Witt students, experts seek to understand Native American history

By 2003, when the Tom Cruise movie “The Last Samurai” came out telling the story of a disillusioned Civil War Veteran adopted into a Samurai group, I was sure the producers had hijacked “Dances” from the American West to the Far East, thrown in costume changes and told the same tale.

I also had the suspicion the “Samurai” producers might have used both racial and alphabetical profiling plan to cast the lead, given that, like Costner, Cruise’s last name begins with C.

Irene Bedard, a Yellow Springs film actor and the founder of Sleeping Lady Films/Walking Giant productions, said another instance of that pattern appeared in 2009 with the release of the James Cameron hit (another C, I’m just saying) “Avatar.”

If it doesn’t please her, she does understand the reason.

In each case, the lead actor serves as an “Everyman,” a kind of interpreter of a different culture. In the case of “Avatar,” the interpreter being war veteran Jake Sully.

Bedard, who played the voice of Pocahontas in the 1995 Disney film and whose physical likeness also shows in the animated character, smiled wryly earlier this month when she told a gathering of Wittenberg University students that “Avatar” may have marked a change in the characterization of Native Americans.

“We’re just turning blue, I guess.”

Bedard appeared with Michael Wilcox, an assistant professor of anthropology at Stanford University, to talk with students about how the fields of film and anthropology tell the stories of Native Americans.

Both riffed on the theme sounded more loudly by African American writer Ralph Ellison in his best known book, “Invisible Man.”

“We’re invisible people,” said Bedard, who is of Cree and Inuit ancestry.

Seldom represented in film, usually in limited roles, she said Native Americans off the screen are tending an “indigenous soul wound” inflicted by cultural forces that have disconnected people from each other and from the natural world, which has been “paved over” through misuse of the tools of science.

Similarly, Wilcox, a descendant of Yumas of the Southwest, argues that Native American cultures have been picked apart by the anthropologists and archaeologists responsible for unearthing and interpreting them, leaving many of the stories buried.

He said “faulty narratives” introduced by academics serve as stories that bury Native Americans in the past rather than focusing on a continuing vibrancy 500 years after colonization arrived.

To Wilcox, academics have overemphasized the toll of diseases introduced by Europeans on Native American populations, failed to tell stories of resistance to Spanish rule in the American Southwest and underestimated the role Native Americans played in creating “Catholicism on their own terms” in areas of Spanish influence.

In his field, Wilcox asks the same questions raised about the portrayal of Native Americans on the screen: Who controls the narrative? Who took our story? How did that happen?

Bedard said there are are immense practical obstacles in gaining an audience for the story of a minority subculture in a majority culture, largely due to finances.

Although the emergence of independent film making has produced more Native American stories, finding studios and distributors willing to provide financial backing to such projects remains an issue. Wilcox, meanwhile, has been at work on research he hopes will bring new story lines to the field of Native American history.

Both Wilcox and Bedard face another challenge for Native American stories: The sense in the larger culture that, to borrow a phrase from author Dee Brown, the heart of Native American culture was buried at Wounded Knee.

Last week, and near the end of this Native American Heritage Month, filmmaker Ric Burns, younger brother of PBS icon Ken Burns, re-examined the slice of the historic Native American story that persists in mainstream American culture in “The Pilgrims.”

It is, of course, the Thanksgiving story, the sanitized version we celebrate each November in a parade of warmth that avoids any mention of the realities Burns explored: deaths by plague, a beheading, extreme suffering, the radical nature of the Pilgrims themselves or their ill-advised decision to sail so late in the season that they couldn’t plant and harvest crops that might help them overwinter.

Bedard’s earliest film role dealt with the Native American hero of Thanksgiving, Squanto or Tisquantum. The sole survivor of a tribe otherwise wiped out by the plague, his personal story provides the depth of compassion to the Thanksgiving story.

Captured and transported to England as a young man, he essentially was put on display like a New World curiosity until he managed to escape to a French monastery in time to see his people wiped out by disease.

Despite the wrongs done to him, Bedard said, he showed mercy to the Pilgrims.

A woman who always asks the question “Where is the humanity?” when looking for a story with universal appeal, Bedard finds it in a man who found a way to healing and hope.

She hopes, too, that Native American stories told in film and by anthropologists like Wilcox can help to restore breaks in the “sacred hoop” that connects people with one another and the earth and to heal the “soul wounds” of all who are native to the planet.

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