective, examining films in which the major inspiration, the source material, and the acting are essentially Native.

Schweninger looks at a selection of mostly narrative fiction films from the United States and Canada and places them in historical and generic contexts. Exploring films such as Powwow Highway, Smoke Signals, and Skins, he argues that in and of themselves these films constitute and in fact emphatically demonstrate forms of resistance and stories of survival as they talk back to Hollywood. Self-representation itself can be seen as a valid form of resistance and as an aspect of a cinema of sovereignty in which the Indigenous peoples represented are the same people who engage in the filming and who control the camera. Despite their low budgets and often nonprofessional acting, Indigenous films succeed in being all the more engaging in their own right and are indicative of the complexity, vibrancy, and survival of myriad contemporary Native cultures.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quotes

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pp. i-viii


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pp. ix-x

List of Illustrations

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pp. xi-xii


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pp. xiii-xvi

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Introduction: Where to Concentrate

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pp. 1-20

“Native ceremonies, and imagic moments,” contends Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor, “create a sense of presence, and, at the same time, mask an absence: the rites of presence are ecstatic unions of time and place, and the absence, virtual masks of sorcery. Alas, the images of Indians are simulations” (“Interimage” 231). In another place, he writes that “clearly, natives...

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Chapter 1 He Was Still the Chief: Masayesva’s Imagining Indians

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pp. 21-35

The documentary film Imagining Indians about Hollywood representations of American Indians, directed by Victor Masayesva Jr. (Hopi), includes a narrative, fictional frame that tells the story of a Native American woman’s visit to a dentist’s office. This narrative plot, such as it is, revolves around the dentist’s chair, and the unnamed patient (Patty Runs after Swallow). She sits in the chair surrounded by walls plastered with posters advertising classic ...

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Chapter 2 Into the City: Ordered Freedom in The Exiles

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pp. 36-50

In the course of a postscreening conversation during part of the Film Indians Now! series in Washington, D.C. (November 28, 2008), Melissa Bisagni, film and video program manager at the National Museum of the American Indian, stated that Kent Mackenzie’s film The Exiles is “essentially a Native film” (Bisagni). Following up on her comment, Native filmmaker Chris Eyre...

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Chapter 3 The Native Presence in Film: House Made of Dawn

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pp. 51-67

N. Scott Momaday published his novel House Made of Dawn in 1968, and in 1972 non-Native filmmaker Richardson Morse directed a film adaptation. The respective receptions of novel and fi lm could hardly have been more different. The year after its publication, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and has been in print and widely available ever since. In addition to...

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Chapter 4 A Concordance of Narrative Voices: Harold, Trickster, and Harold of Orange

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pp. 68-82

The thirty-minute film Harold of Orange, which won a Film in the Cities competition, premiering in Minneapolis on May 17, 1984, is set in Minneapolis– St. Paul, one of several urban areas to which American Indians were relocated throughout the middle of the twentieth century. But this film off ers a reversal of the relocation stories told in The Exiles and House Made of Dawn. Unlike...

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Chapter 5 I Don’t Do Portraits: Medicine River and the Art of Photography

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pp. 83-97

Medicine River is a feature-length, made- for-television, Canadian Broadcasting Company mass- market narrative fi lm, in contrast to the short film Harold of Orange, which was not necessarily intended for a mainstream audience in the first place, or to the films House Made of Dawn and The Exiles, which found no distributor. In other aspects, however, Medicine River shares many...

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Chapter 6 Keep Your Pony Out of My Garden: Powwow Highway and “Being Cheyenne”

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pp. 98-112

The exchange between Philbert (Gary Farmer) and his Aunt Harriet (Maria Antoinette Rogers) early in the film Powwow Highway suggests that Jonathan Wacks’s film adaptation of David Seals’s 1979 novel, The Powwow Highway, combines a man’s search for identity with both sarcasm and humor. As an early indication of Philbert’s quest for a sense of self and an understanding...

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Chapter 7 Feeling Extra Magical: The Art of Disappearing in Smoke Signals

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pp. 113-127

Smoke Signals is unique among the Indigenous films examined in this study in that it is one of the very few to have been widely released and to actually become a moneymaker, grossing between six and seven million dollars. By Hollywood standards the gross is miniscule, of course, but the film did indeed pay for itself and did reach audiences in mall movie houses throughout the United States in ways that few other Indigenous films have done. ...

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Chapter 8 Making His Own Music: Death and Life in The Business of Fancydancing

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pp. 128-141

Sherman Alexie’s film The Business of Fancydancing tells the story of Seymour Polatkin, a Coeur d’Alene man, played by Coast Salish actor Evan Adams, who leaves the reservation to attend a university in Seattle. Through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, the viewer learns that Seymour acknowledges and comes to terms with his homosexuality while still a student,...

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Chapter 9 Sharing the Kitchen: Naturally Native and Women in American Indian Film

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pp. 142-157

Following a title that reads “1972,” in the opening shot of Valerie Red-Horse’s Naturally Native, the camera zooms to a folder containing adoption papers and to a black-and-white snapshot of two girls holding a baby. A male voice- over informs the viewer that in 1972 the children are up for adoption. From the voice-over, the viewer learns that the “real mother” has died: “It was...

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Chapter 10 In the Form of a Spider: The Interplay of Narrative Fiction and Documentary in Skins

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pp. 158-172

Chris Eyre’s film Skins is about the relationships between siblings, like Naturally Native. And like Powwow Highway and Smoke Signals, it tells the story of the relationship between two very different men, in this case, the two Yellow Lodge brothers: the hardworking tribal policeman Rudy (Eric Schweig) and the older Mogie (Graham Greene), an unemployed Vietnam veteran and chronic drunk. The plot of Skins, like the plots of the other films, moves ...

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Chapter 11 The Stories Pour Out: Taking Control in The Doe Boy

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pp. 173-187

The opening sequence of Randy Redroad’s film The Doe Boy depicts three young boys as they race one another through the woods. A series of alternating shots make up the scene: a handheld camera lets the viewer see what the running boys see; medium close- ups of their running show them exerting themselves, and long shots provide the viewer a sense of perspective. A crane ...

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Chapter 12 Telling Our Own Stories: Seeking Identity in Tkaronto

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pp. 188-201

Métis director Shane Belcourt’s feature-length narrative film Tkaronto tells the story of two young urban Indigenous Canadians who arrive in Toronto, and because they stay at the same house, they meet, spend time together, and share with each other their stories. Jolene (Melanie McLaren) has come to the Canadian city from Los Angeles to interview Max (Loren Cardinal), ...

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Chapter 13 People Come Around in Circles: Harjo’s Four Sheets to the Wind

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pp. 202-215

Four Sheets to the Wind, writer- director Sterlin Harjo’s first feature- length film, tells the story of two young adult siblings in the days and weeks just after the death of their father. The opening scene depicts the son, Cufe Smallhill (Cody Lightning), as he drags his dead father into a pond, where he lays him to rest. Following this internment, Cufe, his mother (Jeri Arredondo),...

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Epilogue: Barking Water and Beyond

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pp. 216-224

Sterlin Harjo’s second feature film, Barking Water (2009), like Four Sheets to the Wind, is very situated and centered in Oklahoma. The earlier film is set and filmed in Holdenville and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and as one reviewer points out “almost the entire cast and many of the crew members are American Indians” (John Anderson). Barking Water too is set and filmed entirely on...


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pp. 225-228

Works Cited

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pp. 229-238


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pp. 239-247

E-ISBN-13: 9780820345765
E-ISBN-10: 0820345768
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820345147
Print-ISBN-10: 0820345148

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 15 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Indians in motion pictures.
  • Motion pictures -- United States.
  • Motion pictures -- Canada.
  • Indians in the motion picture industry -- United States.
  • Indians in the motion picture industry -- Canada.
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