17 December 2012

Bad Medicine

Bad Medicine: 
Natives Helping White Folks Clean up their
Spiritual Dirty Laundry since 1492

There is no shortage of films in which white folks play at being The Other. Playing at being Japanese or Chinese is certainly not limited to Mickey Rooney, nor Latino/Mexican to Marlon Brando and Telly Savalas. Still, it is not often that we think of white folks breaking out the Red-Face and play at being 'Injuns.' But it wasn't uncommon. The assumption that 'Others' cannot sufficiently portray themselves (or more accurately cannot act the way white folks need them to be in order to justify various forms of racism) is not a distinction meted out to any group exclusively.

If the examples of Blackface are many, replaced only by stereotypes sufficiently disguised to maintain the illusion of superiority, then Redface is hardly any different. From the stony-faced war-chiefs of the 30's an 40's, Redface gradually gave way by the 1960's to more acceptably romantic notions of a people somehow closer to the Earth and like, in tune with the spirits man.
And that's a power that us white people need to expropriate. In the world of cinema, there is nothing worse than helplessness in the face of sheer supernatural terror, or aimlessness in the wake of cultural banality. Fortunately Indigenous peoples have provided us with a convenient release valve for all our Anglo-Saxon spiritual hangups. Whether helping us find meaning in our privileged but ultimately hollow lives or defeating wacky demons of our own creation comes the White Man's spiritual savior: The Medicine Man.

Roughly paralleling the 'Magic Negro,' the movie Medicine Man imparts some kind of Earthy spiritual knowledge or healing upon the bereft white man. Like the Magic Negro who uses soul, rhythm or a clever ruse, the Medicine Man uses sacred smoke, animals or a fetishized notion of extra-natural powers, something mysterious and beyond the comprehension of urbane whites. In most cases, like his black analogue, the Medicine Man is mysterious, arriving physically from nowhere, i.e. a spirit, or historically from nowhere. In either case this 'pastlessness' makes stereotypes easy to swallow because it dissociates them from any historical subjectivity but the immediate-white-present. After imparting his knowledge the Medicine Man inevitably moves on (literally and/or just from the script), disappearing as "mysteriously" as he came. All he asks in payment for his services some symbolic and often trivial token and the satisfaction of having helped. This reiterates the infamous and oft repeated assumption that Native peoples don't understand "true" (acquisitive) value and is quite fortunate because a deeper relationship might require that we white folks actually change ourselves (and our racist assumptions) rather than our (temporary) circumstances and gosh, that's really hard. Our need to fetishize and objectify Indigenous peoples (and other Others) says far more about us than it does them.

Here is an ongoing list of fortuitous Medicine Men (and Women I suspect we shall discover) who have helped us white folks clean up our dirty laundry, without having to clean up much else, throughout the years:

The Manitou
Director - William Girdler 
Syrian born actor Michael Ansara portrays John Singing Rock, a member of an unnamed Plains tribe who helps Tony Curtis defeat an evil Medicine Man that emerges from Curtis' girlfriend's neck in this woman-hating horror film from 1978.
Medicine: Prayers and 'charms'
Token Payment:Tobacco

Poltergeist II
Director - Brian Gibson
Creek actor Will Sampson played Taylor, the Medicine Man whose butterfly summoning power helps the Freeling's defeat spooks a second time around in 1986. Sampson, who died the following year, had played Native Americans in a number of famous roles including those in Outlaw Josey Wales and One Few Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Medicine: Sacred Smoke
Token Payment: A beat up station wagon

Forest Warrior
Director - Aaron Norris
A tired looking Chuck Norris played McKenna in the 1996 film Forest Warrior. The character is actually a Scotsman who "went native" and whose spirit now protects Mt. Hood, Oregon. When a group of kids go up the mountain to play in their tree-house, spirit-McKenna transforms into various animals and helps them defeat a group of nefarious loggers. While not technically a Medicine Man with magic spells, the use of assumed native atributes to help white folks is clear. The noble savage and super warrior being venerable tropes of USAmerican frontier literature and cinema. McKenna's round-housing spirit-power helps the kids to become stand up for themselves and become mature.
Medicine: Warrior spirit
Token Payment: Satisfaction in having helped

Free Willy
Director - Simon Wincer
In the 1993 film Free Willy and its two sequels, August Schellenberg plays Randolphe Johnson, a Haida Indian who teaches the hero Jesse a tribal song that helps the troubled product of multiple foster homes to communicate with the titular whale, teach it tricks and learn to love someone other than himself.
Medicine: A Haida prayer-song
Token Payment: Satisfaction in having helped

Director - William Clark
This little gem from 1995 features the iconic Russel Means as the ghost of Jim Thorpe helping young Craig overcome his parental hangups in order to achieve high-school football stardom. The film itself is something of a Karate Kid clone with the familiar training sequences and nasty rival sports star, in this case played by Jake Busey. Although the relationship is nominaly reciprocal, Means' Wa Tho Huck character is definitely a 'mysterious Native American elder' whose primary role is to help Greg before vanishing. Despite his historical foundations, the film character remains a wandering spirit.
An emerging trend in these films appears to be the white-boy's missing father figure whom the Medicine Man temporarily replaces until the boy can become a man on his own or, as in Windrunner, forgive/reunite with his own (or new, see Free Willy) father.
Medicine: Warrior spirit/confidence
Token Payment: A Superbowl ring (which he gives back of course) 

Band of the Hand
Director - Paul Michael Glaser
From the maker of Miami Vice comes this gorgeous time-capsule of mid 80's television and raw stereotype. Stephen Lang plays Joe Tegra, a Vietnam Veteran and member of the Miccosukee tribe of north Florida. When a group of young delinquents is dumped in his care in the Everglades, he trains them in survival and guerilla warfare before returning to Miami to confront the drug cartel. Joe himself doesn't appear mysteriously though he has zero back-story, but he is the recipient/teacher/savior of the five punks. Nor are the punk kids, recipients of his Medicine, exclusively white but they are all introduced via back-story.

Nevertheless, Joe still disappears from our narrative with nary a reward.
This begs the question, what if the Medicine Man doesn't use "Medicine" (i.e. indigenous 'magic' or 'sprituality') Joe for example, and McKenna and Wa Tho Huck all impart a warrior knowledge more in keeping with the legendary tracker/hunter icon of legend. Actually, Joe really epitomizes this with his 'Nam Vet guerilla stylings, demonstrating that regardless of the metaphysical quality of the gift, the Medicine man imparts secret knowledge in service of the protagonist. That the latter is not on the surface literally white is largely moot, Band of the Hand being a case in point. Our vigilante heroes fight (ethnic) criminal drug users in the service of (white) law and order, feeding a mythology of racist stereotypes in abject denial of real life drug use statistics. No matter, the Medicine Man can help save white culture writ-large from it's own cognitive dissonance. 
Medicine: Warrior spirit/confidence
Token Payment: Satisfaction in having "saved" the boys

And that, until the next update, is Bad Medicine. We'll post more as they hit the radar screens...

I highly recommend the excellent documentaries Imagining Indians and Reel Injun, both films by indigenous filmmakers about the cinematic portrayal of Indigenous Americans. The latter is presently streaming at Nitflex.
There is also a fantastic article on the total erasure of Indigenous peoples from Hollywood cinema (and USAmerican "history") at Tequila Sovereign.
By all means if you dear reader know of any film in which a Native medicine man or woman helps white people get over themselves, let me know, I want, no, NEED to catalogue it here. And finally, in case I haven't been clear enough; This project, whatever it amounts to, is not meant to disrespect or insult indigenous peoples. Its purpose is to point out white use of stereotypes and appropriation of native cultures in furthering our own agenda, that is as a project of expropriation and colonialism. This is intended as an anti-racist project.


Nigel M said...

First thing that springs to mind is the Thunder Warrior trilogy. It was a great opportunity for Mark Gregory show us his "range". He blew it!

The Manitou, as an aside, was a book I read as a kid. I was apparently and advanced reader and was reading hell of a lot of pulpy horror novels when I should have been looking at books with pictures in about Spot fetching a ball. So I read the Manitou and never got to find out if Jane got her kite down from that tree.

The Goodkind said...

Good idea, though if I remember correctly, Thunder is out to repudiate white hegemony and preserve native culture right? He is definitely a white dude in redface though.

I suspect that the overall message of Manitou and See Spot Run were about the same.