Tribal tribulations

Debate grows over who owns native culture

Brian D. Johnson February 19 1990

Tribal tribulations

Debate grows over who owns native culture

Brian D. Johnson February 19 1990

In television and movies, they have been portrayed as ruthless savages and stoic victims. Museums have placed their sacred artifacts under glass, while art galleries tend to undervalue their contemporary art. And their image has been reproduced as a cartoon stereotype on sports team logos and TV test patterns. Indians have not been well treated at the trading post of North American culture. But over the past decade, while fighting for land claims, they have also begun to reclaim their culture. Native performers, writers and artists are making their voices heard. And as aboriginal culture becomes hot property in the commercial mainstream, they are challenging nonnative attempts to portray it. This week, a CTV movie titled Divided Loyalties dramatizes the 18th-century saga of Mohawk chief Joseph Brant. An action-packed drama costing almost $6 million, it attempts to shatter the myth that Canadian history lacks violence and color. It also reopens a vital chapter of native history. But the movie has already stirred up resentment in the native community: its Indian hero is portrayed by a white man.

The controversy surrounding Divided Loyalties is just one of many. Recently, non-native producers, directors, writers and visual artists have been accused of stealing and misinterpreting Indian stories, myths and icons. Some native critics complained that Where the Spirit Lives, a widely acclaimed movie shown on CBC TV last fall, presented an inauthentic and sentimental portrait of Indians growing up in the residential school system. Best-selling British Columbia author W. P. Kinsella came under fire with last year’s publication of The Miss Hobbema Pageant, his sixth book of fictional stories set on and around the Hobbema reserve in northern Alberta. And Calgary visual artist Joane Cardinal-Shubert has criticized some of her white colleagues for imitating native icons. “Native artists,” she told Maclean’s, “should be given the respect that is given to nonnatives who have copyright-minded lawyers lurking in the background.”

Such resentment coexists with a new confidence among native artists. In the past decade, many have broken into the cultural mainstream with their own visions. In fiction, North Dakota-born Louise Erdrich has won enthusiastic acclaim with such best-selling novels as Love Medicine (1984) and Tracks (1988), while Canada’s Thomas King is arousing widespread interest with his first novel, Medicine River. Onstage, a close-knit community of writers and actors has created what is arguably the most vibrant new force in Canadian theatre. Manitoba-born Cree Tomson Highway, 38, has acquired an international reputation for his plays about reserve experience. Highway’s The Rez Sisters toured the country for five months in 1987 and 1988. Last year, his Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing won Toronto’s top theatre prize, the Dora Mavor Moore Award for best new play, and it is among the nominees for this year’s Governor General’s Awards. Now, Toronto producer David Mirvish plans to remount Dry Lips at the 1,500-seat Royal Alexandra Theatre.

Meanwhile, several actors who have honed their skills in Toronto’s native theatre community have been discovered by Hollywood. Gary Farmer won raves for his starring role in last year’s Powwow Highway, a comic road movie about two Cheyenne buddies in the contemporary American West. Graham Greene, another native actor from Toronto, costars with Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, a period western about the Sioux that Costner, making his debut as a director, is now completing. And, despite Hollywood’s conventional wisdom that native movies do not sell, Canadian director Norman Jewison is planning a screen adaptation of Kinsella’s first book of Indian stories, Dance Me Outside (1977). Jewison defends the artist’s right to cross racial lines. “Should I only do films about white breads?” he said. “Or Spike Lee should only do films about black people? Sensitivity on the part of the artist is what is required.” But he added that he would insist on casting natives in native parts. “The talent that has come out of the native community in Toronto theatre alone in the past five years is stunning,” he said.

As native culture merges with the mainstream, friction seems inevitable. Divided Loyalties, the first in a series of historical dramas that Baton Broadcasting Inc. plans to make for CTV, focuses on a Mohawk warrior chief who made painful compromises between the white and native worlds two centuries ago. Joseph Brant was raised as a Christian and educated in English schools in New England. When he was in his mid-30s, he rallied four tribes of the Iroquois Six Nations confederacy behind the British in fighting the patriots of the American Revolution. Later, Brant was vilified as a traitor by some of his own people—including his son. He died in self-exile from his people in what is now Burlington, Ont., in 1807. Arid on the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, the Ontario town that bears his name, the nature of his legacy is still debated.

Lushly photographed, Divided Loyalties dramatizes Brant’s story in two hours as a violent, noisy pageant teeming with extras. Amid the battle scenes, character development receives short shrift. The film-makers took pains to ensure authenticity—hiring historians to help with the script and a native consultant to work on sets. Yet there are curious lapses in realism. In one scene, Brant disembarks from a canoe without securing it—and it drifts away, empty.

The most jarring breach of credibility, however, is in the portrayal of Brant. The executive producer of Divided Loyalties, former CTV newsman Tom Gould, says that it was impossible to find a suitable native actor for the part. After an extensive talent search in Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles, the film-makers hired a relatively unknown white actor: Jack Langedijk, a Montrealer of Dutch descent with black hair and dark eyes. “We chose Jack for his general appearance, his acting and athletic ability,” said Gould. “We expected controversy—there was talk of a boycott.”

In fact, some native actors refused to be a part of Divided Loyalties, and others accepted roles with reluctance. Tantoo Cardinal, the Alberta-born Métis who portrays Brant’s sister, Molly, said she was upset about the casting of a non-native as the lead—“I thought we were beyond that.” Added Cardinal, now based in Los Angeles: “I thought of not doing it, but then they would probably have hired a nonnative for my part, too.” Cardinal also has a role in Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. “Kevin didn’t even consider non-natives for native roles—not for a moment,” she said.

Still, the Toronto-based director of Divided Loyalties, Maltese-born Mario Azzopardi, calls the casting issue “unimportant.” He met with native actors, including Greene and Farmer, both of whom grew up on the Six Nations reserve. But he says that they were not suitable for the lead (both turned down offers of minor roles). At one time, Christopher Plummer was being considered to play George Washington. Native screenwriter Drew Taylor, who met with the director last January, recalls that Azzopardi said, “If you put a native actor up against Plummer, Plummer would blow him right out of the water.” Dismissing the controversy as the product of “silly, ultranationalistic attitudes,” Azzopardi told Maclean’s: “Every nation in the world has had to suffer. Where I come from makes the history of the Indians look like scouts—the Maltese have been shat upon by every power in the Mediterranean for thousands of years.”

Azzopardi also became embroiled in a controversy with his producers. He says that he had “huge artistic differences” with them. In fact, the producers of Divided Loyalties rejected Azzopardi’s version of the film and recut it themselves without his participation. The result is “extremely pedantic,” said Azzopardi. Charging that the producers “emasculated” his interpretation of native history, he said, “Everything that I had worked for for six months went down the tubes.” Joseph Garwood, Baton’s executive in charge of the production, says that Azzopardi went over budget and overtime in treating the TV movie like a theatrical epic. As for the casting of Brant, Garwood said, “The movie was not intended as a pro-native employment action.”

The non-native producers of last fall’s TV movie Where the Spirit Lives appeared to be more sensitive to native concerns. Various Indian consultants worked on the script, and all native roles were filled by actors with native blood. But Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, an Ojibway writer based in Toronto, charged that the movie lacked authenticity. Many natives disagreed. In fact, an all-native jury gave the film four awards, including Best Picture, at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco last November. Keeshig-Tobias, however, has inflamed a broader debate by challenging the right of non-natives to tell native stories. “When non-natives retell them,” she said, “they are usually sanitized, taken out of context or watered down.”

Others reject the idea of placing cultural constraints on a writer’s imagination. Playwright Tomson Highway says that what matters is the quality of the writing. “People can write about whatever they want,” he added, “a man, a woman, a rabbit or a refrigerator.” Alberta author Thomas King maintains that some non-native authors handle native material well. “But white writers ought to be careful,” said King. “Anyone who thinks that they can just walk out with certain material and not face objections is mistaken.”

Like Kinsella’s stories, King’s Medicine River creates comedy out of Indian characters in small Alberta communities. “I think that some of Kinsella’s stories are good,” King added, “but too many descend into the horribly burlesque. Too often, he goes for the cheap laugh.” In replying to his critics, Kinsella bluntly said that Indians “don’t have the skill or experience to tell their stories well.”

Many non-native artists disagree—and some have eagerly sought out collaboration with native storytellers. Linda Griffiths, a white actress and writer from Toronto, engaged in an inspiring exchange with Maria Campbell, a Saskatchewan Métis writer, to create an award-winning play, Jessica, in 1981. Produced to great acclaim by Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, it is a story of mixed blood, of animal totems and city temptations.

Recently, Coach House Press published The Book of Jessica, an extraordinary account by Griffiths and Campbell of how they bridged their differences to create the play. The book explores the issue of “cultural theft” with unparalleled candor and insight. Included are transcribed tapes of discussions between the coauthors that are as passionate as lovers’ quarrels. Griffiths says that, for her, native culture was “like a treasure chest opening up.” Confessing her initial mistrust, Campbell points out the frustrating irony of trying to protect native culture. “Our elders teach us that we don’t own, can never own, the land, the stories, the songs,” she says, “not in the way that the outside views ownership.”

But as their culture enters the mainstream, natives are beginning to raise issues of copyright. And the concern is perhaps most tangible in the visual arts. In a broadside published last fall by Fuse Magazine, a Toronto-based arts periodical, Calgary’s Joane Cardinal-Shubert—sister of architect Douglas Cardinal— lashed out against what she calls the “mining” of native art. “Just as Picasso pillaged African art,” she writes, “white mainstream artists today feel quite justified in creating works rampant with misused symbolism.”

Specifically, Cardinal-Shubert charged that images of native sweat-lodge ceremonies by one established, non-Indian Toronto artist, Andy Fabo, were part of a “steamroller rip-off of cultural icons.” And she lambasted an innovative group of three Toronto artists, called Fastwürms, who mounted a major exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1988. It included a parody of museum relics in glass cases. The ersatz artifacts, which included a birchbark fez cap, were “cross-cultural jokes,” according to Dai Skuse, a spokesman for the group. “We are paying respect, not ripping off,” said Skuse.

As native artists recognize fragments of their culture resurfacing in other contexts, their resentment sometimes reflects their frustration in failing to find expression and compensation for their own work. Earlier this month, an artists’ lobby group levelled charges of racism at Hull, Que.’s Museum of Civilization for the way in which it negotiates with folk artists, including Indians and Inuit. Greg Graham, national director of Canadian Artists’ Representation, said that the museum’s umbrella contract for such artists is “coercive and misleading.” The museum’s deputy director, Jacques Ouellet, dismissed the attack as “unjust”—but agreed reforms could be in order.

In Canada’s scant history as a nation, native heritage offers the only ancient thread of homegrown cultural identity. The country is “haunted by a lack of ghosts,” as literary critic Northrop Frye has put it. And as non-natives go prospecting for myth, native culture looms as an invaluable resource. But for many native artists it represents more than just raw material—it is a sacred trust. Métis rebel Louis Riel once said: “My people will sleep for 100 years. When they awake, it will be the artists who give back their spirit.” Now, as both native and nonnative artists lay claim to North America’s aboriginal legacy, new treaties will have to be forged on the frontier of the imagination.