Rhetorical Dimensions of Native American Documentary

Steve Leuthold

Since the advent of more affordable video technology in the late seventies and early eighties, various indigenous groups have recognized the potential of video for intragroup communication and as a means of gaining cultural and political recognition in the wider society. Video and film productions are used to "rethink history," even to address "the ignorance of the dominant culture" about past history and contemporary culture. In the United States, Native Americans have been actively making videos based on an initial focus of "helping to enhance the survival of their own communities," in their own production facilities and through coproduction arrangements with non-Native videographers and filmmakers (Weatherford 1990, 59).

Similar developments in indigenous video production have occurred in Canada, South America, and Australia, and alternative video has grown as a communication tool for political movements throughout the world. Video's decreasing cost, ease of use, and resulting accessibility make it a convenient medium for establishing an alternative ideological framework to that of the dominant culture. The increasing use of video technology by indigenous peoples points to alternative scenarios for media production and use: "for example, a networked cooperative of autonomous community stations resisting hegemony and homogenization" (Michaels 1987, 17). This scenario runs counter to dominant culture assumptions about the inevitable demise of Native cultures in the face of Euro-American progress, assumptions that have been ingrained by centuries of imagery portraying Indians as enemies, then vanquished foes, and currently relegating Indians in the popular imagination to movies, curio shops, and museum exhibits. It also seems to fly in the face of the production and distribution systems that have led to the centralization of mainstream media. In spite of these counterassumptions, indigenous media have existed for more than twenty years now. Part of the reason for this endurance may be that indigenous media grew out of documentary traditions that have their origin within Native American cultures.

Often Native producers refer to video and filmmaking as "telling our own stories." This statement affirms that the expression of Native perspectives through film and video is the primary reason for Native media's existence. Indigenous media express particular points of view; they reflect the intentions of their authors, whether to persuade, entertain, celebrate, criticize, inform, or combine these goals. We can understand indigenous media from a rhetorical framework in a broad sense of the term: as forms of communication intended to move the viewer to identification and, ultimately, agreement with the author or speaker. In the classical formulation of rhetoric as persuasion, identification, or empathy of the audience with the rhetor, was seen as a key ingredient of successful communication. Similarly, Native documentaries incorporate emotional appeals and argumentative structures that invite one to identify and agree with Native perspectives. This is not to say that a rhetorical framework alone is sufficient for understanding Native media. Native producers also strive toward spiritual, aesthetic, and educational goals, and a full analysis of Native media should address these aspects of expression. 1 But film and video allow the producer to effectively combine artistic, educational, and rhetorical goals in the process of communication.

The rhetorical qualities of Native media are those that invite or urge us to empathize with the point of view of the Native speaker. The idea that documentaries articulate a point of view is different from previous assumptions that the author remains objective in documentary making. The converse assumption--that documentarians should never appear neutral and must make their point of view apparent--derives from a contemporary reassessment of documentary authorship in which images are not merely recordings (Ruby 1992, 47). This theoretical focus on authorship reflects changes in the goals and practices of documentarians themselves as discussed at length by Nichols. Briefly, he proposes several modes of documentary that involve a general movement from the assumed detached objectivity of historical "observational" documentary toward greater interactivity between the documentarian and his/her subject, and increased reflexivity (highlighting of the devices of documentary itself) (Nichols 1991, 32-75). However, there has not been a clear temporal evolution of these modes; they have coexisted historically. Therefore, we might expect to find a variety of documentary modes, with varying rhetorical qualities, in Native media.

We can, then, view Native media through a rhetorical lens in many ways. Some films and videos reflect conscious attempts at constructing visually persuasive arguments. In this light, we can view the arguments of indigenous media rhetorically in relation to the genre's origin in a specific social movement; the Native adoption of photography, film, and video historically has direct ties with Native political activism of the 1970s. The notion of film and video as a rhetorical act also informs a rhetorical interpretation of Native media. This involves an understanding of the term "media" in terms of social processes of the "mediation" of identities. In the contemporary world, these processes are often cross-cultural. Therefore, indigenous media are expressions of the tie between the act of representing oneself visually and political rights of self-representation in national and global politics. Native documentary redefines the "voiceless victim" as a proactive political participant, in turn infusing new life into documentary itself.

Indigenous self-representation implies selfhood distinct from the influence of foreign nations; it also implies the authority to represent one's self to those nations. Indigenous self-representation primarily involves a shift in authority, implying that inherent in cross-cultural representations are the dynamics of power. Far from being an abstraction, useful only to social scientists, historians, and philosophers, changes in political dynamics, such as relationships of power, affect us at a personal level. Contemporary indigenous self-representation advances a concept of the self based in agency (as distinct from subjectivity or soul): The macroprocesses of cross-cultural representation require a political concept of self as agent. The idea of indigenous self-representation relates in a fundamental way to identity formation and expression. It repositions the framework of reception for non-Natives from considering indigenous peoples as apolitical selves, typically understood as "souls" connected in a polytheistic manner with nature, to understanding indigenous peoples as active political agents.

This transformation in the understanding of self, caused by the shift in authority for representation, is not without problems. In the Western context, the idea of person or self often becomes problematic "when used in contexts where questions of identity, social, moral, or legal rights, are at stake" (McCall 1990, 1). For example, the definition of individual rights related to issues of abortion, the right to die, ethnicity and race (in the context of affirmative action), and gender, all depend on an assumed understanding of person or selfhood that varies depending upon the position taken in the respective debate. The notion of indigenous media as self-representation leads us to question which idea of selfhood or community identity is being represented. Has this identity changed significantly from earlier Native collective representations? And how are the multiple identities within Native communities related to each other?

The very idea of self-representation as a personal and political concept challenges traditional notions of the self, where the self is thought of in terms of subjectivity or in the religious context of soul. Thinking of media as indigenous self-representation may call into question Western assumptions about the ways that media represent collective identities. One problem in understanding the role of Native media as representation is discovering the link between messages created by individuals and their ability to represent organized groups such as nation or tribe. Terms such as "self," "representation," "nation," and "tribe" have evolving meanings that indicate changes in cross-cultural relations. Thus, tensions may exist between varied notions of self, both within Native communities and cross-culturally.

Nevertheless, the films and videos I viewed indicate that film- and video makers seek to share or create a strong sense of collective identity. Attempts at collective identity formation often involve the documentation or filmic integration of traditional expressive forms. Additionally, some films and videos may represent contemporary lives and problems as a way of showing how identities are constantly redefined according to changing cultural contexts. In this paper I will discuss issues and examples related to each of these three major rhetorical goals: the formation of arguments for social change, the creation of collective identities, and the registration of shifts in identity based upon contemporary realities.

Native Documentary as the Formation of Arguments for Change

If we can understand documentaries rhetorically and often associate rhetoric with political speech and action, what political assumptions are evident in the documentary genre? One early Western documentary trend, the Griersonian tradition, focused on contemporary social problems. Through a strategy of heightening awareness of social injustices, Grierson's films advocated social change. Indigenous and coproduced videos partake of this tradition. For instance, a Frontline documentary that was made with Native participation but was not Native produced, "The Spirit of Crazy Horse" (1990), documented the turmoil on the Pine Ridge Reservation of the preceding twenty years and portrayed the social problems that still engulfed the community. The video advocated continued cooperation between half bloods and full-bloods, whose rivalry was described in the video as part of the problem leading to bloodshed in the 1970s, and the return of a part of the Black Hills to the Sioux under a bill sponsored by Senator Bill Bradley. The video seemed to advocate a resolution of land claim issues consistent with the position of politically progressive Native Americans.

Historians have often associated photography, film, and video documentaries with politically progressive causes. Documentaries traditionally have acted as a form of social conscience regarding the injustices of contemporary society. Photographic documentary, for instance, was closely tied to the Progressive movement (1902-1912) of American politics during the early twentieth century. The photographs of the sociologist and documentarian Lewis Hine were an explicit attempt to heighten public awareness of the exploitation of child labor and the living conditions of recent immigrants. Hine, through his photographs, acted as an advocate for exploited and "voiceless" members of the population. As Jay Ruby has noted, this style of progressive documentary is assumed to "give voice to the voiceless," allowing documentary to act as a "social service and a political act" (Ruby 1992, 44). However, in recent years the representation of Natives by non-Natives, even those who see themselves as advocates for Native causes, has been questioned.

Documentary as social conscience has come under attack recently from several fronts. Martha Rosler sees social conscience documentary as consistent with a liberal sensibility (Rosler 1989, 304) that ignores the actual cause of social problems and tries to impose solutions that maintain existing power relationships. She argues that it was a fallacy of early photographic documentarians to not see that the wrongs were "bred," a result of unequal power relations (305). In acting as social conscience, documentary carries information about the powerless to the powerful (307), but does it help generate any real social changes? Doubts such as these have led Western documentarians to become more self-conscious about their "tradition of the victim" (Winston in Ruby 1992, 44). Does filming the victim help the victim, as we tend to assume? Ruby argues that filmmakers have not empirically demonstrated their accountability to their subjects by demonstrating that documentary images really change the world (45). Native film- and video makers have sought to control the representation of their own communities rather than depend upon progressive non-Natives to give them voice; through film and video, Natives themselves are no longer voiceless.

Some producers take a radical stance toward the dominant society. For example, the creators of Red Road: Toward the Techno-Tribal (1984, prod. Daniel Salazar, dir. Juan Salazar) argue for the need to oppose a technological view of the planet as a machine. They incorporate an M.I.T. professor, William Irwin Thompson; an Indian woman who has become a noted Native environmental activist, Winona Laduke; and a Central American Indian wise man, Tlakaelel, as commentators who each, with different communication styles, urge changes in humankind's relationship with the Earth. This urgency carries over into the experimental visual style of the video with varying degrees of success. The juxtaposition of shots of landscape vistas with visually manipulated urban scenes designed to convey the contemporary worship of technology; stop-action shots; frequent dissolves, as from images of traditional masks to the clear, open sky; long close-up sequences of nature imagery; and exclusively outdoor interview settings create an alternative visual environment to the typical documentary. A visual argument underlines the narrative argument for a return to the way of the elders, including a return to agriculture as the basis of existence. The video makers construct their argument by juxtaposing images of the natural world with manipulated imagery of cities. Through visual juxtaposition and special effects, the videographers express their view that technology is harmful to the environment. Thus this video, made with Native participation, seeks to engender environmental responsibility, a major rhetorical goal of Native activists. Video makers show that actions toward the environment result from particular belief systems; to change actions one must change ways of thinking. Non-Natives are invited to empathize and even identify with Native belief systems.

Few Native-produced or coproduced documentaries that I have viewed are strictly environmentalist films. However, many Native videos and coproductions share a sense of environmental urgency, especially in the context of the broader changes affecting Native communities. Among the Native productions and coproductions that discuss environmental issues are The Place of Falling Waters (1990), about the building of a hydroelectric dam and its effects on the Flathead Indian Reservation, directed by Roy Bigcrane and Thompson Smith; The Spirit of Kuna Yala (1990), directed by Andrew Young and coproduced with the Kuna Yala Tribe of Central America; Songs in Minto Life (1985), produced and directed by Curt Madison in cooperation with Minto Village Council, Alaska; In the Heart of Big Mountain (1988), about the dislocation of the Navajo, directed by Sandra Sunrising [Johnson] Osawa; Kanatsiohareke: Place of the Clean Pot (1994), about the development of a new community by the Mohawk, directed by Melanie Printup Hope; and A Matter of Trust (1983), about environmental and land issues affecting the Yup'ik Eskimo in Alaska, directed by Bill Sharpsteen.

That environmental issues often form the subtext of Native media productions is not surprising. With respect to Indian desires for cultural and political self-determination, land has been the most troublesome point of conflict in Indian/white relations throughout the last century and a half. Group identities are linked to physical locations, a main reason for the continued emphasis on land and place in Native American documentaries. Natives' feelings for nature predate the era of treaties; the relationship of Native Americans to nature cannot be defined simply as a relationship to property. Whites often perceive conflicts over land in legal terms, whereas Indians perceive them in philosophical terms. Conflicts over land, then, are rooted in different views of nature that carry the weight of moral conviction and argumentation. The arguments that arise from conflicts over land are likely to intensify as resources are depleted.

The feelings of continuity with the Earth expressed through indigenous media have their basis in Native spirituality or religion. With religion as its conceptual underpinning, Native peoples' representations of nature form the essence of "indigenous" as expressed through indigenous media and art. One aspect of this expression may be simply the sense of spaciousness associated with particular places. Spaciousness is almost always associated with freedom in human experience. In their representation of space, images of the environment such as aerial landscape-flyover shots and expansive ground-level pans are subjects in their own right, but they also frame other matters, such as political issues related to indigenous self-determination. Films and videos that document Native views of the land have political import in the context of indigenous rights.

In addition to their role in documenting environmental concerns, we may view indigenous media as agents of social change in relation to their origin in a specific social movement. Like others of his generation, the Hopi videographer Victor Masayesva Jr. sees indigenous media as closely linked to political activism.

[T]he turmoil of Indian activism in the late sixties and early seventies played a major part in exposing Native American peoples to the role of the media and how it could be used to advantage. . . . "By-for-and-about" became the criteria by which everything about Indians was to be judged. (Masayesva in Younger 1983, 36)

Indian expression through genres such as interpretive or art photography and photojournalism began to surface in Native communities in the late 1960s. The 1970s, a time of affirmative action policies that sought to respond to the goals of activist movements, created a climate where the U.S. government made funds available for Native film and video producers. For instance, both Masayesva and George Burdeau, another Native director, began their film and video careers with the assistance of federal funds. "In 1980, the Hotevilla-Bacavi Community School on Third Mesa received a grant from the Ethnic Heritage program of the Department of Education to produce a series of documentary tapes. Victor Masayesva directed the project and by the end of 1981 had produced sixteen edited tapes, recorded in Hopi" (Younger 1983, 39). Burdeau began his career with the Real People series (1976) of 16 mm films supported by funds from the Office of Education's (HEW) Emergency School Aid Act.

Following in this spirit of activism, there are several films by Native directors that document Native political issues, rooted in conflicts over land, in an activist way. Kahnesatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), directed by Alanis Obomsawin and produced by Wolf Koening for the National Film Board of Canada, is an in-depth account of the day-to-day events of the takeover of a planned golf course site by members of the Mohawk Tribe. The resistance to the actions of the town council of Oka, Quebec, and the Canadian government, along with the armed standoff and painful negotiations that accompanied this resistance, made international news in the summer of 1990. This film by the Native Canadian director Obomsawin situates the contemporary resistance in the context of the Mohawk's centuries-long struggle to retain control of their land and political destinies. Kahnesatake demonstrates the intense anti-Indian feeling found in the community of Oka, the hard-nosed police and military actions undertaken by the government, and the humanity of the resistors themselves. The documentary ends by noting that the land issues that precipitated the entire conflict were not resolved.

Another video, Lighting the Seventh Fire (1994), directed by Sandy Johnson Osawa, is similar to Kahnesatake in documenting a struggle for land and resource rights. The documentary focuses on the advocacy of Chippewa Indians for and opposition by many non-Indians to spearfishing rights on Lac du Flambeau in Wisconsin. This video relates the historical basis of the Chippewa claim to their fishing rights and the struggle within the courts to have those rights recognized. However, the court battle was only half the battle waged by the Chippewa. The deep-seated racism of the whites in this region, especially the sport fishermen, made the court's decision very difficult to implement. Native fishermen were the subject of shootings, rock throwing, pipe bombs, and intense verbal harassment of a racial nature. The negative, racist reaction to fishing rights for American Indians only strengthened the resolve of the Chippewa leaders to assert their legal rights. Though the video documents Native activism in an extremely hostile environment, the quiet resolve of the Native activists forms a marked stylistic contrast to the histrionic, racist baiting of Indians found in the white population. By enduring the period of intense struggle and conflict traditionally prophesied to occur during the "sixth generation," Native leaders hope to have set the stage for a reemergence of Native cultures that will be "stronger than ever" during the "seventh generation."

These films demonstrate the efforts of American Indians to achieve economic, political, and social autonomy, as well as equal rights in the context of the larger society. Thus, the videos point out the unique political status of Indian nations; they are semiautonomous political entities but often feel entitled and obligated to uphold the political principles of the larger societies with which they coexist. For instance, Native media itself has its roots in affirmative action and other governmental efforts at creating equal opportunity for peoples from non-European ethnic backgrounds. The story of the development of Native media is one of interaction and interdependence between Natives and non-Natives (Leuthold 1994, "Social Accountability"). Ironically, critics have used an argument for equality in an inverse manner to challenge Natives' special claims to hunting and fishing grounds; their position is that Natives are being accorded special rights that go against the stated governmental goal of equality. The non-Native opponents to fishing regulations that apply to whites and Natives differently see this as a breach of equality between all Americans. Recent Native-produced films such as Lighting the Seventh Fire have exposed the racism that underlies non-Native hostility toward Natives seeking to fish and hunt legally based upon the terms of preexisting treaties. Classroom, festival, and televisual presentations of Native perspectives on legal and political issues such as affirmative action, legal and hunting rights, sovereignty and tribal recognition issues, and legalized gambling provide a way to get these topics into the open for discussion in ways that might not otherwise be possible. 2 Thus, Native media have the positive potential to become catalysts for social change. In addition to documenting active efforts at creating social change, whether in the courts, through protests, or otherwise, the act of making a video itself can be seen as a rhetorical act. The existence of indigenous media is an expression of the tie between visual and political self-representation.

Native Film- and Video Making as a Rhetorical Act

The new genre of indigenous documentary rests on the assumption that the right to represent oneself visually relates to political rights of self-representation. The right to represent oneself redefines the victim as a proactive political participant; now members of a community can best define and choose their own course of action. Thus, indigenous media fundamentally change the presentation of Native knowledge and beliefs to the non-Native public. Rather than resting on conditions of social inequality, the new access to visual representation calls into question the unequal relationships of power that helped create early documentary's role as social conscience. In this sense, we can view the act of documenting rhetorically, as well as the subject matter of the documentaries themselves.

Perhaps this notion of film and video as a rhetorical act best applies to those indigenous peoples who have had little or no opportunity for self-representation through other channels in the past. The anthropologist Terence Turner writes of the Kayapo Indians in Brazil that individuals involved in the activities of camera work and editing are viewed by the Kayapo community as fulfilling the prestigious role of mediator with Western society. In Turner's view, the act of shooting may "become an even more important mediator of their relations with the dominant Western culture than the video document itself" (Turner 1992, 7). While participating in and documenting a rally at Altamira in 1989 against a government hydroelectric dam scheme, Kayapo camera persons were one of the main attractions filmed by the non-Native camera crews. Video making was a recorded event as well as a way of recording events. In the case of the Indians of North America, the act of shooting is somewhat less novel after more than twenty years of Native film and video production, therefore guiding our attention to the content and form of the documentaries as well as the act of filming. But clearly, we can understand film- and video making as public, political acts that have changed Native processes of self-representation.

Native Documentary as Collective Identification

The conscious attempt at constructing a visual and narrative argument is one dimension of Native documentary's rhetorical nature. Another frequent rhetorical goal of Native film- and video makers is to maintain and, in some cases, create a strong sense of collective identity. The portrayal of cultural values in the films may advance the struggle for the survival of Native groups with cultural identities distinct from those of non-Natives. Often these values are "traditional" because collective identification incorporates a sense of historical continuity. Yet, tradition does not refer only to precontact lifeways. Rather, it consists of those central values and practices, arising from many possible sources, that members of a culture nurture and pass on to subsequent generations. The question of how members of a culture create collective identity through varied expressive forms is much broader than film and video but frequently intersects with these media (see Leuthold 1998).

One way that film and video help form collective identity is through their ability to transcend temporal and spatial differences. Video can make the traditional expressive forms and historical experiences of one group of people known to others, contributing to the form of collective identification known as pan-Indianism. Through film and video, pan-Indian movements have developed beyond the reservation level to include urban and rural Native peoples who live off of reservations or away from their home communities. However, contemporary pan-Indianism rests on earlier performance and rhetorical traditions in addition to the emergence of new media. Early examples of these movements were spawned by the reservation system, which crystallized a feeling of shared oppression among Native Americans. In the 1890s the Ghost Dance movement emerged as a pan-Indian movement, followed in the early twentieth century by the peyote movement. Both were facilitated in part by resistance to the boarding school system in place on the reservations (Jarvenpa 1985, 31).

One position with regard to pan-Indianism is that as general identification with Indianness has grown, local indigenous culture has declined, accompanied by increased secularization (Silberman 1992). This position states that pan-Indianism may have led to a more general ethnic identification that eclipses a specific cultural identification, raising the question whether there is an apparent or implied conflict between local or tribal and general Indian identification expressed in indigenous media.

However, the revival of the rhetoric of the Ghost Dance at Wounded Knee exemplifies how traditional expressive forms serve a rhetorical function in the context of the new media environment. The original Ghost Dance movement, which emerged in the late nineteenth century as a response to outside pressures threatening Indian cultures, demonstrated the special place of dance in many tribal cultures and was an early attempt at achieving intertribal unity (Morris and Wander 1990, 167). The rhetoric of the original Ghost Dance movement was based upon the messianic revelations of Wovoka (Jack Wilson), a prophet of the Paiute Tribe. Wovoka taught people to perform a sacred dance that would cause the Great Spirit to return and raise the dead. According to his teachings, the reborn dead and the living would witness the destruction of the whites and their culture by a great flood, which would lead to a renewal of a healthful life and plentiful game for Native peoples. The U.S. government outlawed the dance and the movement it symbolized as part of its severe constriction of American Indian life, which continued well into the twentieth century, and also in response to the anti-white rhetoric of the movement. The original Ghost Dance movement involved a renewal of Native spirituality, a grave concern for the effects of European culture upon Natives, and a desire for a return to traditional Native lifeways that was paralleled by the rhetoric of the activist movements of the 1970s. The legacy of Ghost Dance rhetoric demonstrates how an earlier pan-Indian movement can have a potential for collective identification in today's media environment if the meaning of that event is controlled by Natives themselves.

The rhetoric of the original movement was rendered more forceful, of course, due to the violent end of the Ghost Dance movement at Wounded Knee Creek on December 29, 1890, in which three hundred Sioux were massacred by federal troops. The events of the Wounded Knee Massacre have continued to motivate Native videographers as a symbol of the unity and resolve of Native people. For instance, Wiping the Tears of Seven Generations (1991) documents a memorial ride of three hundred Lakota who rode horseback in brutally cold weather to mark the end of a period of mourning for people killed in the massacre. The video demonstrates that the Wounded Knee Massacre serves as an enduring and potent symbol of the fact that more than fifty million indigenous people were killed through disease, war, and hunger in the four hundred years after contact with Europeans. Wiping the Tears of Seven Generations is a recontextualization, almost twenty years later, of the meaning of the resistance movement at Wounded Knee and of the original massacre itself. It is a moving testament of both loss and survival that could only come about through Native control of the documentary medium.

The documentation of a memorialization of the Wounded Knee massacre in Wiping the Tears demonstrates that Native cultures survive through shared ceremonies and celebration as well as through an awareness of loss and hardship. Those films and videos that celebrate Native culture and community, despite the undeniable losses and pain that those communities have endured, might be called epideictic because they display, exhibit, explain, and celebrate the aspects of traditional Native cultures that endure today (Leuthold 1997). The large body of Native films and videos that document traditional and emergent dance ceremonies, 3 visual arts, 4 music, 5 Native belief systems, and so on are rhetorical because they demonstrate that Native belief systems endure despite concerted attempts by the government, churches, and hostile individuals to destroy them.

Native Documentary and Emergent Differences

In an essay written for the Indigena catalog of Aboriginal art in Canada, the filmmaker Loretta Todd warns readers about the essentialist nature of the term "Native": "The term 'Native' is a discourse, inscribed with meaning from without" (Todd 1992, 77). Perhaps one way to guard against inscribing essential identities onto cultural others is to emphasize that the formation of collective identity is a continuous process. Rather than thinking of groups as having an identity, a more accurate approach may be to think of groups as constantly forming or negotiating collective identity. The problem with the term "Native" is that it implies a distinct, bounded way of life that has been encapsulated and defined by outsiders.

To counter this problem of an identity being defined and fixed by others, some Native film- and video makers seek to register emerging differences along with documenting historical continuity and loss. Native media represent new ways of telling about emergent differences. The problem with an emphasis on tradition alone as a source of group identity is that it seems to include an assumption that groups cannot have multiple paths. The general public, and some scholars, may assume that a group must be either traditional Native or contemporary American, rather than being capable of incorporating aspects of many cultures and expressing multiple identities.

In keeping with the emphasis upon the autonomy of traditional Native cultures, attempts by outsiders to establish Indian identity include reference to local crafts--basket making, pottery, and so on (Clifford 1988, 281). Indigenous filmmakers often make an appeal to these traditional aspects of identity, though they are doing so through a modern technological form. 6 Many Natives argue that there is no contradiction between this use of a modern visual technology to express Native American identity and traditional values. Rather, the Native adoption of new technologies grows out of an awareness of the power of visual imagery that lies deep in the past. Leslie Marmon Silko writes that Pueblo petroglyphs of spiritual significance, dating from eighteen thousand years ago, reveal this deep belief in the power, even sacredness, of visual imagery (Silko 1990, 72). This awareness has been heightened in modern times through Native awareness of the power of photographs. Since early in the twentieth century, many Indian people, including those in the most conservative households, have used photographs to evoke memories and narratives of the past (Silko 1990, 72).

Nevertheless, cultural purists may label a group that expresses itself through forms that involve non-Native technologies "inauthentic." For an example of cultural purism in the context of indigenous media, see Faris's argument against cultural "adulteration," pastiche, etc., that he feels the West and its "scopic" technologies inevitably foster because of the close ties between commodification and representation in Western cultures (1993, 12-13). When used for cross-cultural communication by Western and indigenous peoples, photographic technologies are inherently "destructive to non-Western peoples" in Faris's view.

An argument resulting from this position is that the emergence of Indian ways of seeing through film and video is unlikely since these media technologies and techniques were adopted from industrialized societies. A limitation of this viewpoint is that it locates the authenticity of cultural expression in material technologies rather than in the ideas expressed or styles of expression. Through their adoption of electronic media as a means for expressing their own outlooks, Native directors clearly reject this argument. If cultural Otherness is not based in visual and material cultures that are distinct from the West, where does it reside? Or does it exist at all? Ironically, Native adoption of Western media technology seems to simultaneously illustrate the collapse of distinctions between the West and its Others (in terms of communication technology) and the staking out of oppositional, or at least differing, viewpoints (in the expression of subject matter). Does the adoption of Western media technology and participation in media production processes undermine or support the attempt by many indigenous peoples to register emerging identities? After all, the adoption of new media technologies is another adoption of modernity by Native Americans during a time when economic and political necessities have also increased the speed of modernization in many Native communities. 7

The answer seems to be found in the activity and products of Native media production itself. Through the adoption of new media, identities are being invented, and no single set of historical or traditional identity markers can express a Native group's ethos. Indigenous film and video play an integral role in processes of group identification, whether documenting historical or new sources of identity. Thus, in introducing Native lives to non-Native viewers, one rhetorical goal of Native directors has been to show the realities of contemporary Native lives--the viability of emerging identities--not solely a portrait of American Indians locked in the past. Videos by Native directors that focus on the realities and problems of contemporary Native lives include: The Honour of All (1985) and Healing the Hurts (1991), directed by Phil Lucas; Foster Child (1988), directed by Jerry D. Krepakevich; and Her Giveaway: A Spiritual Journey with AIDS (1988) directed by Mona Hadler. Acknowledging that American Indians face daily problems, change with the times, love, laugh, and despair in ways that all people do has the effect of humanizing portraits of contemporary Indians.

Some Indians feel that this readiness to adopt technical and cultural innovations has deep historical roots in Native American cultural life, based on centuries of pre-European trade and intertribal communication. The fluid adoption of cultural and technical innovations was a part of precontact Native cultures as well. Inclusion rather than exclusion of innovation is a matter of survival in harsh natural environments.

The Pueblo impulse is to accept and incorporate what works, because human survival in the southwestern climate is so arduous and risky. . . . Europeans were shocked at the speed and ease with which Native Americans synthesized, then incorporated, what was alien and new. (Silko 1990, 73)

Assumed conflicts between old and new technologies like basket and video making are projections of a non-Native point of view on Native cultures. This projection may arise from a continued need of European-originated people to view indigenous peoples as primitive (therefore making the destruction of Indian culture during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries somehow justified in the name of progress), and as a corollary, to stress "authentic" or "traditional" Indian aesthetic and communicative forms over contemporary ones (Silko 1990, 73). Media portend possible futures along with offering an avenue through which to challenge ideas about the past.

For instance, Victor Masayesva Jr., in Siskyavi (1991), a video about Hopi pottery, contrasts the relationship between an old woman and her granddaughter with the technological understanding of pots emphasized in non-Indian contexts. He compares the girl's interaction with her grandmother as she gathers clay, prepares it, and makes pots with a field trip by several young Indians to a lab at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. The two cultures' attitudes toward pottery are placed in stark relief. For the traditional Hopi, pots symbolize a continuity of generation, tribe, and the human and natural world; for the Euro-Americans, Hopi pots are scientific evidence to be examined in microdetail to produce clearer archaeological understanding. The young Hopi student who is the central subject of the video is a member of, and drawn to, both of these worlds. Her understanding depends upon more than one knowledge system and includes the methods and assumptions of Western science as well as the stories and ceremonies of her ancestors. Native videos such as Masayesva's chronicle the historical past and its influence upon the present. The stories are a part of "becoming": a dynamic understanding of the past and its influence on the present that allows for the expression of future possibilities.

Indigenous documentary shares some aspects of the Western documentary tradition; both may attempt to preserve information about threatened ways of life on film and video, and each has the capacity to address contemporary social problems from an advocacy point of view. But there are some important differences. Foremost is the shift in the authority to control the filmmaking process. In indigenous documentary Natives are knowing, active subjects rather than the object of outsiders' knowledge. Because of their view of filmmaking as storytelling, Native filmmakers favor a more personalized view of the world in their films, often seen through the eyes of charismatic spokespeople. Rarely do Native productions rely on the same theoretical abstractions that anthropologists might use to organize their visual narratives. In addition, Native Americans, who value their oral cultures, may place greater trust in visual and oral communication, while non-Native scholars usually emphasize the written word as a means of recording truth.

The real question in indigenous film and video is not who is behind the camera but how that person visually structures his or her perception of the world. As Eric Michaels noted, handing the camera over to the subject doesn't automatically restore the subject (1991, 290). This perspective allows for the potential that some indigenous filmmakers have created and will continue to create ways of viewing and understanding the world that are different from non-Native views. As an expression of a culture as well as a record about a culture, the process of indigenous documentary springs from social relations and worldviews found in Native American communities, and, in many cases, these relations differ markedly from those of non-Native communities (Leuthold 1997). When studying indigenous media, then, we should not primarily ask whether there is a style, outlook, or code that is characteristically Native in approach, but whether indigenous media emerge from social processes and worldviews that point to alternative possibilities for structuring and knowing our world. This ability of Native media to invite or urge viewers to empathize with alternative points of view demonstrates its rhetorical importance for Native and non-Native viewers alike.


Steve Leuthold is an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Design at Northern Michigan University where he teaches courses on Native American art and architecture. He is the author of Indigenous Aesthetics: Native Art, Media, and Identity.


1. Though the subject of this paper is the rhetorical goals of Native documentarians, I have discussed practical, aesthetic, and spiritual aspects of Native media elsewhere. These sources are found in the listing of works cited.

2. For a discussion of the issue of sovereignty and related economic issues, see Nations within a Nation (1986), produced by Mark Ringwold. This video is less emotionally charged than Kahnesatake (1993) or Lighting the Seventh Fire (1994), but demonstrates the kind of quiet political change toward sovereignty, or a semiautonomous status, known as "internal autonomy," happening in many Native communities.

3. Among the many films that document the cultural importance of dance for Native communities are Dancing Feathers (1983), A Tradition Lives: The Powwow (1984), Powwow Fever (1984), I'd Rather Be Powwowing (1983), and Keep Your Heart Strong (1986).

4. Visual arts films by Native directors include Dan Namingha (1984), Eyes of the Spirit (1984), Native American Images (1985), Strength of Life (1985), Visions (1984), and Siskyavi: The Place of Chasms (1991). For a discussion of these and other visual arts films see Leuthold (1998, 1995).

5. For films that document cultural aspects of Native American music, see Circle of Song: Parts I and II (1976), directed by George Burdeau; and Songs in Minto Life (1985), directed by Curt Madison. Music, of course, is also a central aspect of films and videos that document Native dance and ceremony.

6. For examples, see Eyes of the Spirit (1983) and other videos by Yup'ik Eskimos working at KYUK, Bethel, Alaska; Siskyavi: The Place of Chasms (1991), and other videos by Victor Masayesva; or any of the many videos produced by the Creek Nation that focus on traditional artistic expression.

7. The challenges that modernization brings to Native communities have been documented in videos such as Winds of Change: A Matter of Promises (1990).

Works Cited

Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Faris, James. "A Response to Terence Turner." Anthropology Today 9, no. 1 (1993): 12-13.

Ginsburg, Faye. "Indigenous Media: Faustian Contract or Global Village?" Cultural Anthropology 6, no. 1 (1991): 92-112.

Jarvenpa, Robert. "The Political Economy and Political Ethnicity of American Indian Adaptations and Identities." Ethnic and Racial Studies 8, no. 1 (1985): 29-48.

Leuthold, Steven. Indigenous Aesthetics: Native Art, Media, and Identity. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

------. "Native Media's Communities." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 22, no. 2 (1997): 165-94.

------. "Native American Art and Artists in Visual Arts Documentaries from 1973-1991." In On the Margins of Artworlds, ed. Larry Gross, 265-81. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995.

------. "An Indigenous Aesthetic? Two Noted Native Videographers: George Burdeau and Victor Masayesva." Wicazo Sa Review: A Journal of Native American Studies 10, no. 1 (1994): 40-51.

------. "Social Accountability and the Production of Native American Film and Video." Wide Angle 16, no. 1-2 (1994): 41-59.

McCall, Catherine. Concepts of Person: An Analysis of Concepts of Person, Self, and Human Being. Brookfield, Vt.: Avebury, 1990.

Michaels, Eric. "Aboriginal Content: Who's Got It--Who Needs It?" Visual Anthropology 4 (1991): 277-300.

------. For a Cultural Future: Francis Jupurrurla Makes TV at Yuendumu. Melbourne: Artspace, 1987.

Morris, Richard, and Philip Wander. "Native American Rhetoric: Dancing in the Shadows of the Ghost Dance." Quarterly Journal of Speech 76, no. 2 (1990): 164-91.

Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Rosler, Martha. "In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)." In The Contest of Meaning, ed. Richard Bolton, 303-43. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989.

Ruby, Jay. "Speaking for, Speaking about, Speaking with, or Speaking Alongside: An Anthropological and Documentary Dilemma." Journal of Film and Video 44, no. 1-2 (1992): 42-66.

Silberman, Robert. "Victor Masayesva and the Question of a Native American Aesthetic." Unpublished paper presented at the annual meeting of the College Art Association, Chicago, February 1992.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. "Videomakers and Basketmakers." Aperture 119 (summer 1990): 72-73.

Todd, Loretta. "What More Do They Want?" In Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives in Canadian Art, ed. Gerald McMaster and Lee-Ann Martin, 71-79. Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1992.

Turner, Terence. "Defiant Images, the Kayapo Appropriation of Video." Anthropology Today 8, no. 6 (1992): 5-16.

Weatherford, Elizabeth. "Native Visions: The Growth of Indigenous Media." Aperture 119 (early summer 1990): 58-61.

Younger, Erin. "Changing Images, a Century of Photography on the Hopi Reservation (1880-1980)." In Hopi Photographers, Hopi Images, ed. Victor Masayesva Jr. and Erin Younger. Tuscon: Sun Tracks and University of Arizona Press, 1983.


Circle of Song: Parts I and II (Real People series). George Burdeau and Larry Littlebird. Office of Education (Department of Health, Education, and Welfare), Emergency School Aid Act, 1976.

Dancing Feathers (Spirit Bay series). Eric Jordan and Paul Stephens. Spirit Bay Productions for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1983.

Dan Namingha. Frank Blythe and Larry Littlebird. Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT), Lincoln, Nebraska, 1984.

Eyes of the Spirit. Corey Flintoff and Alexie Isaac. KYUK, Bethel, Alaska. 1984.

Foster Child. Jerry D. Krepakevich and Gil Cardinal. National Film Board of Canada, 1988.

Healing the Hurts. Dir. Phil Lucas. Phil Lucas Productions, 1991.

Her Giveaway: A Spiritual Journey with AIDS. Dir. Mona Hadler. Minnesota Indian AIDS Task Force, 1988.

The Honour of All. Dir. Phil Lucas. Alkali Lake Indian Band, British Columbia, Canada, 1985.

I'd Rather be Powwowing (Matters of Life or Death). Prod. George P. Horse Capture, dir. Larry Littlebird. WNET-TV, New York, 1983.

Images of Indians (five-part series). Phil Lucas and Robert Hagopian. KCTS/9, Seattle, and United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, 1980.

In the Heart of Big Mountain. Dir. Sandra Sunrising [Johnson] Osawa. Upstream Productions, Seattle, 1988.

Itam Hakim Hopiit. Victor Masayesva Jr. IS Productions, Hotevilla, Arizona, 1984.

Kahnesatake: 270 Years of Resistance. Dir. Alanis Obomsawin, prod. Wolf Koening. National Film Board of Canada, 1993.

Kanatsiohareke: Place of the Clean Pot. Dir. Melanie Printup Hope. Independent, 1994.

Keep Your Heart Strong. Deb Wallwork. Prairie Public TV, North Dakota, 1986.

Lighting the Seventh Fire. Dir. Sandy [Sunrising] Johnson Osawa. Upstream Productions, Seattle, 1994.

A Matter of Trust. Dir. Bill Sharpsteen. KYUK Video, Bethel, Alaska, 1983.

Nations within a Nation. Prod. Mark Ringwold. Oklahoma Foundation for the Humanities, 1986.

Native American Images. Carol Patton Cornsilk. Southwest Texas Public Broadcasting Council, 1985.

The Place of Falling Waters. Dir. Roy Bigcrane and Thompson Smith. Salish Kootenai College, Pablo, Montana, and Native Voices Public Televison Workshop, Bozeman, Montana, 1990.

Powwow Fever. Rick Tailfeathers. Bullhorn Productions, Indian News Media, Blood Reserve, Alberta, 1984.

The Pueblo Peoples: First Contact. George Burdeau and Larry Walsh. KNME-TV, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development, 1990.

Red Road: Toward the Techno-Tribal. Prod. Daniel Salazar. Dir. Juan Salazar. Front Range Educational Media Corp., 1984.

Real People series. George Burdeau and Larry Littlebird, Office of Education (Department of Health, Education, and Welfare), Emergency School Aid Act, 1976.

Ritual Clowns. Victor Masayesva Jr. IS Productions, Hotevilla, Arizona, 1988.

Siskyavi: The Place of Chasms. Victor Masayesva Jr. IS Productions, Hotevilla, Arizona, 1991.

Songs in Minto Life. Curt Madison, Leonard Kamerling, and Charlotte Yager, in cooperation with Minto Village Council, Alaska Native Heritage Project. University of Alaska Museum, Fairbanks, Alaska, 1985.

"The Spirit of Crazy Horse" on Frontline. James Locker, Milo Yellow Hair (correspondent). WGBH, Boston, PBS Home Video, 1990.

The Spirit of Kuna Yala. Dir. Andrew Young. Coprod. with the Kuna Yala Tribe. Archipelago Films, 1990.

Strength of Life. Gary Robinson. Muscogee Creek Nation Communication Center, Oklahoma, 1985.

A Tradition Lives: The Powwow. Glenn Raymond, in cooperation with the Colville Confederated Tribes and Kalispel Tribe. Glenn Raymond/Darryl Suta Productions, Seattle, 1984.

Visions. Rick Tailfeathers and Duane Mistaken Chief. Bullhorn Productions, Indian News Media, Blood Reserve, Alberta, 1984.

Winds of Change: A Matter of Promises. Carol Cotter (producer/writer). Frank Blythe, Roger Buffalohead, Phil Lucas (advisors). WHA-TV, Wisconsin Public Television, Madison, Wisconsin, 1990.

Wiping the Tears of Seven Generations. Gary Rhine and Fidel Moreno. Kifaru Productions, 1991.

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