Archive for the ‘Native Americans’ Category

The Lost City of Z

April 30, 2017

The Lost City of Z tells the story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer of the early twentieth century, who believed that there had once been a large civilization in the pre-Colombian Amazon Basin. Fawcett and his son, Jack, disappeared while looking for the ruins of a city that Fawcett called “Z”.

This film is ostensibly based on the book, The Lost City of Z, by David Grann. (I haven’t read Grann’s book, but I did read a lengthy excerpt from it in The New Yorker.) Yet it actually has little to do with the book. Grann’s story is an account of his attempts to find out what happened to Fawcett, as well as to to ascertain whether there is any truth to his notion of Z. The film, however, is basically just a biopic about Fawcett. Which is OK, but it would have been better if the film had followed Grann’s narrative combined with scenes from Fawcett’s life. (Embrace of the Serpent, which also happens to be set in the Amazon, shows how effective a dual narrative can be.) Also, the film departs from Grann’s version of Fawcett’s disappearence.

Aside from that, I mostly enjoyed this film, although it dragged in some places. The scenes of Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) arguing with his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller) and his son, Jack (Tom Holland) are unconvincing, and they should have been left out. (Also, Holland is miscast as Jack. He looks and sounds like a teenager. It’s impossible to believe that he would have been allowed to follow his father into the jungle.)

The Lost City of Z is worth seeing, but it could have been a better film.

Embrace of the Serpent

February 29, 2016


The destruction of the Amazon rain forest is one of the great tragedies of our time. It’s not just an environmental tragedy, but a human tragedy as well. Ciro Guerra’s film, Embrace of the Serpent, is a fierce condemnation of what European colonialism has done to the Amazon Indians.

The film has two stories running parallel. In 1909, a German ethnologist, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) enlists the help of a shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) in finding a rare medicinal plant called yakruna. Thirty years later, the American botanist, Evan (Brionne Davis) gets an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) to help him look for the same plant. Karamakate is the last surviving member of his people. He has a deep distrust of whites, yet in each case he reluctantly agrees to help a stranger.

Embrace of the Serpent reminds one of Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, in the ways it contrasts the values of a primitive hunter-gatherer with those modern people. Karamkate complains about the wastefulness of whites and about their attachment to “things”. This film also criticizes the way in which the knowledge of indigenous peoples of the Amazon, including their knowledge of medicinal plants, has been destroyed.

It is also critical of the influence of the Catholic church in the region. In one scene Theo and Karamakate come across a mission run by a Capuchin friar. He forbids the children there from speaking their native language, and he whips them when they disobey him. Years later, Evan and Karamakate find this same mission. It is now the site of a religious cult led by a white man who claims to be Jesus. The suppression of native culture has allowed a perverted existence to take its place.

Embrace of the Serpent is a great film.

The Return of Navajo Boy

October 11, 2011

The Multicultural Center at the University of Oregon recently held a screening of the documentary, The Return of Navajo Boy. The director, Jeff Spitz, spoke beforehand. He told about how in the late 1990’s a man named Bill Kennedy approached him with a film that his recently deceased father had made in the 1950’s. It was a half-hour documentary about the Navajos (Diné) called Navajo Boy. Kennedy asked Spitz to help him preserve his father’s work. Spitz could make no sense out of the film, which had no sound. He took the film to a library in Chicago that had an extensive collection of literature and films related to Native Americans. The people at the library told him that the film showed a ceremony that, according to Navajo religious belief, should never be filmed. They advised him to destroy the movie. Spitz couldn’t bring himself to do this. Instead, he and Kennedy decided to locate the people in the film and ask them what should be done with it.

The documentary begins with Kennedy talking with Lorenzo Begay, a descendent of the family in the film. (We’re not told how Kennedy managed to locate him.) He lives with his family on a reservation in the austerely beautiful Monument Valley in Utah. He takes Kennedy to meet his uncle and his mother, Elsie Mae Cly Begay, both of whom appear as children in the film.

Elsie Mae Cly Begay in the 1950’s.

He shows the movie to the Begay family. They seem pleased to see themselves in it. We are then told about the family’s history. During the 1950’s, they supported themselves by raising sheep, which they still do today. They were also paid by a local merchant to pose for photographs that would be used for postcards. (They also appeared as extras in John Ford’s The Searchers). Elsie Mae’s mother, Happy Cly, was believed to be the most photographed woman in America at that time.

Happy Cly

Some members of the family also worked in the uranium mines. The Navajo workers were not warned about the health hazards of radiation exposure. One of Elsie Mae’s brothers worked in the mines, and he later developed cancer. The film discusses his efforts to get compensation from the government. Also, radioactive tailings from these minds contaminated the ground water. Elsie Mae’s hogan was built using rocks from the mines. Later it was found to contain 80 times the acceptable level of radiation, so it was destroyed. Two of Elsie Mae’s sons died of cancer, and a third has recently developed it. Happy Cly died from cancer. It turns out that the ceremony shown in the documentary by Bill Kennedy’s father is that of a medicine man trying to cure her.

Elsie Mae had a baby brother, John Wayne Cly, who also appears in Kennedy’s movie. When Happy Cly died, the family was unable to take care of him, so they gave him to white missionaries who promised to bring him back when he was older. They never did. When Kennedy’s documentary is shown at a Navajo museum, John Cly, who was then living in New Mexico, reads about it in a newspaper. The film ends with an emotional reunion between him and his family. There is also a postscript that relates how Elsie Mae now travels the country and to other countries to tell people about what uranium mining did to the Navajo nation.

This is an interesting and important film. Incredibly, the government wants to reopen some of these mines to provide fuel for a new generation of nuclear reactors. This is more evidence that nuclear energy is a bad idea.

You can learn more about this film at

Meek’s Cutoff

May 15, 2011

Meek’s Cutoff, a film by Kelly Reichardt, from a screenplay by Jonathan Raymond, is inspired by a real incident. In 1845, a scout named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) leads a small group of settlers -three men, three women, and a boy – through the Oregon High Desert. The trip takes longer than expected, and the settlers begin to suspect that Meek is lost. The dialogue in this film is sparse. When the characters do speak, it is often in hushed voices, as if they are in awe of the vast, empty landscape around them. (Meek is the only character who ever really gets loud in this film.) As the days drag on, they start to run low on water. They come across a lone Indian (Rod Rondeaux), whom they take prisoner. Meek wants to kill him, but the settlers reason that he must know where water is located. They start to follow the Indian, who doesn’t speak English, but seems to know where he is going.

The film is centered around Emily (Michelle Williams). At first she is a submissive wife, (the decisions are all made by the men, without consulting the women) but as the film goes on, she begins to assert herself. She also develops a sympathetic attitude towards the Indian.

This film’s abrupt and ambiguous ending comes almost as a shock. Perhaps Reichardt is implicitly criticizing the Western genre’s tradition of having pat happy endings. In True Grit, for example, the bad guys are all killed, and the good guys survive. At the end of Meek’s Cutoff, it’s not clear whether anyone will survive. The film is more about how these people’s experiences are affecting them mentally and physically.

The film has a grittiness and simplicity that make it seem more realistic than most Westerns, certainly more so than the fake “authenticity” of True Grit. During the course of the film, the characters’ clothing becomes increasingly filthy, something that is usually not depicted in films about pioneers. The performances are good; Williams is quietly affecting as Emily.

Dennis Banks

May 14, 2011

Dennis Banks, who was one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, came to speak at the University of Oregon. His appearance was part of a day long series of events dealing with the problem of diabetes in our society. Banks has for years been working to draw attention to the epidemic of diabetes in Native American communities. However, he also used the occasion to talk about his political experiences.

Banks began by talking about his childhood. An Anishinaabe, he was born in the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota in 1937. When he was four years old, he and his sister were taken away from their parents, and sent to a boarding school with other Indian children. They were not allowed to speak their languages and practice their customs. The children were only taught to do manual labor. This was part of a U.S. government program to “kill the Indian, save the man”. The aim was to destroy the cultures and identities of Native Americans. This was a form of genocide. Interestingly, the U.S. was doing this at the same time it was fighting the Nazis in Europe.

According to Banks, beatings were common at the boarding schools he was sent to. He ran away repeatedly. He escaped for the last time when he was fifteen. He felt bitter that his mother did not seem to write to him while he was in the schools. Three years ago, some people were doing a documentary about him. They went to an office in Kansas City where there are records of these schools. There, they found packets of letters that his mother had written him.

Banks founded one of the first AIM chapters in Minneapolis in 1968. He had observed the civil rights and anti-war movements, and he came to believe that a similar movement was needed to advocate for the rights of Native Americans. In 1973, AIM occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota for seventy-one days to protest rampant corruption on the PIne Ridge Indian Reservation. (Banks prefers to say that they “secured” the town.) Afterwards Banks and Russell Means were charged with 16 felony counts and faced two hundred years in prison. Their trial lasted nine months. At one point an FBI agent testified, “My job was to bring down Dennis Banks.” As he was leaving, he said to Banks, “I’m sorry, Mr. Banks. It was my job.” The government prosecutors repeatedly introduced fabricated evidence. Eventually, the judge threw out all the charges.

The second half of Banks’s talk was devoted to the problem of diabetes. He blamed it on the diet of most Americans. He pointed to the example of the Pimas, whose lands are bisected by the U.S.-Mexican border. The rate of diabetes among Pimas north of the border was far higher than among those in Mexico, even though the two groups are genetically identical. Banks believes that this is because the Pimas in the U.S. have adopted the U.S. diet of the twentieth century, meaning more fat and less starch and fiber. Oddly, Banks made it sound as though he has been fighting the medical establishment on this issue, even though the recommendations he made (eat more vegetables, get more exercise) are often made by doctors.

Banks’s talk went a bit long. In his discussion of diabetes, he made many of the same points over and over again. I have to admit, I became a bit fidgety towards the end. Nevertheless, Banks is a powerful and affecting speaker who has interesting and important things to say.