Reel Injun, Atanarjuat, and Breaking the Indian/Native American Paradigm

Recently I watched the film Reel Injun, a documentary about Hollywood's hundred-year history of portraying indigenous North Americans. Perhaps not surprisingly, Reel Injun is a Canadian film—not one supported by Hollywood. Near the end of the film, it also points to the Canadian (Inuit) production Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner as showing the way forward in indigenous filmmaking. My curiosity sparked, I watched Atanarjuat myself, (it's free to watch here), and I really was impressed.

Released in 2001, Atanarjuat was the first feature-length fiction film written, produced, directed, and acted by Inuit, and it was acted entirely in their language, Inuktitut. Simply put, it's a beautiful, superbly-acted film depicting a story of jealousy and revenge that dates from long before Europeans invaded Inuit lands. Not every indigenous film should depict only the past, of course, but I wholeheartedly agree that Atanarjuat is a strong example for future works, both in its use of indigenous language, writing, directing, and acting, and also in its use of a genuinely indigenous perspective on storytelling. That type of storytelling may be something that Hollywood never understands, given what kind of projects receive investment there, but perhaps in the future things could change, especially if we shifted our worldviews and attitudes toward identity.

a scene from Atanarjuat
One of the great things about Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is that it simultaneously humanizes the Inuit for foreign audiences and provides them with many more details and authentic images unique to Inuit culture. No one could watch Atanarjuat and continue to see the people in the film as stereotypical "Eskimos" or even as generic "Indians" or "aboriginals."

In my post from January called "A Future Beyond No Mascots: A Vision for Indigenous-American Relations" I wrote—among other things—that indigenous science (systematic understandings of nature), jurisprudence, and conceptions of life, society, spirituality, and the world all have contributions to make in the education of future generations. I also wrote that "having children of all colors learn indigenous languages of their region would help foster the sort of inclusive, tolerant, and self-aware communities that all Americans should be striving for." I essentially indicated that people of all backgrounds should identify more with the historical indigenous heritage of the particular lands they inhabit, and that this may help build a better future.

Tlingit "Sun Woman" tunic
by Kay Field Parker at the
Alaska State Museum
One thought I was approaching in that piece was made clear for me in Reel Injun by Dakota activist John Trudell: In an interview shown in the film, Trudell referred to the fact that many or most indigenous autonyms literally mean "people" or "human beings." He then commented that many people today focus on their identities as "Indians" or as "Native Americans," when their ancestors never could have imagined such labels. Instead, they would have focused on their identity of belonging to their own particular nation or cultural-linguistic group, and also on the broader, global community of all who are "human beings."

This type of attitude toward identity—toward belonging to one's own unique people and then also identifying as a human being—is affirmed in Atanarjuat as the story focuses on Inuit life while also evoking universal human emotions. It's also an attitude connected to what I heard Kingeisti (David Katzeek) say here in Juneau during my first few days of class at UAS, when he said "Lingít Aaní ḵwáani. We are people of the land," and "You are Lingít. You are a human being."

With each of these phrases, I believe Kingeisti intentionally addressed both his own people—"They who are Lingít"—and all people—"We who are lingít." (I have just realized one can make a capitalization distinction between Lingít meaning "Tlingit" and lingít meaning "human being.") I believe this attitude toward life and identity in Lingít Aaní (the land of the Tlingit) is incredibly profound, and it has real potential to bring people together into an indigenous worldview regardless of who their genetic ancestors are. Lingít Aaní doesn't just mean Southeast Alaska and neighboring areas that belonged to the Tlingit; it can also mean the world, since it means "land of the human beings."

Let's face it: Before the 19th and 20th centuries, there was no such thing as "American Indians," "Native Americans," or "Native Alaskans." There wasn't really such a thing as "white people" either. There was only one's own people, and all people, and I believe we should return to that paradigm.