Last night I watched the film "True Grit", a modern re-make of an old John Wayne film. While I did appreciate a lot of the humour and interplay between the three main characters — played by Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and up-and-comer Hailee Steinfeld — there were a couple of scenes that disturbed me. And what disturbed me the most was not so much the scenes, but the audiences reaction to them. The fact that I was watching the film in The Woodlands, Texas — a wealthy suburb of Houston — made me wonder if the audience would have reacted different in my home of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.
In one of the first scenes of the film three men are hanged — two white men and a Native American. Both white men are allowed an opportunity to say their last words while the Native American is not even allowed one sentence before the floor gives way and the noose tightens around his neck.
At the moment the Indian was silenced most people in the audience started laughing. I thought it was a bit strange but shrugged it off. After all, this was probably an accurate depiction of how Indians were treated at the time.
The next time Native Americans were in the film was a scene in which Bridges, who plays a crusty U.S. Marshall named Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn, comes upon an old log shack in Indian country. There are two Native American children whom Cogburn proceeds to kick and push around without apparent reason. While this was likely historically accurate and in keeping with the brash character of Cogburn, I wondered whether it was really necessary in the movie. What shocked me the most and the person I was watching the film with, also a Canadian, was the laughter that erupted from the audience watching the movie. We wondered if we had missed something?
Neither of us found it funny that a grown man was bullying and kicking around children. Was the audience laughing because these were Indian children. What if I was a Native American watching that movie and hearing everyone laugh? Just because it is historically accurate doesn't mean it's okay to laugh. In fact it should be the opposite. Dominant society should be ashamed.
But then I wondered how Canadian audiences reacted to this scene? One person I knew watched the movie in Canada and said she didn't remember the audience laughing at this scene.
In Regina, where I live there is quite a high proportion of Aboriginal people (Aboriginal is a term which includes First Nations, Metis and Innuit). Aboriginal is a pc term that most Canadians use rather than Native Canadian or Indian, although some people still use the terms to identify themselves. Many Aboriginals have moved off of reserves and into cities like Regina.
Down here in The Woodlands, I have yet to see a Native American. I don't know how many actually live in the state of Texas. According to one website there are three federally recognized tribes in Texas. Whether they live on reserves or in main cities I am not sure. From my limited perspective they seem to be pretty much invisible both in reality, in media and any form of advertising. It makes me wonder where these people have gone? Are they invisible?
Almost a year ago, Guardian reporter Chris McGreal covered a story on U.S. President Obama's pledge to improve the lives of Native Americans. It is an excellent piece of journalism that I would encourage anyone to take a look at. It can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/2010/jan/11/native-americans-reservations-poverty-obama. McGreal visits a reserve in South Dakota and talks to people about their lives and frustrations.
As a Canadian, I don't want to make it sound like our hands are clean of any injustice against indigenous peoples. Far from it. The effects of residential schools and systemic racism against indigenous people are still very evident in Canadian society.
I just wonder where the Canadian dialogue about indigenous issues sits in relationship to the United States?
The first time I really realized how badly indigenous people of North America were treated was strangely in Rwanda, Africa. I recall visiting the genocide museum in Kigali, Rwanda and reading about the history of world genocides. Movies like "Hotel Rwanda" brought the killing of 800,000 Rwandans into the public eye. Likewise, many movies have been made about the killing of six million Jews and other minorities in Germany. What shocked me was the killing of 14 million indigenous people in North America and 15 million in South America. This was not talked about in my schooling nor have I seen it depicted in many Hollywood movies.
What do you think?