Oct 12, 2017 - Indian Movies: If We Forgive Them, What Is Left? By Cliff Taylor
The first indian movie I remember really moving me was Smoke Signals in my Native Lit class when I was nineteen and a Freshman in college. It affected me because I was one of two native students in the class and even though I didn’t connect with a lot of what was specifically indian in it, I did feel a lot come up in me because I was an indian and I was watching an indian movie in a class of mostly non-indians and I was aware of this center-staging situation and I didn’t know what to make of it. It was one of the first times I really began to say and feel and know all at the same time, the truth of the statement: “I am indian. I AM Indian. I AM-”
When I was twenty three I went to this late night house ceremony after a sweat. A bunch of us were just chilling in the living room as other folks got things ready in the kitchen and down in the basement. An aunty put on Thunderheart and turned off the lights in the living room. The movie started playing and, off to my right, at the kitchen table, the medicine man lit and began to smoke the pipe that was offered to him. You know that scene at the beginning where those old-time ghosts are dancing around a tree in the Badlands? That very scene was playing when that indian doctor began to puff on that pipe. The TV began to go wonky as he puffed. The image warped and whipped, like there was something wrong with the screen, like a giant magnet was circling the whole old TV console. When he finished puffing the screen returned to normal and the movie played on without any hiccups. Even then, I knew that as those old-time spirits danced in that indian movie (the real favorite of most indians I know), it was the spirits in real life connected to that medicine man that was making the screen go all funny. Sitting there, I got chills, got quiet, and just kept watching the movie.
Once, about a year sober, I went and watched an hour-long documentary at the biannual native film festival with my tall white punker poet friend Frank. The documentary was about two daughters reconnecting with their incorrigible, incarcerated indian father. That documentary was my life, without the reconnection part: my dad was doing ten years and I wouldn’t see him for that entire time. I fought back tears ‘like a real man’ the whole movie. Who could understand? Who but another native could understand the pain of being an indian with a fucked up, hardcore indian dad doing time in a way that was killing you both? The pain inside was so particular, so particularly indian. But here was this film telling that story, portraying that particular pain, and powerfully, heartbreakingly so. Afterwards, walking along the snowy streets outside, I turned to Frank with a smile and said, “You know what that movie makes me feel like doing?” “What?” he asked, looking clueless but maybe also nervous, too. “It makes me feel like drinking,” I said. “Like getting drunk.” “Really?” “Yeah.” “You serious?” “Yeah, I fucking am. Wanna go get drunk?” Maybe he could see the pain in my eyes; I’m not sure; but he looked like he wasn’t ready to go swimming in the waters I was hungry to do combat or my grief-dancing in. “I’d rather not,” he said. I wound up giving him the keys to my car so that he could get home and then I went to my old favorite bar, O’Rourke’s, and proceeded to just get totally shitfaced by myself, drinking alone till close, just reliving my memories and my life in my head, feeling tragic, fucked, hurt, alone, and so full of a missing of so much that there would never be enough words to describe and cry and tell it all. There would never be enough words in all of the world to tell it all-
I ran into Joe Bad’s widow after watching a screening of The Business of Fancydancing. We hugged. We caught up. Joe had by then been gone for a couple of years. Then she told me that one of her nephews I had known when he was in middle school, a twin, a chekpa, had killed himself; at age eighteen he had committed suicide. We both wanted to cry. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what to say. Later, I’d write a poem about him. What lives inside our indian youth that causes so many of them to take their own lives? It’s much bigger than the story of what can be read around them. They are dying of history. History properly held can teach one how to live their own story; history hidden, left untended, neglected, used for all the wrong reasons, unaddressed, can wind up snuffing out and taking out the light of one’s life and story. History is alive. O, this business of fancydancing-
Tonight I watched Wind River in the theater with my girlfriend (she’s off talking with her mom on the phone as I sit in the bookstore writing this), a movie inspired by all the cases of missing and murdered indigenous women. I was the only indian in the theater. We laughed at dialogue that rang refreshingly true, that was some spot-on commentary on native life in America, while the rest of the audience remained quiet, maybe getting it but not quiet getting it in the same way. Towards the end a flashback scene depicted the rape and murder that the whole mystery of the movie was wrapped tightly around like a rough and kind of beautiful cloth ball. It was so graphic. I watched it with a feeling I’ve always gotten when such horrors are shown on the screen: some deep part of me is so familiar with feeling the real unspeakable horrors that’re really just below the surface everywhere, woven into the very essence of what has led up to this moment in time/life/and culture, that I unflinchingly feel the full naked brunt of what’s being presented almost as like a prayerful bearing or prayerful experiencing for the sake of what wants to be known, of what wants to be felt, of what wants to be seen in all of its actuality and true pain; I watched with a sick gut and a feeling heart the horrific rape while my girlfriend first covered her eyes, then fled, leaving the theater without saying a word.
I stayed and watched the rest of the movie. I didn’t know if I was supposed to grab her stuff and leave with only ten minutes of the quality indian movie left to go like a good boyfriend or if it was okay for me to do what I was doing, just continue watching the movie, seeing it through to the end to find out what all was left/going to happen. She eventually came back. I asked her if she was okay. She said she was. We kissed and stayed through the credits. When the lights came on and the two young workers came in to sweep and clean, we held hands and talked. “That was a pretty good indian movie,” I said. “It was,” she said. “I’m glad we got to see it. I’m glad I got to see it with you.”
Cliff Taylor is a writer, a poet, a speaker, and an enrolled member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. He has written a non-fiction book about the little people and recently completed a memoir, Special Dogs, about coming-of-age in Nebraska. A year ago he moved to Seattle. He’s waiting to see what happens next. Contact Cliff @ email@example.com