Saturday, October 18, 2014


Misty Upham

The death of Misty Upham is a terrible tragedy, but it can be a crucial occasion to question why so many Native Americans, very often female, die under mysterious circumstances.  Most cases are never resolved and some are never even found.  There are huge grinding dynamics of racism, sexism, international attitudes, literature, and media forces that are hard on almost all women, but particularly women of color from indigenous families.

An old “flamer” from out of the past almost immediately claimed that Misty was not “really” Indian, but a British subject who snuck in through the Canadian border.  This way of relating to indigenous people -- claiming they are not the pure and fantastical figures so many imagine -- is just a way of continuing the justification to wipe them out.  It is smallpox of the mind and entirely too infectious because people always think there is some secret fact they can claim to know.  And if it somehow indicts the victim, that gets us off the hook.
with Benicio del Toro

The Upham family is a deep and valued part of the Blackfeet tribe, which was split when the border with Canada was decided upon, as though it were a ranch that had a superhighway built through the middle of it.  “Doc” Upham played in Bob Scriver’s dance band after WWII.  Hiram Upham is the long-time pastor of a Pentecostal church, the Browning Evangelistic Center.  You can see him on YouTube.   I’ve written about Galen Upham on this blog.  His grave is in the same cemetery as Hoppy Big Beaver at the west edge of Browning, but I’m not sure it has a marker.  His sister told me it’s close to the left of the entrance.  This family is highly spiritual with a general outlook of helping and valuing others.  

Blackfeet families are often split between Montana and the Seattle area because of economics, esp. the industries during WWII, the government effort to relocate Indians to cities, and the use of Indians to harvest crops like apples or to string hops -- seasonal ag labor.  Economic conditions that enforce unemployment push stigmatized people to do hard field labor.  This is another aspect of the grinder.

with Meryl Streep

The glamour industry (international-level corporate movies) and social action (indie and nonprofit movies) have a more subtle economic impact.  The queen-sized tribal woman in a “red carpet” gown has had an impact strong enough that these days the Homecoming Queens of the rez all dress in fancy ball gowns full of dazzle, usually strapless though it often snows during the Homecoming events.  (They are generally rented.) Yet the roles in the actual films are usually country people living in hardship, often historically.  

Role models on the rez will sometimes dress in the 19th century way of early reservation: bandannas, wide leather belts, mother hubbard shifts, high top shoes -- NOT historical beaded buckskin, which can be worth thousands of dollars.  Then the real power women, the ones who moved up through the baby boom, dress middle-class white: permed hair, nice suits, high heels.  This could be seen as offering choice or as making confusion.  The ones who’ve been to college, maybe earned graduate degrees, wear jeans and shirts, not usually cowboy-tailored.  Indian men who’ve been to Harvard wear khakis and blue chambray shirts.

How can a person be effectively “other-directed” if there are so many others, all intent on “othering” you even more by pushing you into roles they want fulfilled?  Most difficult of all are the ones of family, wanting money and prestige and home nursing.  To claim belonging, which can turn into ownership.

One problem with being an actor is always being moved, so where is home?  Even Marilyn Monroe lived in a place that was mostly just a bed and a lot of carpet.  If a person is “on location,” the housing might be almost anything.  The other problem is that one is not in charge of one’s own work.  In the first place, roles that fit one’s gifts are not always there.  Who writes scripts for a young Indian woman who is not Pocahontas?  Not Indians.  So there will be a burst of offers, then silence -- maybe for years regardless of the prizes and praise.  What do you do during that silence?

Even if one is employed, the director is the one who decides what you do.  (Except for the agent on the phone, urging strategy.)  In film one must “become” the character, who is usually a person in crisis because that’s what makes drama.  And always the co-players (among others) are saying,  “Here, take this pill.  It will help you.”  Even if you’re careful not to drink, the pills can get you.  Once your metabolism and deep brain have been contradicted and confused, you lose your inner gyroscope.  The Indian way in this event is to go apart, to find solitude.  If anyone could help, it would be a shaman, but these days they’re all busy getting big fees from white people who want magic. 

Indian/indigenous/aboriginal actors who do a lot of stage work, maybe in a repertory group like the ones in Canada, are much helped by that context, but even Graham Greene can suffer, even in the midst of success.  There need to be plays and movies that reflect, suggest, lay open the wounds in a way that doesn’t infect them.  The Uphams I know are all natural writers, performers.  They have the genes for it.

We can never really know what happened to Misty that night and therefore it’s really impossible to assign blame.  The Northwest forest is underlain with treacherous volcanic terrain, water-soaked soil, tangled vegetation.  It would be easy to fall over a precipice, thrashing and grabbing at ferns on the way.  More tourists die in Glacier Park every summer from falling off a cliff than offending a grizzly.  

Cops are no more monolithic than tribes.  One officer will go out of his way to help, the next will react with resentment or even anger.  Under-funded, over-scrutinized, exhausted officers are more likely to turn their attention away.  Of all the things they’re bad at in a structural formal sense, it is persons whose inner world has seized them who are the most problematic.  How do they have the time and energy to go bushwhacking after a young woman who has already left many times and who always comes back?

If you look at statistics, the number of indigenous women who turn up as bodies, often decomposed, is as shocking as ebola stats, but right here among us -- not far away in Africa.    Most of them were not reported as missing.  Some of them have no known families, though autopsy evidence shows that there must be children somewhere, if they’re not dead, too. Some women have been doing sexwork that turned into violence and the fact that they are “of color” is for some predators permission to kill.  This was NOT the case with Misty.  The line between suicide and murder is a thin one -- some call suicide “self-murder.”  Some are already walking dead.  This was NOT the case with Misty.

What is most distressing about Misty’s death is that her family, the community, the larger world of Hollywood celebrities, all knew her and loved her, but it was no protection at all.  It was no explanation of her last few hours.  There is no one to blame and punish -- or maybe it’s everyone, which is no better.  There should be a play, maybe a Rashomon play, that explores those moments at the lip of the ravine, at the edge of the performance space.  

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