It’s good to be young and beautiful.
If you can’t be both, then you should probably be beautiful. If you are a character in a tragic story-line, it also helps to be white.
That’s all I can think of as I watch the final scene of Hostiles. It was a dark and bloody movie, and it certainly had its moments, but in the end it was our beautiful male and female leads, both white, who made it through the carnage. Oh yes, there was one Cheyenne child who survived the ordeal, but he was hardly a full character. We don’t really get to know him. His hopes and dreams are hardly present in the story-line, not those of the many characters native and white who never made it to ride off into a better life at the end of the film, not those of the two lead actors who accompany him. He is present at the end of the story, but largely as a symbol of something about them. The story is about our two beautiful white survivors.
It always was about them.
Hostiles begins with a Comanche raid on a remote homestead somewhere in the west. Rosalee Quaid (played by Rosemund Pike) survives the raid by hiding in a rock outcropping after seeing her husband killed & scalped and all three of her children shot. In the next scene, Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) captures a small group of Apache and drags them in chains to fort in New Mexico which will serve as their prison for the immediate future. It is quickly established that Blocker has done far worse than this in his days fighting Indians out west. He’s seen worse, and he’s done worse, and we’ve seen just enough of his own cruelty to believe it. The message is pretty clear from the get-go the frontier is brutal. Both native and non-native alike are engaged in terrible acts of violence and suffering abounds.
It is 1892, just a couple years after Wounded Knee, and we are looking the tail end of the frontier in American history. The characters filling this story are fully immersed in the bloodshed. That bloodshed has left Blocker and the soldiers with him lacking a bit of humanity and full of hatred. Rosalee Quaid is for the moment left out in the wilderness to suffer alone with the bodies of her dead family. This a world without much in the way of redeeming qualities.
It turns out that Blocker will soon be retiring from military service. The major plot takes shape when he is given one final assignment. He must escort Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a Cheyenne war chief, to the man’s home in Montana. Blocker objects to this. Yellow Hawk is an old enemy. Yellow Hawk has personally killed a number of Blocker’s friends, and so he wants no part of any plan to help the man regain his freedom, but Yellow Hawk is dying. With the aid of Indian reformers, he has obtained an order from President Harrison authorizing his own release along with a military escort home. Whether he likes it or not, Blocker must take Yellow Hawk and his family to Montana.
The story-line that follows is every bit as violent as the opening sequence. Blocker would rather kill Yellow Hawk than help him (in fact he tries). They find Quaid of course. Her suffering provides Blocker with a chance to prove he still has a human side, albeit one reserved at the moment for some people and not others. The whole lot of them are pursued by the same Comanche that’d killed Quaid’s entire family. Blocker and his troops struggle to fight them off with the help of Yellow Hawk and his son (played by Adam Beach), both of whom are still in chains in this opening exchange. In time, Blocker is convinced to remove their chains, and shortly after they come to find the remaining members of the same Comanche raiding party have been killed in the night. Blocker is both relieved and embarrassed. Soon after, he and his Indian wards find themselves fighting fur traders who have kidnapped the women. An additional battle or two with an imprisoned soldier rounds out most of the fighting. They arrive in Montana just in time for Yellow Hawk to die peacefully in his homeland.
…but not before he and Blocker become friends.
When a local rancher objects to Yellow Hawk’s burial on his own property, the resulting battle leaves everyone dead but Blocker, Quaid, and one young Cheyenne boy, all of which leads us to that final scene.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot that this movie gets right. Their use of Cheyenne is particularly well done, and the characters are both vivid and interesting. The grimness of the whole story-line would normally be a strong selling point for me. Hell, it was. I liked that part of this movie.
What I didn’t like was the convenience of the story. The magic negro can as easily be just about any other magic minority, and Yellow Hawk fits that role perfectly. He has lived through the same violent period of American history that Blocker has, and he has committed atrocities just as Blocker has. He has even spent much of his recent life in prison. Yet he lacks the bitterness of Blocker and the rest of the soldiers. Yellow Hawk’s wisdom is a stabilizing force throughout the film. Studi is brilliant, as usual, and so the performance isn’t as over-the-top as many who have played such roles. Still, you can’t help but notice this is another story in which a minority with great wisdom helps the central character, a white man, overcome his own demons and face the world.
…but only after this same minority-advisor has died.
Yellow Hawk isn’t in possession of magical powers, which is a staple of the Magic minority character. Or is he? We never do learn how he and his son managed to kill the Comanche raiders, and it didn’t likely actually involve magical powers. Still, the action is inexplicable in terms of the plot line. Nobody else could have done it, and we never do see it as anything but an accomplished fact. It’s not a supernatural event, but it might as well have been.
And then of course, there is Yellow Hawk’s death, preceded of course by a conversation with Blocker, one in which Blocker finally achieves some peace, realizing that Yellow Hawk too has lost friends in the wars they have both fought. It’s a deeply moving scene. It’s also a very familiar scene. Once again, the death of a great and wise person of color leaves our wounded white protagonist with the strength and wisdom to put the rest of his life back together and move on.
And so the stories ends, as I began it here, with Quaid and Blocker and that one Cheyenne child at a train station. She will evidently raise him, a sort of replacement for her own lost children, and Blocker will go on to build a new life for himself, a life that might now be worth living, now that he has finally set aside the hatred he carried in the opening scenes. Even the child is safe now.
We should be happy.
I should be happy.
But I’m not.
Why is the child there anyway? He is there to confirm the healing of the two main white characters, both of whom now treat him with kindness despite enduring great loss at the hands of native peoples. He too accepts them, but his acceptance was never central to the plot. It was Quaid who could hardly be expected to endure the presence of Indians a few scenes into this film. It was Blocker that wanted to kill his Indian wards in the opening scenes. It is their ability to treat Indians well despite everything that we are supposed to find reassuring in the end.
This a very convenient reassurance, coming as it does at the price of so many other lives.
It would be easy to accept the victory we have been offered in Hostiles, easy to feel good because hearts have healed. The price of this healing was the lives of countless others, and in particular the life of the very Indians we are now reassured these two main characters no longer hate and fear. Every major native character was killed, and the only one we are left with is a child who will now be raised in the white world.
This really is a perfect symbol for the time of boarding schools and general allotment. Our heroes will go on to live in a world less violent, but a world less violent because many never made it into that world with them. The one ‘savage’ left alive at the conclusion of this story is no threat,of course, so what are we to make of the peace these adults make with him? They will go on to enjoy a well-earned peace, so we are shown, but what about him?
This child will no doubt survive.
But will the Indian?
I will admit that I enjoyed the Proposal, but I’m not so sure I liked it.
Well that makes sense to me at any rate. So anyway…
There is one scene in this movie that sits in my memory like a stone in my shoe. I just don’t know what to make of it. It’s this one:
Don’t get me wrong, it ain’t no hangin’ matter as far as I’m concerned, but I have to wonder. Didn’t anybody involved in this production question the wisdom of having two women perform other people’s music and dance? First Betty White pretends to carry out a Haida ritual, adopting the stilted speech patterns of native movie characters for the entire scene. Tasked with joining her in the performance, Sandra Bullock ends up channeling Lil Jon and the East Side Boys. So, one of these women engages in faux native spirituality and the other effectively turns in a rap performance. It’s all at least a little appropriative.
It’s also more than a little cringe-worthy.
To me anyway.
I am admittedly prone to cringitude.
It’s a light comedy anyway, so I guess I shouldn’t expect them to take these issues any more seriously than the rest of the subject matter appearing in the movie. Still, I can’t help but shake my head at the apparent cluelessness.
…but then I wonder!
I come back to my original question; didn’t somebody question the wisdom of this scene? Wasn’t somebody aware that it’s more than a little odd to have two white women finding their bliss in the performance of other people’s music, dance, and ceremony. Wasn’t someone on set at least cognizant of the issue?
And then I wonder, what if someone was?
Could that have been the point?
Quite unexpectedly, the spirit of Nathan Poe haunts this scene!
The whole performance is so completely over the top, I find myself wondering if it isn’t an intentional parody of precisely the kind appropriation I’ve been talking about. Which would make it kinda cool after all.
…I still cringe.
I’ve looked around a bit to see if some movie reviewers can shed light on the scene, and I can’t say that I’ve found much. Newspaper Rock comments on the matter pretty directly, but he doesn’t seem to have any extra information on the production itself. The late Roger Ebert seemed perplexed by the scene, particularly insofar as it related to the Alaskan sunrise. Most reviewers seemed to skip the subject altogether. Here is an interesting blog post on the house where they filmed the movie. (I know, that’s a little left of the actual topic here, but it’s just kinda cool.) The Orlando Sentinel quotes Betty White as saying that she had to learn an ‘Eskimo’ song for the film. The Daily News has her explaining that the language was actually Tlingit. I can’t say that any of this sheds much light on the matter, but that’s about enough of this.
My girlfriend will be calling me ‘Danno Downer” after she reads this.
Guilty as charged.
I haven’t been monitoring the controversy about the Washington football team that closely for awhile now, but the topic hasn’t entirely escaped my attention. This morning, I took a moment to scan the old Redskinsfacts website, which is a case-study in double-speak if there ever was one. That hasn’t changed.
One thing I find fascinating and revolting in equal measures is the way the site uses the work of a linguist, Ives Goddard, in defense of the team’s name, If you click on the option to “Get the facts” on the home page of the “Redskins Facts” website, you will be taken to another page telling you about the history of the name. Near as I can tell, that page hasn’t changed in awhile. Here is a screenshot of that history as it is now on 4/19/18:
With just three items, this is a brief history to be sure, but the omissions aren’t entirely a function of brevity. What they leave out here is every bit as important as what they choose to tell us. Taking their bullet points in reverse order:
Notice they tell us that when the team came into being four players and the head coach “identified themselves as Native Americans.” This wording was carefully chosen to promote a common team legend without actually claiming that legend is true. Defenders of the team name commonly tell us that the team was named after a Native American (William “Lone Star” Dietz). It’s not at all clear that the team name was ever meant to honor him, but more importantly, Dietz’s claims to Native American heritage are questionable at best, having come under intense scrutiny when Dietz stood trial for evading the draft during World War I. The folks at Redskinsfacts.com know very well that team fans team defenders still cite the story of Lonestar Dietz in defense of the team name. Telling us that Dietz claimed a Native American identity enables them to promote that story without actually making any false claims on the topic themselves. So, I guess it’s not an outright lie. More like, a cowardly equivocation.
The second bullet point in this ‘history’ is simply off topic (and rather vague). That prominent native leadership of the 19th century, have referred to themselves as ‘redskins’ does not establish that the term is not now or at any other time free of pejorative implications. Resting as it does in this simple, narrative the claim that some of them have done so does nothing to tell us how they felt about the term or why they came to use it. It doesn’t even enable us to sort which ones called themselves ‘red men’ and which ones called themselves ‘redskins’. It doesn’t address problems of translation. It really doesn’t establish anything except for the sloppy thought process of the website administrator. He’d have to answer a few questions before we could even get to the ‘so what?’ part of the conversation. Or we could just skip to the chase, I suppose.
The first point in the pseudo-history of the team name is the one that interests me the most. Defenders of the name will often cite Goddard’s article as proof that the term in question is not an insult. (Seriously, I’ve long since lost track of the number of people that have done this,) I always ask them if they have actually read the article. Often that seems to be the end of the conversation. When these folks do tell me they’ve read the article, I ask them if they’ve read the last line in the article. To date, none have answered that question. So, what is the last line in Goddard’s article?
The descent of this word into obloquy is a phenomenon of more recent times.
My point is of course that Goddard didn’t write an article telling us that the term in question is not an insult. He wrote an article telling us that it did not begin as an insult, which is an entirely different claim. It isn’t entirely clear from Goddard’s piece just how he would account for the present significance of the term, but he is very clear on the fact that his own work does not actually address that question. So, the article should leave us with a full stop right around the 1830s. Goddard helps us to understand the use of the term up to that point, and he doesn’t have much to say about anything after that.
Goddard’s work is interesting for a number of reasons, but it doesn’t tell us much about what the term means today, or even what it meant by the end of the 19th century. He does take issue with the claims of at least some modern activists, Susan Shown Harjo being among them, but he himself points out that rejecting her claims about the origin of the term does not prove that many Native Americans find the term objectionable in the present time (p.1). I think Goddard does a pretty good job of showing that Harjo and others have been wrong about the origins of the term, leaving the rest of the case against the team name largely untouched by his article. The correction seems a bit one-sided to me, but at least Goddard has been clear about the limits of his own work on the subject. If he has published anything addressing the later history of the term or correcting any of team’s misuse of his work, I am not aware of it. (If anyone does know of such a response, I would very much appreciate a reference.)
So, why is Goddard’s work the first thing Redskinsfacts.com cites in their history of the term? Well they have to know that many people equate the origin of a term (or at least our earliest known account of it) with its contemporary meaning. This is called the etymological fallacy, and it’s an extraordinarily common mistake. So, they don’t really have to tell us the article proves the term is innocent; the folks at Redskinsfacts.com know very well that is what many of their fans will take away from their reference to the article. Citing Goddard and providing a link to his work enables them to strengthen the impression that the team name is innocent without actually going so far as to say that’s what Goddard has shown. They invite their readers to indulge in an etymological fallacy, just as they invite us to think of Lonestar Dietz as a Native American when he was likely an outright fraud. It’s fascinating to see how the site avoids making the false claims in question, even as they invite readers to infer those very claims from the one they do make.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t even the worst of it. Defense of the Washington football team has produced all manner of horribles over the years. This isn’t even the worst of it.
Still, it’s pretty damned deceitful.
Regarding his own documentary work, Joshua Oppenheimer once wrote of modern Indonesia; “…I felt I’d wandered into Germany 40 years after the holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power.” I thought about this line as I read Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. It’s a different time and a different place, perhaps even a different scale of atrocity (at least if you are counting bodies), but each of these stories raised for me the same haunting thought; what must it be like to live one’s life among those that have murdered your loved ones. Oppenheimer’s movies, the Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are set in Indonesia nearly half a century after genocidal policies resulted in the loss of at least half a million lives. Grann’s work is set in Oklahoma, closer to a century century after a wave of killings struck the Osage community, leaving generations to wonder about what really happened? Both stories recount the details of gruesome murder, and both raise questions about life in the wake of atrocity.
I’m also reminded of Anna Rosmus, whose work on the resistance fighters of her hometown uncovered a sordid history of Nazi collaborators well hidden in the town’s oral narratives. She asked enough questions to draw up a violent response from those still tied to that history. I wouldn’t say this was Grann’s focus, but stories like the one he tells have a particularly reflexive quality. Murder on the scale of his story doesn’t rest neatly in past; it haunts the present.
This book is the story of a series of murders carried out in the Osage community of Oklahoma during the 1920s. Grann begins the story by concentrating on a little over 20 murders which would become the focus of an investigation by the FBI. As this was one of the first big cases to be carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the book provides insights into the early years of Hoover’s budding new empire. At the same time, the book helps to shed light on one of the darker chapters of Indian-White relations, the long slow looting of Native American communities by outsiders under the policies of General Allotment.
To grasp the events unfolding in this book, you must understand two things: the Osage community had come into control of vast oil fields, and many had been declared incompetent to manage their own estates. To resolve the second of these problems, various white businessmen had been named as trustees and put in charge of the private fortunes belonging to various Osage members. As individual Osage accumulated the proceeds of oil money. It seems that some people found the notion of wealthy natives rather objectionable (a theme often echoed today by those who resent Indian casinos). More importantly, a certain quantity of non-natives found ways of doing something about it, ways of acquiring that wealth for themselves.
At first, the killings seem a bit random, a pair of shootings here, a few mysterious illnesses there. Someone seemed to be killing off a number of Osage, but why? It didn’t help that the first couple investigators to get somewhere were themselves brutally murdered. It helped even less when a bomb was used to kill an Osage couple and their white servant living in the middle of town. Most of the victims knew each other. They had plenty of connections between them. But which ones were the key to the case?
In the end, it was the mysterious ‘wasting’ illnesses that seemed to provide the most representative cases. The medical science necessary to detect poison was not yet widely available, and it certainly wasn’t standard procedure to test for poison in the event of every death. In the midst of the prohibition era, moreover, it was easy enough to attribute poisoning to bad moonshine. So, poisoning could provide a very effective means of killing someone without raising too many suspicions. It was particularly useful for relatives, trustees, and other beneficiaries of life insurance or inheritance policies eager to acquire an Osage headright. Such killings were not only difficult to detect in the day, they are difficult to detect now in the historical record, but as Grann shows, Osage died at an extraordinarily high rate in the 1920s, a rate not fully explained by any other known factors. The FBI wrapped up an investigation of a little over 20 murders. If Grann is right, the number of Osage actually killed in this era is more likely in the hundreds.
Most were killed by relatives, or at least those who’d been hired by them.
I have to admit the specter of so many white marrying into the tribe making friends with Osage for the clear purpose of killing them fills me with a sense of shame. The feeling will pass, of course, for me, but one of the most haunting features of the book is the number of people for whom such feelings clearly will not pass. The final chapters of this book are filled with personal stories those who grew up in the wake of these murders. It’s been nearly a century, yes, but in family terms these are stories about (great) grandparents, great aunts and uncles. These are stories about children who went on to live their own lives and raise their own families knowing that their own parents had been killed by loved ones or trusted neighbors. …and in some cases wondering just who might have been involved?
…or what local businessmen might have profited from these murders?
This kind of violence isn’t contained in one generation, or even two. It haunts a community long after those who participated have passed away. I can’t help thinking part of the horror might lie in the fear that the truth will never be known, that someone’s death could be forever buried in falsehood, which is why books like this are important. They are one means of countering that horror, however inadequate they may be. Grann didn’t stop at the FBI cases. He went on to study murders left unsolved and to explore the causes of deaths that never caught the attention of authorities. He couldn’t always find an explanation, but he does manage to reveal something of the extent of these crimes.
It’s evident that some folks entrusted Grann with the hopes of finding out the truth behind their family tragedies. That must have been quite a weight to carry.
It must have been a far greater weight for those to carry such stories their whole lives.
Postscript: I just wanted to make a couple additional remarks here, regarding the writing style. While Grann is relating a historical narrative, he does so through the lens of a particular woman, Mollie Burkhart, who lost most of her family in ‘reign of terror’, and of the FBI agent, Tom White, who was put in charge of the case. By following the lives of these two people into the story, Grann is able to provide a historical narrative that reads like a murder mystery. Those familiar with the story may know where it’s going, and I’ve shared a portion of that here myself (minus severl significant details), but most of the time this approach leaves the reader to wonder how the pieces will fall together, and to expect that will happen when the main characters put those pieces together themselves. Again, tis is history, but it reads a bit like a murder mystery.
This is an interesting approach to historical narrative, one that should prove helpful in the rather likely event that this is made into a movie.
Grann also fills in a lot of detail as he writes the story. He relates the physical features and demeanor of his characters in this book, much as a fiction writer would. When reading such material, I often find myself wondering where that came from? Is this how someone else described the person in question? Is it the impression Grann gets from looking at their pictures? Some combination? Hard to tell!
I can never decide how I feel about that approach to historical writing. A part of me would like to keep closer to identifiable records, to have the option of checking specific claims about specific source material. Another part of me is just happy to get the story. I can file away the fluffy details and focus on the main story line if the information is worth reading.
…which is definitely the case here.
I often see maps of Indian territories pop up on the net. I like them. And then again, I don’t. I’ve seen also some of these same maps in classrooms and academic papers. In such cases, the narrative usually does a bit more to put the visual presentation in context, but on the net, that visual is often all you get.
…along with a couple hashtags, and sometimes a catchy title.
The specific subject matter varies a bit from map to map. Sometimes they purport to show linguistic variation. Sometimes, they show the culture areas used by anthropologists or the general divisions of Native American peoples into related peoples. Mostly, these maps purport to show the specific locations of various tribes.
…whatever that means?
Don’t get me wrong. The basic idea isn’t entirely off base, and it’s a lot better than silence on the topic, but the notion of an Indian tribe carries a lot of baggage, only some of which goes away if we replace the term ‘Indian’ with ‘Native American’. We can also replace ‘tribes’ with ‘nations’ or ‘peoples’.
…we still end up with plenty of baggage.
There really isn’t any vocabulary that just works here. You really have to pick a term, and just bear in mind the distortions it imposes on the subject matter. But my point here today isn’t so much to work over the vocabulary as it is to focus attention on the maps themselves. It’s great to have them, but they too can distort the subject matter, all the more so when the map circulates as a meme-in-in-itelf, so to speak, just an image without a narrative to go with it.
So, what’s the problem?
Well, we have a few of them actually. One of the first things going through my own mind is the other half of the contextualization schema. The maps give us a where. That leaves me asking when? These maps purport to show us where different Native American peoples lived, but they rarely give us a strong sense of when they lived there. This goes hand-in-hand with common assumptions about the timelessness of Native American societies. Folks are only too happy to imagine that most Indian peoples had been living in the same place since time immemorial, just waiting for the rest of us to show up and kick-start the history machine. All the timely-changey stuff must have come after Columbus, so the thinking goes. Before that, Indian peoples just stayed put, living in harmony without any real need for big changes like a major population movements.
All of this is of course, nonsense, and I think most people know it is, at least when the question is put to them directly. I repeat, they know it WHEN you put the question to them directly. Until then, I think folks fall quite easily into the assumption that Indian peoples rested in a kind of temporal stasis. Hell, sometimes Native Americans themselves fall into this assumption.Don’t be too surprised. Stereotypes often come in a user-friendly version, an ever-so-inviting role to play, for those who are willing. The noble savage may be a cliché, but it’s not one without its charms, and it’s easily as timeless as any of its less PC counterparts. In any event, folks often seem to imagine Native American societies as timeless communities.
Case in point?
I found this little gem to the left on twitter, at least I believe that’s where I got it. It’s pretty cool, really. It definitely matches my general sense of where various people should be. But then again, my general sense of where everybody should be rests on a skewed timeline. I expect them to be in certain places when the stories I read or tell about them in history class take place. So, if the different natives peoples are in the right place on cue for the historical narratives I expect to feature them, then the map matches my initial expectations, and I end up saying stuff like “it’s pretty cool.” The whole thing almost works, but it doesn’t take too many questions to bust up both those expectations and the maps that go with them.
When did everyone get where they are in the map above? It’s controversial question, and one that I may regret raising here, but still… See the Apacheans down there in the Southwest? You might think they had been there since time immemorial, right? Well the archaeological evidence suggests this isn’t the case. As I recall, the earliest evidence for Diné (Navajo) placement in the four corners area predates the Spanish by a little over a hundred years. They came along with the other Apachean peoples by means of a hotly debated route. Of course archaeological finds happen every day, so the historical evidence may change, and I may have missed a recent find or three, but the point is that these people arrived in the area within comprehensible time frame. This placement on teh map isn’t from time immemorial; it begins at the cusp of the 1400s, give or take a bit, and that enables us to place their entrance into a sequence of events for the region. They were still settling into the total territory on this map when the Spanish began exploring the region, arriving well after their Pueblo neighbors. Knowing that helps to put the map in perspective. Not knowing that invites an a-historical reading of the map.
Now look at the plains. The peoples placed there seem right to me, but it’s worth considering that many of them didn’t get there until well after the beginnings of the colonial period. Specific migration routes and the scale of ground shifted are of course open to debate, but I think it is fair to say that a great deal of the population on this portion of the map filled in after the beginnings of the fur trade, and even more importantly, after the horse began spreading through the plains in the wake of the Pueblo Revolt.
That would be a war the Indians won folks, not simply a battle. a war. But that’s another rant…
…anyway, the point is that the population of the plains as we now understand it changed a great deal during the colonial period. So, if the southwest takes on roughly the territories represented in the map just ahead of the colonial period, the great plains takes its apparently map-worthy shape during that very period. We can point to a time frame sometime on down the road that reflects this mapping, but by then other things have shifted. Case in point? The eastern seaboard. By the time the plains looks like it does on this map, the settler population is already pushing a lot of people out and away from the coasts. By the time Lakota, Comanche, and Kiowa have reached their positions on this map, the eastern seaboard should already be looking a bit white-washed.
These are just the areas I think I know something about (and admittedly, I am often wrong). The rest of the map is full of movement too. Some areas may be more stable than others. The amount of movement is itself variable.
So, what does the map represent? It really isn’t a clear snapshot of any particular time-frame. We really can’t locate a specific time in which all the territories assigned to various indigenous peoples really were under their control. Rather, it seems to be a representation of the territories controlled by various peoples during something like a period of peak cultural autonomy. …as perceived by white people. In a very real sense, each of these territories is set onto the map in precisely the locations at which we non-natives really became interested in the regions and/or first became aware of the native peoples in question. Fair enough as far as it goes, but to say that this leaves out a lot of information is a Hell of an understatement.
Speaking of non-native perceptions. Names are a bit of a problem here as well. I hope it will come as no surprise to learn that many of the names appearing on these maps are not those used by the people to refer to themselves. ‘Navajo’ was for example a Tewa term for open fields. ‘Sioux’ is usually described as a shortened version of an Ojibwa term (it has something to do with snakes). As I recall, there is a competing narrative for that one, but the point is that the name DID NOT come from the Sioux themselves. ‘Eskimo’ was a Montagnais term often translated as ‘raw fish eater’, though it is more likely to have meant ‘snow-shoe netter’. Each of these origin narratives is a complicated story in itself (information is problematic all the way down), but for the present, the point is that the names typically appearing on these maps generally come from the neighbors of the peoples in question. They made their way into the popular lexicon after European colonists asked some other tribe who lives over there. The answers to those questions then made their way into our history books and onto our maps.
This is one reason I like this map by Aaron Carapella. He makes an effort to identify the native names for themselves and get them onto the territory. That’s a big improvement. Of course, we still have the timeline problem mentioned above, but at least the names are a bit more authentic. I should add that they are more authentic because they are the names the people in question use for themselves, not because they are ‘original’, as folks sometimes suggest. ‘Original’ alludes to a timeless beginning. Talk of an original name just points us back to the timeline problem, but there is definite value in using the name people prefer to use for themselves. We may have to switch back and forth, or introduce a topic using the more popular names, but working with materials that provides the native terms helps to normalize them.
One additionally interesting feature of Carapella’s maps is the fact that he leaves off the territorial boundaries. The names of each people simply appear on the map without any clear sense of the boundaries around them. We are left to imagine the full extent of each native territory. This avoids one of the larger problems one commonly finds in maps of Indian territory, their tendency to construe that territory in terms comparable to that of nation states. We all know the convention, color-coded spaces with clear boundaries between them. This conveys both a sense clear boundaries between different Indian peoples and a sense of homogeneity within those boundaries. Every part of Cherokee territory on such a map is just as Cherokeeish as any other part. They are all equally blue, or yellow, or mauve. One gets the sense that someone could pinpoint the exact moment they stepped into (or out of) Cherokee land, or that of any other tribe. We can practically see someone stopping on a dime, just like the cops in an old outlaw trucker movie do when they reach state lines. That’s how modern nation states work. It isn’t clear that this is now native territories work(ed).
It isn’t that native peoples didn’t have territories. They certainly did claim specific lands, and even defend them from others, but this system would have worked without the benefit of a scientific grid defining the exact moment one would step over the line from one territory to the next (much less collection of maps to represent them). Of course, natural features such rivers or mountains, and so forth would be used as reference points, but thus too leaves open questions as to just where the boundary rested. Did a given people claim both sides of a river or just one? The answers would vary. The end result was of course a lot of overlapping claims.
I often wonder if some of these maps could be improved by representing the overlapping territories, Venn diagram-style, at least where such instances do occur, but of course, this leaves open questions about timelines and the adequacy of information as to how the territories on these maps have been assigned to begin with. It’s not as though the historical record is entirely silent on these matters, but there is something about the way these maps fill in the details with a little too much precision. Judgement calls have been made on these maps, and the way they have been made is erased by the nature of the maps.
The problem isn’t really unique to Native American territories, but at least as applied to modern states and nations the techniques used by the map-makers matches those of the powers that be a bit more. People who live in and around important boundaries may or may not live life in a way that bears out the conventions of cartography, but the powers that be will likely support the notion that we can pin-point exactly where one state leaves off and another begins. They will also support the notion that we know exactly who belongs on one side or another, if necessary with guns or walls. The trouble here is that these maps purport to describe the territories of a different world altogether, one which reckons turf a bit differently.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s great to have these maps, but they distort even as they inform. I’m always curious about the prospects of improvement. In the interim, I am reckon the best cure for the distortion is to be aware of the problems.
…of which, I hope I have at least scratched the surface.
Sundry Maps (Click to embiggen)…
It’s been a very long time since I worked in Navajo country. The last couple years I’ve made a point to take Miladydebennet through a lot of my old haunts, and this summer that meant a trip through the Navajo Nation. It was great to see some of the old sights again, and to see them a little bit through the new eyes of my girlfriend. It was also great to see some new things in the old places. One of my favorite new things (new to me anyway) is the addition of street art all around the rez. These had me smiling all the way from Page to Santa Fe. I had even more reason to smile when I learned one of my former students had been involved in painting one of these murals.
It seems that these have been part of an ongoing project, called Paint the Desert initiated by a doctor who goes by the name, Jetsonorama. You can find a few articles on his project here and here, here, and here. I’ve previously posted some of the murals from along Highway 89, so I was very happy to catch some more this summer.
As always, you may click to embiggen. (In fact, I highly recommend it.)
These were in Kayenta, just south of Monument Valley.
These paintings were all at the Crossroads Trading Post.
Saw this somewhere along the road from Kayenta down to Chinle.
Found this piece on the road between Many Farms and Chinle.
These (and many more) were all painted along a wall in Fort Defiance. It would have been walking distance from my home for a few years. Kind of a surreal experience to get a soda from the old convenience store and walk around checking this out. Surreal, and very cool.
For me anyway.
Hope y’all enjoy the pictures.
Back in May, I made a stop at the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Lots of interesting stuff in there, but this one piece in particular caught my attention. The information card next to Miss Liberty had a nice note from the museum director. It reads as follows:
“I’m a Native New York who 13 years ago left the big city for the paradise of Alaska. Rosalie Paniyak’s Statue of Liberty doll is, for me, one of the funniest works of art in the entire museum, and the embodiement of what I left and what I have now.
“When I lived in lower Manhattan, my dog and I would walk along the Hudson River.There was Ms. Liberty, tall, strong, and noble, an image that took itself very seriously. Moreover, it welcomed people to a Very Important City.
“Rosalie’s Statue of Liberty is soft, with a face that is anything but dignified. She holds her torch askew. She is the Cup’ik version of an American icon, humorous and irreverent.
“After I enjoy its visual irony, what does this doll say to me? On the lighter side, that New Yorkers’ sense of self-importance is a bit silly. And more seriously, that this privilege of liberty has not always been enjoyed by everyong, such as Native Americans.”
It must have been a couple decades back. I was at a small party in Forth Defiance. Those attending included a number of officials in the Navajo tribal government. Fort Defiance serves as kind of a bedroom community for the capital of the Navajo Nation, so this was hardly unexpected. What none of us expected that evening was a quick lesson that began when our host asked if anyone knew the name of the main street going through the town? No-one did. As it happens, the name was Kit Carson Drive.
Apparently, it still is.
To say that most of the party-goers found this shocking is putting it mildly. It may not be obvious to some of my readers why a room full of Navajos would object to a street named after Kit Carson, but even the most cursory knowledge of their history would make this pretty well obvious. The man is popularly known as an old western Indian fighter, and as it happens, a good number of the Indians he fought were Navajo. When General James H. Carleton, the Army Commander for the Territory of New Mexico decided to go to war with the Navajo people, it was Colonel Kit Carson that he sent off to do it. Carson marched through Canyon de Chelly, the heart of Navajo territory, destroying resources (just as Sherman might have) and letting winter bring his enemies in to surrender. This campaign, and the four years of internment at Hwéeldi (Fort Sumner) still constitute the darkest chapter of most historical narratives about the Navajo people. So, you can just imagine what it must have meant for people who can still tell you about relatives lost on the long walk to Fort Sumner to learn that a road right through their community bears the name of the man responsible for their deaths.
Kinda put a damper on the party.
You might think it odd that folks didn’t know the name of the road to begin with, but it’s hardly unusual. Folks don’t pay that much attention to street names out that way. Many of the roads don’t have signs at all, and I don’t recall seeing that particular name on a street sign when I lived out there (though one can certainly be found in Fort Defiance today). This party was the only time anyone ever mentioned it to me.
The old south isn’t the only place in this country with a questionable sense of public history from the Civil War era. Those in the Southwest have less to do with the war between the states than the early stages of the Indian wars which would dominate the interior west for a couple decades. Kit Carson Drive is one of many such examples. The Obelisk in the town square of Santa Fe provides another. It’s had its own share of controversies over the years, not the least of them being this dedication:
“To the heroes who have fallen in various battles with savage Indians in the Territory of New Mexico.”
It should come as no surprise that this line acquired its share of critics over the years. It has had some defenders as well, to be sure, but plenty of critics. The sentiments might have seemed appropriate enough to those who erected it in 1868, but in the 1970s, sentiments had changed a bit, as had the political status of some of those ‘savage Indians’ referenced in the piece. So it really should have come as no surprise when calls went out for removal or modification of the monument. Today, at least, it may seem a little surprising to find the monument had Native American defenders, which apparently it did. Attempts were made to put the original wording into it’s proper context, so to speak, preserving it without appearing to endorse it, but some clearly weren’t satisfied with this way of thinking about the issue. Resolution apparently came in the form of a chisel, and the result is a monument with its own fill-in-the-blank question.
It seems, the American public is hashing out a new round of debates over public monuments, particularly those in the South. Some no doubt find the entire debate quite trivial. Who reads the placards on a monument anyway? Of course when people fight over seemingly trivial things, you can bet your ass they aren’t really fighting over the trivial things. It isn’t actually history (much less historical monuments) that has people up in arms over Confederate Statues, just as it wasn’t really history that caused a word to fall off the monument in Santa Fe. Such battles are always about the present. They are about the way that people think and use history to shape the present, and there are usually some very specific present implications in these battles.
People typically see the present interests loud and clear when they confront advocates of social justice. If anyone ever forgets this, the term ‘political correctness’ is right there to remind us that someone (or at least someone on the left) has an agenda. What folks are slower to get, it seems, is the fact that these sorts of gestures are hardly neutral to begin with. There is a reason James W. Loewen devoted a fair portion of his book, Lies Across America, to Confederate monuments, and it wasn’t because these monuments contain sober and thoughtful commentary on the actual history of the region. A statue to a confederate hero isn’t just a reference to history as such; it says something to those who those whose ancestors those heroes fought to keep in bondage. And a monument to heroes who died fighting ‘savage Indians’ may say something noble to those descended from colonists (Spanish or Anglo) in the American southwest; it says something else to those descended from those very ‘savage Indians’.
To be sure, complications abound. Some folks may have ancestors on either end or neither of his memorial demographics, and some people may have no dog in the fight at all. Also ironic usage happens. Not every Native American takes umbrage at the word ‘savage’ just as not every Native American objects to the term ‘Redskins’. But we should be wary of efforts to make these exceptions into the rule. The Washington football team has, for, example paid good money trying to find, cultivate, and promote just about any Native American willing to help foster the notion that the team name reflects anything but a racist stereotype. Were the team name really so bland, one might almost wonder what use it would have for people interested in such a martial sport! And of course we now have the Cheetoh-in-Chief (who has his own bullshit civil war monument) mourning the loss of beautiful artwork and a desecration of history with every Confederate statue that goes down. His language is so flowery and positive. You’d almost think these monuments held no serious political significance in the present age.
Of course the folks delivering the Nazi salute in defense of Robert E. Lee might seem to argue otherwise.
There are people, times, and places who don’t find it necessary to remove or modify monuments to their sordid past. Some of these might not even be terrible people, places, or times. But if the monuments to an abusive past aren’t so toxic, this isn’t simply because potential critics choose to let it slide; it’s because the community as a whole has somehow managed to handle the issues in question. When the dominant voices prove tone-deaf or outright hostile to the interests of those on the wrong-side of monumental history, then we are all a lot less likely to get along. Then statues get pulled down.
…or someone just shows up with a chisel.
Just a few pics of Canyon de Chelly (click to embiggen):
Someone I know and love likes to say that Game of Thrones is all fake. It’s fantasy, so there is nothing realistic about it. This same individual (whom I know and love) eats up reality TV like it was candy. I think he knows as well as I do that those shows are often contrived, but that doesn’t stop him from getting really into the moment that alligator is on the hook and the second guy in the boat can’t seem to find his shot. I know as well as he does that Westeros ain’t real, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying about the fate of Jon Snow. Each mode of storytelling works for one of us and not the other.
But what does realism have to do with it? Or anything else for that matter?
It’s easier to see the connection for reality TV, not because it’s more real in an objective sense, but because the theme is more central to the genre. Reality television purports to be showing us something about how people in some part of this world really do live. That’s a claim that goes a bit beyond the story-line itself and reaches into the mess of life we sometimes call the real world. That claim constitutes a significant portion of the genre’s appeal. It’s a bit like porn, actually. The dialogue may be utter crap, but somehow the sense that you are seeing something real makes it a little more interesting. At least I think that’s the point, or at least part of it. For myself, I just can’t get into it. Knowing just how much manipulation goes into the stories told in reality television, constitutes a bit of deal-breaker for me. Perhaps I would enjoy it more if I could suspend disbelief and just enjoy the stories, but how does that suspension of disbelief work when a sense of veracity is central to the genre?
…also, there is the expository crutch!
Reality television leans very heavily on the use of exposition. Far too often, for me anyway, they break away from the action to have one of the characters explain events to the audience in their own words. Without these moments we would be missing a lot of the plot-line. Reality television uses these moments to fill in the gaps. It also uses them to tell us what’s at stake in the action, often playing up the drama well beyond any significance we could draw from the events ourselves. …if we don’t get this fish trap to work we’ll starve! We need to fix the oil leak in our car or we’ll freeze to death on this mountain top. That chef needs to change his recipe or the whole business will go under! …you get the idea. They’ll repeat these narratives a few times each episode, just to make sure you get caught up in the point. Maybe, I’m a hard sell, but most of the time I just don’t believe them. More importantly, I find the whole convention damned tedious. When did so much exposition become good writing? I’m guessing that moment in television history came during the early episodes of MTV’s Real World and that first season of Survivor.
Remember Survivor? Remember the hype leading up to the first episode? This was supposed to be about people surviving on their own under primitive conditions. Only they couldn’t! Those guys really couldn’t do much to feed themselves and contribute to their own survival. But they did get just enough food and water from the show producers to survive so long as they didn’t waste their energy trying to survive on their own. So they mostly sat around and bickered with each other. Somewhere in there, I imagine, the production team must have had a collective panic attack. …My God, the whole story just ain’t happening! What do we do? The answer turned out to be high school soap opera, and thus the master script was born for just about every reality television program made ever since.
That’s how I imagine it anyway. It may not be real, but if you had me and five of my friends telling you the story of this blog post, I’ll bet it would pass muster for reality TV.
“…this really is a must write blog post for Dan. He’s at his breaking point.”
“I knew, I had to do post something today. This post was like a dark cloud hanging over my head.”
“If Dan doesn’t finish this post today, I’m pretty sure he’ll be eaten by black bears.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is. Nobody reads blogs anymore anyway.”
I’m voting that last fucker of the island!
But let’s come back to the Game of Thrones! I get the concern. It’s fantasy. There are dragons. Magic works (except when it doesn’t), and well, hell, did I mention there are dragons? Clearly, some things about Game of Thrones are not real at all. Still, I think the show has two (maybe three) realisms lacking in many more ‘realistic’ genres.
First and foremost, it’s all the death, the gruesome terrible deaths, the ones that happen to central characters that we all know and love. Love it or hate it, George R.R. Martin’s penchant for killing off key protagonists has long since become the defining feature of the show. For myself, I love it, but there is a certain dwarf that better be in good health at the end of this coming season or I’ll, I’ll, …I don’t know what I’ll do.
Take that Martin!
People ask Martin about this all the time. I’m particularly fond of the answer he once gave The Independent:
“A writer, even a fantasy writer, has an obligation to tell the truth and the truth is, as we say in Game of Thrones, all men must die,” he told Galaxy’s Edge Magazine. “Particularly if you’re writing about war, which is certainly a central subject in Game of Thrones.”
He continued: “We’ve all read this story a million times when a bunch of heroes set out on an adventure and it’s the hero and his best friend and his girlfriend and they go through amazing hair-raising adventures and none of them die. The only ones who die are extras.
“That’s such a cheat. It doesn’t happen that way. They go into battle and their best friend dies or they get horribly wounded. They lose their leg or death comes at them unexpectedly.”
The author goes on to explain, slightly morbidly, that we’re all going to die at some stage as mortality is inevitable. “Once you’ve accepted that you have to include death then you should be honest about death and indicate it can strike down anybody at any time.
“You don’t get to live forever just because you are a cute kid or the hero’s best friend or the hero. Sometimes the hero dies, at least in my books.”
I take that to be a kind of realism. It’s not about authentic costumes or weaponry, or the details of some known historical event. It’s about the human cost of warfare. Martin is known to have patterned his fiction after some real historical conflicts (most notably the War of the Roses), but of course his work remains fiction. Hell, it remains fantasy-fiction. So, we have no baseline from which to compare his description of events to a known fact, at least not any he is obligated to render with accuracy. Still, Martin’s willingness to kill off the characters we care about tells us something about war that many more ‘realistic’ stories keep leaving out.
I would add that it isn’t just Martin’s willingness to kill important characters that sets his stories off from others. It’s his willingness to do it unexpectedly, suddenly, and often without any hint of heroics in the moment of death. Time and again, Game of Thrones invites us to identify with a character, to root for them, only to kill them
in the end.
…only to leave us watching as the struggle goes on without those whose story arc had once defined the whole meaning of the show for us.
That is a kind of realism, one largely absent in a good deal of historical fiction.
None of this is exactly Italian neorealism. But each of these genres effects a kind of realism amidst a story-line saturated with fiction. Where one purports to show us something akin to lives of people in odd walks of life, another aims to show us how human beings struggle to deal with terrible events. For either to work, something in story-line must resonate for the viewer (or reader). Each in its own way speaks to a sense of reality, though each also weds that sense of reality to a fabricated universe of its own.
Historical accuracy might be thought to present another type of realism, but of course historical films (and even documentaries) are saturated with their own contrivances. The blog, An Historian Goes to the Movies presented a very thoughtful discussion of the subject here, here, and here (and really throughout his entire website). In one of the most interesting passages in this series, he talks about the public’s penchant for scrutinizing the accuracy of material culture and fighting techniques in film while ignoring the historical accuracy of plot points:
I find it very striking that audiences apparently want a sense of accuracy about violence, but not about plot. They cheerfully accept absurd plot developments (like Isabella being way too young and way too far way to have an affair with Wallace), but will complain if the sword fighting looks too fake. (Compare contemporary film violence to that from the 60s, for example, to see just how much effort Hollywood has put into improving the realism of its violence.)
Imagine for a moment a film in which the emphasis was on accuracy of the plot, but not on accuracy of the costuming or weaponry. Picture William Wallace running around in a 20th century British military uniform carrying an AK-47 but engaging in fairly accurate political maneuverings.
Most people would react to that poorly, I suspect, because Hollywood trains us that accuracy means specific things and generally excludes other things. But theatrical and cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare employ this device fairly frequently. Instead of setting his Richard III in the 1480s, like the historical Richard III, or in the 1590s, when the play was first performed, Ian McKellan set his version of the play in the 1930s, depicting Richard as a would-be fascist dictator. A particular favorite detail is the arrangement of 16th century poem “Come Live with Me and Be My Love” as a sort of Swing-era piece. The famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech becomes a political speech. It works beautifully, and while the setting isn’t faithful to the play as Shakespeare envisioned it, it works marvelously and offers a wonderful comment on the politics of both the 15th and the 20th centuries while still being true to the spirit of the play. This is a film making careful, clever use of its choices about historical inaccuracy.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this commentary lies in the comparison with Shakespearean theater. While it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the kind of bias he exposes here is just to expected from viewers, the comparison with Shakespeare shows us that it isn’t. There is indeed at least one genre which reverses the emphasis, taking us out of the realm of period dress and sword techniques and inviting us to dwell on the plot-line.
I want to underscore at least one aspect of this question about accurate plot-lines, namely the sense of a character’s world view. Historical plot-lines can be inaccurate for any number of reasons, but one of the most interesting and common inaccuracies would seem to be a penchant for reading modern thought worlds into the motivations of historical characters. In this respect, Mel Gibson is the gift that keeps on giving. Whether it be a southern plantation owner who doesn’t own slaves, or William Wallace crying ‘freedom’ as he is about to die, his historical characters typically speak to the sensibilities of modern peoples more than those of the era in which they purportedly lived. Whatever the (in-)accuracy of his dress or battlefield depictions, Gibson’s characters are often living anachronisms, thinking and behaving in ways that have less to do with the period than the social order of the modern day.
Here is another respect in which I think Game of Thrones is particularly good. For those of us who live in a modern republic, the logic of an aristocracy can seem quite vicious, often unnecessarily so. Why all the fighting? Is it vain ambition? And if these characters must fight for control of their worlds, could they not at least spare the children of their enemies? Even the title of the series points to the answer, but I believe it was Cercei who explained it best.
Again, this is fiction. Hell, it’s fantasy fiction, but it’s fantasy fiction pointing at a kind of world that has existed in human history, one many of us have trouble grasping. It’s a world in which heredity defines power, and even a child with the wrong bloodline is a very real threat to the powers that be. This too is a kind of realism, one which reminds us people in other times and places may not be able to act as we would, even if they wanted to. I admired Eddard Stark’s efforts to show mercy in this scene, and I expect I’m not entirely alone in this. But of course we call know how that turned out. We are 6 seasons into the show, and thus far, I have every reason to believe Cersei was right about this. Not just Certei. Martin too. This is Martin telling us something about the social order of a certain kind of world. His world may be fiction, but others like it would not be, and his story does indeed help to illustrate how those worlds work. Is it realism? Not quite. But you could learn a lot about real worlds from this kind of story.
So it seems the attempt to show us how certain people live in certain times and places always reflect the priorities of those who produce them. Are they trying to show us how people dressed, how a certain series of events unfolded, or how people thought about their lives in the context of the times depicted? One could find other priorities in a film, to be sure, but it would be a rare story that didn’t have some serious blind spots.
The funny thing about such blind spots is they can be hard to see at first, but once you find them, they can be equally hard to ignore.
Okay, so one of the ways I am cheating my way through this topic, so far, is that I keep picking examples where one can arrive at a reasonably sure sense of what the facts would say about a given issue, what would count as real if we chose to care about it. What about when you don’t know? What is realism when we don’t exactly know what the fact is?
Take the film, Atanarjuat (Fast Runner). Better yet, take the film Reel Injun in which director, Zacharias Kunuk discusses one of the challenges he faced in making Atanarjuat. He wanted to shoot some love scenes, but that raised an interesting question. How would two Inuits living essentially in the pre-contact era have actually made love. He couldn’t very well just have them start sucking face for foreplay, as would be the case in most love scenes, because Inuit in the precontact era didn’t kiss the way people do now. Lots of people have heard of an ‘Eskimo kiss’, which is essentially rubbing noses, or so we are told, but how does that work? Past movies set in the arctic depict this in rather comic terms, which was definitely not what Kunuk was going for. He wanted to portray this as accurately as possible. So, he talked to the elders in his own community and based his own love scenes on their answers.
So, is the ‘Eskimo kiss’ in Atanarjuat accurate? Is it realistic?
It seems rather likely that the answer is ‘yes’, but that isn’t entirely obvious. The elders Kunuk spoke to, might have been wrong. It’s certainly possible. Historical information isn’t carried in the blood, and customs change a great deal over time while people’s ideas about tradition are often rooted in the eras of their own youth. So, it is possible that Kunuk’s elders might have been factually wrong about an Eskimo kiss.
So what if they were?
Worst case scenario, the love scene in Atanarjuat is still the best answer that an Inuit director could come up with after speaking with Inuit elders in preparation for a movie with an Inuit cast and made essentially with an Inuit audience in mind. I can manufacture (as I just did) an objective question that Kunuk might have gotten wrong, but his answer is still the most authoritative I know of. It is certainly the most authoritative answer most of his non-Inuit audience will ever see. Whatever the facts of this topic, Kunuk’s portrayal is still a thoughtful expression of an Inuit perspective about the subject. That has to count for something.
So if someone asks me what is an ‘Eskimo kiss’, how am I going to answer them? I’m going to point them right to Atanarjuat, or maybe to Reel Injun. Of course, I could also say that an ‘Eskimo kiss’ is a silly western caricature of what different Eskimo peoples actually did, but then I’m still going to point them to Fast Runner, because what happens in Fast Runner is STILL the most authoritative answer to that question that I know of, at least on film. In effect, it is the most realistic film portrayal that I’m aware of at present.
The point here in this overly-belabored sub-theme is that realism isn’t always about objective facts. Sometimes it’s about perspective, Sometimes, it’s about the most authentic voice(s) you can find on a subject, the ones whose values and priorities are most relevant to a subject. This is particularly true of movies about exotic peoples, whether they be past civilizations, foreign cultures, or just the guy who does that really odd job. An outsider might manage a perfectly accurate portrayal of the lives of such people, but without some insight into their thinking, what would that be worth? Such insights must involve a native voice at some point. Better still when that voice can actually shape the narrative!
Will such a voice come with its own contrivance?
Also, there is no Santa Clause.