Publication Date

April 1, 1999



Educational goals are central to the emerging genre of indigenous documentary: Native Americans hope that through film and video they can present role models to the young and expose non-Indians to cultures they might not encounter otherwise. One attraction of documentary media for Native American producers and directors is that they enable a portrait of Native American views of history in contrast to the distortions and stereotypes found in the mass media. A major reason for Native American producers' emphasis on documentary is the genre's role in the telling of histories, an important role considering the centrality of "oral history" in Native American cultures. In plain terms, documentary is seen as a means of telling the "way it was" in contrast to inaccurate or incomplete non-Native American histories. The usefulness of documentaries in education, the relationship of media documentaries to traditionally oral cultures, and the desire to document Native American views of history have influenced the adoption of the documentary genre.

Acceptance of Visual Histories

For some Native Americans, visual images, especially historical images, may be accepted as more objective and engaging than written statements. A case in point is The Place of Falling Waters (1990), co-directed by Roy Bigcrane (Salish) and Thompson Smith, a White historian working with the Salish tribe in western Montana. The videographers make frequent use of historical photographs and rare film footage to visually document their case. For the videomakers this is a form of visual evidence. Bigcrane expressed his desire that the video be seen as “well documented” and described the production as “very historical.”1 He feels that the video requires historical objectivity to document the “underhanded” manner in which whites have historically treated Native Americans. In many cases, the “underhanded” treatment of Native Americans by whites occurred through the deliberate distortion or breaking of written legal treaties. This is an important source of the distrust that some Native Americans may feel toward writing as a form of truth-speaking. Bigcrane described the video production as “history with strong visuals.” Part of the reason for this approach lies in the intended audience for the video. For Bigcrane, one important audience is “young Indian kids.” He feels that typical histories often fail to engage the young Indians’ attention, partially because of their written form. The visual nature of this history engages young viewers more directly.

It should be noted that this reliance on historical images as a form of evidence and engagement is, of course, not unique to visual histories produced by Native Americans. For instance, Connie Poten and Pamela Roberts, the producers of Contrary Warriors: A Film of the Crow Tribe (1986), made frequent use of historical stills and footage in their moving document of the Crows’ struggles with non-Indians over the last century. Rather, my point is that visual accounts may be received as more objective than written accounts within Native American communities that have traditions of oral history and a deep mistrust of “objective” documents written by outsiders.

The bias in Native American communities against written historical accounts may be the direct opposite of the traditional bias that academic historians hold against filmic accounts of history. In his introduction to Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History, Robert Rosenstone gives a clear sense of how one historian’s thinking about the role of film in history has been modified very gradually and mostly in response to students’ disengagement with traditional written accounts rather than through his own sense that film is the best medium for historical analysis. Rosenstone had to confront his own training in traditional academic history before engaging film as a historical medium: “Thirty years ago, when I completed my doctorate, the idea that historical film might be worthy of attention as a medium for seriously representing the past was unthinkable.”2 That the exact opposite may be true for some Native Americans—writing as a truthful medium for representing the past is often suspected—points to tensions in thinking about historical methodology between western and Native American historians.

The goal of Bigcrane and Smith for The Place of Falling Waters is to document past developments concerning the Kerr Dam on the Flathead Indian Reservation, especially revolving around white and Native American interaction, and the effect of these developments on the past, present, and future condition of local Indian culture. As we have seen, the videographers make frequent use of historical photographs and film footage, but another visual appeal that creates a sense of history in Native American documentary is the use of elders as the primary interview subjects. Bigcrane and Smith usually portray elders in their own environment, and these individuals respond to questions in Salish, Kootenai, or mixed Salish and English languages. The authenticity and earnestness of their speech demonstrates the ongoing, highly charged nature of problems in white and Indian interaction. It is this sense of historical continuity, of the weight of history in the lives of individuals, that the videomakers wish to convey. Rather than demonstrating the continuity and relevance of history through statistical data or the massing of impersonal facts, Native American filmmakers realize that film and video are media that enable credible, charismatic spokespeople to draw viewers into personalized accounts of the past.

A personalized approach is characteristic of Native American film and videomakers, even in those productions that document broader historical, political, or economic issues. Richard Hill (Tuscarora) explains that many Native American documentary photographers focus on interpersonal relations with their emphasis on family and clan members as primary subjects.3 Documentaries and still photographs have supplemented oral history as a way of creating familial continuity and cohesion. But these portraits of Native American lives are different than those made by many outsiders. Native American people ". . . are part of what they photograph. This familiarity breeds a responsibility to protect and protection is found in truth." Thus, Native American documentarians may assume that images made by members of the community are more truthful because they are based on direct personal experience. Truthfulness derives from a sense of social responsibility that is different from that felt by outsiders; Native American photographers feel they "have a 'mission' to control how they will appear to outsiders." Visual truth-telling depends upon the special access and responsibility that Native American photographers have to their families and communities. Native American assumptions that documentaries are ways of "telling the way it was," then, spring from at least two sources: interpersonal experience within Native American communities and the perceived objectivity of images as a form of historical evidence.

A third active historical role of Native American documentaries is that the production process itself is often participatory. Through Native American media, history is enacted as a vital component of contemporary life, and media thereby help create an objective social reality based in historical awareness. Native American documentarians and theirsubjects may experience a heightened sense of agency as social actors. As participatory media, documentaries draw people into the personal enactment of history.

A reviewer of The Ute Bear Dance Story (produced by Ute Audio-Visual) explains how contemporary videomakers draw youth into an awareness of living historical traditions. Described as an “art and information project,” the video addresses the essence of tribal culture in kinetic, fluid manner. The educational aspect of the video lies in its production—Larry Cesspooch made the video with a teen video workshop—and is explicit in the product; this original language video production with English subtitles is part of the Ute Instruction Material Program, which attempts to bridge the gap between older tribal members and younger “culturally alienated, non-native tongue speakers,” as Armand White describes it.4 The structure of the video reveals historical goals: as in The Place of Falling Waters, black and white historic stills function as visual tropes that signify historicity. The beauty of the Utah landscape, a flashback to a legendary bear dance that is the basis for the contemporary ceremony, and the use of costuming for cultural affirmation are other visual and narrative elements that evoke collective identification for Ute viewers. Participation in making the video evoked deep feelings that create a sense of cultural engagement. In White’s analysis,

These kids, who literally see themselves in this, will know the magic of cinema in its pure, cleansed sense. Media is thus experienced not simply as entertainment (as commercial audiences have taken for granted) but empirically. Life becomes enriched, the world becomes theirs to interpret and depict however they feel or can imagine it—not as borrowed material or a privilege of the white man in Hollywood. Their own.

White's review points to the compatibility of several educational goals: a heightened awareness of Native American traditions and languages leads to an appreciation of shared histories as a basis for belonging to a community. Ultimately, the strongest basis of Native American acceptance of visual histories may be the participatory engagement that film and video foster.

Differences between Native and Non-Native Visual Histories

Eric Michaels, the late researcher of Australian Aboriginal media, wrote that the question of who controls TV is a question of who gets to write history.5 It is the particular presentation of history in the broad context of the mass media that has often disturbed Native American writers and directors and, as a result, spurred them to action. According to Michaels, "'culturecide' occurs through appropriating an image of aboriginals, then filtering it through the grid of a manufactured history." In the United States such culturecide has occurred through the stereotyped imagery of late 19th-century plains and southwestern tribes that comprise the stock representation of Indians in popular culture, especially in fiction film. The creators of Hollywood Westerns ignored distinctions between tribes to create an easily recognizable, hostile enemy. Even relatively recent fiction films such as Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990)that reveal a greater concern for historical accuracy, have the effect of fixing the image of American Indians in the past. Costner and the Lakota with whom he worked made great strides in their sympathetic portrayal of American Indian culture, but they took these strides within the framework of a romanticized Western plot, reinforced by the film’s conclusion and an epitaph—”thirteen years later, their homes destroyed, the buffalo gone, the great horse culture was gone, soon to pass into history”—that recapitulates the deeply ingrained idea of the “vanishing American.”

There are important distinctions between white directors, such as Costner, referencing historical and non-Western visual images and Native Americans looking to history for inspiration and subject matter. One is temporal; for Native Americans, the past is not so distant. The forced break with the past that occurred during the late 19th and 20th centuries was significant but is not as temporally distant as Euro-Americans' break from their own ties to ancestral lands. For example, the poignancy of recent native-produced videos such as Transitions (1991) and In the White Man's Image (1992), which document the forced destruction of Native American cultures and languages by whites, arises from the relatively recent historical occurrence of the documented events. In many cases the boarding school and other destabilizing experiences documented in the videos are those of one’s parents or grandparents.

Both documentary and popular fiction films by non-Native Americans represent the past, but they do so in qualitatively different ways. In fiction films the past is often irretrievable and distant. Because the large majority of fiction films are set in the same time period—the late 19th century—and revolve around the same plot motives, history takes on the dimension of distant myth. By contrast, indigenous documentaries tie the past to the present. Native American documentarians foster a direct connection between current lives and past events. In most Westerns and other fiction films the focus is often on the violence of interracial and intertribal conflict for dramatic purposes. Without denying the gravity of violence, indigenous documentaries represent whole ways of life; they represent what has been lost, what may be regained, and what has been transformed into present realities. As in The Place of Falling Waters, indigenous documentaries usually frame the past in ways that point to possible futures.

Native American aesthetic and cultural practices integral to the telling of history traditionally developed within more contained social contexts than contemporary Western aesthetic and narrative forms. Despite the growth of pan-tribal movements, this local emphasis continues. The aesthetic and ritual expressions of southwestern tribes are still relatively distinct from Northwest Coast, Inuit, or Plains art styles. These stylistic distinctions may even carry over into indigenous media. For instance, the videos of Hopi videographer Victor Masayesva Jr. are often less linear in development than videos produced in the Plains culture area that has an indigenous tradition of historical visual narrative. Just as the visual and narrative styles remain relatively intact in contrast to those styles of the mainstream culture, so the belief systems they express seem relatively more intact. The local orientation of Native American cultures isn't simply a matter of regional preference. Specific ties to the land unite communities.

The Challenge of Native American Visual Histories

Though Native American visual histories emerge from relatively intact, localized sources, the public, mass-distributed nature of film and video carry the telling of local Native American histories to a much broader audience than traditional oral histories, and this broadening effect has an impact on education. How does the power of media to transcend specific geographical and cultural "sites" change the teaching of Native American histories? Education may now focus on the shared global experiences of indigenous peoples rather than on the experience of local tribes. Educators can address this larger question of "indigenous" history and identity by showing films and videos that represent the experiences of a variety of tribes and Native American "nations" and discussing these films comparatively.

Increasingly, contemporary Native American documentaries express the concerns of a global First World political movement as well as those of more locally defined communities. The First World is a global alignment of indigenous "nations" within those nation states that resulted from the colonial period.6 To the degree that the "indigenous" trope in Native American media reflects an idealized, mythical past that has been shaped for political purposes, non-Native American viewers may question whether Native American representation is based in history, rhetoric, or some combination of the two.

However, the emergence of Native American media in the context of indigenous activism is an example of the political nature of the telling and teaching of all histories. With regard to contemporary political realities, the ready assumption that we have entered an era of postcolonialism seems more dubious when ongoing processes of “internal colonization” are taken into account.7 Internal colonization refers to the ideological mechanisms, as well as political and economic structures, that keep indigenous peoples marginalized and powerless within national borders. As Ward Churchill has demonstrated, mass media distortions of Native American lives are an excellent example of internal colonization processes. The question of indigenous historical self-representation can only arise in this context of neo-colonialism. In a noncolonial or postcolonial system media expressions of indigenous cultures would simply be the expression of local cultures rather than indigenous historical representations. The idea of First, Third, or Fourth World always has to do with the relationship of these to industrialized cultures. Indigenous media afford educators the opportunity to discuss historical inequities of power that persist today but which may be more difficult for students to recognize because today’s unequal power relationships are not always formed along national boundaries.

Representing the past is always a process of selection and interpretation. In this process, we collectively write and share history; one speaker never has the key to all the past. But how do we collectively agree upon the past? Members of one culture or ethnic group cannot have the power or right to define history for others. In the contemporary, pluralistic world there must be a way to establish a cross-cultural, collective dialogue about the past. Historical representations in indigenous documentary helps establish that dialogue. We form our communal selves through intercultural contact as well as within cultures. The educational possibilities inherent in Self-Other relations originate in part from those alternative understandings of the past represented in Native American media.


1. Roy Bigcrane, series of personal interviews with author, Salish Kootenai College, Pablo, Montana (September–December 1991).

2. Robert A. Rosenstone, Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995) 2.

3. This reference and the other quotations in this paragraph from Richard Hill are in Timothy Troy, "Anthropology and Photography: Approaching a Native American Perspective," Visual Anthropology 5, (1992) 56.

4. Armand White, "Totem Takes,"Film Comment, 24 April, 1988: 7.

5. Eric Michaels, "Aboriginal Content: Who's Got It? Who Needs It?" Visual Anthropology 4 (1991) 295.

6. See the second chapter of my book, Indigenous Aesthetics: Native Art, Media and Identity (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998) 28–44 for a fuller discussion of indigenous issues.

7. Ward Churchill,Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema, and the Colonization of American Indians, ed. M. Ainette Jaimes (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1992).

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