Michelle Raheja

"Sky Woman's Daughters: Visual Registers of Native American Prophecy"

On Thursday, November 6, 2008, Michelle Raheja, Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, presented “Sky Woman’s Daughters: Visual Registers of Native American Prophecy,” a chapter from her forthcoming book, Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film. Raheja, whose research interests include Native American literature, film and visual culture, explored the use of Native American prophetic tradition through the lens of experimental indigenous film.

Raheja re-conceptualizes two crucial features of Native North American life: sovereignty and the reservation. The Indian reservation is a geographical space set aside for indigenous peoples by the colonial governments of the United States and Canada to separate them from the dominant culture and population. While the reservation was an effective tool in controlling, undermining, assimilating and, sometimes, eliminating Native languages, customs and practices, the very isolation of the reservation itself has also served to help maintain indigenous languages and practices. Today, reservations are both sites of extreme poverty and unemployment as well as spaces of cultural continuity and spiritual, ancestral homeland. While the reservation is largely invisible to the dominant culture, indigenous people regard it as “sovereign space.” Native people, however, do not live only on reservations; a great number live in “urban enclaves.” Consequently, Native people have long been familiar with the multiple ambiguities of their existence, the reservation being both homeland and a colonized “concentration camp,” their sovereignty being both affirmed and undermined by the dominant society.

A central component of Raheja’s work is the concept of the “virtual reservation.” The “virtual reservation” is an “imagined, open space” where the indigenous world-view and homeland is seen and constructed through the lens of film and media, often in order to further the aims of “visual sovereignty,” a perspective that views film itself as a tool of subversive resistance to colonization. The virtual reservation is where indigenous knowledge can be displayed, where multiple narratives can be opened up within and outside the community and where visual images and cultural representations can be reconsidered in the ongoing struggle of decolonization.

Raheja’s presentation focused on the 1993 film, It Starts with a Whisper. Blending traditional Iroquois imagery with motifs from contemporary urban life, Mohawk artist Shelly Niro’s film, a 28 minute experimental short set in Ontario, Canada, follows a Native woman (Shanna Sabbath) at a crossroads in her life. Sabbath is at home in both the “virtual” Indian reservation as well as the urban spaces of Toronto and negotiates both landscapes, illustrating the fluidity and adaptability of contemporary Native identity. Guided by her ancestral spirits (three matriarchal figures who appear in the form of her three aunts), she realizes that she must embrace her contemporary Native existence while still remembering and respecting the people and traditional ways of the past.

Embarking on a kind of “vision quest” (a traditional Native rite of passage), Sabbath receives spiritual guidance from a “spirit being,” played by real-life Native Canadian elder Elijah Harper as well as from her three “aunts.” The aunts sing a song with the lyrics declaring “I’m doing fine without you,” a humorous critique of colonization. Scenes in the film take place at Niagra Falls (a site claimed by both the dominant society and the Six Nations) and visual icons of the Haudenosaunee myth of origins, i.e., the legend of “the Woman Who Fell From the Sky” and “Turtle Island,” are featured in the film as signs of Native survival. Moreover, the film, set in 1992, combines Sabbath’s initiatory experience while undermining the significance of the quincentennial of the arrival of Columbus and the European invasion. Niro thus re-defines and re-appropriates history by “virtually” neutralizing 500 years of colonization.

Through this complex inter-weaving of mythic motifs and metaphor, Niro utilizes the language of film as a tool for the affirmation of Native sovereignty in negotiation and interaction with the dominant culture. For Raheja, experimental film is an effective tool for expressing and embracing indigenous knowledge and contemporary hybridity as well as for fighting negative stereotypes. As such, it is a site of radical and “prophetic hope” in which the contemporary indigenous body itself is to be seen as a prophetic “text.” raheja 2.jpg

By playfully poking fun at traditional Indian stereotypes (the Elijah Harper character, although ostensibly Iroquois, wears a characteristically Plains-style Indian “war-bonnet”), as well as the sense of time, Niro acknowledges the Columbian invasion while simultaneously critiquing colonial representation practices. Harper, for example, is represented as a spirit-being bringing prophetic knowledge to a woman who seeks to help her people through a vision quest. Harper acknowledges the negative influences of the dominant culture, but insists that these stereotypes and discriminatory modes of thought must be fought, and the film suggests that such fighting means being receptive to the spirit world and the promises of prophecy. The film thus critiques colonial representation practices that have rendered indigenous communities invisible through “discursive genocide” or hyper-visible through negative stereotypes of Native people. As such, the film is an important site for illustrating the politics of representation. The experimental short becomes far more than a visual means of expressing indigenous knowledge and creativity; it becomes a powerful act of survival, resistance and renewal, effectively challenging and subverting dominant cultural stereotypes and representations.

Questions for Further Reflection:

1. If experimental indigenous filmmaking, in its ability to illustrate, complement, enact and renew what Native oral traditions and narrative accomplish (in terms of representing different senses of time, movement and gender), how can this contribute to the study of “scriptures” as a concept and category that includes oral tradition and narrative? In what way(s) can the contemporary indigenous body itself be seen as a prophetic “text?”

2. What can the nature of indigenous oral traditions (sometimes expressed through film)—as sacred “texts,” i.e., fluid, loose mythic webs of meaning—tell us about the fixity of (the Protestant view of ) “scripture,” its “inerrancy,” its tyranny, its resistance to change?

3. If Natives regard the signing of treaties, accompanied by prayer and ritual performance, as events inscribed on physical objects signifying that sacred agreement, are these treaties not then living, binding “scriptural” agreements (at least to contemporary Natives) between the U.S. government and the indigenous peoples of North America?

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