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Review of “The New Indian”, a National Geographic Documentary

Navajo youth, ca. 1904Civilizations over the millennia have grown and declined. From the earliest roots in Mesopotamia to the rise of the Mayans and the Incans, states and cultures have flourished and dissolved. Life in the North American southwest is no different. Though different paths have reached the same end, it is important to note that they are all connected. The Clovis people and Kennewick Man are connected. The Olmec and the Maya are connected. The Navajo and the River Yumans are connected. The “Indians” and the land are connected. When we finally realize that we have become disconnected, perhaps we will find our own true path.

Watching “The New Indian” is an experience of rebirth. A National Geographic film, this journey of four different paths ends in the same place. They, too, are connected. The fifth generation of the prophecy of Black Elk has arrived, and the 100-year-old vision is becoming real. The young people of the Natives have come full circle. The old people of the Natives have come full circle. The four seasons of earth, the four pages of life, the four journeys portrayed in the film, celebrate the life of the planet and its people; the death and the rebirth of the Native American are continuing as foretold.

“The New Indian” is an inspirational tribute to the cycle of life. It documents four journeys that show how the millennia’s old cycle continues. Youth from Chicago travel to find themselves. A sixty-something year old Indian celebrates his “chiefdom”. An artist/musician celebrates his culture in a new way. And an Anglo educated Native uses the Anglo way to get her people their culture back.

Leaving Chicago to join the intertribal encampment in Canada, nine youths set out to find themselves. Over two thousand Natives, from over 50 tribes gather to share the “old ways”, the stories, the myths, and the culture of North American Natives. Removed from their land and their culture, modern Natives have fallen into poverty. Lacking the appropriate training to survive in the white-man’s world, they have landed in the streets, suffering from drug and alcohol abuse, and the lack of knowledge of themselves. These intrepid youth set out to find the thing that made their people great; their connectedness with the earth, the ability to survive inside. They erect a wigwam. They build the ceremonial center. They do things their ancestors did to survive. They build the sacred fire that endures day and night; they learn to build their lives. Many have realized that they are not on the right road, that the white man’s path is not their own. The elders are helping to show them the path, the way to “right living”, and they are more receptive than many others in the past.

Camping with their relatives, these youth touch the ancestral ways. A heavy and continual rain dampens spirits at the intertribal encampment, but they chose to stay. Entranced by their cultural heritage, they realize that mundane daily tasks take on a new significance. They cook meat from animals they watched die. They sense the connectedness of the animals and themselves. They learn that thanking the animal for its life is essential to the harmonious co-existence of both themselves and the other life on the planet.

The past comes alive for them. We watch as they sense the connection of all things; an essential teaching of their ancestors. They realize that they and their ancestors, relatives, and peoples have each other. That they are connected. That they are connected to the earth, the stars, and to “other worlds”.

It is truly a riveting part of the film to see these young people come alive to something new to them. Just as “reborn” Christians get touched on the head and find Christ, these youth see their past and their connection to it. All things are connected. They see their place. A time is told of a day when an Indian leadership will arise that will teach the world that there is another way, a better side of life. There is a way to live in harmony with all of creation. These young Natives found part of that. They left Chicago expecting little, and returned having found much. They learned that we are all one. Everything is connected.

Steven Tiger is a musician and an artist. He uses his talents to connect his Miccosukee people with the world of the white man. His young family lives in the white man’s world, while his father’s family retains their connection to the earth. The film portrays his attempt to integrate his life into both worlds. His father is afraid. He believes his son has lost touch with his ancestry. Traveling to the Everglades, the place where his ancestral people fled after they were removed from their homelands in the 1800’s, he visits his parents who continue to survive using the “old ways”. This visit provides us with a glimpse of how a culture survives; a family refusing to give up its culture for that of another. Steven’s father is suspicious; driving a car is not traveling like an Indian. But Steven, like his people, is striving to live in both worlds. The Miccosukee are educating their children to survive in the white man’s world, while teaching them to speak the native language. They instill the attitude that they want to make their own mistakes, find their own way, and live the life they hold precious. This is the fifth generation. They are integrating themselves into the white man’s ways, while finding themselves. Everything is becoming connected.

James Seaweed (spelling?), is a chief in his own time. The traits exhibited by all great leaders of the Native Americans are apparent in this man’s life. Wisdom, knowledge, and generosity abound. He volunteers his time, money, and knowledge to keep his people’s culture alive.

The Potlatch ceremony was an ancient tribal tradition. The white man forbade it when they arrived. Assimilation of his people was forced upon them and they were jailed if they were found to be performing its dances or songs. His people burned their ancient totems in fear. These were the crests of their clans. Dances that had survived for centuries became a crime. Original masks used during this ceremony were confiscated and destroyed. The white man thought they had subjugated these people; yet the ceremony continued in secrecy. Certain dances belonged to specific families and they were passed down from generation to generation even though they were forbidden to be practiced. In the 1960’s, James Seaweed held a Potlatch. Using $15,000 of his personal savings, this great leader allowed his people to rebirth their culture. He shared his wealth with the less fortunate of his people. The first communal longhouse of the 20th century was built in 1965. His family performed its ancestral dance. He connected to his culture. He connected with his people. He kept the tradition alive. He espoused that it is not what you take from life, but it is what you give to it. He was connected. Everything is connected.

Claudine Arthur fights for her people. A white-man trained attorney, she uses the white man’s laws to protect her people’s way of life. As a Navajo in New Mexico, she deals with all kinds of problems. Domestic issues, criminal issues, and more mundane problems are the recurrent theme in her life as a legal assistance attorney. Yet there are times when she has the opportunity to make a more ethnocentric impact.

The Four Corners power plant is located on land leased from the Navajo Tribal Council. The council leased the land from Emma, a Navajo woman living a traditional life; she raised sheep, had no electricity, and honored the land. This woman has been paid $327.97 for this lease over the last twenty years and she has lost her way of life. Claudine came to her aid.

With no idea of what would happen to her land, Emma agreed with the Tribal Council to lease it in 1957. Soon fly ash coated her sheep. The water became polluted. Sulfur dioxide filled the air. Coal was strip-mined and the land lost its shape. The power plant provided millions of white people power, while less than one-in-three Navajo had lights. Less than one-in-five had indoor plumbing. The connection to the earth was disappearing.

Claudine Arthur immersed herself into the issue. After decades of abuse to the land of her ancestors, she made a case for her people. A new gasification plant was being proposed. It was time to fight back. The plant would require more coal, more water, and more land. Claudine pointed out that Navajo water rights had been disregarded for scores of decades. The reclamation projects had failed. The new plant would require a 60,000-person city to be built on Navajo land, with no promise of remuneration. She fought for her people and she won. There was no lease extension granted. The right of the Navajo to decide life for themselves was protected. Their connection to the earth was saved for another day.

These four stories of the “New Indian” are truly inspiring. Narrated by Robert Redford, this documentary shows us the rebirth of the Native culture. Individuals making a choice are making a difference. Health issues, educational issues, and economic issues are making their way to the forefront of Native American’s attention. These issues bring the Natives into the “new world”. People like Claudine Arthur, Carlos Nakai, and James Seaweed are making a difference. Indian gaming is making a difference. Education is making a difference. But most importantly, recognition of the validity of a culture nearly lost is making a difference.

Terry Sanders, co-writer and director of “The New Indians”, has done a wonderful job with his portrayal of the revival of Native American culture. The enigmatic journey of the Indian is intriguing. The producers, Frieda Lee Moch and Terry Sanders, chose tales of modern day Natives that show how important their culture is to them, and what they are willing to sacrifice to retain it. I would recommend this film to anyone interested in history, culture, or life. It limns the connectedness of the people, the earth, and the cosmos. The rise of Native American culture, and its resultant decline is a reflection of the four seasons. Birth, youth, maturity, and death. It is spring for Native culture. It is the time of rebirth. Now is the time that the young Natives rediscover their heritage, their ancestors, and their future. This film reminds us of this cycle; the four seasons, the four pages of life. Birth, youth, maturity, and death. This all repeats itself , and it has throughout human history. It reminds us that these things are connected. Everything is connected.

Photo New York Public Library

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2 comments to Review of “The New Indian”, a National Geographic Documentary

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