Recently, I viewed a documentary titled ‘Reel Injun’ a production by Cree film maker, Neil Diamond, who is originally from Waskaganish, Quebec on the James Bay coast. This was one of the most informative documentaries on First Nation people I have ever watched concerning myths about Natives. I have always been confused about my background in terms of image and promotion produced in the media in general. I never understood or identified with the ideas, myths and stereotypes the world has about Native North Americans. ‘Reel Injun’ really gave me the facts about how all these strange perceptions of Native people evolved.
I have had the opportunity to chat with Neil several times as he is associated with the Nation magazine, a publication produced for the Eeyou Istchee, the Cree of Northern Quebec. I easily identified with Neil’s narrative in ‘Reel Injun’, as he presented the documentary with a generous amount of Native good humour. He is quick to have fun and as a James Bay Cree, Neil understands that making someone laugh while you are teaching them is a Cree tradition that ensures that your story will be appreciated and remembered.
Identifying myself as an Indian has always been complicated and at times frustrating. I have travelled in other parts of the world and whenever people discover that I am Indian they immediately think that I am Asian and come from India. It gets even stranger for me when I explain to them what my background really is. It seems unreal for most people that they would meet a real Canadian Indian in their country. We don’t travel all that much. To demonstrate who I am, I have discovered that the easiest way to get my point across is by performing a Hollywood style war whoop and pretending to pull back an imaginary bow and arrow. No matter what language or culture I am dealing with I realized on my travels that any person who has ever watched television in their lives understands what a war whoop and bow and arrow means. It is the image of a half naked, brown skinned, long haired Indian, riding bare back on his pony across the prairies. The wild prairie Indian is an image that has created all sorts of myths and stereotypes over the years. We can thank television and the movies for those ideas. My Hollywood style Indian act always surprises and delights people from other cultures and then I have the task of telling them about First Nation life in Canada and our traditions and cultures. They are often very shocked that we don’t live in teepees, do not ride horses and we actually live very modern lives.
Neil Diamond’s ‘Reel Injun’ is a genuine and honest perspective of the history of the Hollywood Indian. The film features many prominent Aboriginal personalities such as Adam Beach, Graham Greene and Robby Robinson. I was surprised to see Hollywood actor Clint Eastwood, who famously starred in many westerns and cowboy films, share his experiences in the movie industry and his work with Aboriginal actors. Native activists and advocates from the 60s and 70s were included in the mix to share their perspectives and sometimes their roles in the Hollywood film business. Filmmakers and historians balanced the narrative with Native comedians who poked fun at the strange and outrageous stereotypes and portrayals of the Hollywood Indian. The documentary has been featured in many festivals and is scheduled to be presented at many more across the country. Most notably it is being presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this summer and at the Museum of London, UK in the fall. Scheduled listings can be found by visiting the film’s website at www.reelinjunthemovie.com
‘Reel Injun’ goes back to the very beginning of the movie making industry and to the invention of the moving picture. From that early beginning, many of the ideas and images of Native people have been shaped and cultivated by movies and television. Neil and his production staff did an excellent job of presenting the history of Native people on the big screen and how our popularity has ebbed and flowed with the changing social scene over the past century. In one hour, ‘Reel Injun’ gave me a healthy and informative perspective on the history of how my people are perceived in this world. I understood much of this already but ‘Reel Injun’ really pulled all the facts together to create a valuable perspective.
I got a good laugh at how early Hollywood film producers wanted real Indians but could not find them and what they had to do to put wild savages on the screen. There were flash backs of real Plains Indian Elders who took roles in cowboy westerns because they were able to speak their own language. It turns out that when their speaking parts were translated decades later, those old Elders had enjoyed some fun with the Hollywood cowboys they were working with and nobody knew.
Thanks to the fact that more and more Native people are becoming involved in the media there has been much development in terms of educating the world about my people. So a huge Meegwetch to Neil Diamond for producing ‘Reel Injun’ for the teaching it provides in a humorous and sensitive package. Put it on your list of great movies to see.