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Images of Native People As Seen by the Eye of the Blackbird

From: Wicazo Sa Review
Volume 16, Number 2, Fall 2001
pp. 29-34 | 10.1353/wic.2001.0021

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Wicazo Sa Review 16.2 (2001) 29-34

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

If you ask me about images of Native people, I have only to ask the blackbird. Living near a mountain lake in the middle of my tribal homeland, I know not what the blackbird knows, but only what he sees. Wallace Stevens's first stanza of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is a good place to begin an essay on images. What has been presented as images of Native people is less important compared to images Native people see.

Images of Native people in the media is not a new subject. In 1987, I taught a course at Salish Kootenai College on it, and once became so nauseated I shut down Stay Away Joe, starring Elvis Presley, to go outside for fresh air. I couldn't accept the damage done to Elvis and Native people, but it was indicative of the pollution created in the name of art (and money). Afterward, I became more interested in the people responsible for bastardizing the images of Native people. The subject has yet to move away from the images to the producers whose distortions burn the eye and heart. Discussion goes on, but not so in the reservation coffee circles where hunting, hickeys, black eyes, and broken windshields tend to dominate our conversations. Native people probably still watch John Wayne gunning down rows of our boys on late-night movies with only the occasional "wow," but I don't believe it has anything to do with us. It's just John killing movie extras while we kill time. We know movies aren't real, just like many things we experience aren't real. We are smart enough to know books and cameras are real, television sets are real, but what they conjure up about Native people isn't very real.

Images of Native people in films aren't real because there aren't any real Native people in them. On the reservation the term "image" doesn't mean much in the lexicon of daily life except when one of us makes Crime Stoppers or letters to the editor. Living in a reservation town, I had to stop and think about how the term works: images of Native people, as in outsiders looking at Indians, or images Native people and the blackbird see. For example, images carved into Writing on the Stone (a landmark) by Native people are considered sacred by the Blackfoot Confederacy and are not even remotely connected to Stay Away Joe. The demented distortions of movie makers to make hero John what he is today have been clearly documented, so I'll leave it to college seminars to continue the investigations. I am better qualified at what Blackfeet Indians see since I am one, and all my work is reservation made like I was.

I grew up in Blackfoot, Montana, landlocked in the middle of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and I trekked out of there in 1962. First I ran away to Chicago with my parents' permission, and then onward to Eastern Montana College via Colorado migrant farms. I was placed in Bonehead Everything at college and spent five years completing the four-year requirements. In 1966, Uncle Sam drafted me to march about with his crew until I was set free in 1968.

I was still the all-American-to-be boy while matriculating at Harvard in 1975. At a Cambridge wine and cheese party, a beautiful Black woman asked me where I was from. When I explained, she looked puzzled and said, "Peru?" She was close enough, since Blackfoot, Montana, couldn't be defined in graduatespeak. In 1980 I got tired of being homesick and headed home. I am with my people again on the reservation. Mostly I research the tribal language, build one-room schools to teach it, and when there is time, film or write about images of Native people.

The old joke, "a week ago I couldn't spell indigenous filmmaker and now I is one," came to mind while I typed a film treatment for the Native American Television Workshop (NATV...

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