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4 Imagining the Reservation in House Made of Dawn and Billy Jack In taking the 1972 film version of House Made of Dawn as my central text in this chapter, my object is to trace one point of emergence in the nascent Native filmmaking movement’s emphatic disarticulation from the representation of Indians as a practice of industrial manufacture. The film House Made of Dawn evinces an aesthetically complex divergence from the melodramatic scenarios of “separation and return” that had characterized those previous representations of Native assimilation, renegotiating the political significance of intergenerational images in both its content and its production. If the generic conventions of frontier melodramas envision Native traditionality as stasis, subject to tragic and impending destruction, House Made of Dawn instead understands Indigenous familial relations to be mobilized across temporal and spatial distances through an ongoing and inventive process of instruction and transmission. The film breaks away from the melodramatic “squaw man” plot and interracial custody battles that still circulated in Westerns such as The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (Sarafian 1973) and Duel at Diablo (Nelson 1966), and from the figure of the returning Native war veteran as a Western genre vigilante in films such as The Vanishing American (Seitz 1925), Devil’s Doorway (Mann 1950), Flap (Reed 1970), and Billy Jack (Laughlin 1971/1973). Directed by Richardson Morse from a screenplay coauthored with N. Scott Momaday, the film House Made of Dawn is a milestone in the resurgence of Native American filmmaking.1 It traces the contours and assimi‑ lationist pressures of the federal Relocation program, Western films, and legal and military establishments while modeling systems of ­ independent, 219 220 / Native Recognition­ interracial, and intercultural coproduction that continue to characterize much of Native filmmaking. This chapter explores the film’s intervention in cinematic productions of Indianness at a particular historical juncture—the interstices of the Native American renaissance, the Red Power movement, and the New Hollywood renaissance.2 The aesthetic and political histories of this moment have already been widely discussed in Native studies scholar‑ ship—the literary establishment’s recognition of Momaday’s first novel, House Made of Dawn, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969, and the intense surge in collective Indigenous responses to the 1950s federal policy of Termination, which catalyzed grassroots Native organizations and culminated in activist occupations in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This moment—the height of the Red Power movement, and concomitant mass media attention to the American Indian Movement (aim)—was also a formative period in the history of Native Americans on screen. While images of the Vietnam War saturated public discourses, Native Americans were broadly recognized by producers and consumers of popular culture as emblems for the domestic history of American imperialism, not least in an industrywide cycle of violent, revisionist Westerns clustered between 1969 and1973, including Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (Polonsky 1969), A Man Called Horse (Silverstein 1969), The Stalking Moon (Mulligan 1969), Soldier Blue (Nelson 1970), Little Big Man (Penn 1970), and Chato’s Land (Winner 1971). Other films synthesized Western genre signs and codes with contemporary urban, small‑town, and reservation settings such as Flap (Reed 1970) and the extraordinarily profit‑ able independent production Billy Jack (Laughlin 1971/1973)—a title I will discuss at some length as a counterpoint to House Made of Dawn. In contrast to the wildly popular revisionist Westerns of this period, and indeed in contrast to the critical longevity of Momaday’s novel, the film House Made of Dawn went largely unseen for almost 30 years—immobilized by distributors’ refusal to purchase and circulate it—before its restoration in 2005 by the National Museum of the American Indian’s (nmai) Film and Video Center. I would like to bring the film House Made of Dawn to critical view as both an active response to contemporary popular representations and an early model of alternative, local film production that disengaged from the practices, forms, and sentiments of previous Los Angeles−based representations. The screenplay, for example, was the first to be adapted from a Native‑authored novel, and Momaday participated in writing it and in scouting New Mexico locations (the film was shot on location at Sandia and Isleta Pueblos as well as Los Angeles). Casting is one of the most crucial decisions in translating Native narratives to the visual mode of cinema, compounding issues of genealogy and performance in the repre‑ sentation of Indigenous identity. Momaday himself describes both an imag‑ Imagining the Reservation in House...


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