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Conflict and Controversy in Small Cinemas

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Edited By Janina Falkowska and Krzysztof Loska

This book examines small cinemas and their presentation of society in times of crisis and conflict from an interdisciplinary and intercultural point of view. The authors concentrate on economic, social and political challenges and point to new phenomena which have been exposed by film directors. They present essays on, among others, Basque cinema; gendered controversies in post-communist small cinemas in Slovakia and Czech Republic; ethnic stereotypes in the works of Polish filmmakers; stereotypical representation of women in Japanese avant-garde; post-communist political myths in Hungary; the separatist movements of Catalonia; people in diasporas and during migrations. In view of these timely topics, the book touches on the most serious social and political problems. The films discussed provide an excellent platform for enhancing debates on politics, gender, migration and new aesthetics in cinema at departments of history, sociology, literature and film.

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17. “I don’t know”: Linking past and present, the personal and the nation, and movement in Sterlin Harjo’s This May be the Last Time (Chris LaLonde)

← 234 | 235 →

Chris LaLonde

SUNY Oswego

17. “I don’t know”: Linking past and present, the personal and the nation, and movement in Sterlin Harjo’s This May be the Last Time

Abstract: A critical conflict for the Native Americans and First Nations people of North America, perhaps the critical conflict, has to do with past wrongs suffered that remain unaddressed. What is more, the trauma born of removal, of the boarding school/residential school era, of the relocation program and Termination Policy in the United States, of nothing less than attempted genocide on both sides of the border between the United States and Canada is exacerbated by the majority societies of the United States and Canada either remaining blind to these inconvenient truths or holding that past events are just that, past, and that natives need to get over what has happened. Native literary, visual, and performing artists counter this way of thinking with words, objects, and images that bring to light stories of loss, of resistance, and of recovery.

For the International Conference in Small Cinemas, I propose to discuss how in the documentary This May be the Last Time (2014) Muscogee Creek-Seminole filmmaker Sterlin Harjo brings together personal history, local history, the history of Removal, World War II, the Vietnam War, and congregational line singing in order to articulate connections between past and present and between song and loss in the name of what Gerald Vizenor terms survivance. Vizenor argues that survivance counters the narrative of tragic and passive victimry with and through stories that articulate an active presence. One should see This May be the Last Time’s through line of movement as signaling just such an active presence, even as that movement, as is true of Harjo’s other films, is connected to death and at least seeming absence. Although not precisely migration, the stories of movement help to link the personal to something larger – let us call it the historical and the cultural – and thus to a critique of the nation, a recognition of connections, and a celebration of adaptability and community.

Keywords: Survivance, Removal, Muscogee hymns, Creek history and culture, technologies of communication or communication technologies

This May be the Last Time (2014), Muscogee Creek-Seminole filmmaker Sterlin Harjo’s third of four feature-length films and sole documentary to date, opens with a series of aerial shots from an airplane crossing a forested riparian landscape as an off-screen voice recounts arriving at an Alaska village just prior to the funeral ← 235 | 236 → and interment of a young Athabaskan man. As the voice-over continues, the camera cuts to the speaker, Muscogee elder Jimmy Anderson, recalling how he had joined the native community in mourning their loss and asked those gathered at the spot where the man died if it would be okay for him to sing a hymn that his Oklahoma congregation turns to in times such as this one.

The initial sequence is telling, and not simply because it sounds a pan-tribal note of unity stretching from Oklahoma to Alaska, unity inflected, at least in this instance and in Jimmy’s mind, with Christianity; the opening also puts before us what might be termed a problem. That is, how do you take what underpins the story the majority society has long told about indians,1 a story that is one of movement leading inexorably to disappearance and death, and reappropriate it in order to tell a life-affirming story of indigenous presence? Harjo’s three fiction films work to bury the indian while showing the audience that natives are still here. In Four Sheets to the Wind, for instance, Frankie Smallhill’s body is not in the coffin festooned with parodic indian icons created by a well-meaning family friend, his son Cufe having submerged the body in the pond as his father wished, and the closed coffin – containing a watermelon with a smiley face drawn on it as part of the weight added to make the ruse work – reveals that the stereotype is what is to be buried in and with the film and that the joke is on the audience if we were expecting a typical indian film.

What holds for the fiction films holds for the documentary as well, as This May be the Last Time tells the story of his grandfather’s absence and of a style of singing found in Creek and Seminole Christian churches in Oklahoma. Rather than avoiding important past conflicts and with them the pain of loss, on the one hand, or what is for some the controversial question of change and its effect on natives today, on the other, Harjo addresses both as This May be the Last Time stitches ← 236 | 237 → together personal history, local history, the history of the Removal of Southeastern Nations in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century wars, and congregational line singing in order to articulate connections between past and present and between song and loss – all in the name of survivance.

In March 1962, Pete Harjo’s car is found wrecked in the Little River just north of Sasakwa, Oklahoma, having gone off the State Highway 56 bridge spanning the stream. There is no body. The search for Harjo runs for days, involving law enforcement, local divers, and Creek and Seminoles from Sasakwa and the surrounding area. The natives set up camp beside the river and from there go day after day looking for any sign of Pete. Born seventeen years after the accident, Sterlin Harjo grew up hearing the story of his grandfather’s disappearance and the subsequent search “hundreds of times,” and, in his words, “the thing that always stuck out to me about this story was the songs” the people sang as they searched the river and its banks. He recognized those songs, he tells us, because they were the ones he heard and sang in church.

The Muscogee hymns are a response to great, indeed in some ways cataclysmic change. Roughly a third through the film, just after having linked Pete’s absence, his missing body, and the untold or missing story of Muscogee hymns and American music, Harjo is careful to sound a cautionary note about change, saying “For most things in Native communities, change isn’t necessarily a good thing. It can represent loss. Loss of culture and loss of the way things used to be.”2 However, This May be the Last Time shows us that the hymns are both connected to the past and rooted in native cultural practices and the worldview underpinning them. According to Muscogee poet and musician Joy Harjo, the hymns were influenced by the ceremonial songs of the people, just as the church grounds, pictured as often in the film as are church interiors, were influenced by the ceremonial grounds. Early in the film, Joy Harjo tells us that a song is the spirit of something and that it “appears when somebody needs it.” Such was the case during Removal. Nelson Harjo imagines what the forced march was like, the People allowed to stop only when the soldiers’ horses needed rest, sees in his imagination a native woman taken into the bushes by the soldiers, raped as her husband and the rest of the captives within earshot hear the rutting men, hear first her screams and then her sobs. From that, he says, song is born. Another interviewee says “our people pulled ← 237 | 238 → a fast one on the missionaries” in particular, and the whites in general, when they adopted Christianity, because the “hymns are all about survival.”

The Muscogee hymns are sung a cappella in what is known as congregational line singing. This lining-out style is found in the Highlands of Scotland, in white churches in Appalachia Kentucky, in African-American churches in Alabama, and in Muscogee Creek and Seminole churches in southeastern Oklahoma. In short, it is a striking example of transmission, adaptation, and hybridity. This May be the Last Time would have the audience learn about and understand what musicologist and Muscogee Creek church member Hugh Foley calls “a whole rich story of American music that had never been told.” Joy Harjo links the heretofore missing story of the Muscogee hymns with the missing story of native people: “indigenous people have been written out of the story of America and the story of culture. It’s like its been sitting there all along. It’s right there in the face of American music and yet that story has been disappeared and left out.”

“Sitting” is a curious and I think playful word here, for prior to Removal, Creek life featured movement as the loose confederacy of the nation necessitated that town leaders travel to meet as political need arose. Moreover, trails linking the eighty to ninety towns beside streams that make up the river systems of North Alabama and Georgia facilitated trade, enabled Creek to visit fellow clan members in distant towns, and allowed both individual Creek and whole families to move on paths through the oak-pine forest and along and across streams of the Piedmont region in search of wood, water, and game (Hudson, 2010: 12–14). In short, movement was a central feature of Creek life, personally, socially, economically, and spiritually. It is a central feature of Harjo’s documentary as well. Indeed, the initial sequence of This May be the Last Time accentuates movement and perspective with its series of three aerial shots followed by a high long shot of what we take to be a river in Alaska. That river serves to link the opening with a river in Oklahoma and the story that follows.

In the film’s lengthy opening, running some seven minutes and forty seconds from first image to the title shot, Harjo, narrating his film, articulates a specific native view on the Mississippi River – one that resonates with how the film would have us see the Little River in Oklahoma. Over a slow pan of the Mississippi, Harjo says “Thousands died along the way to Indian Territory. Countless people drowned in the Mississippi River.” For the People, the Mississippi is not, then, the route to freedom that Twain offers readers some fifty years later in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for, as Harjo says, “In our songs the people refer to the Mississippi River as the river of death.” ← 238 | 239 →

Immediately after the slow panning shot showing us the Mississippi as the narrative tells us how that river figures in Muscogee stories and song, Harjo’s camera offers a shot of Natives on parade in dance regalia announcing their presence and celebrating their identity as the voice-over quietly, even matter-of-factly, proclaims “Through it all the people survived. We rebuilt our tribe in Oklahoma. Our ceremonial way of life came with us. Our traditional religion and songs. Today they are thriving.” Shot accentuates narration, and vice-versa, both by the dance regalia and the multiple generations it contains: adults, children, and elders. The death march, in short, is visually and aurally countered, supplemented by an objective movement shot celebrating survivance.

With a four-second shot without any narration of a snake coiled on a gravely shore at very nearly the midpoint of the film, This May be the Last Time succinctly articulates its grounding in traditional Creek and Seminole culture and worldview critical to the People’s survival past and present. Their stories tell of the tie-snake lurking in the waters they followed and crossed. If taboos were broken during a journey, the tie-snake could take one down to a watery death. Like the waters themselves, mind you, the tie-snake was not inherently malevolent, and there are stories where it comes to the aid of the people. A creature associated with the chaotic below world, the tie-snake is balanced by the Thunderers of the above world. In short, the shot of the snake asks us to be cognizant of another way of seeing and being in and with the world. In Donald Justice’s words, “Southeastern tribal values descended from Mississippianism privilege complementarity over opposition” (p. 222) and humans in the middle world help to keep the balance both by recognizing and prizing complementarity and by taking care not to transgress taboos.

The shot resonates historically as well as culturally. The Muscogee Creek and other southeastern nations resisted the Dawes Act of 1867, desiring, rather, to continue to think of land and possession as they had before contact and Removal. The Curtis Act of 1898 abolished the court systems of the Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Chickasaw and, critically, forced allotment onto the Creeks over their wishes and the continued refusal of many. For at least the first decade of the twentieth century, a group of Muscogee led by Crazy Snake resisted. The Snake Faction, as they were known, reinstituted traditional Muscogee government – an act of defiance against both the Federal Government and the various agreements and concessions made by tribal leaders at the turn of the century. Following an armed standoff in 1901, leaders of the Snake government were captured and pled guilty to seditious conspiracy. Although admonished to cease organizing by the Federal judge who sends them home, the Snakes persisted to meet in traditional town councils. Eight years later, another armed standoff weakened the Snake Faction. ← 239 | 240 →

Immediately after the shot of the coiled snake, Harjo’s camera offers the audience a shot of a bridge over the Little. Here and throughout the film, shots of bridges are used to accentuate movement and to make connections both within the individual strands of the film and between them. Indeed, this begins five minutes into the film when, after Jimmy Anderson concludes his story of singing in Alaska, a jump cut to a black screen then transitions to a time-lapse image of a bridge as it emerges from darkness into the light of day followed by a shot of drops making radiating circles on the river’s surface3. Together, these early shots visually situate the documentary in relation to the story that it will show us, obviously, as sight is linked to site, while the time-lapse photography effectively, and again obviously, shows us that This May Be the Last Time is to be about time while accentuating the ability of the moving image to capture the passage of time and manipulate it in the service of story. Later, we see a shot of another bridge spanning a river as Harjo’s narrative recounts the death march. We are offered day shots of a bridge seen from a moving vehicle, night shots through the windshield as it crosses a bridge over the Little. Two white men who were boys at the time of Pete Harjo’s disappearance stand beside the river with a bridge in the immediate background as they recall the search for the body. We see shots of superstructures helping to hold up bridge decks.

When Harjo offers us with no narration an earlier shot of traffic on a road beneath a bridge as the transition between the narrative’s articulation of the origins of the Muscogee hymns and where he grew up in Oklahoma on the border between the Muscogee Creek nation and the Seminole nation, the seemingly throwaway image makes clear what the Snakes fought for and what helps to ground the People. “Native land” is written on a pillar of the overpass. Their land supports the People and helps them to connect past and present, to join Western practices such as Christianity and church-going to Muscogee Creek and Seminole ways of knowing and being in the world. The church grounds are modeled on the ceremonial grounds after all, we are told. The film subtly emphasizes the centrality of land to the people and as a ground for their hymns and the appropriation of Christianity when relatively early on after Nelson Harjo tells us that an old Pastor told his congregation that with the hymns “we were waking up god,” we see landscape shots at sunrise and dusk with English subtitles as a Muscogee hymn is being sung. Much later, the connection between land and spirituality, ← 240 | 241 → and being, is made explicit by pastor Houston Tiger when he says that he turns first not to scripture as he contemplates his sermon, but to the land: “I get my knowledge out in the wilderness. I fast and pray.” Only then is he ready to turn to the Bible. This, then, is why This May be the Last Time keeps the land before its audience from first to last.

To have the land before us, to have it on our mind, is to redirect our attention not to the heavens (recall the film’s opening aerial sequence), not to the hereafter, but to the here and now and how it came to be as it is. For the Muscogee Creek and Seminoles, for the other nations of the Southeast United States, for so many other native nations, land and loss are linked, of course, and thus it is little wonder that This May be the Last Time has America on its mind throughout its course. Indeed, the film gives us an image of the American flag immediately after the first credits end. Shot directly below with the colors barely unfurled, the image initially gives the impression that the flag hangs upside down. Thus, we are asked to recognize an image of a nation in distress. An hour into the film, as Wotko speaks of his tour of duty in Vietnam and the bad things he and his fellow soldiers did there, we get a lap-dissolve sequence from combat to the American flag and back again. Wotko’s story then makes clear why the nation is in distress as it links Vietnam and the history of his people. He talks of feeling sorry for the civilian residents of a village in which Viet Cong were suspected of being: “I just looked at those villages and they were handmade by all the villagers, just like back in the old days in Georgia and Alabama when our people were being moved and them villages being burned.” What may seem the imprecision of Wotko’s phrasing is anything but, as it conflates villages in twentieth-century Vietnam with native villages in nineteenth-century America. In short, the colonialist and imperialist drive, the desire to possess and control, is damning – to both the native and to the Settler Nation.

Harjo entitles his documentary with a portion of the title of his grandma Johnnie Mae’s favorite hymn, “Espoketis Omes Kerreskos,” or “This May be the Last Time, We Don’t Know.” Song and death are again explicitly linked, for Harjo says that they sang the hymn to her as she lay dying, Johnnie Mae tapping along with the rhythm of the song even though she “wasn’t really conscious.” Harjo recognized even as a boy that the song’s rhythm was different from that of the other Muscogee hymns he knew, doubtless, he later learns, because of its roots in African-American slave spirituals. When the hymn is first sung in Muscogee is not recorded, Harjo tells us, but it has not changed since that time in the nineteenth century. Then and now, “Espoketis Omes Kerreskos” stresses group cohesion, one might even say community: “This may be the last time, we don’t know” (emphasis ← 241 | 242 → added). Fitting hymn, then, this, as it is sung to his grandmother and, as the film is careful to tell and show us throughout its course, as the people gather together on the banks of the Little River day after day to search for Pete’s body. It is only after a traditional healer and seer comes that the body is found.

Very near to the film’s end, Harjo says “Anyone you talk to about these songs will say the same thing. They are dying out. There’s going to be a day when they’re gone.” His film is a counter to that somber claim, however, as he continues, “but these songs echo throughout our community. They echo throughout our stories. And as long as we keep telling them, they will always be here. In death, in worship, in sadness, and in joy, encouraging us.” Harjo’s body of work to date subtly shows us that one location for living elements of Muscogee and Seminole material and symbolic cultural practices, another “here” if you will, are the products of recording and playback technologies, information and communication technologies (ICTs) more generally; photographs; and indeed film itself. His films highlight and call our attention to representation and technologies of communication. For example, a phonograph appears early on in Four Sheets to the Wind, a record continuing to turn after the stylus has run through the final groove; with that image, we get a striking reinforcement of the concentric circles we see radiating from Cufe’s body as he stands in the pond after submerging his father’s body, the circles, a visual reference to Muscogee and Seminole understanding of the world and of the cyclical thinking born of that understanding.4 From this point of view, the shot of the coiled snake in This May be the Last Time does not so much reinforce the image of something about to strike as it reinforces, fittingly, an image of concentricity.

The links between visual representations, still or moving; communication technologies; and culture are readily apparent in the opening sequence of Barking Water. The extreme close-up of Irene’s eyes followed by a shot revealing that she is looking at photographs signals that we, like her, need to see and, in particular, need to pay attention to representations. As her dying ex-partner Frankie is wheel-chaired out of his room and the hospital by an orderly helping Irene to free him, we get a shot framed to draw our eye to a hanging display of traditional southeastern native dress. This early signifier of what scholars label the Mississippian ← 242 | 243 → Ideological Interaction Sphere (MIIS), that is to say “the cosmosocial matrix through which most of the contemporary tribal nations of Oklahoma are (and other Eastern Woodlands people) are linked,”5 is telling, surely, and not simply to signify the shared worldview of the Muscogee Creek and Seminole within which the story is rooted. The shot also frames a question: how does one take culture and cultural practices from a fixed and frozen display so that they will resonate, so that they and the People may live. The sequence offers us an answer with a shot the camera stays with after the orderly rolls the wheelchair down the short passage and into Frankie’s room. We see a young woman first standing, then pacing across the hall, and finally sitting down on floor with her back against the wall. She does not speak. She texts.

Here, then, just as early in Four Sheets to the Wind with the phonograph and later with photography and throughout This May be the Last Time via photographs, cassette recordings, and radio, Harjo highlights representation and the potential and power of technologies of communication. Indeed, This May be the Last Time makes clear it is not until Hugh Foley plays a recording he made of hymns he has been singing with other church members that he hears echoes of African-American spirituals and subsequently sets off on a journey through American music to learn more about the hymns and their origins. A National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast on congregational line singing with no mention of the Creek tradition is heard by a Muscogee woman: she contacts Foley, Foley sends a query about the program to Yale scholar Willie Ruff, Ruff calls Foley, and ultimately a second conference is held at Yale in order to include the previously “unknown” part of this singing tradition in America – what at the second conference Ruff terms “these songs of survival.” In short, if recording and playback technologies can reveal what has heretofore been hidden, often in plain sight and sound, then the emphasis on them in the films tacitly reveal that for Sterlin Harjo the moving image will be the vehicle to animate culture and tradition while offering them to the audience.

Contra the narrative of death and dying offered by the dominant society, then, think the vanishing indian, think “the only good indian …,” think the “End of the Trail,” Harjo gives his audience stories of death and dying as a part of the effort to bury the indian while showing them that natives, in this place the Muscogee and the Seminole people, are still here. We see and hear the hymns being sung, we see and hear young children speaking Muscogee, we are privy to Wotko telling us that he talks to his ancestors as he cares for the cemetery that is part of his ← 243 | 244 → church grounds, and that he knows that they are listening. Like them, we need to listen as the “amen” following the prayer and song at the film’s end is immediately followed by mvto, a giving thanks in Muscogee, and then, after a black screen, a joke that accentuates once again recording and playback technologies: Wotko says, “we’ll be signing them CDs next month” as the women who have been singing with him laugh. No laughing matter of course, this, as the pain of all the erasures, partial and total, of all the efforts of the majority society to do away with natives, is countered by the work done by Harjo and so many other Native visual, literary, and performing artists.

This May be the Last Time links the discovery of Pete Harjo’s body and the discovery of the important position the Muscogee hymns have in the history of American music. Early on, Harjo tells us that the hymns are the same songs the “ancestors sang on the Trail of Tears.” He has “wondered where they [the songs] came from,” especially given that “they seem always to have been here.” This May be the Last Time is, however, not so much about a search for origins as about the end of something: the end of the absence of Pete Harjo’s body, of the absence of the Muscogee hymns in the history of American music, of the stereotypical figure of the indian trapped in and by the past. The People survive, they adapt, while remaining rooted in land and worldview. Wotko says he felt sorry for the Vietnamese “caught in the middle of it all,” but Harjo’s film reveals the middle ground need not be a trap. Just as a bridge serves as a middle ground between and connecting two points, traveling across it cognizant of the need for balance, for reciprocity, and respect for the land – fundamental elements of Creek worldview – might well save us all. I don’t know.

Bibliography

Deer, Sarah and Cecilia Knapp. “Muscogee Constitutional Jurisprudence: Vhakv Em Pvtakv” [The Carpet Under the Law]. Tulsa Law Review, Vol. 49, No.1, 2013, pp. 125–181.

Hudson, Angela. Creek Paths and Federal Roads: Indians, Settles, and the Making of the American South. Raleigh, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Hurt, Douglas A. “Defining American Homelands: A Creek Nation Example, 1828–1907.” Journal of Cultural Geography, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2004, pp. 19–43.

Justice, Donald. “Notes Toward a Theory of Anomaly.” GLQ, Vol. 16, No. 1–2, 2010, pp. 207–242.

Vizenor, Gerald. Fugitive Poses. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.


1 Those familiar with native/indigenous studies will recognize the lowercase italicized indian as White Earth Anishinaabe Gerald Vizenor’s turn of phrase to describe the construction created and perpetuated by that society. Vizenor has for more than fifty years argued that the narratives offered by the dominant society, be it north or south of the 49th Parallel, would have natives be seen, and come to see themselves, as indians, the construction created and perpetuated in order to consign natives to the status of victim in a tragic story. Vizenor will have none of it, would ask us to have none of it, for victim and victimry are passive. Other stories, native stories, articulate an active presence and, in doing so, sound a striking and insistent note of resistance. Thus, to deploy one of Vizenor’s key terms, these are native stories of survivance, stories that voice not simply survival but, as the suffix indicating condition and action signals, resistance, continuance, and endurance. Native stories, then, are “successive and natural estates [that are] an active repudiation of dominance, tragedy, and victimry” (Fugitive Poses 15).

2 Near the film’s end, Jimmy Anderson will make an explicit return to this issue when he speaks of needing to respond to young natives who ask him about Christianity’s role in the forced removal of their people. Jimmy can only resort to God’s love and forgiveness with his reply, in effect not answering the crucial question. Harjo’s film provides the answer.

3 Those radiating circles mark a connection between This May be the Last Time and both Four Sheets to the Wind and traditional Muscogee and Seminole worldviews (see below the passage on concentric circles and cyclical thinking in this chapter).

4 The phonograph can be read as an afterimage, or better still a supplement, of the most famous phonograph in film featuring indians: Nanook of the North (1922). While in Flaherty’s film the phonograph remains a mystery to Nanook, even as it reveals to its twentieth-century audience Nanook’s innocence/ignorance concerning technology, in Harjo’s film the phonograph signals both an awareness of technology and the role it can play in communicating contemporary natives and their culture(s), not the vanishing native of Nanook.

5 Donald Justice, “Notes Toward a Theory of Anomaly,” GLQ, Vol. 16, No. 1–2 (2010), p. 217.