“My car is dented, the radiator steams
One headlight don’t work
The radio can scream;
I got a sticker that says “Indian Power”
I stuck it on a bumper
That’s what holds my car together;
We’re on a circuit of an Indian dream
We don’t get old, we just get younger
When we ’re flyin’ down the highway
Ridin’ in our NDN car. “
-Keith Secola, “NDN Kars ”
Are you embarrassed by W.P. Kinsella’s stories about Silas Ermineskin, Frank Fencepost, Sadie One-wound, Mad Etta and the other characters who people Kinsella’s fictional reserve near Wetaskiwin, Alberta? Kinsella has been critically tarred & feathered by Natives and non-Natives alike for allegedly ripping off a culture to which he can claim no further kinship than a writer’s imagination. Literary colonialism, I guess you’d call it. Quite the indictment. I don’t recall anyone accusing the late George Ryga (a confessed Ukrainian) of exploiting Native peoples with plays such as Indians and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. Naturally, I have a theory about this. I wouldn’t dream of expounding it here, except for the fact that it does tend to explain the limited success of Bruce McDonald’s recent (1995) film version of W.P. Kinsella’s Dance Me Outside stories.
It all starts with Joan Baez. The Theory, that is. Around 1961, Joan Baez recorded one of the most flawless albums in the history of folk music. It was called Ballad Book, and featured centuries-old traditional English folksongs sung in a soprano voice so pure it was downright eerie. The purity of Baez’s voice made an uncanny contrast with the actual content of the songs, the usual tales of betrayal, murder, doomed loves, and false hopes. Ballad Book was highly addictive. Those of us who listened to it too much spent a lot of time hanging around obscure record stores and reading morbid poems in Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. But something was missing. Everyone who was performing these old songs was so damned….respectful. After a while, the whole listening experience began to feel a little like walking through a museum. Or a church. There comes a time when you want art—be it song or painting or poetry—to be dragged back out into the streets and kicked around a little. Unrelenting seriousness is lethal. You have to let it go and give it all up to the tricksters and the clowns. They’ll make it all new again.
They’ll also offend a lot of sensibilities. Which brings us to the Pogues, and a step closer to Dance Me Outside. The Pogues released their first album in 1985. The cosmos had finally birthed a yang for Joan Baez’s yin. Lead singer Shane MacGowan’s face and voice reminded one of absolutely nothing pure. Even the album title was a slap in the face. The album cover was a take-off on the gruesome Géricault painting, The Raft of the Medusa, with the band members’ heads grafted onto the bodies of the shipwrecked damned. This was folk music from the other side—raw, vital, vulgar, mocking, funny and savage:
“They took you out into the street
and kicked you in the brains
But you went back through that door
and did it all again.
At the sickbed of Cuchulainn
we ‘ll kneel and say a prayer
When the ghosts are rattling at the door
and the Devil’s in the chair.”
Listening to the Pogues was like being in some rowdy English/Irish ale-house, 300 years ago, when someone first sang “Lord Randall”.
So it’s obvious, isn’t it? W.P. Kinsella is the Pogues of the Native literacy/historical renaissance. Who cares if he’s white. Beginning with books like Dee Brown’s Burv Mv Heart at Wounded Knee and George Clutesi’s Son of Raven. Son of Deer, the last thirty years have seen scores of profound, reverent, passionate histories of North America’s aboriginal peoples. Similarly, there have been dozens of powerful novels, plays, poems, and short stories written by Native authors. But something was missing, Irreverence. Laughter. How much of either of these healing medicines has there been since Chief Dan George walked away from his burial hill at the end of Little Big Man? I think Chief Dan George and Kinsella came to the same conclusion: There are good days to die, but there are also days where you just get soaked and look kind of stupid. You might as well laugh.
There are a couple of scenes in Bruce McDonald’s films like that. In one, Silas and Frank take their white brother-in-law (a Yuppie Toronto lawyer) through what they insist is a time-honoured native ceremony of manhood. Actually, it’s just an improvised excuse to get Bob out of the house for a while. Although they begin by laughing at their befuddled victim (“I am Dog…I am Bird…I am the Walrus,” they intone with utmost solemnity), Bob’s utter obliviousness to irony and his uninhibited enthusiasm actually win Frank and Silas over. What began as mockery ends as just a heckuva good time for all. In a second scene, Silas and Frank give a cheerful “Red Power” salute to the departing AIM (American Indian Movement) leader whose car they’ve just mistakenly demolished.
Dance Me Outside also does a fine job dealing with the theme of young men struggling to move past a macho heritage of booze and sexism into a new world of political awareness. It ain’t easy. There’s nothing in warrior traditions about fighting battles with protest letters.
The movie features several talented young Native actors in the lead roles: Ryan Black, Adam Beach, Jennifer Podremski. Even better, the roles are contemporary rather than historical. For Hollywood, Native history seems to end about the time of Dances With Wolves.
One caveat. It’s the reason I called Dance Me Outside a limited success. Bruce McDonald pulled his punches. Kinsella’s stories are fiercer, funnier, more tragic than one would know from this movie version. In the film, Mad Etta is a shadow of her fictional self, Chief Tom Crow-Eye is nowhere to be seen, white bigots seem more distasteful than ugly and evil, and even the visiting AIM activist is unconvincing in stirring up Kinsella’s hornet’s nest. Too bad. Now we’ll have to wait for the movie versions of Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven or Reservation Blues, or of one of Tomson Highway’s plays or Thomas King’s novels, to raise the bar of Native cinema a little higher. No one’s going to question these guys’ credentials.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Were it not for the recent controversies around the issue of cultural appropriation, and in particular the impact on the Canadian publishing industry of the Joseph Boyden imbroglio, I’d have been content to say that my original review holds up pretty well. I’m not about to backtrack, but I would like to explain why I’m standing by a collection of First Nations stories written by a white guy who was as far from political correctness as a major writer could get.
First of all, it’s hard to imagine that the First Nations cast who worked on Dance Me Outside would have done so if the stories on which the film was based didn’t resonate with their own experiences. I’m sure that somewhere along the line interviewers must have asked them about the film, and I don’t imagine they would have focussed their responses on author W.P. Kinsella’s biography. Two years later, many of the same actors worked on The Rez, a two-season TV series based on the Kinsella stories.
Second, at the time Dance Me Outside was made, visibility of Native actors in mainstream film in a contemporary—rather than a historical—context was practically nil. This was only Adam Beach’s fourth film role; he now has 93 credits on Imdb. It was Michael Greyeyes’ second role; he now has 50 acting credits. It was Ryan Rajendra Black’s second role, Jennifer Podemski’s fourth, Sandrine Holt’s fourth. The film is a Who’s Who of young Native Canadian talent. Any movie that puts it on display is okay in my books.
Third, I’m a big fan of First Nations stories that have a sense of humor, be it ribald, ironic, dark, or goofy. For me, it started with Chief Dan George in Little Big Man. Tragedy and humor are not incompatible. One only has to think of the Trickster stories that are woven into most First Nations’ histories. Silas Ermineskin, Frank Fencepost, and Mad Etta are in good company with Raven and Coyote. In Canada, thanks to CBC Radio, we were also blessed with the long-running irreverence of Tom King’s Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour.
Fourth, I don’t believe that good writing is limited by race or gender or place of birth. Empathy has no limits. After countless biographies, we still don’t know who Shakespeare was or what he really believed. Male authors create powerful female characters; female authors speak with male voices. Non-Natives will capture the soul of their Native protagonists with power, pathos, and truth; just as First Nations writers will return the favor. I believe that authors like W.P. Kinsella, Joseph Boyden, and Tony Hillerman honor the First Nations people who are central to their stories, rather than exploit them.
Finally, shifting gears, I’m happy to be able to report here that Sherman Alexie’s stories did make it to the screen in fine form as Smoke Signals, just a year after I wrote my Dance Me Outside review. Let’s not stop there. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian could be next.