When you Google “The Backbone of the World,” you get a list of two things mixed: a book written by a white man who hiked down the mountains and a video shot by Blackfeet Indians about their own land. I’m discussing the second. You can get video clips and sources for the video called “Backbone of the World” (the Rocky Mountains) through Google.
When I complained about the lack of Native American literature lately, Rolland Nadjiwan -- a Cree trapper and educator from the far north -- said, “We’re doing this stuff for each other now. Not for whites. And we’re making videos instead of books.” This is a crucial illustration: it is a window, not a door. You can look, but you are outside: very hard on all those romantic white people who rush to be adopted into the tribe and given a name and initiated to the secret ceremonies. That includes me.
The first shot is Darren Kipp cleaning off the inside of your TV screen. As he works, the film goes from black and white to color, a pointed reminder that this vision will be clearer, more vivid. But you’ll have to do some thinking because this is a braided story with complex editing, professional quality because George Burdeau, a professional Blackfeet producer/director, did this project as way of coming home and also as a way of teaching his skills to others.
One of the things I like about it the most is the shooting in winter -- most professionals only come here in the summer when it’s all idyllic and wonderful and the tourist places are open. This one shows snow and ice. The cabin shown is either George’s or Darren’s, and they are there in St. Marys year round. Joe Fisher’s grandfather was a trapper who used to snowshoe from Babb to Browning in winter (five foot drifts in those days) to get the mail for everyone in the St. Mary’s valley, since there was no other way to get through. It’s probably thirty miles.
In a way this is a man’s video because an important layer is these young men discussing the difficulty of finding a new way without giving up the old one, and stumbling through the effort of making the movie they are in. Early, they show themselves circling in the brush, lost. They have a sense of humor about it and illustrate the problem by admitting they filmed a group of women talking, but botched the sound because they mixed up the tangle of cables.
The key “framing device” is the story of “Scarface,” who goes to visit the Sun. It’s told by Molly Kicking Woman in Blackfeet and then told in English by Curley Bear Wagner. Another theme is the future of the Badger-Two Med area where oil companies want to drill, destroying sacred ground and possibly the quality of the headwaters of the reservation. The film goes in and out of Blackfeet, back and forth between BIA Indians who aren’t afraid of drilling and old-timers who loath the prospect and say the mineral rights were never sold. In this respect, women are able to speak their minds eloquently.
Most people will respond to the panoramas and aerial shots of the Rockies along the west edge of the reservation though they probably won’t recognize Chief Mountain at the north and Heart Butte at the south, especially from the air. Backed by sonorous “splendour” music -- nearly organ music -- images of every season flow across the screen: tapestry, stained glass, chancel and altar, platen and chalice. The communion of mountain water and bugling elk. “This is our church,” say both Curley Bear and Buster Yellow Kidney. Carol Murray speaks of “The Creator.” The echo of Christian terms is always there. How can it not be? This is part of the complexity of being Blackfeet and American in a world where each claims dominance.
Then the camera goes back to town but doesn’t linger on Indian poverty. No one will say, “Oh, how depressing.” There’s only one drunk and he’s as vigorous and full of ideas as anyone else. But there is sorrow. This movie was made in 1997 when the annual commemoration of the Baker Massacre was still new and those who cared went out in the coldest month to build a fire, remember, pray, name the people killed. Usually the grief around here is covered over with anger -- grieving seems dangerous.
The disguise of poverty is thrown off: these people are dressed well, they speak for themselves, and they know what they’re doing. Some have college degrees. Most are employed or prospering as entrepreneurs. Their faces echo the old photo images that slide through the video.
Molly Kicking Woman and Curley Bear Wagner’s voices are very familiar to me. Molly was one of our Bundle sponsors in the Sixties and we were very fond of her. She’s gone now. Curley Bear was one of my students in the Sixties and an adversary to us when Bob was alive, but now I consider him a friend. I visited with him at the discount warehouse store last week. He just finished another movie in Indiana.
When I watch a video like this, I’m always full of ideas of what they ought to do next, what the key is, what I remember, and so on. And all the Blackft quietly slide away. If they are going to find their OWN way, the Napi-yaki must stay out. I can applaud, I can recommend to others, I can offer resources and connections if I have them, but my job is to butt out.
A march to save the Badger-Two Med is shown. It includes whites and some Montana folks will spot Ripley Schemm, who grew up on the East Slope of the Rockies where it used to be reservation. Bob Vetter has been a dedicated defender of the area and he is much appreciated. Whites aren’t excluded, aren’t punished, aren’t even much harangued these days. They are just slid to the side so they’ll be out of the way. Make that Way -- as in Blackfeet Way. Amskapi Pikuni Aanist.