10,000 Years of Media Flow

by: Faye Ginsburg / New York University

It’s one of those unseasonably warm Saturdays in November,a beautiful autumn day in New York City that competes with the films being shown in darkened rooms during the annual Margaret Mead Film Festival. Staunching my impulse to turn into Central Park,I enter the American Museum of Natural History, the site of the festival. At the 77th St. entrance, I am greeted by the famous replica of a Kwakwaka’wakw war canoe,then walk past the towering totem poles and dioramas that punctuate the cavernous space of the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians. This is the Museum’s oldest exhibition, based on its first major field expedition, made just over a century ago and led by Franz Boas, known as the “father of American anthropology”. This seems the right pathway to take to the screening I am attending, part of the festival’s focus on Native Voices, featuring new media work from Native communities from the American Southwest and the Northwest Coast, complementing the Museum’s most recent exhibition,Totems to Turquoise: Native Jewelry from the Northwest Coast and the Southwest.

A far cry from the mute, traditionally clothed figures in the life groups created by Boas, the indigenous producers in this session have a lot to say to each other and the rest of us; to do that, they have turned to contemporary media forms and a range of distribution strategies. The work they showed ranged from Native Pride (2004), small format rap style video youth media shown on Seattle’s KCTS, to Rez-Robics for Couch Potato Skins (2003) a comedy with native actors who also delivers deadly serious health information on videos that circulate free of charge in “Indian Country”; to the New York premiere of Raven Tales: How Raven Stole the Sun (2004), the first of a series of experiments in digital animation by Simon James (Kwakwaka’wakw)and Chris Klentz (Cherokee), that create new versions of centuries-old stories to be shown across Canada on that country’s Aboriginal People’s Television Network.

Mead Festival curators, Elaine Charnov and Kathy Brew, wanted the program to reflect the range of work coming out of indigenous communities, from local community-based work, to health initiatives, to more high-end productions that are making it onto the international film circuit. Native Pride, a rap-influenced short digital video piece, was made by a group of 25 Swinomish youth who came into Seattle from their reservation to work on Native Lens, a new program made with the 911 Media Arts Center, and shown on Seattle’s KCTS. For the kids who made it, perhaps its most important venue has been its screening on reservation cable TV, where their poetic declarations about their dreams and identities have the greatest resonance.

Rez Robics features two prominent Native actors, Elaine Miles (Utamilla), known for her work in Northern Exposure and Smoke Signals, and Drew LaCapa, the Apache comedian, who calls himself “300 pounds of love”. Together they draw successfully on the understated and self-deprecating Indian humor associated with “the rez” to help address the deadly epidemic of diabetes facing their communities. In this case, with their public health goal of spreading the word, video’s low cost and easy replicability is a plus. As they point out, there is no FBI warning preceding the programs; rather, piracy is invited in the opening title: “Please make copies and give them to your friends and relatives.”

The premiere of the 22 minute, Raven Tales, was the hit of the afternoon, and testimony to the curators’ commitment to showcasing innovative animation works. This work in particular was selected for the way it has brought to life the famous Northwest coast myths from Kwakwaka’wakw, the Squamish, and Haida peoples — bringing the comical raven trickster figure to life, along with eagle, frog, and the first humans. It includes voices ranging from well-known native actors such as Evan Adams of Smoke Signals fame to the voice of Hereditary Chief Robert Joseph. Cutting across both centuries and generations, it uses the playful spirit of animation to visualize and extend the lives of these myths. These stories and the distinctive look of Northwest Coast design have been proven, as producer Simon James joked during the Q & A, by “10,000 years of local market research”.

Spicing up these stark and complex traditional stories with some contemporary humor and the wonders of digital animation is always a risk. But, clearly it was a risk worth taking, judging by the collective gasp of the audience when the murky darkness of the Myth Time is suddenly (and digitally) transformed from barren smoky greys to brilliant greens, the result of the Raven’s theft of the gift of light, and its release into the world. Raven Tales premiered last month in Los Angeles at the National Geographic’s All Roads Film Festival, which gave the project completion funds, the only digital animation in that project. It is slated to air on Canada’s APTN aboriginal TV network in February 2005.

At the end of the Q & A session, the animator Simon James’ father, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist, who had been one of the elders who helped in the ceremonial opening of the Totems to Turquoise show a few weeks earlier, came on stage with his drum, which was embellished with the distinctive raven design. Inviting today’s storytellers onto the stage, he sang, Wiping the Tears, to remember those who have come before and are gone, and to praise the work of this new generation. When Pam Belgarde, the Chippewa woman who produced the Rez Robics tape came up, he dressed her in the traditional black and red regalia, a stunning full-length button cape with appliqués of wild roses, and a regal fur hat.

As he draped the cape across her shoulders, he explained: “When we meet someone we are honored to meet, we dress them to show that we are willing to go cold in order to keep our guests warm.” Simon began to beat the drum, and asked us to look at the empty seats in the theater and think of those who came before; the media producers on stage lowered their eyes. At the conclusion of his song, he addressed the audience and said, “All our ceremonies need witnesses. And as witnesses, we ask you to be part of that tradition, and go and share with others what you have seen today.” The path from the canoe to the century-old totem poles to this room — and between very old and very new media — suddenly became very clear.

Aboriginal Peoples Television Network
Margaret Mead Film Festival
Reviews of The Rez

Please feel free to comment.


  • Ginsburg points to the empowering possibilities media production offers for marginalized groups. Her discussion of the works shown in the Margaret Mead Film Festival demonstrates the versatility of contemporary media forms and distribution strategies used by indigenous producers to express their voice.

    Still, while the media work presented and the ceremony Ginsburg describes seem to empower the marginalized, letting their live voices ring where it had once been frozen by ethnocentricity and anthropological “scientific” exploration, the question still remains whether the showcasing of “Native Voices” to complement “the Museum’s most recent exhibition” is not reminiscent of this older paradigm. Is it possible that the location of the “Native Voice” back within the Museum rather than, for instance, on prime-time television still indicates their marginal status in our consumer society?

  • Sometimes people just want someone to talk to and not to receive advice or judgment. Wait for her to ask you for your opinion before trying to help.

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