Representing "The Indigenous Experience"

Cousins and Kin Program at DOXA 2021
By Evelyn Pakinewatik
DOXA Documentary Film Festival May 6-16, 2021

Cousins and Kin Program
Curated by the Cousin Collective
DOXA Documentary Film Festival
Vancouver, BC
May 6-16, 2021

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How does one curate adequate representation of The Indigenous Experience? Is this a singular experience? What can "Indigeneity" as an identifier define beyond the state of being colonized? In certain company one often hears the phrase "we are all Indigenous to Somewhere." Where is this Somewhere that we can all call home? I think I’d like to go there.
Cousins and Kin
Cousins and Kin.

Indigeneity itself is an abstraction, a theoretical unifier which we can all somehow claim. How could The Indigenous Experience then be represented if not in the abstract, the surreal? We are all living post-apocalyptic lives (and the world ends every day for somebody), making choices that reflect an extinct integrity; the land, the spirit, the bones. We are here. We will remember, even in forgetting. Old becomes new, again, and we are here, and we breathe, and we bear witness, and we dream, and we cannot help but insist upon it.

"Extinct" isn't the right word, but I don't know how else to describe the constant moral quandary of trying to function ethically in this world as it's ending. If I grow my own food, and build my own house, and sew my own clothes, if I take shovel and nail and needle and axe, who mined the metal I would then hold in my hands? What spirit and memory lives within my camera before I ever hold it to my eye? This question is as strange as it is heavy, and it is this weight which reminds me that filmmaking is a privilege afforded to a few. Someone is paying for it. I don’t always know who.

We Only Answer Our LandLine Directors - Woodrow Hunt and Olivia Camfield

We Only Answer Our LandLine. Directors: Woodrow Hunt and Olivia Camfield

The History of the Luiseño People. Director: James Luna. Credit: Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

The History of the Luiseño People. Director: James Luna. Credit: Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

San Diego. Director: Fox Maxy

San Diego. Director: Fox Maxy

Mobilize. Director: Caroline Monnet

Mobilize. Director: Caroline Monnet

Less Lethal Fetishes. Director: Thirza Cuthand

Less Lethal Fetishes. Director: Thirza Cuthand

Just Dandy Director - Thirza Cuthand

Just Dandy. Director: Thirza Cuthand

Itzcoatl. Director: Colectivo Los Ingravidos

Itzcoatl. Director: Colectivo Los Ingravidos

Impressions For a Sound and Light Machine. Director: Colectivo Los Ingravidos

Impressions For a Sound and Light Machine. Director: Colectivo Los Ingravidos

Honey Moccasin. Director: Shelley Niro

Honey Moccasin. Director: Shelley Niro

Halpate. Directors: Adam Khalil and Adam Piron

Halpate. Directors: Adam Khalil and Adam Piron

Giizis Mookaam Giiwe. Director: Eve-Lauryn LaFountain

Giizis Mookaam Giiwe. Director: Eve-Lauryn LaFountain

Gephyrophobia. Director: Caroline Monnet

Gephyrophobia. Director: Caroline Monnet

Creatura Dada. Director: Caroline Monnet

Creatura Dada. Director: Caroline Monnet

Bocamina. Director: Miguel Hilari

Bocamina. Director: Miguel Hilari

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Installation view, Fragments of Epic Memory, September 1, 2021 – February 21, 2021. Art Gallery of Ontario. Exhibition entrance
The History of the Luiseño People. Director: James Luna. Credit: Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
San Diego. Director: Fox Maxy
Mobilize. Director: Caroline Monnet
Less Lethal Fetishes. Director: Thirza Cuthand
Just Dandy  Director - Thirza Cuthand
Itzcoatl. Director: Colectivo Los Ingravidos
Impressions For a Sound and Light Machine. Director: Colectivo Los Ingravidos
Honey Moccasin. Director: Shelley Niro
Halpate. Directors: Adam Khalil and Adam Piron
Giizis Mookaam Giiwe. Director: Eve-Lauryn LaFountain
Gephyrophobia. Director: Caroline Monnet
Creatura Dada. Director: Caroline Monnet
Bocamina. Director: Miguel Hilari
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I can’t help but think of the somber black-and-white portraits of the miners of Potosí in Miguel Hilari’s Bocamina. Potosí is a colonial Bolivian mining town in the shadow of a great mountain whose children will inevitably join their fathers to work in the dark of the earth.

Bocamina. Director: Miguel Hilari
Bocamina. Director: Miguel Hilari

The Indigenous Experience is a broad, diverse, and infinite exercise in adaptation. Adam Khalil and Adam Piron’s film Halpate, documenting Seminole alligator wrestling, is a perfect example of this. When the Seminole people were displaced by the U.S. government, they had to quickly find means of survival in the Everglades. Initially they hunted alligators for sustenance. Later, Seminole alligator wrestling evolved, soon to become a tourist attraction promoted by white Floridians. By the time the Seminole people began to own and manage this tourism, the American alligator had become an endangered species. Since then, Seminole stewardship of this industry has proven to solidify the relational reciprocity shared with the American alligator and strengthened the foundations of mutual survival. In Halpate, I watched at the edge of my seat, fighting the urge to shut my eyes, as a man put his head in an alligator’s mouth. Google informs us that alligators have a bite strength of 2980 psi, more than enough to crush bone, to crush skull. This “Dance of Hunters” is as much a conversation as it is a show of skill.

Halpate. Directors: Adam Khalil and Adam Piron
Halpate. Directors: Adam Khalil and Adam Piron

In Colectivo Los Ingrávidos’ Impressions for a Sound and Light Machine, an unseen woman declares, trancelike, “Here they come, the dead, so lonely, so silent, so ours…”

I will likely never know her, but I can hear her, still. I can feel her. Cut and cut away the image, until all that’s left is light! “...with a bowl of horrors between their hands, their terrifying tenderness…”

Impressions For a Sound and Light Machine. Director: Colectivo Los Ingravidos
Impressions For a Sound and Light Machine. Director: Colectivo Los Ingravidos

Maybe being Indigenous, or just being an Indigenous filmmaker, means that there are so few of us, and so many of us, and none of us at all. Indigenous is, of course, Their word, now Our word. Similarly, hopefully, we take Their tools to tell Our stories, making those tools Ours in the process. What are we still doing here? I think, sometimes, to make beautiful things, and to grieve.

Colectivo Los Ingrávidos portrays grief with a hard slash through celluloid. James Luna’s The History of the Luiseño People depicts grief as a Charlie Brown Christmas tree with a beer can topper and sunglasses worn indoors.

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The History of the Luiseño People. Director: James Luna. Credit: Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

In Shelley Niro’s Honey Moccasin, Zachary John shifts uncomfortably in his seat, saying, “It’s okay stuff, I guess. But a little on the weird side - it’s just too heavy! It’s supposed to be a night out for enjoyment, fun. Time to forget about your problems, not have somebody remind you over and over again about this depressing stuff. Drink, dance, be merry!” The man beside him silently turns away. Without too much thought, Zachary takes the opportunity to swipe his neighbor’s beaded sheath left sitting on the table, tucking it away into the sleeve of his jacket.

It’s an all-too-familiar complaint; - Lighten up! - Get over it! You meet people who are In It, who Fight It, who Ignore It when they can, and Deny It when they can’t. The Indigenous Experience, so often experienced as various degrees of disconnect and dissociation. It is hard to say, even in celebration, what we can do that is not in some way a response to colonization.

The titular Honey Moccasin spins and transforms Lynda Carter-style into Detective Honey Moccasin with deerstalker hat and unrelenting poise. She’s in a band! She owns a bar! She has a daughter in film school! She’s here to solve the mystery and bring the culprit to (non-carceral) justice. Most importantly, Honey Moccasin makes us smile. Indians get to have fun too, even when you talk about the “depressing stuff.”

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Honey Moccasin. Director: Shelley Niro

A few years ago, I listened to Sky Hopinka talk in Maine where he asked the question, “Am I Native person with a camera, or a camera person who happens to be Native?” It was also in Maine when I first held a whole lobster in my hands. I was one of those children who stopped at grocery store lobster tanks if I saw them, just to visit. Lobsters know what many don't - Hell is real, and only we have the power to condemn them. Caroline Monnet’s Creatura Dada represents a feast of lobster, oyster, and champagne in grotesque and gorgeous celebration. Look at our beauty and our splendor, those feasting and watching us seem to say. They are all Indigenous women, and this feast, this celebration, is their Indigenous Experience. My Maine lobster, like those in Creatura Dada, was shiny and red and I wept as I ate it. I have never seen or held a creature more beautiful.

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Creatura Dada. Director: Caroline Monnet

To be Indigenous, maybe, is to know that time used to be different. In my community, we call it “Indian Time,” which today is often understood as lateness. It would be more accurate to say that “Indian Time” is just that whatever is meant to happen is going to happen when it happens, not before and possibly not at all. Every colonized people on the planet enjoy a similar relationship. This world, now, is defined by the constant theft of time. What can we do but watch, listen, tell a story about it later? I saw this time stolen. I saw this time lost. Spend a little time with me and watch, so we can remember this stolen time together.

There’s more to say, but if I said it all, I’d never stop talking. Cousins and Kin does not satisfy, and does not attempt to satisfy, the expectation of a non-Indigenous audience. I can’t tell you how much of a relief that is.

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Evelyn Pakinewatik is an artist and filmmaker.
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