Dreams Have No Borders: The 8th Indianer/Inuit North American Film Festival

By Maria Moss and Sabrina Völz

Acosia Red Elk and Drew Hay­den Tay­lor. Pho­to cred­it: Sab­ri­na Völz

Ask any Native Stud­ies schol­ar in Europe, and they will be well aware of the Euro­pean fas­ci­na­tion with Native peo­ples of North Amer­i­ca – a fas­ci­na­tion that can be traced back to the nov­els of 19th cen­tu­ry writer Karl May who fur­thered the noble sav­age stereo­type. The pre­em­i­nent schol­ar for Native Stud­ies, Hart­mut Lutz, even coined a term for it: Indi­anthu­si­asm. When we heard about the 8th Indi­an­er Inu­it Fes­ti­val in Stuttgart from Feb­ru­ary 6–9, 2020, two ques­tions came to mind: Would this Indi­anthu­si­asm come to life or be decon­struct­ed at the fes­ti­val? And is “Indi­an­er” even a term that should still be used in Ger­man-speak­ing countries?

So we packed our bags and took the 5½-hour train ride from Lüneb­urg to Stuttgart to inves­ti­gate. The festival’s pro­gram was quite exten­sive, encom­pass­ing doc­u­men­taries, short films, fea­ture films, children’s films, and music videos pro­duced and direct­ed by Indige­nous artists from North Amer­i­ca and beyond. Apart from vis­it­ing the film screen­ings, we also encoun­tered fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple who gave us an inkling of the impres­sive vari­ety of con­tem­po­rary Native artis­tic expression.

The fes­ti­val start­ed out with a bang with appear­ances by the duo Piqsiq, Tom Jack­son, and Acosia Red Elk. After the two Inu­it sis­ters from Nunavut per­formed both tra­di­tion­al and con­tem­po­rary (rein­forced elec­tron­i­cal­ly) throat-singings, and Cree actor and singer Tom Jack­son sang songs in his inim­itable voice, the fes­ti­val arrived at the first of its many high­lights with the Jin­gle Dress Dance by Acosia Red Elk (Umatil­la), ten times world cham­pi­on in this dis­ci­pline. One of the festival’s few dis­ap­point­ments – both in its unin­spired script and weak per­for­mances – was the open­ing film, Falls Around Her (Dar­lene Naponse, dir.), star­ring Tan­too Car­di­nal. It is, how­ev­er, impos­si­ble to please everyone.

With­out a doubt, the best fea­ture film was Indi­an Horse (Stephen S. Cam­pan­el­li, dir.). The film, based on the 2012 nov­el by Anishin­abe author Richard Wagamese, tells the sto­ry of Saul Indi­an Horse, a boy who grows up in one of Canada’s infa­mous res­i­den­tial schools in the 1950s only to become a minor league hock­ey star. But for Indi­an Horse, hock­ey is not all guts and glo­ry, and there are ulti­mate­ly no ‘white saviors.’

Doc­u­men­taries were also well rep­re­sent­ed at the fes­ti­val. Words from a Bear (Jef­frey Palmer, dir.) and Mankiller (Valerie Red Horse M. and Gale A. Hurd, dir.) were, for exam­ple, of out­stand­ing qual­i­ty. While Words recounts the impres­sive career of Kiowa writer and painter, N. Scott Moma­day, first Native Pulitzer Prize win­ner for the nov­el, House Made of Dawn (1968), Mankiller tells the sto­ry of Wilma Mankiller, a woman who – despite per­son­al and polit­i­cal adver­si­ty – became the first, and to-date only, female chief of the Chero­kee Nation.  Anoth­er excep­tion­al doc­u­men­tary – Search­ing for Win­netou by award-win­ning author and play­wright Drew Hay­den Tay­lor (Anishin­abe) – played to a full house. The film holds up a mir­ror to Ger­man audi­ences with­out ridi­cul­ing either Karl May’s depic­tion of the noble sav­age stereo­type or the hob­by­ist move­ment. In a bal­anced account, Tay­lor shows mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives on hob­by­ism, includ­ing the dan­gers of cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion, the sin­cere desire of Ger­mans to learn from a cul­ture not their own as well as East Ger­man per­spec­tives on Win­netou and the free­dom he inspired.

Ama­teur film­mak­ers – stu­dents of the IAIA (Insti­tute of Amer­i­can Indi­an Arts) in San­ta Fe, New Mex­i­co – were also giv­en the chance to screen their short films pro­duced between 2016 and 2019. They fea­tured an eclec­tic mix of top­ics: Big Sis­ter Rug (Dwayne Joe, dir.) treats an account of 11 Nava­jo women who wove the biggest Nava­jo rug ever, while Water is Life (Echo­ta Kill­snight, dir.) is a music video on the Native protest of the Dako­ta Access Pipeline on the Stand­ing Rock Sioux reserve in North Dako­ta. More­over, Simone (Leroy Grafe, dir.) explores the sto­ry about a young woman who dis­cov­ers a dark fam­i­ly secret at her grandfather’s funer­al. All films show the impres­sive tal­ents of young Native artists today.

All in all, the Indianer/Inuit fes­ti­val was a delight to attend and is a must for every­one inter­est­ed in con­tem­po­rary Native issues. We’re still, how­ev­er, uncer­tain how we feel about the term “Indi­an­er,” since it rein­forces Karl May’s roman­ti­cized per­cep­tions of Native peo­ple. And even though some Native peo­ple in the U.S. still use its Eng­lish equiv­a­lent, “Indi­an,” future fes­ti­val orga­niz­ers might wish to con­sid­er a new, more inclu­sive title.

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