“You have to be careful of the stories you tell, and you have to watch out for the stories you are told.”-Thomas King
Inconvenient Indian is another documentary I saw at the VIFF. It was another documentary that had something to say.
The film begins with an Indigenous man wearing body makeup and a traditional headdress is on top of a horse in grassland just outside Toronto. He looks onto the buildings of the city. He is not happy. The story then goes to Thomas King in a vintage taxicab driven around downtown Toronto. The theme is the same in both scenes: stolen land. His driver wears a coyote headdress and occasionally glances at the camera. This is a scene that will return many times as the legend moves forward throughout the documentary. During its scenes, it will include King’s parable about a cunning coyote who envies a flock of ducks and plies them with promises, only to continuously ask for more.
We see King at his destination: a vintage cinema. King seats himself in the middle row alone, popcorn in hand. As King watches the screen diligently, many young Indigenous people also enter the theatre soon after. What they see on screen is beyond displeasing, but infuriating. They see past depictions of Indigenous people that are rude, mocking and insulting. They see Nanook Of The North, which was really a fake documentary where the Inuit played stereotypes. They see various scenes from old ‘Cowboys and Indians’ movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age where the Indigenous person is always seen as the bad guy to fight. The lines from the films are especially abhorrent to hear like ‘Indian on the warpath,’ or ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian!’
King reminds us: “History is a story we tell about the past.” We’re reminded that elements of popular culture are part of a war against the white powers that be in North America. It’s a battle that goes back centuries when people left the ‘old country’ to create settlements in the New World. They set up their settlements often by fighting Indigenous tribes through wars over their land. I don’t have to explain what happened to their land. One thing to note is that various types of Indigenous people’s ways of life died off. Some tribes of Indigenous peoples died completely. King even regards Indigenous artifacts in museums as, “voiceless objects from the past, unthreatening and without agency.”
Even if it’s not the wars and stolen land, it’s also about a National Government’s past attempts to suppress Indigenous peoples’ identities, languages, heritages and ways of life. The most infamous being the Residential School system. For those outside Canada who don’t know, the Residential School system was a Government-run system where Indigenous children were taken from their homes and brought to white-run schools where they were taught to speak English and live the way of white Canadians. The schools were run by religious clergy: mostly priests and nuns. The children who didn’t do away with the Indigenous language or traits, or found it hard to, were subject to physical and verbal abuse by the teachers. Many children suffered neglect over their well-being (including fatal neglect) and many were also victims of sexual abuse. I myself have come to see residential schools as a form of apartheid.
Problems still continue. The Indian Wars and Residential Schools are a thing of the past, but we’re now dealing with the aftermath. Today you’ll see in the news stories of Indigenous peoples try to battle police and politicians over developments or plans to be done on their land with their protest blockades. Residential Schools created an aftermath of people unable to parent well because they were taken from their homes. The countless abuse they suffered led many of them to alcoholism, drug abuse, crime and suicides. The last twenty years have brought the past of Residential Schools to the forefront of national discussion and efforts for reconciliation to be made. Present problems still continue with lack of clean drinking water and additional poverty on reserves, continued high crime rates and substance abuse rates, and a higher-than-average dropout rate in schools. The documentary reminds you of this.
The documentary also shows you something else. It shows you young Indigenous people in the arts who are taking their culture and the pasts of their people, and even their own pasts, and adapting it into their own artistic expressions. The artists in focus are a Metis cultural painter, a Cree artistic painter, an Innu filmmaker and documentarian, an Inuit filmmaker and VR creator, and a rap duo of various First Nations:
- Christi Belcourt – Metis artist who specializes in beadwork art and floral patterns. Her patterns carry on the traditions of the Metis and First Nations people, but they’re not all just to please eyes. Some of her art have political messages. She herself is the daughter of a Metis activist and has published some books on First Nations/Metis issues.
- Kent Monkman – A Cree painter who specializes in painting historical narrative from his point of view. In the film, he speaks his anger of how his people have been treated since European settlements and especially of the creation of Canada in 1867. The paintings in his 2017 exhibition, a response to the Canada 150 celebrations, resemble Baroque or Renaissance Era paintings, but they speak of his anger and wrath of the past history and of the mistrust he has towards today’s powers that be.
- Alethia Arnaquq-Baril – An Inuk filmmaker. Her films range from short animated films to feature-length documentaries to live-action storytelling. Her films speak volumes of the discrimination, struggles and hardships of the various Indigenous peoples. One of her films, The Grizzlies, played at the VIFF two years ago. Devoted to keeping tradition alive, the film shows her getting a traditional Inuk tattoo applied on her forehead.
- Nyla Innuksuk – Inuit Film maker and VR creator. Past films include short fiction like a hunter using traditional skills to survive and a short documentary with singer Susan Aglukark. VR work includes work on a VR series allowing the viewer to envision Indigenous life in the future with futuristic characters. The film shows her working on her first feature-length film: a sci-fi story of teen Inuit girls fighting off an alien invasion.
- A Tribe Called Red – A rap duo whose members are of the Mohawk and Cayuga nations. Rap has always had a reputation of being the voice of the voiceless and A Tribe Called Red use it to speak their voices. Their songs mix modern hip-hop and dance sounds with traditional Indigenous music and beats. Their songs also carry a political message. They themselves are also Indigenous activists who were part of the Canadian Pipeline and Railway Protests from February of this year.
The stories of the above artists and their works are mixed in with images of King’s tale of the coyote with the cab scenes, the images of the Indigenous man riding a horse into Toronto and an Inuit man hunting a seal and making use of everything from the seal he hunted including meat, blood, intestines and fur. A mix of screen narrative, storytelling and real life presented as one.
The final scene of the film shows the young adults and Thomas watching the Indigenous images created by Indigenous actors, directors and writers. They’re happy to an extent. The film then shifts to Indigenous issues and disputes that have happened in recent time. This represents the fight is still ongoing.
Thomas King wrote his narrative The Inconvenient Indian back in 2012. The film isn’t an exact adaptation of the book, but passages of what King says in the book are voiced over in the film. The book itself is an examination of North American history. King even presents the point of view as if Columbus didn’t discover America, America discovered Columbus. He also comes across an eyebrow-raising conclusion ‘White people want land.” Essentially the film reminds us that history seen from two different eyes will have two different points of views. Most white people have been taught the history of North America with the white Colonials looking like the good guys and the Indigenous looking like the savages. We’re reminded of that when we see the predominantly white crowd watch the re-enactment of the Battle Of Little Bighorn leading to Custer’s Last Stand. The film reminds you Indigenous people will see history from a very different outlook. That it’s really the white soldiers that are the savages.
The film does shed a lot of the negative moments of the past; moments many white people in North America still consider triumphs. The film shows how white North American’s and others still like to ‘toy around’ with Indigenous culture. We saw that almost a full year ago how the wealthy Park family in South Korea ‘toyed around’ with it in Parasite. However the film then shifts to Indigenous showing their side of the story and spreading their message through art. Seeing it leaves you convinced this is more than just Indigenous people creating their own art. It’s also them responding to the art and history told by white people in the past. Now they have the power to tell their stories. Now they can speak how they really feel. Now they can tell their version of history through their eyes. Now they can create characters that are a true example of their peoples. Now they can be empowered to create and manage their own media. Now they can create their own visions for the future.
You’re left convinced while watching the documentary that only Indigenous peoples can best create Indigenous stories and Indigenous characters. And understandably so. You watch all the insulting depictions of Indigenous peoples in past Hollywood movies and you’re reminded of this. Even getting an uncomfortable reminder you actually enjoyed seeing that. Even I was uncomfortably reminded of the days as a kid when I played ‘Cowboys And Indians.’ It’s no wonder Marlon Brando had Sacheen Littlefeather refuse the Oscar on his behalf back in 1973. When I think of how we no longer see ‘Cowboys And Indians’ movies anymore, I think Sacheen’s refusal has a lot to do with it. People won’t tolerate insulting or mocking depictions of their race anymore. They will be in the audience and they will let you know it if you dare try.
The film is unique that it blends the history of oppression and genocide with the mix of art created by the Indigenous peoples. A lot of feeling goes into what they create. It’s a lot of feeling that they have from what they’ve experienced in their own lives and what they’ve seen happen to their families and neighbors. The film also shows how art created by Indigenous people can lead to something better in the future for the people. You have the current generation of adults 20-50 who are reviving cultural heritages and languages past generations of their family were forbidden to have. You’ll have young people getting a positive image of Indigenous people instead of always seeing them vilified. The film is as much about hope as it is about outrage.
Top respect should go to Michelle Latimer with adapting King’s narrative and showcasing the various arts. Latimer herself is Metis/Algonquin. She mixed King’s narrative with the showcased arts and artists and the moments of history and infamy very well to create not just a documentary and an exhibition, but a vision for the future. Also I admire the National Film Board of Canada for contributing to this. Usually national film bords will only endorse films that only showcase the positive of their nation. NFB won’t shy away from a film that showcases the negative aspects of a nation, like racism. The film comes straight from the TIFF after winning the Best Canadian Feature Film Award and the Grolsch People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary.
In a year where racism is a hot topic, Inconvenient Indian is a documentary worth seeing. It shows what the powerful effect of a depiction of a race in entertainment media can do to a race. And how a race responds with their own art.