Sunday, November 10, 2013


Mathieu Amalric and Benecio del Toro

When off-rez people try to convey their felt understanding (which is not the same as factual understanding) of Native Americans, they will often recommend a book and that book is likely to be both dated and written by a white person.  Only recently a valued elder of a favorite congregation where I used to talk recommended that I read Zane Grey’s 1925 book,  “The Vanishing American.”  It was his dearest connection to “Indians” which he wanted to share.  But not only has Zane Grey taken several serious body hits in a revealing bio (his nieces were his sexual partners on his fishing trips and his accommodating wife wrote at least parts of his famous books) but also, anyway, Native Americans refuse to vanish.  The idea is now considered an unjustified assumption by out-of-touch anthropologists and political wishful thinking.  Indians never have been what everyone thinks they are, even what the Indians themselves imagine they are.

Even Sherman Alexie, that arbiter of who is qualified to write about Indians, when asked to recommend a book about Indians, came up with “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” by Dee Brown, a white history professor writing about the 19th century prairie genocide.  Many insist on clinging to “The Education of Little Tree” which was a stereotypical account by a Nazi sympathizer hitting all the Stations of the Indigenous.  When asked which Jim Welch novel they like best, most go for “Fool’s Crow” which is again the same old boy-coming-of-age-on-the-prairie which at least includes the Baker Massacre.  We didn’t used to be allowed to talk about that.  But when Jim tried to write about his true life in “The Indian Lawyer,” it didn’t sell at all.  Back to the mythologizing, the dream.

Now comes a book I bought thirty years ago, resurrected by a French director, Arnaud Desplechin, who (naturally) fell in love with Native Americans by reading “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”  The book is “Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian”, written by a psychoanalyst named George Devereux in 1951.  It is about the quite modern topic of battle wound trauma plus PTSD, which “Jimmy P.”, a real modern Blackfeet soldier, suffered in WWII. 

East slope of the Rockies, Blackfeet Reservation, Montana

Desplechin calls his movie “Jimmy P.” and at Cannes it got mixed reviews.  Evidently it was at least in part a self-indulgent work of art, just as Devereux’s book was.  Desplechin relished the chance to come to the rez and feel part of the ceremonies, just as Devereux loved checking his patient out of the hospital so he could come to dinner at his house with his family.  A real Indian!!  Imagine!!!  is a 1946 reference document used for this movie.  The US government made it to try to explain what was not yet called PTSD, and to assure everyone that all would be well in the end.  Bombastic and simplistic, directed by John Huston, it’s still pretty moving.  The officer in conclusion tells the men/boys that the success of the postwar world rests on them, and for the most part they have indeed made major contributions.  Another reference used by Desplechin was “The Exiles,” a 1957 movie by Kent MacKenzie.  I’ve ordered it from Netflix.  By 1957 the fates of traumatized veterans, including my brother-in-law, who was a reservation-born white boy, were pretty much settled.  He gave up fighting in bars -- but not drinking -- and settled into running the family mercantile store on the rez.  The compression of horror inside him was never discussed.  Anything German made him explode.

I’ve always thought that the overwhelming popularity of Westerns in the Fifties was an attempt to explore the issue of war stand-down afterwards: who is the enemy, what to do with the kill-reflex, how can one not feel oneself, how much can a person take?  I also think that the combat-related man-on-man SM underground coming out of those times addressed the issues in a straight-forward and private way, which makes it a serious philosophical category.  (Forget all the pop permutations.)  Both the film-makers and the reviewers ignore the larger subject of post-war drama in society, opting for a personal story, though a few reviewers plainly expected more explosions.  Or maybe they thought Jimmy P. would flip out and scalp someone.

Benicio del Toro and Misty Upham

Desplechin’s a great admirer of psychoanalysis, which has just now been shaken to its Freudian roots by neurological research.  Like Indians, psychotherapy will endure, but mostly by transforming.  This movie is yet another transformation.  I haven’t seen “Jimmy P”, but the trailer is at:   Of course, I know the places and local people on the rez, but not the professional actors. “Devereaux” is a local name, but it’s a Metis family here.  (Benicio Del Toro could be considered Metis,  but not the French kind.)  “Everybody Talks About” is a familiar local Blackfeet name.

Benicio del Toro

The crux of the matter is that for a rez Indian returning, the rehabilitation was different.  For most, being a soldier meant being equal, respected, effective, in a community.  Afterwards he was “safe,” the doctors kept telling him.  For the rez veteran, or at least some of them, there was no safety, no respect, and stereotypes plus unemployment pushed them back into a chaotic place where everything had changed.   Rotten Tomatoes review website offers a range of opinions from yawn to wow.  The review I liked the best is at : 

Reactions by ordinary people are still missing, since the movie hasn’t traveled the country yet.  Given the unenthusiastic response of key reviewers, I suspect most of us will see it on DVD and would have anyway, since there are no movie houses closer than thirty miles and none of them play this kind of film.  There may be tribal pushback.

Michelle Thrush is Cree, Misty Upham is Blackfeet, Mathieu Almaric is French.

When asked, Darrell Kipp always says that the most accurate book about Indians is the Heinlein sci-fi tale, “Stranger in a Strange Land.”  (Kipp’s military service was in Korea, but not in combat.)  Sherman (no military service) pitches a guy named Stephen Graham Jones, a Blackfeet born in 1972 who writes horror stuff and was not raised anywhere near the rez or even Montana.  (Sample at  I never heard of this guy.  I wonder whether he is actually enrolled or just invoking ancestors.

Leslie Marmon Silko’sCeremony,” is a key Indian-veteran book that everyone thinks of as addressing Vietnam, but was actually a WWII book.  Despite its status as a deeply meaningful book, there’s a certain kind of person who will tell you Silko is not Indian. Heinlein is, of course, white.  Blackfoot/Blackfeet is a “trope,” a kind of sub-genre that is as much hype and glossy magazine as it is a reality.  The reality would bore hell out of the reviewers who shrugged off the movie called “Jimmy P.”  But the Jews, the Irish, the Germans (ironically), and -- as in this case -- the French, are quick to claim their recognition of the Blackfeet experience.  

The Blackfeet have been a little slower to claim the universality of their genocide with all the others.  Maybe they need to cherish their unique identity a little longer, even while everybody talks about it.


Ron Scheer said...

I've begun to think of the West as the Underworld of ancient myth. Some live there; some visit. Most dream it.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Montana Gothic, Ron.

Prairie Mary

Ron Scheer said...

Finally saw JIMMY P. (DVD from Netflix). Wondering if you have by now and what your thoughts are.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Thanks for the nudge, Ron. I see the movie streams so I'll watch it tonight. Probably worth a new post.

Prairie Mary