Review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People

The following review appeared in the Winter 2019/2020 edition of News from Native California.

With An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, activist and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Cherokee/Scots-Irish) examines U.S. settler-colonial framework and gives insight into the modern reality of Indigenous peoples’ experiences. A recent adaptation, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People, provides a similar critical lens for middle- and high school students.

Curriculum experts Debbie Reese (Nambe Owingeh) and Jean Mendoza maintain the overall scholarly essence of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States while reformatting its structure to include chapter subheadings, discussion topics, activity prompts, maps, informational text blocks, and bullet points.

These additions serve the modified structure well, providing context and opportunities for critical thinking. For example, in the subchapter titled “Indigenous Peoples of What is Now California,” Reese and Mendoza briefly chronicle Spanish colonization of the state from 1769 to 1823 with a focus on California missions.  The “Did You Know?” section of this subchapter highlights the discrepancy between the sanitized version of California mission material usually taught, versus a more historically accurate approach the Native community pushes schools to teach.

A “Consider This” section in the chapter titled “A Critical Look at Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson” asks readers to unpack the term ethnic cleansing. A portion of the section reads:

“Bringing a critical lens to words we use is important. Generally speaking, people think of cleansing as a good [sic]; the removal of something bad or dirty. But people are not bad, dirty objects that can be moved or done away with, without regard for their humanity. The term cleansing hides the motives and actions of powerful governments or groups who are deliberately harming many people. What other terms can you think of that might be more accurate?”

In these increasingly divisive times replete with echo chambers and “alternative facts,” An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People is a reminder of the importance of critical thinking. Even though the title references an “Indigenous Peoples’ History,” the material encourages readers to think, consider, and investigate for themselves in order to come to a well-rounded view of United States history. In this spirit, the closing chapters “For Further Reading” and “Some Books We Recommend” provide readers with respective lists of Indigenous women and Indigenous writers as starting points to address historical inaccuracies and underrepresentation.

As with the original, the adaptation offers a periodization of U.S. history in roughly 230 pages and demonstrates the active nature of Indigenous survival through organizing and storytelling.  While the level of analysis in the adapted version is not as academically dense as the original, critical content remains and is presented in an engaging style.

Defunded “Cops”

As an 80s kid, Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys” got me pumped for the high-speed chases, kicked-in doors, and perp tackles that was “Cops.” I was ambivalent about actual police, but the energy of the show was undeniable.

I stopped watching after a few seasons. Could have been the sad cycle of perp choices, the culture of punishment, the schadenfreude—not sure.

Now “Cops” is canceled after 32 seasons. Outrage over police brutality sparked by the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor pressured the Paramount Network to axe the show. A&E’s “Live PD,” the spiritual successor to Cops, has also been canceled amid nationwide protests against police brutality and the filmed death of Javier Ambler, who died in police custody after being handcuffed and repeatedly tased even though he did not assault or threaten deputies, according to a death-in-custody report filed with the Texas attorney general’s office.

Offscreen cops might be canceled as well. Some people want to disband police forces all together. Others want to reallocate funds to services and programs that will help marginalized communities, or route some 911 calls to social workers and paramedics instead of involving police, or have officers issue citations for minor infractions instead of defaulting to arrests. The first solution seems precarious, though, not impossible. The others could be effective with the right funding and training. Another proposed solution is to nationalize policing standards, but with over 18,000 police departments in the United States, a one-size-fits-all approach may not be ideal.

Whatever the solution, a social paradigm shift must also occur. The way people of color have been historically treated in this country is evidence enough. Born out of vigilante slave patrols in the South, which gave way to the Jim Crow laws of late 19th and early 20th centuries, policing was only about protecting and serving the social construct of whiteness. That type of culture rarely dismantles itself.

While I’ve never been brutalized by the police, I have been seen as the proverbial “bad boy” for simply existing. For example, I walked into an Oakland convenience store several years back to ask for directions and, upon seeing me at the counter, a police officer asked the store clerk “Was it a brown-skinned man with curly red hair, wearing a black t-shirt?” The clerk looked at me and then scowled in confusion at the cop, “No, it wasn’t him.”  It took a moment to realize what had happened, but my life could have taken a drastic downturn in that moment for no good reason, especially if whatever crime occurred was violent.

Cancelling shows such as “Cops” and “Live PD” may seem like insignificant network maneuvers that won’t reverse generations of problematic imagery and storytelling, but the only way to avoid death by 1000 cuts is to stop the cutting. These shows promote reality, but are basically televised police dramas with editors, producers, and protagonists with veto power.

With the advent of smart phones and social media, however, the public has been given a more brutal version of “Cops.” Hopefully, this version doesn’t take 32 years to get canceled.

Review: Shapes of Native Nonfiction

Below is a short review I wrote for the Fall 2019 issue of News from Native California. I remember writing this around the time my daughter was born almost a year ago. 

Shapes of Native Nonfiction is a collection of essays by twenty-one contemporary writers. Edited by Elissa Washuta (Cowlitz) and Theresa Warburton, Shapes emphasizes the equal importance of both form and content in essay writing.

ShapesWashuta and Warburton utilize a basket weaving motif to illustrate this concept: “Just as a basket’s purpose determines its materials, weave, and shape, so too is the purpose of the essay related to its materials, weave, and shape.” With this, the collection is structured into four sections: technique, coiling, plaiting, and twining.

Technique focuses on craft essays, in which prose and poetry are often combined. An apt example is Stephen Graham Jones’ “Letter to a Just-Starting-Out Indian Writer—and Maybe to Myself.” In this series of numbered prose poems, Jones (Blackfeet) advises novice Native writers on how to write from an authentic place while circumventing colonial labels and expectations.

Coiling holds essays that appear seamless and connected. Like coiled baskets woven so tightly that they can hold water, Washuta and Warburton note, the essays in this section unify content far ranging in time, place, and meaning.  Deborah Miranda (Ohlone Costanoan Esselen/Chumash), illustrates this style perfectly in “Tuolumne,” which uses the Tuolumne River as the center of spiral rounds that connect periods of her father’s lifetime and familial influence beyond death:

“But my father never told me what he was thinking that day his dad took him back to the river. What I do know is that in 2009, when my father was dying, he gave my brother this command: ‘Take my ashes back to that river. Scatter me on the Tuolumne.’ He told our sister Louise the same thing over the phone, calling her in San Jose from his hospice room in Everett, Washington.”

Plaiting contains segmented essays from a single source, such as from the author’s life. Kim Tallbear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) plaits prose with 100-word prose poetry segments in “Critical Poly 100s,” which draws from Tallbear’s polyamorous experiences with multiple human loves and “other-than-human loves,” such as various knowledge forms and approaches to life.

Twining focuses on essays comprised of material from different sources. As with twined baskets, the co-editors write, essays in this section display flexibility in that they combine the author’s personal experience and narrative style with researched material, such as in “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground” by Alicia Elliott (Tuscarora) who correlates the historical etymology of depression with the effects of colonialism:

“I’ve heard one person translate a Mohawk phrase for depression to, roughly, ‘his mind fell to the ground.’ I ask my sister about this. She’s been studying Mohawk for the past three years and is practically fluent. She’s raising her daughter to be the same. They’re the first members of our family to speak the language since priests beat it out of our paternal grandfather a handful of decades ago.”

Shapes of Native Nonfiction is a vibrant, form-conscious essay collection that does well to challenge conventional expectations of what Native nonfiction can and should be; it goes beyond simply providing “Native information” and shows instead “Natives in formation.”

Bay Curious: West Berkeley Shellmound

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Back in July, I wrote a piece for News from Native California about the battle over development of the West Berkeley Shellmound. Although the developer’s application for a  260-unit complex was officially denied in September by the City of Berkeley, the site remains under threat of development.

Curious to know any happenings between September and now, I searched a few of my usual news outlets and came across a recent episode of KQED’s Bay Curious podcast, which answers listener questions about the San Francisco Bay Area. The relative inquiry reads:

“There Were Once More Than 425 Shellmounds in the Bay Area. Where Did They Go?”

While it surprises me that people who frequent the Emeryville shoreline area don’t know who the Ohlone people are or have never heard of shellmounds, I’m happy that some are curious enough to find out. That said, the episode is definitely worth a listen.

For more information, visit shellmound.org

Afros in Space: Lando Calrissian

My last post on Afrofuturism explored the term’s origin and how I felt Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is the A-1 example of the intersection of African Diaspora culture with technology in 2018. I still believe that to be true, but should mention another stellar example of Afrofuturistic representation this year:

Lando

Admittedly, I threw heavy shade on Solo per the lackluster first trailer and all the drama that went down during shooting. Truth be told, it’s pretty good.

For those who have yet to see it, Solo basically reveals how Han Solo: got his name, captained the Millennium Falcon, acquired his blaster, met Chewie, met Lando, got his swagger, and became a smuggler. So, while the movie initially feels like a Solo get list, the overall project comes together in an slick, intergalactic swashbuckling package that’s entertaining even for those not totally into Star Wars.

Lando-Calrissian-Movie-Star-Wars-Spin-Off-PlansThe biggest surprise for me was finding out not only that Lando is in the film, but that Donald Glover would play the role. As a kid, I never thought much of the Lando character, first introduced in The Empire Strikes Back. He wasn’t a jedi; he was no longer a smuggler; he no longer owned a cool ship. He was just a businessman in a cape, a mayor of some city in the clouds, who double-crossed the main cast only to somewhat redeem himself after getting choked by Chewbacca. Boring! His appearance in The Return of the Jedi was only slightly better as he had some slick maneuvers in the Falcon near the film’s end.

As an adult, though, I can see the layers. First of all, he wears capes even though he isn’t a Jedi. Actually, his capes are better than all of the Jedis’. Second, getting out of the smuggling business to become a legit entrepreneur and boss who wears silky Count-von-Count-style capes is way better than getting hunted down by the Sith or galavanting around the universe with Yoda on your back, berating you with object-subject-verb commands.

While Lando may not get his own movie any time soon, there are positive rumblings Billy Dee Williams may be reprising his role as the caped crusader for Episode IX, which is great, but homeboy is 81 years old, so they should probably wrap production sooner than later.

Review: The Modoc War

The bare bones story of the Modoc War, also known as the Lava Beds War, is one of institutionalized genocide and land theft in the name of Manifest Destiny. The fleshed-out version reveals the complexities of human nature while demonstrating what little has changed regarding relations between Indigenous peoples and the U.S. Government.  Robert McNally’s version, aptly titled The Modoc War, falls into the latter category.

themodocwarMcNally, author and co-author of nine nonfiction books, is known for his vivid, information-laden writing style. His telling of the armed conflict between the Modoc people and the United States Army near the California-Oregon border from 1872 to 1873 is true to form, a historical thriller that reveals the intricacies of the conflict:

“A mixed-race lieutenant who kept secret the African American portion of his heritage in order to command white troopers, [Lieutenant Frazier] Boutelle knew more than a little about playing a role. He unholstered his revolver and locked eyes with the Indian whose heavily scarred right cheek pulled an otherwise strong and handsome face into a perpetual sneer. His Modoc name was Chick-chack-am Lul-al-kuel-atko, something local settlers wouldn’t even try to wrap their mouths around, so they dubbed him Scarface Charley.”

Several chapters of The Modoc War focus on the national press coverage of the time. Modocs were demonized as savage and treacherous for fighting back against those who tried to dispossess and destroy them. A New York Times editorial on the Modocs referred to the “innate ferocity and treachery of the Indian character.” Ironically, the white settlers and governmental figures perpetrated the very savagery and treachery they projected onto Natives. After having fled the shackles of British rule, Americans sought independence for all men, though, when it came to Indigenous peoples, “the United States government approached Indians with a Bible in one hand and a Sharps carbine in the other.”

The Modoc once lived in villages on and near Tule, Lower Klamath, and Clear Lakes until the intrusion of fur traders and white settlers, who demanded that the Modoc be relocated on the Klamath Reservation with the Klamath and Yahooskin Paiute nations. The Modoc and the Klamath separated in the late eighteenth century and remained distantly familial, McNally writes, though other accounts say the Modoc and the Klamath were enemies and competitors. The Modoc described in the book were composed of three groups loosely following the waning leadership of Kientpoos (nicknamed Captain Jack by the settlers). Initially convinced to move to the Klamath Reservation, Kientpoos and other Modoc left the poor conditions of the reservation for their home on the Lost River. What followed was a series of attempts by the U.S. Army and militiamen to either move the Modoc people back to the reservation or exterminate them. The war resulted in the unfair trial of Modoc fighters who were charged as war criminals and hanged. The survivors were forced onto the Quapaw Reservation in Oklahoma where they again found little of the food, clothing, shelter, and medicine promised by the government.

In under 360 pages, McNally’s The Modoc War uses the power of hindsight to characterize historical subjects in thematic fashion, revealing deeper motivations behind the heart-rending war in the Lava Beds.

#Run4Salmon

Tucked away from the East Oakland streets, behind a series of large Victorian houses, a small art party was held on September 6th at Canticle Farm. Working with crayons and markers on sketch paper, activist and organizer Niria Alicia (Xicana) encouraged other party participants to create “Bring Our Salmon Home” signs and post them on Instagram with the hashtags #run4salmon and #salmonwillrun.

https_cdn.evbuc.comimages29572216747816980551originalThe “Bring Our Salmon Home” slogan stems from the effort by Winnemem Wintu’s Run4Salmon fundraising campaign, which aims to return the sacred winter-run Chinook salmon home to their traditional spawning waters along the McCloud River. At least four distinct runs of California Chinook salmon are now classified as threatened or endangered, per the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Dams are sighted as problematic for salmon because they impede access to historic salmon spawning grounds and change the nature of rivers by creating warm, slow-moving water pools that leave salmon more prone to predators. Other factors, such as climate change and drought, are also trouble for salmon, per a May 2017 report by UC Davis and CalTrout.

“We wanted to hold space for people to come and paint the reality that they want to see on those rivers in the face of everything that’s happening with the fish, with the proposal to build the tunnels, declining salmon populations,” Alicia said as she added an additional layer of blue to the waterfall she drew above a thriving salmon. “We think it’s important for us to envision what we want our future to look like and to manifest it in the form of art. Sometimes there’s things you can only communicate through art. There’s beautiful medicine in the silence of creating.”

20855852_1498171187.4085The Winnemem Wintu have been meeting with the United States Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for over seven years. According to the August 2013 Landowner and Stakeholder Workshop program report by the BOR, Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu spoke about the Winnemem Wintu’s history with the Chinook salmon. Chief Sisk made the case that the salmon were originally sourced from the McCloud River in the late 1800s and are genetic matches to the water shed. She advocated for the use of Chinook salmon from New Zealand as the root stock for re-introduction and indicated the tribe would like to be involved with the reintroduction program. Nearly four years later, the Bureau of Reclamation set aside partial funding for the sample gathering, but an additional $85,000 is needed to ensure proper sample collection. With that, the tribe partnered with GoFundMe to raise the balance. UC -Davis fish biologists are scheduled to perform DNA testing on the samples to confirm to the federal government that the salmon in New Zealand are the direct descendants of the McCloud River winter-run salmon.

Indigenous leaders, such as Alicia, Chief Sisk, Corrina Gould (Chochenyo/Kerkin Ohlone), and Desirae Harp (Mishewal OnastaTis, Diné) worked with a collective of Native and non-native supporters to organize the Run4Salmon campaign, now in its third year.

Desirae Harp1Harp, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area music collective Audiopharmacy, also attended the art party. Her piece was a colorful mélange of sky blue, sunshine yellow, and sage green with “#SavetheDelta” and “Bring Our Salmon Home” superimposed in black marker. She said she joined the campaign due to her people’s connection to the salmon, as well as to the Winnemem Wintu through ceremony and shared mountains. She said she also joined because the movement is women-led.

“I come from Mount Saint Helena and there are a lot of stories talking about the connection between the mountains here in California and the mountains in Hawa’ii,” Harp said. “I met Aunty Pua Case from Hawa’ii, who’s helping to protect Mauna Kea and Big Island, and I met Chief Caleen Sisk who’s helping to protect Mount Shasta, and I wanted to stand in solidarity with these Indigenous women.” Harp added she had also heard about the sacred sites work Gould has done and wants to support her efforts in the Run4Salmon. “As a young Indigenous woman, it’s very difficult to exist in a lot of different spaces. I feel like it’s safe space being with the aunties, and I 100 per cent trust to be under their guidance, and I will walk with them for the rest of my life.”

Events for Run4Salmon 2017 took place in segments by boat, foot, bike, and horseback from September 9 to September 23. The winding 300-mile trek followed the route of the winter-run salmon, commencing  at Segorea Te (also known as Glen Cove in Vallejo, California), traveling along the Bay-Delta Estuary up the Sacramento River, and concluding at a Winnemem Wintu ceremonial site on the McCloud River.

The Intertribal Friendship House of East Oakland, California

With its perpetual focus on community building and traditional healing, East Oakland’s Intertribal Friendship House (IFH) has been green long before wellness and sustainability became buzzwords. The “Urban Rez” is now literally green, technically “Sweet Grass” green, after volunteers spent several summer days last year painting the facility as a part of routine upkeep and beautification.

Established in 1955 as one of the first community centers for Indigenous people in the nation, IFH was founded by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to serve as a hub for Indigenous people displaced by the Indian Relocation Act, which was designed to relocate American Indians from reservations to urban cities, such as San Francisco.

IFH 2017

IFH from white to green. The “Intertribal Friendship House” lettering had yet to be added at the time this image was taken in 2017.

Carol Wahpepah (Ojibwe) has worked with San Francisco Bay Area non-profits for decades and has been IFH’s executive director for over nine years. She said IFH owns and maintains the building thanks to volunteers and donations. “When relocation first happened, the Native community worked with them (AFSC) to start this place,” she said, sitting in the front hall of the Friendship House amid three large murals, each on its own wall, telling its own story of cultural survival, “and they donated the building. We own the building because they gave it to us.” She noted that AFSC San Francisco had been active in the local Native community for a long time and would soon celebrate its centennial. As she spoke, Lakota artist and educator Janeen Antoine highlighted how fortunate the center is to own a building of its size given the rising Bay Area rental costs. “I know what it means to be without a space because we had a gallery in San Francisco for 20 years—a Native non-profit art gallery—and then we got ‘Dot-comed.’ We were one of the only urban galleries in the country that worked with Native artists. That’s my swear word: Dot-commit! But that’s been the experience for so many Native non-profits and art non-profits. It’s displacement with the rising costs. And I feel that this place is really important and it’s so important to keep it financially solvent.” She mentioned long-time AFSC staff member Wes Huss, who had recently passed away. Wahpepah recalled how Huss was instrumental in the success of IFH and his decades-long service to the Bay Area Indian community.

The House expanded its programs over the years to counter the continual cultural displacement caused by the relocation program, and now serves over 8,000 community members per year from more than 100 tribes. One recent program is an occupational training program for Native youth between ages 18 to 24. Working with organizations such as United Indian Nations, an American-Indian managed non-profit providing job placement for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives living in the Bay Area, IFH employs about six Native youths per year through the program, Wahpepah said.

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IFH Youth Development Coordinator Javier Patty (Muscogee Creek / Seminole) actively manages the youth trainees, the most recent being Boyce Duncan (Shuswap). “He really wanted to work in the garden,” Wahpepah said of Duncan. “He’s worked with me, Javier, and Janeen—she did some sage harvesting with him.” Nearly a week before helping to paint the Friendship House, Duncan dismantled the raised wooden planting beds along the House’s small, fenced-in parking lot. The impact of Duncan’s hammer against the wooden planks echoed into the neighborhood, competing with the cacophony of weekday morning International Boulevard traffic. As Duncan works, Patty explains why the beds are being removed. “This is what happens,” Patty said as he pointed to one of the beds with planks that had shifted out of place. Patty said he attended a meeting at City Slicker Farms, a West-Oakland-based non-profit urban farm, where he learned the significance of having metal incorporated into the gardening boxes. “We love their boxes,” he said, adding that it was nice to see another urban garden in Oakland. Wahpepah said the IFH job training program is important because it provides confidence and experience to young people who never had an official job. “You get to know the person good enough and find out what their goal is and what they would like to do. We had one [trainee] that really liked to cook, so he was cooking a lot. And when he left here, the staff helped him with an application to go to the Bread Project in Berkeley.”

drumdance2017IFH offers other programs to Native youth, including summer cultural programs and gatherings. From late June through early July last year, the center hosted “Rooted in Tradition,” in which demonstrators instructed participants from ages four to eleven in a variety of cultural workshops. The House also offers leadership opportunity within its annual youth council, which Patty said is managed completely by its members, who help with other IFH programs, as well as organize their own events. Wahpepah said youth council membership was determined through an application / interview process in the past, but members have been recently chosen from promising youth who attend or volunteer for IFH programs.

Other IFH programs include Family Movie Night, Family Gardening Day, Pow Wow Drum and Dance, Zumba, yoga, Four Directions AA Meeting, parenting workshops, community garden harvesting, traditional food classes, art exhibits, nationally known musical and comedy performances, community healing ceremonies, annual harvest dinners and holiday parties, and monthly elders’ gatherings with food distribution.

Patty said the annual harvest dinner is twofold, one for community and one for the elders. “So, we have two each for Harvest and Christmas,” he continued. “For the Harvest dinner, we feed about two roomfuls, like 300 people. We have a lot of volunteers who help us out with that too.  The Elders’ Harvest Dinner is for about 45 people.

20141230_Elders+Luncheon_0011Wahpepah said she is happy about the continued community support and reiterated the importance of volunteers and donations to the House. She mentioned several donated items around the hall and in the kitchen and office before gesturing behind her, “This back room here—all the windows that are in it got replaced about four years ago. We used to have these windows that wound open and the people that walked outside got hit in the head in the dark. So, this guy shows up one day that I know from the community and he has this big, nice van and I said, ‘What do you do? That’s a nice van.’ He said, ‘I replace windows.’ I was like, ‘Just the man I wanted to talk to!’” Wahpepah said the man measured the windows and ordered them from Home Depot. “And we had about five guys just show up that Saturday to help, and they installed all those windows. We have a room upstairs where he installed them up there too. But that only costs us the money of the windows.”

IFH recently finished a five-year strategic plan, as well as a fund development plan, Wahpepah said. Planned improvements include roof repairs and a roof replacement over the main hall, new asphalt for the parking lot, and a dancefloor for the back room. She also hopes to add another full-time staff member and enhance the Native youth council. She said individual donations have improved, but she would like to increase donations from individuals and other sources.

For more information about Intertribal Friendship House and its programs, visit: ifhurbanrez.org.

Afrofuturism and the Black Panther?

Before the release of Ryan Coogler’s superhero blockbuster Black Panther, I discovered social media buzz about Afrofuturism. The term immediately brought to mind images of pyramids and spaceships with AFROFUTURISM written in pink neon graffiti across the starry night sky. I was close.

Through cursory research, I found Afrofuturism to be a movement centered on the intersection of art, science, and technology. The term was coined by the author and cultural critic Mark Dery in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” which examines science or speculative fiction within the African diaspora. Jamie Broadnax, editor-in-chief and creator of the online community Black Girl Nerds, takes the definition a bit further, adding that Afrofuturism is different from standard science fiction because it’s steeped in ancient African traditions and black identity. “A narrative that simply features a black character in a futuristic world is not enough. To be Afrofuturism, it must be rooted in and unapologetically celebrate the uniqueness and innovation of black culture.”

Janelle Monae With that, I realized I had totally seen Afrofuturistic elements in the music and art of Outkast and Janelle Monáe, and in the science fiction of Octavia Butler. I took these as one-offs, however; it didn’t register as a conscious movement.

Now I see the Black Panther in a different light, as a great step forward in not only Afrofuturism, but in superhero storytelling. The film has already exceeded box office expectations and continues to pull in crowds with its  critical praise and positive word of mouth, even with the highly anticipated Avengers: Infinity War coming in less than three months.

I went with to a matinee with my wife and siblings-in-law at the Grand Lake Theater the day after Black Panther opened.  Because Coogler is from Oakland, directed Fruitvale Station, and includes Oakland-based locations and characters in the film, Grand Lake was the obvious choice.  Apparently, everyone else thought so too! Lines stretched down Grand and Walker avenues, taking anywhere from 45 minutes upward before moving. An extra draw to the theater that day may have been due to Coogler’s surprise appearance the night before. According to social media reports, he dropped several Easter eggs about Bay Area representation in the film.

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Photo taken by my wife of the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland before the matinee.

We didn’t see any cosplayers or anyone with Afrofuturistic style at our showing, but a good number of people wore African and African-Inspired clothing, especially for the evening showing—ladies donned jewelry, colorful head wraps, and regal gowns, while men wore tunics with fancifully embroidered collars.

Inside, the diverse crowd buzzed as people searched for seats and stood in concession lines. Once the house lights dimmed and the red velvet curtain rose, the crowd hushed as previews began. The only previews that stood out were both science fiction entries—A Wrinkle in Time, which appears to have Afrofuturistic elements, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, which…I actually don’t know what to make about Solo just yet. The film seems way undermarketed, which is not a good sign for a movie, especially for a brand as huge as Star Wars; plus, the trailer left me with more questions than excitement.  (Editor’s note: my view of this film has changed after seeing the finished version!)

a-wrinkle-in-time-poster-slice-600x200At any rate, the Afrofuturistic elements and strong female leads in A Wrinkle in Time and Black Panther made me think of how diversity and gender equality are having moments even in this socially and politically divisive time. Further, with the successes of Jordan Peele’s social thriller Get Out, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017), and the evermore-diverse Star Wars films of late, moviemakers should realize the time has died for appeasing only one type of audience for box office success. Video game developers have known this for a while with the advent of create-a-character games, which allow players to gallivant as versions of themselves around virtual worlds.

The success of Black Panther creates a new template for Marvel’s movies, much like the first Iron Man did back in ‘08, Gamespot’s Tamoor Hussain notes. One reason is because T’Challa is already a hero who fights for and with his people, as opposed to a goodhearted, yet selfish person who gains superhero status after forced maturation, such as with characters like Tony Stark, Thor, and Dr. Strange. Hussain also adds that the Black Panther is doing so well at the box office because the film has its own identity, akin to how Thor: Ragnarok felt so different from the usual Marvel superhero movie.

And the above-mentioned difference is partially why I haven’t written a formal review for the film—there is so much to unpack. I mean that in a good way. The movie offers so many avenues for discussion that I want to see it again to both enjoy and analyze.

0218_WI_APAFRO_02_sq.0One of my criticisms with the film going in was regarding CGI usage. The trailers didn’t impress me in that regard. In general, I’m against CGI because it rarely adds whatever artistic weight filmmakers intend. Said plainly, most CGI looks fake. Thankfully, many of Black Panther’s sets and characters are grounded in the physical world, leaving room for only a few flat digital effects. What remains is pretty good. The African utopia brought to life, with its elevated Vibranium-powered bullet trains, humming around high-rise buildings and through bustling markets is a sight.

Much like Afropunk, Afrofuturism seems like it’s always been a thing, but the requirement mentioned above, the unapologetic celebration of the uniqueness and technological innovation of Black culture, is hard to come by in mainstream pop culture. Even those who don’t identify as Black or of African descent can see, at least for this moment, the great amount of celebration and pride the movie has inspired.

Wakanda forever, yes, but Afrofuturism, too. I think it’s cool.

Review: Tending the Wild

Co-produced by KCETLink Media Group and the Autry Museum, Tending the Wild, a six-part multimedia series, displays the traditional environmental knowledge of Indigenous people across California by exploring their methods of shaping and caretaking the land for millennia.

Tending the Wild began airing in October 2016 on KCET, commencing with the first episode, “Cultural Burning,” which shows how Native people practice cultural burns that help to sustain meadows, coastal prairies, and grasslands. The inaugural episode is focused on the area just south of Yosemite National Park where the North Fork Mono and the Cold Springs Rancheria of Mono Indians tribes conduct the practice. “Cultural Burning” opens with slow panning shots of the aftermath of a wildfire at the Kaweah Oaks Preserve in Tulare County, California, overlaid by a traditional song sang by Tribal Chairman of the North Folk Mono, Ron W. Goode, as embers flurry and smoke winds from trees and charred earth.

Tending the Wild Ron Goode

“You have to know how to work with fire,” Goode says, shown seated among the brush at Mariposa Ranch in Clovis, California. “I take my young ones out—smell the smoke. Smell it!” He continues as a hint of his song lingers in the background, “That’s grass fire. Smell the smoke! That’s a house burning. Smell the smoke! That’s tires burning. That’s a wood fireplace burning. You should be able to smell every different kind of smoke. The animals teach their young to do that and if there’s no fire, they can’t teach them to do that. That’s why we have to burn. That’s why we have to keep the fires going.”

Walking the area with tribal council member Jesse Valdez (North Fork Mono), Goode explains how the careful application of fire can increase fruit and seed production from bushes and promote new tree and bush growth with naturally enhanced resources for making baskets and medicine.

cultural burn

But today’s fire suppression methods have been detrimental to cultural burning efforts, resulting in dense forest situations with high tree mortality due to disease, insect infestations, and large-scale wildfires, Goode says.

“You need to be able to see through the trees,” Goode says. “The concept we are bringing forth when we work out on the land is this open concept.” He then says, pointing to the weaving of a baby basket, “When the baby is inside the basket, look through the basket. See the world! See through the basket to the outer world. See through the forest. See through from this world to the next world. Always the ability to see through.”

Tending the Wild Basket 2

Jared Dahl Aldern, Ph.D. EPA Program Manager, Cold Springs Rancheria of Mono Indians, dates current modern forest service and CalFire fire suppression policies back to the times of Spanish conquest in the Americas. He says during the episode that the Spanish view of Indigenous cultural burning was one of recklessness  by “primitive” people. “Fire suppression is very much tied up with social and political oppression of Native American people.” He continues, saying that the forest service wanted to maximize the amount of trees per acre, changing the landscape by placing thin trees in the wide spaces that had been maintained for thousands of years by Indigenous fires. “By suppressing fire and keeping people from lighting cultural burns, you’ve built up the fuel over time, and that’s what has led to a situation today where the forest is full of trees, but really closely packed and ready for that spark and for a huge wildfire to start at any time.”

Aldern’s comment segues the remainder of the segment into the California wildfire issue, introducing Abran Lopez (Amah Mutson) of the Amah Mutson Native American Stewardship Corps, who emphasizes, as he analyzes shells and other cultural burn material at UC Berkeley’s Department of Anthropology, that proactive prescribed burns are the key to mitigating the massive, virtually uncontrollable super fires that serve only to sterilize the land. Near the end of the episode, Aldern speaks about the necessary collaboration between the forest service, fire suppression agencies, and Indigenous people to tend the land for the benefit of all parties involved.

Subsequent episodes apply similar narrative style and filmmaking devices and successfully merge both documentary-style interviews with moving cinematic expression and heartfelt narrative all under 25 minutes.

For details about Tending the Wild and to watch episodes, go to: KCET.org/Tendingthewild. For general and other KCET programming information, visit: https://www.kcet.org.