Friday, September 11, 2015


“Windwalker,”  “Windrunner,” “Windtalker” -- we seem to have an inborn idea that the wind and the indigenous population of these American continents are connected.  If you google “movies about native americans” you’ll get a banner across the top of your screen that notes a long sequence of various kinds of movies from cartoons to serious indie films by and about indigenous people:  They come and they go, stirring our hearts and our hair, leaving us with impressions that are unique or stereotypical or mixed.  Some capitalize on nakedness so there’s always a little thread of sex running through it.  Sometimes there’s the equivalent of dietary fat and sugar -- movie violence justified by revenge.  No one shuts that off.  Then there’s the red meat of combat when warriors get to be warriors again.

“Windstalker,” “Windmocker,” “Windwriter.”

In this windwelter of possibilities it would not be smart to show to kids a movie you hadn’t previewed, whether your own or someone else’s at school.  But here are two films, very different from each other, that are mostly valid and probably won’t make trouble.  

“Windwalker” (1980) is an earnest, idealistic, traditional story in which the only political complaint is that the main character, an old man tipping in and out of death, is played by a white man -- not just that but a well-known English actor, Trevor Howard.  Maybe he was thinking of Richard Harris in “A Man Called Horse.”  Harris was supposed to be a white man captured and assimilated by a tribe;  Howard was supposed to be a beloved tribal grandfather pre-contact.  Both Howard and Harris were highly honored actors, alcoholic, temperamental, and probably inclined to think of American tribal culture as more comfortable than their own constrictive English milieu.  “Windwalker” has all the elements of a primal, idyllic world that suffers and then recovers through heroic struggle with a Christian patriarchal god helping.   The scenery is glorious, though Hollywood can never resist displacing all tribes to SW red rock country. 

In Windwalker all the other actors, esp. the women and children, seem to be authentic enrolled people.  In fact, the comments on the sample on YouTube include a poignant memory from Marie Pratt:  “I'm so glad U posted this Movie. My dad was part of this Movie he played Crow-Hair. I was 7yrs old when this was made, we were on set the whole time.. My mom did all the translation for the Cheyennes.”  Around here, as  in much of the world, Hollywood is the Eden of the imagination and the ground of fulfillment.

I think this is Ramus.

But the public is fickle and, anyway, Hollywood “Indians” are not much like the real people who have that legal claim.  The same people who embrace Sherman Alexie have never heard of the successful main figure in “Windwalker.”  Here’s his “wiki.”  Nickolas G. Ramus (September 9, 1929 – May 30, 2007) was a Native American actor, best known for his appearances on television. He was a Blackfoot. He appeared as Chief Lost Eagle of the Arapaho in the miniseries "Centennial", Red Cloud in "Son of the Morning Star," the 1993 TNT film GeronimoHe played Gus Nunouz in the soap opera "Falcon Crest" and Chief Black Kettle in "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." Other TV credits include: "Gunsmoke", "Little House on the Prairie", "Northern Exposure", "MacGyver" and "Walker, Texas Ranger".  He appeared briefly in the film "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" and in the comedy film "Love at Stake" as Chief Wannatoka. He died on May 30, 2007, age 77.    

If he was Blackfoot, he must have been Canadian or from the diaspora, which is pretty likely on the Pacific Coast because of WWII relocation.  (Means is from that group.)  In Canada there is much better support for First Nations theatre so many fine actors begin there.  This is the debut movie for Bart the Bear, a grizz tame enough to act.  He’s gone now but his descendants still appear in films.

Russell Means, in old age

“Windrunner” (1994) about a contemporary boy who plays football, is never mentioned in any of the relentless publicity for “Smoke Signals.”(1998) (It included a sensational attack on Nasdijj who had nothing to do with movies.)  In fact, “Smoke Signals,” a contemporary account of a stigmatized tribal boy, echoes “Windrunner quite a lot.  This is the flip of “Windwalker since the people are all evidently white except for the mystical alpha Indian Russell Means.  In real life no one ever takes on Means, the real life American Indian Movement activist since 1968, who began acting in 1992.  He was a violent man with little restraint.  He published his autobiography “Where White Men Fear to Tread “in 1995.  His wiki is at variance with any notions of him being a wise and peaceful old man, but he was prominent enough to get a movie funded and very willing to participate in a glamorous version of himself as the wise ghost of Jim Thorpe.  It’s almost a version of “The Indian in the Cupboard” except that Means was no toy and he had no use for cupboards.  

Margot Kidder

Margot Kidder, an activist and good friend of Means, plays the mother in the film.  She’s also one who has struggled with stability.  In Montana we know her as part of the community around Peter Fonda and Tom McGuane in Livingston.  Her wiki is rather sensational but she remains appealing.The same is true of Amanda Peterson, the vanilla heroine of “Windrunner.”  After much tumult, including religiousity, she died young of an overdose of a prescribed drug.  The plot of this movie includes two fathers in prison, which is what draws the hero and his girl together.  Jason Wiles seems to have done well in real life, turning his hand to production and other backstage roles.

These two movies, so very different, address the conflicted and confusing lives of people who truly suffer and deserve both understanding and reparation, though their experience has sometimes made them so difficult to deal with that their actual careers -- outside the edited and idealized plots of movies -- have been roller coaster rides.  Those who are outside the communities of reservations and Hollywood, apart from political movements that are sometimes violent, can get very much misled about realities.  These two movies will not disillusion anyone, but neither are they disturbingly extreme.

Dutch Lunak, at left, with Bud Connelly, JC Augare and Scotty Augare 
on location north of Santa Fe, working on "Appaloosa"

This reservation has supplied stunt riders, notably Dutch Lunak and his crew.  This story in a local paper is a good reality check.   These are people I know: practical, hard-working, raising families.  They’re only famous among the people who count -- friends, employers, co-workers.  I’ve known them a long time.  Maybe one of Dutch’s daughters will write a book.  People who work with large animals like horses can’t fake what they do and must know their limits. 

During the AIM years one of my Blackfeet students did a summer internship in Minneapolis with the main office.  That fall I asked her what Means was really like.  “Oh, he’s just a big old street Indian,” she said.  But he still needs to be part of the story because it’s about EVERYBODY.  Not just Indians, not just idealized heroes.

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