Changing the narrative is something that has been bandied about in the entertainment industry for a while now, but given the current climate of 2020, it’s more imperative today than any other time. Hollywood has always had a fascination with Native Americans or Indians since its founding, but the images portrayed on the screen have never told the whole story or even the right one and Native American peoples have been pushing back against that from the beginning. Michelle Latimer‘s documentary “Inconvenient Indian,” based on leading Canadian indigenous storyteller Thomas King‘s book “The Inconvenient Indian” is doing just that — changing the narrative.
The film opens up with a Native American riding horseback in tribal dress alone in the vast openness of the open plains, evoking images often shown in the media, until he abruptly comes up against a modern cityscape in stark contract — giving a visual to one of the topics tackled in the film, whether Native Americans can survive in the “modern world” (which obviously has colonial and racist overtones). Then, in comes the voice of the author himself as he sets up the foundation of the documentary and starts recounting a fable about a coyote and the ducks, which parallels the relationship between white people and the indigenous people of the Americas. He weaves the fable in three parts throughout which also perfectly parallels the three acts of the film.
Latimer and King begin by talking about storytelling (which ties in perfectly since that is the format they use in which to set up this documentary) and how we have to be careful with the stories that we tell and watch out for the ones we are told because “stories are just that — stories.” King is then shown going into a movie theatre and seeing a reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand as his voiceover talks about how “history is not the past — it’s the stories we tell about the past” — and they’re just that stories. And these stories are only agreed upon interpretations. But it is this powerful tool that has lead to the erasure of the Native Americans and their cultures by helping to perpetuate North American cultural superiority. Pop culture and the media only tell the story of these stereotypes and that leads to reverberating impacts on generations to come and does a disservice to the outside world because all we know are misinterpretations and misrepresentations. And because today’s indigenous people don’t look like those stereotypes they are invisible and their plight is often ignored and overlooked (the problem this documentary is trying to rectify).
From there, the filmmaker highlights the story of modern indigenous people who are dealing with the repercussions of the generations of culture shaming and the “white-washing” of their people. They represent a new generation of Native Americans who are reclaiming their culture and embracing everything that white religion and “civility” tried to erase. From hunters, land protectors to artists and activists, they are the reflecting the legacy of incarceration, assimilation, and the foster care system (tragically shown through archival footage) that has created multi-generational trauma, not unlike what is the case with the Black community. But our Native American brothers and sister’s history has been so thoroughly erased that they get lost in the shuffle. This film and the activists in it are trying to change the narrative by going back to their roots and telling their own story. And it’s a story that resonates with the viewer and it evokes so many emotions from anger to disappointment and hope.
The last act of the documentary drives home the underlying cause of all of this injustice and this shameful stain on American history — land. And it’s the same issue that still has indigenous people fighting to this day. It is all about sovereignty and self-determination for Native peoples versus Western culture and capitalism trampling on that and reneging on a promise made many decades ago. The images shown of the peaceful protesters at Standing Rock and other protests is devastating and drives home the cruelty of the situation, but also serves as a lightning rod call-to-action to continue the fight. Nothing has changed in the last 150 years and this film uses the great storytelling tradition of indigenous cultures to shine a light on the plight and fight of Native American people that continues today — today’s Native American is no longer the submissive stereotype, they are taking back their story and recasting themselves as “inconvenient Indians” who will be heard.