In the 1950s, Jay Silverheels, an Indian born on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont., became a TV legend as Tonto, the masked man’s sidekick in The Lone Ranger. Now, Gary Farmer, an actor born on the same reserve, has blazed a radically different trail to Hollywood—guided by native legend. He is the star of a movie titled
Powwow Highway, an enchanting comic fable about two Indians on a trip through the contemporary American West. Farmer portrays Philbert, a spiritual renegade trying to retrieve the magic of his ancestral past. Early in the movie, he gazes at a junkyard of rusting cars and hallucinates that they are wild horses. He buys a 1964 Buick Wildcat, tawny with rust, its vinyl roof peeling like birchbark. Naming it Protector, his “war pony,” he takes a friend— and the audience—on an exhilarating ride.
Road movies have been around for a long time. But Powwow Highway pushes the formula through unfamiliar terrain to a new frontier. Funny, poignant and inspirational, it is a seminal film that does for Indian culture what 1973’s reggae adventure The Harder They Come did for Jamaican culture. The movie reflects a convergence of creative energies in
the native arts community. Its opening in Canadian theatres on April 21 coincides with both the publication of a biography of Cree Chief Billy Diamond by Roy MacGregor and the Toronto opening of Dry Lips Ought a Move to Kapuskasing, a new drama by native playwright Tomson Highway, with an all-Indian cast that includes Farmer. “The native com-
munity in Canada has been able to unify itself in the last five years,” Farmer said during a break in rehearsals for the play at Theatre Passe Muraille. “We respect each other and work together very co-operatively.”
Powwow Highway establishes Farmer as a unique and remarkable talent. After the movie opened in the United States last month, American critics greeted his performance with rave reviews. The Los Angeles Times called the 36year-old actor “possibly the most endearing screen presence since E.T.” And The Seattle Times hailed Powwow Highway as “a native American Rain Man." Like E.T.’s alien and Rain Man’s autistic hero, Farmer’s Philbert seems like a visitor from another world, blithely incapable of accepting civilization at face value. A massive man with a beatific smile, Farmer fills the screen with gentle warmth. As
Philbert, he portrays a deranged innocent who is wiser than he seems, an unprepossessing hero who steals hearts without a struggle. He is childlike, acquiescent and instantly lovable: his face opens to the camera’s generous closeups like a flower to sunlight.
The movie itself is far from perfect. Produced for just $3.5 million by Britain’s HandMade Films, it has some ragged edges, some stilted acting from a few of the minor players and a plot that is about as credible as Philbert’s battered car is roadworthy. But, ultimately, none of that seems to matter. The movie works by charm and magic, and its imperfections are no more distracting than knife scratches on a carved artifact.
Set on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Lame Deer, Mont., the story focuses on the relationship between Philbert, the dreamer, and Buddy, the straight man. Portrayed by A Martinez, the part-Blackfoot star of the NBC daytime soap Santa Barbara, Buddy is an angry activist, a disillusioned veteran of the now-defunct American Indian Movement (AIM). In a band council meeting, he vehemently condemns a proposal to mine coal on Cheyenne land. Federal agents, conniving to lure him away from reserve politics, arrest his sister in New Mexico after planting marijuana in her car. Agreeing to come to her aid, Buddy then hitches a ride with Philbert in the beatup Buick.
Philbert, however, has a hidden agenda. While Buddy sleeps, he takes a wild detour to ancestral Indian lands in South Dakota. Following a trail of signs and visions, he « picks up stones as talismans. 5 “Every warrior must have a $ medicine bundle,” he tells his z companion. But Buddy has no 5 patience for the old ways. At 1/1 a ceremonial dance he says, “Look at these people, traipsing around a basketball court—you’d think that a few lousy beads and some feathers was a culture.”
Buddy is a lean-bodied pragmatist angered by the corruption and pollution of the white man’s world, but powerless. Philbert is a fat visionary who is physically wedded to white civilization—he is constantly stuffing himself with hamburgers, milk shakes and chocolate bars—but he can see beyond it to a world of warrior spirits. South African-born film-maker Jonathan Wacks, directing his first feature, makes the most of Farmer’s disarming presence. And, despite Powwow Highway’s serious subtext, the story unfolds with such a casual sense of humor that, in the end, its emotional power comes as a surprise—a happy ambush.
Serendipity also seems to have played a role in the making of the movie. The script is based on a 1978 novel by David Seals, a white
American who published it privately in a few hundred Xeroxed copies. It fell into the hands of Los Angeles screenwriters Janet Heaney and Jean Stawarz, also non-Indians. To give their script some authenticity, they used consultants from the native community, including former AIM leader John Trudell, a songwriter known for the rock-poetry recording aka Graffiti Man with native guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, who died last year.
Before his death, Davis made a crucial contact for the film while performing at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. Rock stars Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Jackson Browne and George Harrison came to watch and ended up on stage with the band. That night, Davis spoke about Powwow Highway to Harrison, co-owner of HandMade Films, who later agreed to produce it. Robertson—who had begun to rediscover his native heritage as the son of a Mohawk woman from the Six Nations Reserve—contributed songs to the sound track. “The movie seemed to have a life of its own,” said Farmer, who was cast after one of the film-makers saw him in Theatre Passe Muraille’s 1987 production of Jessica, a play about the dilemmas of native culture.
For Farmer, Powwow Highway marks both a personal and a professional breakthrough. The seven-week shoot was spread over locations in four states in the fall of 1987. And before it started on the Lame Deer reserve, Farmer spent 10 days with the Cheyenne, participating in their spiritual ceremonies, studying their language and songs. “They’re a real warrior society,” he said. “And they took me in like anything. They handed me Philbert on a silver platter.” The crew first assembled on Halloween, and that is when Farmer met the woman who would become his wife—screenwriter Stawarz. “She’s from the Polish-Irish-Italian nation,” jokes Farmer, “the swampy whiteman’s nation. But, as Stawarz points out, “We had Philbert in common.”
More than a year passed before the movie’s release. Between acting jobs in Los Angeles, Farmer survived by working in a factory making cardboard boxes.With Powwow Highway ’s success, he has received some solid acting offers from Hollywood studios. But for the moment, he has turned them down to perform in Dry Lips. Farmer takes a philosophical approach to fame: “We all have 15 minutes of it, I suppose—so said that poor fellow from New York. I want to turn it around into positive energy. The time has come for native artists.”
Like Philbert, Farmer is a dreamer seeking to reclaim a heritage. He talks warmly of his father, a former crane operator who ran a general store on his reserve before dying at 46 from heart problems. “He was struck by lightning some years before,” recalled the actor, “and it was basically downhill after that.” Four days before his death in 1978, Farmer’s father bought the family a new white Cadillac. Like Philbert’s war pony, it was perhaps a talisman of a brighter future—both for his son and his people. .
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