This weekend I attended the California American Indian & Indigenous Film Festival at Pechanga Resort & Casino. Despite having lived in Murrieta for over ten years I have never actually visited this casino. It was a beautiful resort & casino with a high American Indian influence in both design and aesthetic. I can see why the casino is so popular amongst distant visitors. When I first stepped into the room where they would be showcasing the film I was greeted by a few volunteers who were helping to sell both art and jewelry hand designed by local American Indians. The art pieces that were on the wall were incredibly beautiful while the jewelry was so unique that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a piece for myself. I hadn’t even stepped into the theater fully yet and I was already enjoying myself. The film that I attended was Dances with Wolves (1990) starring Kevin Costner.
Dances with Wolves is about a Civil War lieutenant who finds himself developing a relationship between a tribe of Lakota Indians. What started out as the Indians originally deeming all white men as killers trying to take their land and white men deeming Indians as “thieves or beggars” eventually turned into them respecting one another and seeing who they truly are. John Dunbar, later nicknamed Dances with Wolves by those in the tribe, is unlike any other man who fought for the Civil War. He was open minded and curious about the land that lived on. He wasn’t afraid of the Indians when they first approached him with such hostility but neither did he shoot them on the spot as the rest may have done. These rare traits of his is what made it possible for him to establish such a strong friendship between Kicking Bird, Wind in His Hair, and the rest of the tribe members.
Although this was a three hour film, which if I’m honest I was absolutely dreading once I found this out, ended up going by rather quickly once John finally encountered the Lakota’s. I was so enraptured by how they began trying to communicate with one another and how this communication progressed. It started out with a simple yet silly interpretation of a buffalo on John’s behalf, huffing at the dirt with his hands in place of horns, until this charade clicks with Kicking Bird and he says “Tatanka!” As the film progressed so did their ability to communicate. Overall, it was an incredible film and I see now why it had such high praise after its release. Finally there was a film that showcased American Indians in a more accurate light rather than one that simply stereotyped them as a whole. While there has been debate that this representation still has its flaws it is safe to say that it is still a better start than those prior.
The film The Sapphires is a true story about an Aboriginal girl band who sing for the soldiers stationed in Vietnam. I have always wanted to see this film and have actually heard of The Sapphires before but I never knew the history behind Australia’s native Aboriginal population. It is a horrid history to hear about how the fair-skinned children were taken away from their homes and families to institutions where they were passed off as white and were taught “white ways.” Each girl has their own strong personality that make the band successful and the story compelling. What started out as three girls singing country western music at a singing competition to earn a bit of cash ended up becoming four reunited girls coming together to bring hope and spirit to troops all over Vietnam. One of my favorite lines in the film is when Dave Lovelace is trying to convince the girls that they need to step away from country music and embrace the wonder that is soul music.
“Country music is about loss. Soul music is also about loss. But the difference is, in country and western music, they’ve lost, they’ve given up and they’re just at home whining about it. In soul music, they’re struggling to get it back, and they haven’t given up, so every note that passes through your lips should have the tone of a woman who’s grasping and fighting and desperate to retrieve what’s been taken from her.”
When The Sapphires are singing to the troops they are bringing hope back into their lives. And when times are dark and fearful, their voices unite them and tell the troops that we are strong, we can’t let the evil in this world bring us down! That is what I loved about this film. Even when the environment was scary and they had no idea where they would be next or who they would be performing for, the girls always managed to come together in one way or another to lift the falling spirits.
“In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness. It was waiting, waiting to be filled up, waiting for someone to love it, waiting for a leader. And he came on the back of a whale, a man to lead a new people. Our ancestor, Paikea.”
Whale Rider is the incredible story of a young girl, named after her people’s ancestor Paikea, who strives to gain the acceptance of her family by showing them that she can be the leader that her deceased twin brother was destined to be. As a kid I had a passion for all things Polynesian. I even took Polynesian dance for six years and performed in an outfit similar to the one Paikea is wearing above. I still have that same talisman tucked away somewhere in my room. Despite being one of the few white girls in my dance class I managed to learn a lot about the pride that Polynesians have for their culture. Especially that they don’t like being compared to Hawaiians, they are Polynesian to the core. However, I had never heard of the story of their mythic ancestor Paikea. Watching this movie I was fascinated with this legend of the whale rider and how it ties in with their culture. As well as the chants that they would sing in times of hope and in times of loss. Throughout the film I felt as if I was on an emotional roller coaster holding my breath for the moment Paikea’s grandfather realized that she truly was the descendant of their greatest ancestor. It wasn’t until the end when Pai was riding into the ocean on the back of the whale, meanwhile I am bawling my eyes out, that Koro realizes what he has been blind to this whole time, his granddaughter truly is Paikea. Took him long enough!