Not a “Reel Injun”
One little, two little, three little Injuns…” Bugs Bunny counts as he fires his rifle into a group of whack-a-mole Indians shooting arrows at his position behind a fort wall. He’s keeping score. On the wall in front of him, he is tallying his kills. He gets to number six, pauses, and says, “Uh-oh, sorry, that one was a half-breed.” Using the pencil in front of him, Bugs erases half of the tick mark and continues. “Seven little, eight little, nine little Injuns…”
Ouch, that hurt. I didn’t expect it to hurt as much as it did. Did we really consume this stuff as kids? Is the joke on us? Are we taking this all too seriously? These images are powerful. Containing the potential to be good and bad medicine. Our identity shaped by a warped reflection in a two-way mirror which behind sit cowboys, politicians, housewives, children, doctors, you name it. They’re sitting there watching, thinking, and saying different things: noble, princess, savage, wise, drunk, spiritual.
Meanwhile, on the other side we are looking at our reflection. A boy tugs on his mother’s sleeve and says, “I’m tired of playing. They always win. Can we go home now?” They leave the room, but their skewed reflection remains. Oh, wait a minute. It seems like that mirror is a film screen, or some kind of defective television that can’t be turned off.
In an attempt to make sense of this all, a film comes along to help us see. This one has a message for eyes on both sides of the mirror. I’m talking about Reel Injun. A film directed by Neil Diamond (Cree) and produced by Rezolution Pictures with the National Film Board of Canada.
Reel Injun presents an eye opening look at the history and more importantly the legacy of Indigenous Americans on screen. What is at play here is the shaping of identity through image. No individual, group, culture, or society is immune to this effect. For indigenous people in the United States, we find ourselves asking, what does it mean to be an Indian or even a Native American? We are searching for an answer that doesn’t exist. As poet/activist John Trudell (Santee Sioux) points out in the film, the ancestors of native people in this country never had a title like Indian or Native American. These are inventions. These are false categorizations. We have always simply been “the people.” It doesn’t take much to see that we were all unique and diverse from the next. We still are.
We are not myths. We are not magical. We are just human beings. We existed long before the Hollywood image. I am not an Indian. I am not a Native American. I tried to be one once, but I’m just one of the people.