Osawa, SandraIn The Heart of Big Mountain1988Seattle: Upstream Productions

In Mother Earth (1987), Sam D. Gill argues that the concept of Mother Earth is a fictitious phenomenon which emerged during more than a century of conflict between whites and Indians over the ownership of land. A pervasive and uncontested assumption not supportable by the available evidence, Gill concludes that “it would not be inaccurate to criticize or even to dismiss a century of scholarship on Mother Earth as inadequate, even irresponsible, and certainly inconclusive” (1987:121).|||In In the Heart of Big Mountain, filmmaker Sandra Osawa summarily disproves Gill’s assertion. For Navajos and Native Americans as a whole, the earth is a maternal giver of life. It is a common Navajo custom, for example, for parents to bury the umbilical cord of a newly born baby in the ground so that the child will always be able to find his or her way home. The title is significant for this reason as it suggests that Big Mountain, one of the four sacred mountains that define Dinetah, is a living and nurturing being.|||The film deals with an important subject matter: the forced relocation of Navajos as a result of the Navajo-Hopi land dispute. (Incidentally, the filmmaker never addresses how this dispute affects the Hopis). Osawa provides thorough background information for those unfamiliar with the history of the land dispute. The strength of the video, however, lies in Osawa’s emphasis on the emotional and human aspects of the issue. She shows how the land dispute has adversely affected the lives of various Navajos from Big Mountain who have become afflicted by alcoholism, mental problems, physical illness, and even death because of their separation from their birth place.|||The message of the 30 minute piece is relatively straightforward, but it does not end there. The other consideration – the flip side of the “hermeneutic circle” as Eric Michaels (1991) puts it – is how the film is interpreted by an audience largely unfamiliar with the subject matter.|||All filmmakers who aspire to interpret and communicate aspects of one culture to another find themselves in the inevitable role of a “filter”. This lofty goal is considered somehow more manageable if the filmmaker is a member of the culture being depicted. The title of “native filmmaker”, like that of “native anthropologist”, has become an increasingly hip new moniker during this era of the “crisis of representation”.|||The salient issue is that of intended audience: who is the filmmaker making the film for? According to the back cover of the video, the distributor, Safe Planet, promotes the film’s use in “high school and college classes” and adds that “general audiences would find it informative and moving.” In other words, the film is intended for non-Navajos and, more generally, non-Native Americans. The elaborate background information is necessary precisely because the majority of viewers in the intended audience are ignorant of the culture represented on the screen.|||In order to convey her message to those outside the native domain, Osawa has to utilize a film grammar and semiotics in a way that the intended audience can understand. To do so, she has to be conversant in the “languages” of both cultures. But by utilizing the grammar and semiotics of outsiders, is she compromising her unique position as a native?|||Peter Crawford was referring to this dilemm when he asked, “Is a Kayapo with a camera still a Kayapo?” (1995:16) What if the film is intended for “non-Kayapos”? This points to issues of ownership and voice. Who can speak for someone else? If the filmmaker is a member of the group represented, can he or she then speak with impugnity? These questions go to the heart of indigenous media.|||Indeed, Osawa is confronted with a formidable task: how to convey such a strong connection to the land to an audience whose members generally move from place to place without much thought or consequence. The film is divided into two sections, the first of which focuses on a Navajo matriarch, Kathrine Smith, who was born and raised and continues to live on Big Mountain. The second half describes Kathrine’s daughter, Nancy, who was relocated to a HUD house near Tuba City, Arizona. From these two individuals, Osawa juxtaposes two worlds, the “traditional” and the “modern”. While Kathrine washes her face from a bin and cooks fry break on an open fire, her daughter enjoys the amenities of running water and electricity. The dichotomy is oversimplistic, but it serves its purpose.|||Judging by her past credits, Osawa has experience bridging the hermeneutical gap between the native and non-native worlds. She is a pioneer in this respect. Osawa is the first Native American independent filmmaker to produce for commercial television as well as the first to produce a one-hour documentary for network television.|||Following in these footsteps, In The Heart of Big Mountain was screened to national and international audiences at such prestigious film festivals as the American Film Institute Video Festival, the Amiens Film Festival-France, and the Munich Film Festival in Germany. It was broadcast nationally on “The Learning Channel” in 1988, and was even nominated for an “ACE Award”. Despite these accolades, the film is not much different from the glut of films that presently litter the marketplace.|||With the now perfunctory sweeping landscape shots and the all too familiar soundtrack, the film adheres to many of same conventions as its very mediocre brethren. In The Heart of Big Mountain is also guilty of perpetuating the common perception of Indians as living in harmony with nature. Without any additional information, the average viewer will not understand Kathrine’s connection to Big Mountain apart from this New Age stereotype.|||Essentially, the film is noteworthy because it is directed and produced by a Native American (and a Native American woman at that). The filmmaker’s ethnicity is displayed prominently in the back cover of the video and highlighted in the accompanying promotional material (where she is referred to as Sandra Sunrising Osawa). This marketing device serves as a stamp of authenticity much like the “Indian Made” insignia on the mass produced dream catchers sold at roadside tourist traps.|||In all the hoopla surrounding her priviledged native status, few people notice or care that Osawa is Makah and not Navajo. Even if they are made aware of this, the majority of the viewing public may not know or appreciate the difference if they see all Indians as the same anyway. As an Indian, Osawa thus has the pre-ordained right to speak for all other Indians.|||I do not fault Osawa for her inability to package her film for mass consumption. She takes on the difficult, if not insurmountable, challenge of explicating a very culturally specific issue in the time frame of a Saved By The Bell episode. The genre of commercially-oriented “native made films” is doomed in many respects not because of any lack of talent or ability on the part of the filmmaker but because of the lack of understanding on the part of the viewers these films are intended for.|||I have often observed a distinct pattern of response among some individuals who are initially exposed to Indians through the medium of film and subsequently develop a keen interest in Native American culture. The four stage process begins with pathos at the “plight” (both past and present) of Native Americans which is invariably followed by guilt which somehow turns into envy and, finally, appropriation. (This is my own rendition of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ four stages of death.) This process is not limited to the interpretation of films but manifests itself in the popularity of all things (called) “Indian”.|||Recently, I received a flyer from a local YMCA which advertised a club called “Indian Guides and Indian Princesses” (apparently, there are no “Indian Princes”). The objectives of this program include such mind-numbing dictums as “to love the sacred circle of the family” and “to be clean in body and pure in heart”. But the last of these six tenets was especially revealing: “to seek and preserve the beauty of the great spirits alive in forest, field and stream”.|||In a related example, I read in the newspaper that Iron Eyes Cody (better known as the “Crying Indian” whose tear-streaked face became a familiar anti-littering image during the 1970’s) is making a comeback. An organization is resurrecting his image in a public service announcement to once again combat pollution. Cody and, by extension, all Native Americans are rendered little more than mascots in the war against defilement of Mother Earth.|||In The Heart of Big Mountain similarly reinforces the perception of Native Americans as children of nature. Osawa, in an admirable effort to eradicate stereotypes and educate the non-Indian public, becomes an unwitting accomplice in the appropriation of the “Crying Indian” image. The end result is the booming sale of fake Indian jewelry, $50 sweat baths, and increased membership in the “Cherokee Grandmother Club” (or perhaps the “Navajo Grandmother Club” after this film).|||References:|||Crawford, Peter I. (1995) “Nature and Advocacy in Ethnographic Film: The Case of Kayapo Imagery”. In Advocacy and Indigenous Filmmaking, H. Philipsen and B. Markussen (eds.) Denmark: Intervention Press.|||Gill, Sam D. (1987) Mother Earth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.|||Michaels, Eric (1991) Model for Teleported Tests. Visual Anthropology 4(3-4):301-324.

Sam PackDepartment of Anthropology, Temple University