- It’s a Good Day to BikeIndigenous Futures in Ramona Emerson’s Opal
Death is the endgame of televisual Westerns: its very repetitiveness an anxious recognition of the unfinished business of Indigenous presence in this settler nation. Indians, as Michelle Raheja notes in Reservation Reelism, “are ascribed the value of absence through assimilation and disappearance and the value of excess through the compulsion in Hollywood media to return continually to the scene of Indian-white contact” (15). In his 1993 novel Green Grass, Running Water Thomas King repeatedly exposes the compulsion of the Western to disappear Native people even as its myriad stagings in popular culture, government policy, and national mythology might seem to indicate the opposite. Blackfoot characters in the novel variously reckon with the Western’s tenacious screen life and cultural life force: from Portland, the ephemeral Hollywood extra forced to wear a rubber nose to look more like the Indian the director had in mind, to Eli, the English professor who devours Western “romances,” to Latisha and a suite of other characters, both Native and non-Native, who watch the same Western on tv.
These characters’ close encounters with the Western cinematic archive resonate across Indigenous communities in the United States and Canada. For writers such as Thomas King and filmmakers such as Ramona Emerson the act of watching Indians on tv and in movie theaters appears as a “rite of passage” to their coming of age and to awareness of their “place” as Indigenous peoples in these two settler nations. In her study Native Recognition: Indigenous Cinema and the Western Joanna Hearne highlights cinematic scenes of “textually embedded” “performances of Native spectatorship” to underscore “media production and consumption as acts of communication [End Page 89] that are socially situated and inevitably engaged politically with relations of power” (266). Through its series of interlinked scenes of television viewing King’s novel demonstrates a similarly active and ongoing relationship with the Western on the part of its diverse Blackfoot viewers. While Portland’s son, Charlie, initially reacts in disgust after recognizing that the wigged actor is his father, Latisha’s son, Christian, is puzzled by the slot allotted to Indians in the classic Western formula. Like Thomas-Builds-the-Fire in the film Smoke Signals, who, when he and Victor are displaced by two men who have taken their bus seats, wonders, “how come the cowboys always win?”, Christian asks his mother, “how come the Indians always get killed?” When she replies, “it’s just a movie,” he presses: “But what if they won?” “Well,” she says, “if the Indians won, it probably wouldn’t be a Western” (216). Latisha’s response seems to support Thomas-Builds-the-Fire’s oft-quoted quip from Smoke Signals: “you know, the only thing more pathetic than Indians on tv is Indians watching Indians on tv.” Latisha turns off the tv before the movie ends, convinced that “it is over.” Yet a surprise is in store for those characters who keep their eyes on the screen. “Smiling and laughing and waving their lances” at their viewers (246), Indigenous trickster figures reverse the iconic Western scene of violent masculine encounter and its terminal script: “Hundreds of soldiers in bright blue uniforms with gold buttons and sashes and stripes, blue-eyed and rosy cheeked, came over the last rise. And disappeared. Just like that” (357). In this version John Wayne gets his, in the chest. Just like that.
In this exuberant restaging of formulaic endings and foreclosed futures Thomas King directs our attention to the flourishing of contemporary Indigenous filmmakers whose work in a range of genres—experimental, animated, narrative, documentary—has enlarged the frame of Indigenous representation. When the tv viewers in King’s novel (and readers of the novel) see the black-and-white Western explode into Technicolor, they also witness the animation of alternate destinies and imaginative possibilities for Native-controlled media. King’s scene of violent reversal more particularly animates the provocative equation of anger, violence, and imagination in contemporary Native aesthetics. Finally, the novel raises the question of use-value: How might the cinematic Western, [End Page 90] whether spaghetti, classic, or revisionist, serve...