Native Americans and American culture

The Magazine compiled this list for the reader who might be curious to learn more about Native American cultures and their histories, as well as more contemporary happenings.

MISS NAVAJO NATION Autumn Montoya talks to Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), one of the first Native American women in the US House of Representatives, in To’hajiilee Navajo Nation, New Mexico, in 2018. (photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)
MISS NAVAJO NATION Autumn Montoya talks to Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), one of the first Native American women in the US House of Representatives, in To’hajiilee Navajo Nation, New Mexico, in 2018.
(photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)
The Business of Fancydancing – In this 2002 film, written and directed by Sherman Alexie, two Spokane men explore their history and friendship after the passing of a third friend. The funeral, held in the Spokane Reservation in the eastern part of the State of Washington, serves as the reason for one of the friends, who is a successful poet and openly gay, to return to his place of origin and confront various unresolved issues.
The film is deeply moving and, while fictional, resonates with the personal biography of Alexie himself, who is an accomplished poet. The character of the gay man, Seymour Polatkin, is shown in the movie dancing tribal dances that, in Spokane culture, are reserved for women.
His friend, Aristotle Joseph, is depicted assaulting white people after telling them: “Indians always help white people who get lost,” an ironic reference to The Lone Ranger television series and various depictions of Native People in American films and books. The film deals with difficult themes, such as addiction, urban Indians and poverty, and is a powerful introduction to the work of Alexie, who is Spokane-Coeur d’Alene.
♦ Miss Navajo Nation – This title is awarded annually to a Navajo woman who is able to interview and respond to all parts of the contest in both Navajo and English and demonstrate her skill in a variety of tasks that the Navajo hold as important, among them the slaughter of sheep. The 2020 Miss Navajo is Shaandiin Parrish. The role of Miss Navajo Nation is to personify First Woman, White Shell Woman and Changing Woman to her people as well as serve as an ambassador of the Navajo nation to other cultures.
♦ Lakota Woman – This 1990 book, winner of the 1991 American Book Award, tells the personal history of Mary Brave Bird and her involvement with the American Indian Movement, including the 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It intimately takes the reader into the anger, pain and tragic despair that many First Nation peoples experience in the US and the long road and sacrifices that activists undertook to improve things to some degree.
♦ Windtalkers – The 2002 movie with Nicholas Cage and Adam Beach presents a dramatized depiction of the Navajo soldiers who served their country in World War II as Code Talkers. By using a fairly unknown language such as Navajo, the US Marines were able to communicate during military operations without the Japanese Army being able to break it and respond to the US war effort. Historically, Cherokee and Choctaw soldiers served as Code Talkers in the Great War and their success inspired the Marines to continue the program with other cultures. The film garnered negative reviews, as the lead role is that of a non-native character played by a non-native person (Cage) yet it also discusses a very important part of Navajo history and is one of the few commercial films to include Navajo language and culture.
♦ A Man Called Horse – This 1970 Western, based on a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson from the 1950s, is unusual in the sense that while it is very much a violent movie depicting the struggle between Europeans and Native peoples, it is also deeply humanistic – as the protagonist, who is captured by the Sioux, is forced to learn their culture and to eventually acquire a native name and identity. The film’s honesty in depicting cruelties committed by both cultures, and how individuals are caught between them, makes the film valid and significant even 50 years after it was first released.
♦‘Split Feather’ by Shuki Ben-Ami – The Hebrew reader might be interested in picking up a copy of Split Feather – The Native American Medicine Man. In this fictional 2003 book, Shuki Ben-Ami tells a fascinating tale based on his own dramatic life story. The book’s hero is an Israeli man raised in the ultra-religious Yiddish-speaking culture of Jerusalem observant Jews, who learns that his biological mother was a Lakota woman.
The tale becomes a story of self-discovery and reclaiming identity as the protagonist, as well as Ben-Ami, claim to find many similarities between the Jewish faith and Lakota beliefs.
Like other books that discuss Native American spirituality from a deeply personal, even romantic point of view, it is meant to be inspiring and uplifting, not precise and academic.
Like the 1968 cult-classic The Teaching of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, it is great reading but beware – sacred knowledge is not usually easy to obtain and it would be very unusual for a stranger to attain the role of a medicine man or healer in a tribal society without extensive learning and effort.
In other words, are dreamcatchers authentically Native American? Yes they are, hailing from the cultures of the Cree and Shawnee people.
Do they function as most people in the West think they do? No, they function in relation to the Spider Woman, Asibikaashi, who protects children and babies by catching bad dreams in her web.
If you might not enjoy the idea of a spider deity looking after the dreaming of you or your children, don’t invest in the magic of cultures you may not be familiar with!