Wednesday, April 28, 2010

HUM 221: Fathers and sons, parents, children, forgiveness in 'Smoke Signals'

For discussion in class Friday: How did Sherman Alexie first plan to end "Smoke Signals?" Why didn't that work out? How did he change the ending? What was your response to the ending as you watched it? As you read it in the screenplay? Do you think either version did a better job of communicating the theme of the movie? Which one? Why? (There's no "right" answer to the question. It's a matter of opinion.) Please post your answers as comments to this blog (after reading it first), and then we'll talk about it.

Several of you said in your comments Wednesday that you thought one of the themes in "Smoke Signals" is forgiveness. Communications professor and movie reviewer Gerald Peary, in a review in The Boston Phoenix, finds pretty much the theme ... actually a related cluster of themes.

"The movie climaxes," Peary said, "in a truly universal flood of anguish, pain, anger, forgiveness, release. I've seen Smoke Signals twice and, in its final moments, sobbed twice: big, gloppy, purgative tears."

(I managed to get through the movie without crying, and I didn't notice anybody crying in class, either. But Peary has been reviewing movies a long time. So his opinion is at least worth considering.)

Much of this emphasis on forgiveness comes out, I think, in the last scene ... where the character Thomas, off camera, reads a poem called "Forgiving Our Fathers" by Boston poet Dick Lourie while Victor scatters his father's ashes into the river at Spokane. (Thomas and Victor's dad had been there in an earlier scene, remember, in a flashback. It all fits together if you let it.) There's a deep issue here: How do we forgive our parents? How can Victor forgive his father? How can any of us forgive anyone? Peary says:
The road trip [in "Smoke Signals"] becomes, of course, a mythic pilgrimage, a psychic journey. Victor's poisonous anger toward his father, toward everyone, is tamed a bit by Thomas's unwavering kindness, openness, morality. Thomas's stories are actually holy ones, spinning through time. He's a magic Christian, a griot [a West African storyteller], a Solomon. And it's Thomas who, at the end, is charged with dropping Victor's father's ashes off a Spokane bridge.

That's where Smoke Signals soars to the universal, a wailing wall of sorrow, with a voiceover reading of Dick Lourie's mighty poem "Forgiving Our Fathers." The poem is, without naming names, about Telemachus and Odysseus [son and father in the Odyssey], Victor and his dad, your dad, my dad: "How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream."
Peary and Alexie talked about it during an interview in Boston, and Alexie told Peary:
"I've seen the film hundreds of times, and the ending still gets me, maybe because I didn't write that poem, when the film goes from a simple, tender domestic drama and becomes spiritual, universal, tragic. The movie is about these Indians, but it seems to affect everyone's life. It's been astonishing: I had no idea of the huge, aching, father wound, of all genders, colors, races.

"After one screening, a woman told me, 'I'm going to call my father. I haven't talked to him in 12 years.' I saw her in the lobby on the phone."
Here's a link to the original version of the poem. Thomas recites it in the movie like this:
How do we forgive our fathers?
Maybe in a dream?
Do we forgive our fathers
for leaving us too often or
forever when we were little, maybe
for scaring us with unexpected rage
or making us nervous because there seemed
never to be any rage there at all?

Do we forgive our fathers
for marrying or not marrying our mothers
for divorcing or not divorcing our mothers
and shall we forgive them for their excesses
of warmth or coldness? Shall we forgive them

for pushing or leaning for shutting doors
for speaking through walls
or never speaking
or never being silent?

Do we forgive our fathers
in our age, or in theirs, or in their deaths
saying it to them or not saying it?
If we forgive our fathers what is left?

A link to Thomas' voiceover - "How Do We Forgive Our Fathers?"

Monday, April 26, 2010

HUM 221; COMM 150, 209, 291, 297, 393: Schedule, all classes

Cross-posted to both my student blogs. - pe

Last week of classes:
  • Wednesday, April 28. HUM 221: Finish watching "Smoke Signals." In-class journal. COMM 150: Read Chapter 19, Mass Media Law Chapter 12, Public Relations, in Vivian
  • Friday, April 30. COMM 150: Re-read Chapter 1 and the sections in Chapter 2 on new media and convergence
  • Monday, May 3. LAST DAY OF CLASSES. You will get copies of study questions for final exam in HUM 221, COMM 150.
Final exam week:
  • Tuesday, May 4. COMM 291 (magazine editing), self-reflective essays and all other written work (i.e. "Years with Ross" papers) due. COMM 297 (internship) self-reflective essays due; COMM 393 (senior portfolio), portfolios due; schedule appointment with me for exit conference.
  • Wednesday, May 5.
  • Thursday, May 6. COMM 297 (internship) evaluation letters from workplace supervisors due.
  • Friday, May 7. COMM 209 (12 noon MWF), 1:30-3:30 p.m.
  • Monday, May 10. HUM 221 (10 MWF), 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; COMM 150 (1 MWF), 1:30-3:30 p.m.

HUM 221: Notes and comments (my notes and your comments)

Consensus from your comments on Monday's post: Trying to follow the script too closely just gets in the way of watching a movie. Better to read it ahead of time ... skim-read it enough to get a sense of the story before you watch the movie ...

But you do want to read it, right? You won't be able to write much of a final exam if you don't.

Just sayin'.

Here's what I want you to think about - and write about - today: What do John Wayne's teeth have to do with anything? How do they relate to the theme(s) of the movie? How do they relate to the themes Sherman Alexie talks about as an author in interviews, etc.?

Hint (or warning): To write about that, you have to decide what the theme - or themes - of the movie are. List a couple. What do you think the main themes are. Exercise your own judgment here. I know what I think they are; I want to know what you think they are.

Post your thoughts as comments to this blog post.

HUM 221: In-class journal, 'Smoke Signals' (Part 1)

What did you learn from following the screenplay of Sherman Alexie's "Smoke Signals" Friday while you watched the movie? How many changes did you notice from the screenplay compared to the movie as filmed? Were they significant? For example, what's different about the opening scene that shows the radio announcer sitting in a lawn chair on top of the KREZ van? What does it add? Does it slow the action?

In general: Were you able to follow the script right through the movie, or did you kind of surf in and out of it? Would you recommend following the screenplay on other movies if you had one available? Why or why not?

Please post your responses as comments to this post.

For Wednesday: Watch for John Wayne's teeth (yeah, that's what I said), as we screen the second part of the movie today. Be ready to write about them.

Friday, April 23, 2010

'Mo Ghile Mear' - an Irish Gaelic song about Bonnie Prince Charlie

My Dashing Darling (Mo Ghile Mear) - The Highland Sessions (tomtscotland)

Dulcimer tab at"

Heard for the first time today when I downloaded the Chieftans' CD "The Wide World Over: A 40 Year Celebration" and heard their version backing Sting on the song ... stopped what I was doing ... whoa, what was that? ... and immediately launched a Google search ... which eventually led me to YouTube, the Sessions website, Mudcat Cafe and all the usual haunts.

Great song! Lyrics are available on line in English translation (at least in part), and it tells of British royal pretender Charles Stuart and the Rising of 1745. "Mo Ghile Mear" translates as "My Dashing Darling" or "My Hero." See lyrics below. YouTube has several versions, ranging from an unaccompanied solo by Mary Black to a Riverdanced-up (my word) confection by Celtic Woman, a pop group.

Best of the lot (I think) is by Mary Black, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Mary Ann Kennedy, Karen Matheson, Karan Casey and Allan MacDonald in 2005 on a BBC show on Irish and Scottish Gaelic musical traditions called "Highland Sessions." Beautiful vocals in a style influenced by Sean-nós, instrumental backup but very restrained and, I think, appropriate - and harmony, but British folk harmonies on the chorus. All six of them sang with the emotion and intensity I associate with Sean-nós - and the older southern Appalachian style of singing. About half were Irish, the other half Scots.

Full rundown on "Mo Ghile Mear" at the Session w/ sheet music. Also several threads in Mudcat Cafe starting with "Lyr Req: Mo Ghile Mear (phonetic Irish)" with several sets of lyrics, phonetic transcriptions, English translations and the mostly very well informed comments typical of Mudcat threads.

A webpage by John D. Casey Jr. (1998), notes, "The air is, appropriately, of Scottish orgin, a version of "The White Cockade" by Jim Connell, a 19th Century Irish exile in Scotland, originally set the words of "The old Red Flag" to the same tune." I can't hear the resemblance, although both songs come out of the 1745 rising, but I can't always hear these tune family resemblances.

Casey adds, "It is also well known that this song is sung like an anthem in many pubs at closing time. I suspect that it is a method of extracting a few extra minuets of drinking time." He also has lore on 18th-century Irish poet Seán Clárach Mac Domnhnaill, who wrote the words:

It is said that he once entered an upper-class book seller's in Cork, and was looking at a leather-bound, gilt-edged, folio copy of the Iliad in the original Greek. He was holding it upside down, which gave the owner and assembled gentry great amusement to see the "illiterate peasant with the marks of the sty on his brogues."

He asked the owner; "Beggin' ye pardon, yer Honour, but how much is this book here?"

The owner, greatly amused, said; "50 guineas Paddy, but if ye can read it, you may have it."

MacDonnell then turned the book around and began reading from it in fluent Greek. The dumbfounded owner was bound to his oath, and the assembled gentry got even greater amusement at his considerable expense! (50 guineas was a huge sum in those days.)
Casey also says the song dates from 1746 and "is a rosg-cathadh (in Scottish Gaelic, brosnachadh), a battle hymn or incitement ... intended to invite Prince Charles Edward Stuart, who had but recently fled Scotland after the failure of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, to return, and to incite the Irish to join in another Rising." Others call it an Aisling or lament eulogizing the Jacobite cause.

Other websites: has guitar chords and lyrics in Gaelic and English. Also Irish Songs - Lyrics With Guitar Chords - By Martin Dardis (in Gaelic but with link to the YouTube clip from BBC Sessions, which is how I first found it) at

1. (D)Seal da rabhas im' (Bm)mhaighdean (D)shéimh,
(G)'S anois im' (D)bhaintreach (G)chaite (A)thréith,
Mo (Bm)chéile ag (G)treabhadh na (Bm)dtonn go (D)tréan
De bharr na gcnoc is i (A)n-imi(D)gcéin.


(D)'Sé mo laoch, mo (Bm)Ghile (D)Mear,
(G)'Sé mo (D)Chaesar, (G)Ghile (A)Mear,
(Bm)Suan ná (G)séan ní (Bm)bhfuaireas (D)féin
Ó chuaigh i gcéin mo (A)Ghile (D)Mear.
And a phonetic version of the Gaelic. Sample:
[1 and Chorus]
Shay muh lay moe Gil-ah Mar
Shay moe Hay-suh, Gil-ah Mar,
Soon nawh shayn nee voor-ahs hayn
Oh coo-ig EE-gayne moe Gil-ah Mar.
Good directory of introductory Sean-nos articles on Iarla Ó Lionáird's website.

Norwegian-American humor: Ole and the game warden

Ole was stopped by a game warden in Northern Wisconsin recently leaving a lake well known for its walleyes. He had two buckets of fish. As it was during the spawning season, the game warden asked,

"Do you have a license to catch those fish?"

Ole replied, "No, sir! Dese here are my pet fish."

"Pet fish?" the warden replied.

"Ya sure, you betcha." answered Ole. "Every night I take dese fish here down to da lake and let dem svim around for a while. Den I vhistle and dey yump back into der buckets and I take dem home."

"That's a bunch of hooey. Fish can't do that." Said the game warden.

Ole looked at the game warden with an expression of great hurt, and then said, "Yumpin Yimminy! Vell den, I'll just show you den.

It really does vork, don'tcha know?"

"O.K. I've got to see this!" The game warden was really curious now.

So Ole poured the fish into the lake and stood waiting. After several minutes, the game warden turned to Ole and said, "Well?"

"Vell what?" responded Ole.

"When are you going to call them back?"

"Call who back?" asked Ole.

"The fish!"

"What fish?"

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

HUM 221: Questions while we watch a speech today by Sherman Alexie

In class today we will watch a 53-minute talk by Sherman Alexie to a largely African-American audience at Rutgers University-Newark in 2001. His humor is over the top now and then, but he's got some thoughtful insights. At Rutgers-Newark he talked about everything from literature to sports mascots, the "commodification" of Native American art, the state of American society, what and why and how he writes ... and a lot else. One insight that's worth thinking about: Alexie says to some degree white Americans have lost our "tribal" past, which I take to mean our sense of family, our ethnic heritage, our sense of who we are as individuals in a mass consumer society. I'm not sure I agree 100 percent, but it's worth considering. If we have, do we share that loss with American Indians?

Today we'll have to begin watching it immediately in order to fit it all in, so I have made out some questions to help you focus on themes that will appear in "Smoke Signals" - and on the final exam.
1. What does Alexie say about his life as a writer (including movie screenplays)? Listen for him to say why he writes, what kinds of things he writes about (and why), how his own life experiences are reflected in his writing. What does he want his readers (or movie audiences) to experience? What's his message?

2. Alexie's mother was Spokane Indian, and his father was Coeur d-Alene. How is his Native American background reflected in his writing? In his views on society? Wpould you say he's a Native American writer or a writer who happens to be Native American?

3. How do you, as a white or black American, react to what he says? If you have Native heritage in your family, does that affect the way you feel about him? If not, does that affect the way you feel? How many of his themes -- or other things he talks about -- affect you as a reader or listener? In your opinion, is he talking about American Indians or human nature?
For Friday, don't forget to read the interview in Cinaste magazine that I assigned earlier. And we will begin watching the movie Friday.

HUM 221: Assignments for Friday and Monday, and background on 'Smoke Signals'

We'll begin screening Sherman Alexie's movie "Smoke Signals" in class today. Try reading the screenplay along with the movie, at least some of the time, just to see how the actors bring the lines on the printed page to life on the screen. You also will need to have a good working knowledge of the screenplay, and Alexie's Scene Notes at the end, as you write your final exams. Finally, I have posted some material below to consider as you watch the movie.

Movie Response Questions

Three questions to ask yourself as you watch "Smoke Signals." (You'll no doubt recognize them as variations on the three questions that never go away in HUM 221.)

1. How do you, as a white or black American, react to what he says? If you have Native heritage in your family, does that affect the way you feel about him? If not, does that affect the way you feel? How many of his themes -- affect you as a moviegoer? In other words, does your cultural background affect the way you react to the movie?

2. How are Alexie's life experiences reflected in his writing. What's his message? Alexie's mother was Spokane Indian, and his father was Coeur d-Alene. How is his Native American background reflected in the movie?

3. Would you say Alexie is a Native American screenwriter or a writer who happens to be Native American? In your opinion, is he talking about American Indians or human nature? Or both?
If you suspect I'm leading up to the final exam with these questions, you're exactly right.

Here's a background link to the page on Coeur d'Alene culture and history on the Native-Languages website. It begins:

As a complement to our Coeur d'Alene language information, here is our collection of indexed links about the Coeur dAlene tribe and their society. Please note that Coeur dAlenes and other American Indians are living people with a present and a future as well as a past. Coeur d'Alene history is interesting and important, but the Coeur d'Alene Indians are still here today, too, and we try to feature modern writers as well as traditional folklore, contemporary art as well as museum pieces, and the life and struggles of today as well as the tragedies of yesterday.
Thomas Builds-A-Fire, the character who also narrates the movie, is a storyteller. So, of course, is Sherman Alexie.

Here are a couple of highlights from Alexie's interview with Cinaste magazine, about how he wrote "Smoke Signals" and adapted it for the movies. Alexie had a lot to say about how he wrote the story the movie is based on, how he quit drinking before he did the movie and how the characters changed because he quit, and some of the decisions he made about music, camera shots and the other details of making a movie.

* * *
Look for the young women driving a car that only works in reverse. According to Alexie, it's an inside joke on the "rez." It's also kind of an ironic comment on the way Victor and Thomas set out on a mythic journey like in the Oddysy , if you want to get all English major-y about it.
* * *
Mythic? Huh? He say what? Well, yeah. Alexie said in the interview he wrote the screenplay to tell "a very basic story, a road trip/buddy movie about a lost father, so I'm working with two very classical, mythic structures. You can find them in everything from The Bible to The Iliad and The Odyssey."
* * *
So the Iliad and the Odyssey were road movies ... OK. Alexie also chose to do a road movie because it's one of the "cheapest kind[s] of independent film to make." So he adapted one of his stories to a screenplay about "these two odd buddies, sort of Mutt and Jeff on a road trip." Alexie says:
You can let the landscape tell a lot of story. And if it's a road/buddy movie, you're going to have a lot of music, and I always knew music was going to be a part of this. There are specific music cues in the screenplay about traditional music or rock and roll music, or a combination of the two. "John Wayne's Teeth," for example, is a combination of English lyrics and Western musical rhythms along with Indian vocables and Indian traditional drums. I also wanted to use Indian artists, so as not only to make a revolutionary movie for Indians, but also to use Indian artists on the soundtrack, which fits well with the road/buddy movie structure.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


For Wednesday: The most perceptive introduction to Sherman Alexie, who wrote the screenplay for "Smoke Signals," is a biographical piece on Alexie in The Guardian, a British newspaper. Read it. Also read the reviews of "Smoke Signals" linked to the bottom of this post.

Sherman Alexie's first impression doesn't last very long.

Which is probably a good thing.

All too often he comes across as flippant, angry, sarcastic. Especially sarcastic. Funny, but sarcastic. He talks about things we don't want to hear about. Race, for one. Alcoholism, for another. He makes wisecracks about the injustices done to American Indians through history, and we don't know how to take him. Sometimes he looks kind of smug. Other times he vents his anger. But as he keeps talking, listeners come to realize there's more to him than wisecracks.

We'll see both sides of Sherman Alexie in action today.

In the first TV gig, Alexie talks about stereotypes of Native Americans on Cobert Nation Oct. 28, 2008. Amid all the wisecracking, he and Cobert acknowledge positive stereotypes can be just as damaging as negative stereotypes ... Alexie wonders why New Agers take wolves and eagles and other predators as spirit animals ("my spirit animal is the squirrel"), and trades wisecracks with Steven Cobert (5:18). As so often happens on Cobert's show, there's more than wisecracking going on. When you've finished laughing, you realize they are both trashing our most commonly held stereotypes of American Indians ... and there's more truth than we'd like to admit to what they say about the stereotypes.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sherman Alexie
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorNASA Name Contest
In February 2009 Alexie spoke at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Here he chatted informally with Dine (Navajo) students before the speech. (A couple of translations: "Rez" is a common abbreviation for an Indian reservation, and a "HUD house" is a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development low-income housing unit.) Notice how straightforward and serious he is, especially compared to his public appearances.

Next we'll watch an in-depth interview with Enrique Cerna of KCTS-TV Seattle that aired July 11, 2008, on the Conversations at KCTS 9 show. In it he talks about his life, his writing, alcoholism ... and how he broke that cycle in his family. (26:44)

One of Alexie's main points, especially now he's writing for younger readers, is what he told his interviewer in Seattle: "What you realize when you talk to young people is that everyone feels like an outsider ... when you're 16, everybody feels like a freak."

Reviews of 'Smoke Signals'

For your viewing enjoyment, some reviews of "Smoke Signals," the 1998 movie based on Sherman Alexie's collection of short stories titled "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven."

From the Rotten Tomatoes movie review website, this plot summary:

Synopsis: Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-A-Fire are brought together by Victor's father who saves Thomas from a fire that destroys his house and kills his parents. In close proximity all their lives on the Coeur D'Alene Indian reservation in Idaho, the boys could not be more different. Victor is the extrovert who excels at basketball and Thomas is the savant who lives with his grandmother after the death of his parents. The journey the two young men take to the home of Victor's estranged father in far off Arizona brings out of the past the remarkable events that brought them together.
You can see how Alexie takes material from his life, changes it around and uses it his art.

This excerpt from a Siskel & Ebert review televised June 28, 1998, featuring Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune and Roger Ebert of the Sun-Times, sums up the way I feel about the movie after watching it a couple of times:

Siskel: Obviously, Smoke Signals is not, in any way, a standard film involving Native Americans. These are very specific characters, but not every utterance and every event in the film revolves around their Indian heritage. The result is to expand our notion of just who Native Americans are and can be. This thoroughly entertaining film Smoke Signals could turn out to be a milestone in Native American cinema. It could become the equivalent of the black cinema's She's Gotta Have It by Spike Lee in terms of contemporizing characters. Obviously, I'm giving a strong recommendation to Smoke Signals.

Ebert: I loved it, too. I'll tell you, Gene, the interesting thing here is that, for once, I felt I was seeing real Native Americans everyday, talking to each other, living life, without all kinds of filters of history and tradition and archetypes and stereotypes between me and the screen. These are just two people.

Siskel: People first!

Ebert: And that was really refreshing. And the acting is lots of fun, especially the smaller of the two actors, who can't stop talking and is really engaging.
Just two people ... and people first ... and that is refreshing.

Janet Maslin's review in The New York Times (June 26, 1998) says the movie's stories "describe a contemporary American Indian culture coming to terms with its past in offbeat, unexpected ways. These range from casual asides about George Armstrong Custer to the patter of the reservation's radio station, where "It's a good day to be indigenous!" is a way to greet the morning."

Peter Travis, reviewing the movie in Rolling Stone (July 17, 1998), says:

When it comes to American Indians, Hollywood either trades in Injun stereotypes or dances with Disney. Forget that. Smoke Signals, written and directed by Indians, also casts Indians as Indians. "No Italians with long hair," says Sherman Alexie, 31, the Indian poet, novelist and short-story writer who brings a scrappy new voice to movies with his first screenplay. And what a comic, profane and poetic voice it is. Alexie risks pissing off the PC [politically correct] cavalry as he explores the humor and heartbreak of being young and Indian and living on a reservation ("the rez") at the end of the twentieth century.
Peter Stack, movie critic for The San Francisco Chronicle (Jule 3, 1998), said the movie "looks at Indian life in a down-to-earth yet irreverent way that focuses on its engaging characters." But more importantly, he adds, it "also clicks as an on-the-road adventure with Victor and Thomas playing off each other." Stack says:

The sullen, skeptical Victor is clearly annoyed by his sidekick's wacky stories and dorky way of dressing. He urges Thomas to get cooler clothes and affect a tough-guy swagger -- ``you gotta look like a warrior,'' he says.

But Thomas is an irrepressible spirit whose talk is more than nattering -- he has an uncanny ability to seize on wisdom at the same time he's going for a cheap laugh.
I think you could say the same thing about Sherman Alexie.

Friday's assignment. I'm giving you extra time because it's long (printed out it takes 11 pages single-spaced). It's an in-depth interview with Alexie on Smoke Signals" in Cinaste magazine ... "Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie." By Dennis West and Joan M. West.
Cineaste 23.4 (Fall, 1998).

Thursday, April 15, 2010

HUM 221: Dances With Wolves and the 'Great American Indian Novel"

To appreciate what Sherman Alexie is doing with "Smoke Signals" and more recent movies, we can get essential background in "Native Americans and Cinema" by Beverly R. Singer on the Film Reference website.

Then we'll watch the trailer for "Dances With Wolves" ...

Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert gave the movie rave reviews:

But movies like "Dances With Wolves" are satirized in Alexie's poem "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel" in Native American Songs and Poems, ed. Brian Swann. (It's also available on line). See also his Los Angeles Times essay "I Hated Tonto (Still Do)" which goes into other movie stereotypes:
I was a little Spokane Indian boy who read every book and saw every movie about Indians, no matter how terrible. I'd read those historical romance novels about the stereotypical Indian warrior ravaging the virginal white schoolteacher.

I can still see the cover art.

The handsome, blue-eyed warrior (the Indians in romance novels are always blue-eyed because half-breeds are somehow sexier than full-blooded Indians) would be nuzzling (the Indians in romance novels are always performing acts that are described in animalistic terms) the impossibly pale neck of a white woman as she reared her head back in primitive ecstasy (the Indians in romance novels always inspire white women to commit acts of primitive ecstasy).

Of course, after reading such novels, I imagined myself to be a blue-eyed warrior nuzzling the necks of various random, primitive and ecstatic white women.

And I just as often imagined myself to be a cinematic Indian, splattered with Day-Glo Hollywood war paint as I rode off into yet another battle against the latest actor to portray Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

But I never, not once, imagined myself to be Tonto.

I hated Tonto then and I hate him now.

However, despite my hatred of Tonto, I loved movies about Indians, loved them beyond all reasoning and saw no fault with any of them.
And so on ...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

HUM 221: Totem poles

Several of you expressed an interest in totem poles in Wednesday's comments to the blog. So we'll take a few minutes to find out more about them. Here's a link to a website on totem poles written by Pat Kramer, who describes herself as a "transplant to the Pacific Northwest."

Kramer is peddling a book, but she has studied and photographed totem poles erected by all the Northwest Coast peoples. And her website offers a good overview of artistic motifs, meaning and other information about totem poles.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

HUM 221: Indian nations, arts, crafts and storytelling of the Northwest Coast

For Friday, read Sherman Alexie's introduction to the screenplay of his movie "Smoke Signals" (pages vii-xi) and his poem "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel" in Native American Songs and Poems, ed. Brian Swann. (It's also available on line). Does it remind you of "Dances With Wolves" or other movies about American Indians you may have seen?

The last major Native American cultural area we'll study this semester is that of the Pacific Northwest, where Native arts and crafts reached a high level of sophistication, especially in the visual arts. One reason is that the Indians of the Northwest Coast didn't have to struggle as much as others to find food, since they were expert fishermen and the seas were teeming with salmon, halibut and other fish. Their storytelling was of a high order, too, many of the stories centering on Raven, both a god and a trickster. The links in this post will give you a cursory overview of the peoples and their art.

The website Alaska: A Nation Within a State has a pretty good overview of the Northwest Coast culture, which was fairly uniform among the different tribes living along the coast from northern California to South Central Alaska. Note especially their expertise in working with wood. Representative of the Nortwest Coast peoples are the Tlingit (pronounced KLINK-it) of Southeast Alaska. Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History has an online exhibit with a brief overview of Tlingit history, art and legends. As you read the notes on woodworking, myths and clan structure, note the pictures of traditional painted woodcraft. The exhibit also mentions the Tlingits' connection with SEAlaska Corp., a regional corporation set up under the Alaska Native Claims Act in which the shareholders are enrolled members or citizens of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

Today we will read - and listen to - a poem by Tlingit linguist, poet and storyteller Nora Marks Dauenhauer. But first we'll read a story in The Juneau Empire about Tlingit language classes taught by Dauenhauer and others trying to preserve the culture. The poem is called "How to Make Good Baked Salmon from the River" ... ... (She's a linguist, so try to overlook the joke about the "glottalized alveolar fricative action as expressed in the Tlingit verb als'oos." All the big words just explain what part of the mouth she uses to pronounce the words, and her audience - apparently fellow language students - enjoyed it. We don't have to.) Is Danenhauer's poem about how to cook fish, or is it about how to live life? Or both? How does the poem reflect the conflict that comes with trying to maintain a traditional lifestyle in modern society?

We'll also watch some clips of Tlingit music and dance:
  • Tlingit dancers demonstrate traditional Tlingit dance on a ferryboat in southeast Alaska.

  • Gene Tagaban, a Tlingit storyteller and jazz musician, plays the Native flute and tells a story of how Raven brought fire to the people. While the cedar flute was originally Lakota, it has spread widely and become part of the common heritage of American Indians throughout North America. The Raven story is traditional Tlingit.
Across the Canadian border in Yukon Territory, the Taglish First Nation of Carcross, Yuk., has a government website listing its services and giving information about the local Taglish and Tlingit culture. Read the Elder's Statement explaining in Tlingit and English their sense of the past and their vision for the future.

An attractively arranged short introduction to the visual arts of the Northwest Coast is on a website put up by Free Spirit Gallery, an online art gallery that specializes in Canadian First Nations arts and crafts. Be sure to read Clint Leung's "Introduction to Northwest Coast Native American Art" and follow his links to articles on "The Basic Elements of Northwest Indian Art," totem poles and wood carving. The Free Spirit site is lavish with pictures, and most of the pictures are of contemporary professional artists working with traditional designs and motifs.

A historical tangent: One of my favorite examples of U.S. government efforts to acculturate Native Americans to Anglo society is a Report of the Siletz Indian Agency in Benton County, Oregon, dated Aug. 28, 1882. In it, the superintendent says he is making progress in teaching the Siletz how to use a sawmill, even though it "has not been used as much in the year past as heretofore, for lack of funds, a matter of much regret to a large number [of the people], many of whom have lately been induced to come in and take lands, but were unable to erect houses for want of lumber." He was especially proud of a new sawmill:
... The labor in the mills is all performed by Indians with a single exception. I am pleased to say that a number of Indians, so far as I know for the first time, cut their timber, drew their logs, and sawed their own lumber without the aid of government, thus proving themselves on the road to self-support and independence, a thing of which they feel a pride.
He added:
The Indians here I find are not very unlike white people; some are willing to labor for what they have and others think they ought to be supported in their idleness. ... The Indians here as a rule learn the trades easily, perhaps more readily even than farming. There are goodly numbers who can perform service in the shops or mills, and show evidence of rapid advancement in mechanism.
No wonder! They'd been building cedar plank houses and working with wood for centuries.

In the 21st century, the art of the Northwest Coast peoples is a vibrant living tradition. Visit the Coghlan Studio and Gallery near Vancouver, B.C., for a highly commercial but culturally aware approach to the art. Be sure to read the history of carving and other arts, the essay on raising a new totem pole at the Royal Museum Of British Columbia in Victoria. But most Northwest Coast art now is smaller, and it branches out into other media. Surf around the Coughlan Gallery's website, visit the gift shop and the gallery to see more. Click on the thumbnails to see larger pictures of the art, or to read artist's biographies. How much are the artists charging? How have Native American artists of the Northwest Coast adapted their traditional art forms to a market economy? (Prices that say "$ ... cdn" are Canadian, and "$ ... usd" are U.S. dollars. But you would have figured that out anyway.) Think about it, review what you've read and answer this question: What strikes you most about the art of the Pacific Northwest? Don't try to react to it all - choose one thing, perhaps the totem poles, the way the artists use color or the stylized, almost abstract, pictures of raven or a killer whale. What in your background and/or taste makes you feel that way? What specific features in the design and execution of the art speak to you across cultures? What suprises you about the art? Always look for surprises: What surprises you may be the most important thing about something new. (Fair warning: On the final exam, you'll be asked to discuss what surprised you in HUM 221. So it's not too soon to start thinking - and blogging - about surprises.) Post your answers as comments to this blogpost.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

HUM 221: Luci Tapahonso, the Dinetah, the Dine language, heritage, family and English-language poetry

Friday we read Navajo (Dine) writer Luci Tapahonso's poem "In 1864." Today we will try to put it in the context of her overall career as a poet and educator. Now teaching at the University of Arizona after academic gigs at universities in Kansas and New Mexico, she is an important voice in Native American Studies nationwide. In an interview with KUED-TV ath the University of Utah, Tapahonoso explained how, and why, she came to write "The Long Walk." An excerpt:
Interviewer - Lucy why don't you start out by just describing the Long Walk

Luci - The Long Walk was probably one of the most important periods of in their history. It has, of course, a profound impact on the people that suffered through it and lived through it, and it continues to have an impact today on our lives.

Interviewer - What do you think it meant to the identity of the Navajo people?

Luci - I think that though it wasn't meant to, it probably reinforced and strengthened and ensured the identity of the Dine.

Interviewer - When you think of ancestors and relatives and people who made the Long Walk what are your emotions about that time?

Luci - It's hard, you know, to say you feel one way or another and it's so much a part of our experience that it's difficult to think of it separately by itself. It's very meaningful to me, and it's so much a part of our experience as a people and as individuals and as a group so ...

It's very much a part of the way that we identify ourselves, and not necessarily the experience, but because many of my ancestors of whom I'm a direct descendant, which means it's my experience in a sense. So I don't think of them as separate from who I am. I think of what happened as forming my own sense of self, and my experience that it's going to play a role, or it plays a role in who I am as well as my future and my children and grandchildren's lives and their future as well.
In an especially perceptive analysis of Tapahonso's poetry in 1999, Amy McNally of the University of Minnesota said Tapahonso writes about heritage and family "to relate the importance of passing along to one's children the cultural nourishment necessary to ensure the continuity and vitality of one's heritage." McNally adds:
Tapahonso writes her poems and stories in English peppered with Diná, but has originally conceived and/or performed many of her works in her native tongue, only translating to English when the works are to be published. In her preface to Saanii Dahataal [a book of poetry, subtitled The Women are Singing], Tapahonso explains how the translation from Navajo to English, and indeed from performance to the written word, can alter the effect of her poems and stories: "Many of these poems and stories have a song that accompanies the work. Because these songs are in Navajo, a written version is not possible. When I read these in public, the song is also a part of the reading. This is very much a consideration as I am translating and writing--the fact that the written version must stand on its own ..."
So language is important, too. Can you maintain the traditions without maintaining the language? How can you maintain tradition if you live in an English-speaking culture and necessarily write in English?

As sort of an epigraph McNally uses the poem "Tsaile April Nights" ... let's read it. (A couple of notes: "Tsaile" is pronounced like "SHAYley." Female rain is a gentle shower, like those in the spring that help germinate plants. Male rain comes more often in summer thundershowers. Pictures of male and female rain are available on the Plant Genome Outreach to Native Americans website at Iowa State University. Piñon is a pine tree of the high desert with aromatic smoke.) How much does Tapahonso's home in the Dinetah influence her poetry?

Other poems sound variations on Tapahonso's themes of heritage, family, culture and reinforcing and strengthening traditions in the face of adversity. As you read, be ready to blog on some or all of the questions they raise:
  • "It Has Always Been This Way" - a very traditional poem. How are these traditions maintained in a fast-moving society driven by mass media and to some degree contemptuous of all kinds of tradition? Or can they be maintained?
  • "They are Silent and Quick" - a poem about Tapahonso and her daughter, who were living hundreds of miles away in Kansas at the time, speaking about traditions back home in the Dinetah. How do old traditions become new ones in a new part of the country?
  • "Better to Avoid Her" - what pressures does mass society bring to bear on traditional values? Are they unique to Native Americans? Or are they shared by all?
  • "A Discreet Conversation" - how do family, heritage and the pressures of society play out in this scene? What is the effect, on you as a reader, of the grandfather's speaking the Dine language?
  • "Hills Brothers Coffee" - one of Tapahonso's most famous poems. (Here's a picture of the "man in a dress, / like a church man" [probably a Franciscan brother] on the coffee can.) It's about family. But is it about heritage too? Look at "In 1864" again before you make up your mind.
  • "Hard to Take" - a vignette at a checkout counter. What pressures does a society that is often intolerant of minorities bring to bear on traditional values? Why does Tapahonso speak Dine to the other people in line? What does she assert when she does? What does she lose? What does she gain?
  • "A Whispered Chant of Loneliness" - more family and heritage. The "Yei bicheii" is a traditional ceremony. Yei are the holy people of Navajo legend. How is tradition maintained in this poem? Or is it? What's this stuff about Goldilocks and the Three Bears and National Geographic?
As you read the poems, you were asked to be ready to blog on some or all of the questions they raised. Also this: Does Tapahonso's poetry speak to non-Indians who do not share her Dine heritage? Are any of the issues she raises shared by other Americans? Is it important for others to reinforce and strengthen traditional values? If so, do artists like Tapahanso have anything to say to us in the larger culture? Post your thoughts as comments to this blogpost. How many of the issues raised by Tapahonso's poem strike you as being important enough to include on the final exam in HUM 221? Just askin'.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Wilma Mankiller, Nov. 18, 1945 – April 6, 2010

Wilma Mankiller, who served as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation during the 1990s, died April 6 of pancreatic cancer. She was the first woman to serve in that office, and an important leader of American Indians nationwide at a time when the Indian nations were gaining power and influence. She was 64.

Mankiller's obituary in Indian Country Today, a newspaper that serves Native American readers nationwide from its headquarters in New York state, summed up her career by saying as principal chief she "empowered the Cherokee people with the traditional spirit of self-reliance and interdependence once again" and she "proved time and again, that she was not afraid to roll up her sleeves and take an active role, earning her the respect and admiration of her fellow tribal members."

Correspondent Patti Jo King, who wrote the obit, said:
Throughout her life, Mankiller referred to herself as a feminist, and she took her work very seriously. At the same time, she also had a playful side and skillfully indulged in “Indian humor.” For instance, there was the time a student puzzled over how to address her as a female “chief.” She instructed him to call her “Ms. Chief” (mischief). Another student asked about the origins of her last name. She informed him that it was actually a nickname, and that she had earned it.

Whether people agreed with her politics or not, Mankiller was loved by nearly everyone who knew her. She leaves behind an incredible legacy in Oklahoma, and the news of her death has elicited a tidal wave of condolences and expressions of sadness.
The name Mankiller, by the way, is a traditional Cherokee family name. It was given to families who guarded Cherokee villages in the old days.

Let's go on a tangent today and read Mankiller's obit. She was an important person in the rebirth of Native cultures in America. While we're at it, we ought to take a look at Indian Country Today. Owned by a corporation affiliated with the Oneida Nation, it seeks to provide "an American Indian perspective of unparalleled clarity, consistency, credibility, and focus" and adds, "Whether reporting from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. or conveying the pounding energy of a Southern plains pow wow, Indian Country Today's talented news team finds the essence of what's happening in Indian country and carries it faithfully to our readers." At any rate, its pages do reflect the diversity and complexity of life in Indian country today.

Friday, April 09, 2010

HUM 221: In class Friday, April 9

If you weren't here Wednesday, please take a minute to read over Wednesday's post and comments. They'll get you ready for our class discussion today, which will be partly on line.

If you *were* here, please take a minute to re-read it.

Then we'll go over Luci Tapahonso's poem "In 1864." Be ready to post comments to this blogpost on the following questions, which are variations on a theme you're familiar with by now:
  • What is your response to the poem? What stands out? Why? Quote a passage or two.
  • How is your response conditioned by: (a) your background, taste, etc.; and (b) the historical and cultural background we went over in class?
  • To what exent, in your opinion, is the poem is about the Navajo experience? To what extent does it transcend cultural boundaries?
Here is a link to the Wikipedia page on Navajo (Dine) history.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

HUM 221: Today - CAAP test, Luci Tapahonso

If you are eligible to take the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP) test today, you are excused from class. Your scores on the CAAP math and writing skills modules are an important part of SCI's student learning outcomes assessment program, which in turn is an important part of what we do to maintain our accreditation by the state and federal governments and the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges.

So we're grateful to you, and we'll do our classwork today on the blog so you'll be able to make it up.

In order to make sure we don't penalize the students who are taking the CAAP test, we will defer the second part of our study of Navajo flute artist Carlos Nakai till Friday. Instead, we will do some of the background on a poem by Navajo writer and educator Luci Tapahonso titled "In 1864" ... it's one of those poems you have to read a couple of times because she's telling a story within a story, but it's one of my favorites.

To get some background, divide yourselves into small groups. (If you're reading this later, thanks again for taking the CAAP test and read on.) On the World Wide Web, research the following topics and post your findings - with links pasted in - as comments to this post. The topics are:
  • The Long Walk and Kit Carson
  • Navajo jewelry and silver work
  • Traditional Navajo clothing
  • Fry bread
All these are mentioned in the poem. So is coffee. To find out more about that important subject, check out an old newspaper story about coffee rationing during World War II and a poem titled "Hill Brothers Coffee" also by Luci Tapahonso.

Some added notes and links:
Fry bread. A video of Navajo ladies making fry bread outdoors at the community field day in Na'neelzhiin (Torreon), N.M. The fry bread, according to YouTube, was later served for lunch with mutton stew.

The Long Walk. Wikipedia has a summary and good map of the Long Walk of the Navajo people in 1864. Also definitions of some of the words in the poem, including "Dinétah" - the ancestral homeland in northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico.

Kit Carson. PBS has a short bio of Carson that tells both the good and the bad. Here's the part about the Navajo:
... Most of his military actions, however, were directed against the Navajo Indians, many of whom had refused to be confined upon a distant reservation set up by the government. Beginning in 1863 Carson waged a brutal economic war against the Navajo, marching through the heart of their territory to destroy their crops, orchards and livestock. When Utes, Pueblos, Hopis and Zunis, who for centuries had been prey to Navajo raiders, took advantage of their traditional enemy's weakness by following the Americans onto the warpath, the Navajo were unable to defend themselves. In 1864 most surrendered to Carson, who forced nearly 8,000 Navajo men, women and children to take what came to be called the "Long Walk" of 300 miles from Arizona to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where they remained in disease-ridden confinement until 1868.
Carson's memory was as controversial as his contemporary Gen. W.T. Sherman, who undertook a similar scorched- earth campaign known as "Sherman's March" through Georgia. He helped win the Civil War for the Union, and he was honored in the North but hated by Southerners.

Monday, April 05, 2010

aging hippie w/ dulcimer

Wear's Valley Road, Sevier County, Tenn., ca. 1979
Dulcimer was by the late Dorsey Williams of Jefferson City, Tenn. Made of two bookended pieces of burled walnut. Stolen out of my car in Springfield during the 1990s.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

University of Oslo linguistic research into Norwegian-American dialects

Interviewed by Ruth Marie Sylte for her MulteMusic show aired March 26 on KYMN radio, Northfield, Minn., Janne Bondi Johannessen and Signe Laake of the University of Oslo, who were in the United States researching Norwegian-American dialect in older speakers. (Also aired on the show: "Wrong word, right?" from Trio Mio's album "Pigeon Folk Pieces." Right song? Right!)

The UiO linguists kept a blog while they were in the Midwest in March. Fascinating. Their introduction:
Brief introducion on the Mid-West tour 8.-22. March 2010. Part 1 [of 3]

When the Norwegian Research Council and our own department ILN at the UiO granted money to extend the Norwegian Dialect Syntax project to Norwegian-American dialects in the US, the Mid-West tour was planned immediately, and this blog recounts our experiences from Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South and North Dakota.

Janne Bondi Johannessen and Signe Laake are at present on a two-week tour in the Mid-West of the USA to record Norwegian-American speech. We have lined up meetings with informants throughout this period. The informants or acquaintances of theirs contacted us after having seen adverts we had placed in Norwegian-American journals.

We want to see what this language is like, look at its dialectal variation, a variation that is caused both by the original dialects in the old country and by the geographical conditions, distance and contact, as well as linguistic conditions. By recording the speech in various places we will get good background material for studying the language, not least as a preparation for the workshop we are planning together with the University of Wisconsin, Madison, this autumn.

For more information, see ...