by Bob Pomeroy
I was really looking forward to “Windtalkers.” The movie was promoted as the story of the Navajo code talkers during World War II. This largely unknown chapter in our history is really quite fascinating. Part of the reason the Navajo language could be adapted to a military code is that the internal logic of the language is so different from European languages. I was hoping for a movie that would shed some light on Navajo culture. I was hoping for a movie that really dealt with the Navajo experience in the war. That is not what Windtalkers turned out to be. Windtalkers is basically “Leaving Las Vegas” remade as a war movie.
The conventional wisdom is that mass audiences don’t want to hear unfamiliar voices. That’s why “Windtalkers” treats the code talkers as a subplot with the main focus being on an Italian-American with a death wish. I actually want to hear other voices. I want to see the Code Talkers’ story from their perspective, not Nicholas Cage’s.
Mainstream media may not be ready to let Native people speak for themselves, but you can hear their voices in a variety of independent outlets. Native voices are finding their way to CD’s, television screens and cinemas with growing success. “Smoke Signals,” the movie adaptation of Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” was a critical and commercial success. Let’s take a look at some other Native artists who are gaining a wider audience.
We’ll start with something safe and non-threatening. I don’t want to induce instant culture shock. Spirit Nation blends the sleek and sensual vocals of Ojibway singer Tamara Podemski with an ambient dance groove. When you first put on “Winter Moons,” it sounds like Enigma or perhaps Dead Can Dance, only something isn’t quite right. Soon you realize that the singer isn’t speaking to you in English. Podemski sings in Ojibway, English and even a bit of Hebrew. The very modern, computer and sampler driven music blends seamlessly with the ancient language. The sound is meditative, spiritual and suggests a world where all people can find common ground.
Someday, someone will make a movie based on John Trudell’s life. In the 1970’s, he was the spokesman for the American Indian Movement. He left direct political activism after his family died in a suspicious fire. He then turned to writing poetry and acting. For the past decade, Trudell has been combining his words with music. His latest CD is called “Bone Days,” released by Amy Ray’s Daemon Records. While I’m name dropping, the executive producer on the disc is Angelina Jolie.
Trudell’s records are unique. The band lays down a blues rock foundation with Mark Shark’s guitar providing snaky leads. Trudell recites his poems over this foundation like a Leonard Cohen who simply doesn’t sing. Other voices provide counterpoint. Sharp sings on occasion, which grounds the songs in pop song styles, while Quiltman’s vocals and chants connect the songs to Lakota traditions. It’s a sound that straddles genres and cultures. Trudell says, “My goal is very simple. To communicate the human experience.” Some of those experiences are universal, like the faded romance of “Sorry Love.” Trudell voices the disgust of many workers when he says, “Building to the New World Order/We’re expected to carry the stone.” The closing track, “Hanging From the Cross,” channels centuries of pain and anger at religion imposed at sword point or by bureaucrats. When John spits, “In the name of their savior/forcing on us the trinity of the chain/guilt, sin and blame,” we see religion in a way we’re not used to. It’s the flip side of “saving the savages” that you saw in the old western. Were they ever really lost?
If Spirit Nation brings the Native voice to our living rooms, and John Trudell meets us halfway to his world, a new film from the Canadian arctic takes us all the way into the Inuit world. I haven’t had a chance to see Atanarjuat, but the buzz on the film is growing louder and louder. I first heard of the project when the Film Board of Canada announced funding for a feature film to be written, produced, directed and acted by Inuits. The story is based on an Inuit legend. The basic story is a universal tale of betrayal and redemption, blood feuds and jealousies. For generations, Igloolik elders have kept the legend of Atanarjuat alive to teach young Inuit the danger of setting personal desire above the needs of the group. Time magazine calls it, “a riproaring yarn and a spectacularly new and odd vision… An elemental tale of sex and violence.” The film has been a his on the film festival circuit and won the Camera d’or for best first feature film at the 2001 Cannes International Film Festival. I’m quite sure I’ll have more to say about this film when I actually get to see it. The on-line trailer looks good.
I want to close with a quick traveler’s tale. A few months ago, I was in Toronto. I was channel surfing on my hotel TV; checking out curling matches and Much Music on local stations. Then I came across something truly unique. One of the cable channels was giving extensive coverage to preparation for the Arctic Games in Nunavut and Greenland. It was a facinating program both about the Arctic Games themselves and the preparations going on in the capital city of Canada’s newest province. When the program ended, I found I was watching the Aboriginal People’s Television Network, which is dedicated to “sharing our peoples’ journey, celebrating our cultures, inspiring our children and honoring the wisdom of our Elders.” The news and entertainment programming is almost entirely by, for, and about aboriginal peoples of Canada (they do show re-runs of Northern Exposure too). I can’t say I loved all of the programming I saw on APTN, but then I’m not their target audience. I’ll add APTN to my list of cable stations I wish my local provider offered.
If you live in the Tampa Bay area, you can check out the Two Worlds show on WMNF, 88.5 FM. The one-hour program airs at 11pm on Sunday nights and features music and community news. It’s not an all Native television network, but the hosts, Jacob Eagle Eyes and Chante Ishta, do their best to give our community an opportunity to hear real Native voices.