For decades, popular culture perpetuated the myth of “the noble savage,” this romantic notion that before Contact, we were here, hanging around in loincloths, just waiting to be “saved,” and that this vast continent of Turtle Island was a wasteland before the colonizers arrived. That Indigenous people had no culture, no forms of government or structured existence.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
We have always told our own stories, passing them down from generation to generation.
The public didn’t pay much attention to what Indigenous artists were producing because the dominant media culture of Hollywood refused to move over and make way for us. In other words, in the movie business, Indigenous people were falsely portrayed, left out of the cultural narrative and the decision making process of telling our stories.
That has changed.
You see it at the Toronto International Film Festival where there are 13 films being showcased by Indigenous directors. The promotion of Indigenous creators is a stated top priority of Tiff artistic director and co-head Cameron Bailey.
There is lots of buzz at the festival with zombie film Blood Quantum, made by Mi’kmaq director Jeff Barnaby. Abenaki director Alanis Obomsawin whose 53rd film, Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger, about the hospitalized life of the little boy from Norway House behind Jordan’s Principle. New Zealand’s Taika Waititi and his anticipated anti-hate satire JoJo Rabbit. Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk’s One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, about the recent removal of Inuit off their land and into urban settings in an attempt at Canadian assimilation.
Remember, this is an industry that created the musical, romantic drama of Disney’s Pocahontas, let Burt Reynolds play a First Nations man in the spaghetti western Navajo Joe and had Johnny Depp play the Indian sidekick to the white hero of the Lone Ranger. (Don’t even get me started on Depp being the face for the inappropriate and insulting, Indigenous-themed Christian Dior cologne campaign called “Sauvage.”)
Indigenous people have been trapped in this identity structure we did not create, one that doesn’t tell our stories. None of us see ourselves in Hollywood’s portrayal of Indigenous people.
Just as it’s important for First Nations, Métis and Inuit literature to be taught in our school classrooms — we need to see ourselves represented and reflected on screens, that we be can behind the cameras and in boardrooms making decisions about cinema.
In Canada, we are getting a push by the Indigenous Screen Office, led by the incomparable Ojibwe broadcaster and writer Jesse Wente. The office was created to promote support, education and funding to First Nations, Métis and Inuit filmmakers. When I sat down with Wente on Friday at the TIFF Lightbox, and asked him if 13 films was enough, he told me it is a remarkable start and signal of what is to come.
“It expands the notion of what Indigenous cinema can be. But what you are feeling is, as a storytelling country, yeah, we lag behind. We are trying to catch up. The potential is there for the work to be a larger part of the Canadian sector,” he said.
“As we’ve seen when you have been excluded for so long, it is hard to gain equity and entrance,” said Wente.
And there’s the challenge. Historically, the film industry has never included Indigenous people. Not in the front offices, not behind the camera. But gaining control over our creative stories, our intellectual property, is just as vital as gaining ownership over our lands and natural resources.
We are in a moment right now, where Canadians have opened their ears and eyes and are beginning to listen to Indigenous voices.
“That is what we have to seize. And we are doing that,” said Wente.