November 20th, 2008
Legends of Tradition
Throughout history each of us has been subject to discrimination and assimilation, some more than others mainly because of cultural differences that was feared or seemed too different to bother understanding. In present day society this struggle continues, even in North America where Native Americans living on or off the the reservation fight to preserve and teach their indigenous traditions. Most prominently they succeed to teach what they have learned or passed down from generations by means of story-telling. In the two films Smoke Signals directed by Chris Eyre and Dance Me Outside directed by Bruce McDonald they boldly follow the native tradition and allowing the viewers to better understand the lifestyle and beliefs of indigenous people. These two films both tell stories of a different nature, to remember loved ones, to teach traditions and to pass down knowledge.
For those loved ones that past on we wish to remember, we tell stories about them. Chris Eyre wrote Thomas in Smoke Signals as nerdy young man who kept the tradition alive when he told stories of Victor’s father Arnold who had saved his life. When Thomas told those stories Arnold believed he was making most of them up or at least the details to make him sound like a better man than he really was. Arnold in truth was an alcoholic who abandoned his family to moved to Arizona next to his neighbor Suzy Song. Suzy also told stories of Arnold to Thomas and Victor when they finally arrived to get his things after his death, where Victor learned a truth he had never known: Arnold had been responsible for setting the fire that burned down the house and killed Thomas’ parents, Arnold had gone into that house as it was burning to save Victor who was inside. Suzy Song also told the story that Arnold had told her, about how the two of them had played two catholic priests in a basketball game and little Victor had won with the winning shot, when in truth they had lost that game. Victor then realized that it didn’t matter who had won or lost, it was about how his father looked at him, he was a warrior in his own way when he played basketball. Bruce wrote in Dance Me Outside for Silas, the narrator, that after their friend Margaret’s death by a white man they already told stories of her, how they used to talk about how she got her name, though now she would only be remembered by how she died and the injustice of her murderer’s sentence.
Passing on knowledge is not limited to aboriginal culture, however it is better preserved through story-telling. European, Asian, Middle-Eastern cultures treated women like chattel and a man’s property, however traditional Native American societies are female-led or matriarchal, a lifestyle which has survived assimilation by pioneers from colonizations of North America who changed life so drastically that it is a surprise that this aspect of aboriginal culture as survived. Etta is the leader of her community on the Kidabanesee Reserve told by Silas as the narrator in Dance Me Outside where she helps the younger generation to learn what they do not yet know, and help Ilianna bear a child by Gooch, when she fails to do so with her husband who is unable. It is Etta that arranges the events that must unfold and gives Gooch the drink to help succeed. Thomas talks about Arnold is a lot of his stories, each of them may not necessarily be the full truth though they are to pass on knowledge, a morale and theme. He talks about how he as a child had sat by the river one day because he believed he was going to get a vision looking at the waterfall on the bridge. Arnold had come up behind him and asked what he was doing, when Thomas answered Arnold could only laugh and then took him for breakfast, to which Thomas described vividly.
It is important to teach one’s cultural traditions to keep it alive, in present day assimilation as lost all such things for the sake of ‘advancement’ and ‘modernization’. Thomas told a story about Arlene, Victor’s mother, and how her bread was the most famous on all the reserve. For a great meal she had made fifty of her bread but there were a hundred people, so she divided the break equally among to feed them all. It is a little known fact about the relations of native people, they are a tribal nation and when a relative of one’s tribe comes to visit they are responsible for finding them a place to stay, food to eat and show them about the reserve. This in kind would be how they would be treated if it were them visiting the relative of their tribe on their reserve. Native Americans have a strong belief in common courtesy and sharing, a lesson learned when Thomas told his story, even if it may have been slightly exaggerated. When Silas narrates his story he talks of him and his friends getting Bob, Ilianna’s husband out of the house for the night for a ‘honorary chief ceremony’. Though the purpose was for a joke for them and what Bob though was acceptance into their culture, the concept of finding one’s animal and being given a name has significance in Native culture, hence surnames and names like Fencepost, Crow, Song, Coyote, Builds-A-Fire, etc. The importance of naming oneself after an animal in aboriginal culture is still elusive as of yet, however it may have something to do with the story of creation. A sky god looked down on Earth through a hole in the sky when they fell through, the creator/ mother earth summoned all the creaturs of Earth to ask them how they would help the new arrivals, humans. One by one they offered what they could, the animals offered the meat off their bones and their bones as weapons, tools and utensils. The trees offered everything of themselves, the wood to built their fires and houses, their leaves for their beds, etc. It was the turtle that has offered to hold the land on which they would live on his back, the swimmers offered to swim down to the bottom of the ocean to get the dirt. They swam down and drowned in the attempt. It was then that the muskrat offered to go down and get the dirt, the animals laughed at him, but by sheer determination he when down, grabbed a chunk of dirt and swam his way up, only to drown as well. However his body floated to the surface and in his hands was the dirt, in death he had succeeded where the swimmers had not. It is then that the dirt was placed on the turtle’s back to create the great supper continent of prehistoric times, a story of the ancient history of Earth is an amazing feat to have survived the millenia and all through story-telling. The animals that gave of themselves so that humans could survive and ‘created’ life as the indigenous people have always seen it is perhaps the reason they wish to honor them by giving themselves animal names.
In the two films Smoke Signals and Dance Me Outside the message that story-telling is both important and essential for aboriginal culture is apparent throughout their stories. Usually when story-telling is used to pass down history it can often be distorted, like how when one plays telephone with a group of friends as the what the first person said is passed down from ear to ear it can be completely different when the last person suddenly gets it. Story telling by the Aboriginal people has been done in such a way that none of the facts have been distorted by the passage of time and history has been preserved through the millenia that they have existed. It is a great significance that story-telling has enabled the Native American culture to survive after all these years and the hardships that they have had to endure when fronted with assimilation by the rest of the world and the racism they have faced by those who do not understand them or are not willing to learn to accept them for who they are. The need to fit into a world that may not recognize our world’s cultures has led to an assimilation that wipes away nearly all individuality. When we do come across something new we are often afraid of the unknown, but it is the unknown that must be discovered to expand our knowledge and make us less ignorant, a trait that may lead to eventual consequences.
Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Perf. Adam Beach, Evan Adams. Film. ShadowCatcher Entertainment, 1998.
Dance Me Outside. Dir. Bruce McDonald. Perf. Adam Beach, Ryan Rajendra Black. Film. Shadow Shows, 1995.