Indigenous People’s Stories Need More Than Just Leonardo DiCaprio’s Speech
We appreciate the sentiment, Leo, but budgets and greenlights would be helpful.
Ryan is an Anishinaabe/Metis comedian and writer based out of Treaty #1 territory (Winnipeg, Manitoba).
Over the last few years you've heard over and over again that Indigenous representations matter. Whether we're talking sports logos, the piece of garbage film Adam Sandler made for Netflix, or whether Mrs. Universe Ashley Callingbull-Burnham is on the cover of magazines, every single Indigenous representation in mainstream media falls under a microscope. Rightfully so.
Native American representation in film and media has a sordid and ugly past. In 2009, Cree film director Neil Diamond, released Reel Injun. This documentary took a look at natives in cinema it shone a bright light on the fact that for the first hundred years of cinema we were used as props, extras, and dead bodies for John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to walk around while they saved the day.
When I rewatched the doc after being asked to review it for their website, it struck me: we are always fucking dying. In almost every movie I watch with native people in it, we die. I've seen Gary Farmer, Graham Greene, Tantoo Cardinal, Winston Wuttunee, and many of the other greats of our time die or be killed off in films. Some look to movies & media as inspiration or a reflection of life. So, as an Indigenous person myself, I can't help but watch these movies and think, Ah, man, I hope I get killed like that someday too. And I hope my daughter doesn't internalize a Pocahontas fantasy—I'll do everything in my power to keep her away from dudes named John Smith.
Before I was a standup comic, I was an actor. I have a degree in theater and, after finishing school, I moved to Toronto to chase my dreams. The year was 1999 and almost every native actor you could name lived in Toronto. As a student at the Center for Indigenous Theatre, I was able to mentor under and become friends with all of the greats of my time. Many a late night was spent at pubs and coffee shops talking about an industry that refused to see us, hear us, meet us. I watched many of my heroes, Lorne Cardinal, Billy Merasty, Columpa Bobb, and others, struggle with the frustration of knowing that no matter what they did, no matter how much they continue to train at their craft, and no matter how well they did in audition after audition, they were Indians and Indians don't play doctors, lawyers, cops or astronauts in the movies.
In 2001, my agent sent me out for my final callback for Last of the Mohicans—The Musical. Seriously. But when it came time to wardrobe up for the callback it dawned on me that there was no fucking way I was putting on this loincloth. There may have been a few reasons for this—I'm a chubby Ojibway and this body has no business being in a loincloth, or, it occurred to me that the pink and yellow and red headdresses that were in the room was a 100-year step backwards. I walked from the room and from that day forward vowed I would do everything I could do could not set my people back through my work.
Do All Indigenous Stories Have Feathers?
For a couple years I toiled around Toronto as an actor. I found myself in the same rooms as beautiful, beefy Indian men and it dawned on me that my journey into this medium was going to be a little bit different than everyone else's. I have fair skin. I have light eyes. Let's just say I don't exactly look like the Native guy they cast in Crimestoppers commercials. It's a visual medium, so what you look like matters. Cheekbones and abs look beautiful when lit correctly. I had neither and I had to get the fuck out of there.
So for the last 15 years I found great success in comedy and comedy writing, and zero to little success in acting or theater. In 2008 I began the development process on a sitcom. I rang up a handful of producers and every single one offered me an option agreement. I picked a producer that best fit the project and we started to have blue sky meetings—we'd sit around the table and kick around magic what-ifs. When a question of casting the project came up one of the producers made a list of potential leads for the project. My name wasn't on the list. I guess I was surprised, but what surprised me more was when he said: "It'd be hard to cast you, Ryan, you're not exactly the Indian chief Canada and the world wants to see on TV or the big screen."
All of this is to say: who is this "Indian chief Canada and the world wants to see on TV or the big screen?" When you're as close to this medium as my friends and I are it's hard to be objective.
We all think we are brilliant and we all think we have the next box office hit hidden deep down in the hard drives of our MacBook Pros. We all think we know the answer. And maybe we do. Maybe we do have a giant Hollywood hit at our fingertips. But what is the truth about the mainstream's expectations of Indigenous stories and its players? What will audiences support when it comes to Indigenous cinema?
Is the truth, as Leonardo DiCaprio said last night at the Golden Globes during his acceptance speech for best actor in a drama, that it is time the world hear Indigenous voices? If so, why were there so few speaking roles for Indigenous people in The Revenant? Will Hollywood or a major player there turn over the keys to the studio for a couple of years and leave a handful of us alone so we can tell our stories in our way? Will audiences believe that Indigenous people shop at The Gap, drink Starbucks, and have really, really normal, boring lives that we'd like to talk about in a simple rom com—without horses, eagle feathers in our hair, or dirt under our fingernails?
Look Ma, We're On the Big Screen! Sorta.
Indigenous representations matter so much to Indigenous people that when we hear one or two of us are going to be on the big screen, we lose our minds. Our voices have been so silenced since the advent of moving pictures that whenever we're thrown a bone—we throw a party.
We are now amidst a giant party for The Revenant and it just got kicked up a notch thanks to DiCaprio's speech where he mentions recognizing Indigenous lands in the importance of its protection. Yeah. Just the mention of Indigenous land and we lose our shit. Leonardo DiCaprio for National Chief! It would have been markedly better if he'd have said something about the "return of land" but that's another essay for another time.
My social media is split between people who love the film for what it was—a story about how lost the English and the French were when they arrived in our territories—and people who hated the film for its tired tropes of violent Indians, and the portrayal of sexual violence against Indigenous women (and, yeah, one scene of sexual violence against an Indigenous woman is enough to mention it here). I've accepted the film for what it is: a look at how ugly and violent the fur trade and the settling of North America was.
Among friends, our "inside the circle" conversations (yes, Indigenous peoples have private conversations y'all are not privy to) about The Revenant have revolved around the white savior complex of the story, the bloodthirsty revenge narrative of the Arikara Chief, and the general musings of the violent times that were. For some, the anger and frustration at the representations of Indigenous people in the film don't allow all of us to see that The Revenant wasn't an Indigenous film. It was a film that happened to have a "B story" that included Native people, but it was not an Indigenous story alone.
Alejandro González Iñárritu is a mad genius who went out of his way to get Indigenous representations in the film right. From using actual Indigenous language, to the meticulous wardrobe and beadwork and regalia making, to the age old tradition of raw buffalo liver (I'm pretty hardcore, but I'd cook that shit with some liver and onions first), in some ways this looks and sounds like progress. I have dear friends who worked on this film and they've all told me how well they were treated by DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Iñárritu himself. There were real efforts put forward here by the director and his team. The film was visually stunning, the score and sound design magnificent and nuanced, and my arsehole was puckered for two hours and 36 minutes.
Every representation matters in 2016 because we've never controlled what we, as Indigenous peoples, look/sound like to the mainstream. In 2016, it's time the world to step back from the historical "white gaze of Hollywood" and allow Indigenous peoples to tell them who they are. There are brilliant Indigenous writers and filmmakers chomping at the bit to work with budgets, studios and resources to tell the stories in our own words.
Leo, if you're serious about Indigenous representations and it being time to hear Indigenous stories, I can introduce you to some people.
Follow Ryan McMahon on Twitter.