Deets and Geets Newsletter for Late-April / Early-May 2021

Welcome to the Deets and Geets Newsletter He Said, She Said for the late April / early May 2021, broken down by streaming service. Included are all the pop culture happenings and geets that piqued our interests. In Deets: Mortal Kombat, Ajeeb Daastaans, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and The Haunting of Hill House, and Randy Weston’s African Cookbook in Geets.

Be sure to check out the previous newsletters if you’ve missed them and stay close for a new podcast episode coming later this month.

HBO MAX

Mortal Kombat

He said: My skepticism was well founded. This is an introduction for the “real” Mortal Kombat movie. To clarify, most of the earth realm characters have no special skills and no idea of what the Mortal Kombat tournament is until the end of the movie. This intro strategy would have paid off if the focus was on a small number of characters. For example, the coolest and most cogent part of the movie is the first fight scene and encounter between Scorpion and Sub Zero. These characters are from rival ninja clans and have clashing elemental powers—Sub Zero with his ice jutsu and Scorpion with hellish fire and a kunai rope dart. Because the movie began with this rivalry, the plot should have remained focused on it and then built out the universe over a series of movies, kind of like how Iron Man began the MCU. The result, however, was a series of rushed character introductions, failed melodrama, and okay action. For MK fans only.

She said nothing.

NETFLIX

Ajeeb Daastaans

He said: I’m not a big fan of anthology films because the individual pieces always start out promising, but end up being duds. Short films are like short stories in that they are hard to wrap up successfully. Usually the ending feels anticlimactic, rushed, underdeveloped, spurious, or relies too heavily on some Deus Ex Machina device. With that said, the first two films, Manju and Khilauna, respectively, are  anticlimactic and spurious, respectively. To be clear, they aren’t bad, but the endings feel off. The last two films, Geeli Pucchi and Ankahi, are the most gripping of the lot and feel the most complete with respect to story, pacing, acting, and cinematography. I enjoyed this anthology more than Lust Stories and Ghost Stories.

She said: “Ajeeb Daastaans” roughly translates to “Strange Stories” and the first two of the shorts in this Bollywood Netflix anthology are really just that.  Not good-strange or so-bad-it’s-good strange, either; just “wtf” strange in a way that I don’t even care to recollect or describe.

The third story, co-written and directed by Neeraj Ghaywan, is very well made.  It’s groundbreaking in many respects, centering a woman character who is working class, queer, and Dalit, and whose story has been written and directed by Ghaywan, a Dalit filmmaker, and portrayed by an A-list star (albeit not a Dalit one: Konkona Sen Sharma). I read and watched some interviews of Neeraj Ghaywan, and it’s super cool that he thought to bring in a diverse team to weigh in on matters that he couldn’t relate to in his lived experience; and he asked his actors to do homework, such as having Konkona read Yashica Dutt’s “Coming Out As Dalit.” The great care and thought put into this project really shows—it packs a punch through its understatement.

The fourth story about a mother (played by the expressive Shefali Shah) struggling with her daughter’s hearing loss and her husband’s seeming denial of this event is also heart-wrenching and worth a watch.

The Haunting of Bly Manor and The Haunting of Hill House

He said, regarding both: Genuinely creepy! While they aren’t related in story, both series share some of the same cast members and ominous essence, which makes them kind of like American Horror Story in that way. There are jump scares and ghosts, but the real bite comes from the perpetual sense of dread. Definitely a slow burn, but worth the wait. After a few episodes, both shows open up a good deal of character development and storytelling. Think of them as well-crafted, but very long ghost stories.

She said, regarding The Haunting of Bly Manor: This series is haunting, trippy, and tragic at once.  In the first episode, at a pre-wedding celebration, an older lady starts telling the group this series-length suspenseful story set in the 1980s about two orphaned children, their diverse caretakers, and various disturbing encounters at some Bly Manor in England.  Grief and loss are at the core of the horror; the events and haunts are personal and psychological as well as supernatural. It’s a decently chilling and thoughtful series, and it got me interested in checking out its predecessor series with much of the same cast, The Haunting of Hill House.

She said, regarding The Haunting of Hill House: As mentioned in my blurb on The Haunting of Bly Manor, this series has much overlap in cast, and is also a horror-drama (horma?), but the characters and story are different.  This story is about a family of two parents and five kids who briefly live in a haunted house in Massachusetts, the effects of which are long-lasting on everyone in the family.  The ghosts and the protective (or not) walls are sometimes literal and other times metaphorical, and the storytelling hops around through different characters’ perspectives—kind of like a spooky This Is Us.

I must confess, I’m becoming weaker and weaker sauce as I age. Although both of The Haunting series were way more philosophical than spine-tingling, they left me sleepless for a few nights!

GEETS:

African Cookbook

He said: While reading Jazz People by Val Wilmer (no, not Val Kilmer), I was inspired to check out some of the artists she interviewed. One of the artists was jazz pianist and composer Randy Weston. The way he describes his style of piano playing and his new-found (at the time) love of Africa, more specifically Morocco, came through so vividly in the book, I had to check out his discography. I’ll write a proper review of the book at a later time, but can say for now it’s definitely worth the read especially because Valerie is a fantastic writer who does a great job of giving readers insight into artists’ minds and music.

One of my favorite Weston albums is African Cookbook. Something about the expressions and colors Weston and his quintet, African Rhythms, bring forth are a stellar salute to Africa. Make no mistake, this is a jazz album, but the swing is definitely African-influenced.  One can argue that most of the music we listen to today is African-influenced, but there is an undeniable African essence to the compositions. A solid and infectious listen.

My favorite song is the titular track, “African Cookbook,” a fourteen-minute groove. The players are Randy Weston (piano), Henry Texier (bass), Art Taylor (drums), Azzedin Niles Weston (percussion), Reebop Kwaku Baah (percussion).

For more of Weston’s music, check out his website. The image above is the 1972 version of the album, but some of the same songs are present in the longer 1969 version I described.

In Africa I discovered what the true purpose of a musician is. We are historians, and it is our purpose to tell the people the true story of our past, and to extend a better vision of the future —Randy Weston

She said nothing.

Fighting Invisible Enemies Book Review by Super Star Agni

The following book review originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of News from Native California.

In Fighting Invisible Enemies: Health and Medical Transitions Among Southern California Indians, professor and historian Clifford E. Trafzer (Wyandot) examines the gradual inclusion of Western medical practices with traditional Native medicine to combat the spread of settler-borne diseases among Indigenous communities of the Mission Indian Agency of Southern California during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

While writings on Southern California Indian medicine existfew contain the amount of integrated Native and Western historical medical research as Fighting. In addition to noting the contributions of Native elders, leaders, and healers, such as Lorey Cachora (Quechan) and Pedro Chino (Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians), Trafzer also chronicles the work of field nurses who served in the region between 1928 and 1948. In addition to providing medical treatment, much of the nurses’ work involved educating families on how to control the spread of diseases. Even as tribal members accepted Western medicine over time, however, use of traditional medicine continued. 

Fighting illustrates that while sickness was a reality for Southern California Indians before European contact, the introduction of Western diseases to the region post-contact marked a devastating flash point. During this time period, many families within the Mission Indian Agency died of infectious disease, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, and gastrointestinal disorders. Moreover, settlers eventually destroyed all the Indian economies of Southern California and prevented Indigenous peoples from accessing hunting and gathering grounds. 

“Various aspects of settler colonialism during the nineteenth century had rendered the indigenous population of Southern California vulnerable to starvation, new microorganisms, and the destructive policies of federal, state, and local officials,” Trafzer writes. 

Nearly 30 years in the makingFighting was ultimately made possible by a grant awarded to Trafzer in 2016 by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).  

“My NEH research grant gave me the time to spend a year focused exclusively on turning my research into a book manuscript…,” Trafzer said in a January 2020 NEH interview. “I am a professor and researcher, and have administrative duties as the Costo Chair of American Indian Affairs at the University of California, Riverside, all of which take me away from my project. NEH gave me time to finish a project I had started in the 1990s.” 

Through use of historical maps and photographs, death certificates and death registers found in the National Archives,  reports of Indian Service district medical officers, physicians, and field nurses as well as oral histories conducted with several Southern California Indians communities, Fighting does well to humanize clinical statistics and contextualize changes resulting from the incorporation of Western medicine. It also serves as a reminder in contemporary times of the importance of being in balance not only with nature, but also with one another. 

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States: Book Review by Super Star Agni

THE INDIGENOUS EXPERIENCE has long been absent from colonial histories, which either dismiss or rationalize the existence of and fallout from European imperialism. With An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, activist and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz examines the American settler-colonial framework and gives insight into the modern reality of Indigenous peoples’ experience.

AnIPHotUS Cover

The daughter of a Cherokee-Irish mother and a Scots-Irish tenant farmer father, Dunbar-Ortiz embraced her “fragmented” Native heritage and became politically active in California in the 1960s, joining the civil rights, anti-apartheid, anti-Vietnam War, women’s liberation, and Red Power movements, which, she writes, helped her gain the critical perspective presented in the book.

In an intelligent, comprehensible style, Dunbar-Ortiz outlines the culture of European conquest cultivated centuries before would-be settlers crossed the Atlantic. With a Christian, white supremacist zeal that justified colonialism, she writes in the chapter “Sea to Shining Sea,” a militaristic heritage developed in Western Europe during the crusades, that was later brought to the Americas with its policies of destruction and dehumanization.

“The establishment of the missions and presidios…traces the colonization of California’s Indigenous nations. The five-hundred-mile road that connected the missions was called El Camino Real, the Royal Highway. These California Franciscan missions and their founder, Junipero Serra, are extravagantly romanticized by modern California residents and remain popular tourist sites. Very few visitors notice, however, that in the middle of the plaza of each mission is a whipping post.”

Dunbar-Ortiz explains that not only were warfare and forced removal exercised with the intent to erase Indigenous peoples from the Americas, but effective use of terminology also aided in the conquest of the continent. She illustrates how popular culture perpetuates and justifies the disappearance and conquest of Indigenous peoples through the Columbus Myth, the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the concept of “firsting and lasting” ― which directs the national narrative to speak of civilized Euro-American founders on one hand and “Ishi, the last Indian” on the other ― and popular songs, such as Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

Dunbar-Ortiz decolonizes the American founding myth by examining how early Anglo-American literature worked to justify the uprooting and elimination of Native peoples, and why authors, such as James Fennimore Cooper, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville remain revered and studied today as national and nationalist writers instead of colonialist.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States challenges readers to rethink the national narrative of Manifest Destiny and ponder how society would be transformed if the reality of U.S. history were to be acknowledged on a wider scale.

In roughly  three hundred pages, spanning more than four hundred years of history, the book offers a new periodization of U.S. history and demonstrates the active nature of Indigenous survival through organizing and storytelling.

A version of this review originally appeared in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of News from Native California.

“One Word: Sawalmem” Documentary Review by Super Star Agni

Released in March 2020, the short documentary One Word: Sawalmem is a reminder to live in reciprocity with the natural world.  

Since its release, Co-directors Michael “Pom” Preston (Winnemem Wintu) and Venuzuelan filmmaker Natasha Deganello Giraudie have held online screenings and conversations about the film and humanity’s role in climate change.

Preston said in a statement he met Giraudie at a conference in Point Reyes, California where she told him about her idea to invite a young indigenous person to direct a film with her and share one word from their ancestral language that changed their life and that humanity could use to rebalance its relationship with the earth.  Preston’s word, “Sawalmem,” came to him instantly. 

“Sawalmem, ‘sacred water,’ is how we’ve always been in relationship with water,” Preston said in a statement. “Coming from Northern California, where water is abundant, the tribe decided it was time to share the meaning of Sawalmem to help change the misconception of water as ‘resource’ to water as sacred life giver,” Preston continued. “As a member of my tribe, I decided to do my part in sharing this with the world, and so I stepped into the adventure of becoming a first-time film director with full authorship and creative authority, with the support of Natasha’s filmmaking experience, and under the guidance of my tribal leadership.” 

Giraudie is the creative director and founder of Micro-Documentaries, LLC, which produced Sawalmem. Micro-Documentaries aims to be on the vanguard of the micro-documentary film genre to advance humanitarian missions, according to its website. As the name implies, a micro-documentary, micro-doc, or mini-doc, is a short non-fiction motion picture that instructs, educates, and/or documents. For readers who find documentaries to be nothing more than tedious info-dumps,  Sawalmem is the antithesis to that stereotype—beautifully shot, heartfelt, and uplifting, yet informative. A true micro-documentary, Sawalmem presents both challenge and opportunity in 18 minutes. 

Preston, son of current Winnemem Wintu tribal chief, Caleen Sisk, is the lead subject and voice of the film. In the opening sequences, he reminisces about his academic years at University of California Berkeley while walking the campus: 

“Spirit doesn’t exist in academic realms for the most part…I was the only one talking about the sacred. I was talking about my home lands in Mount Shasta. I was trying to remind people through academic language of how one relates to ecosystems and how to protect them and why traditional ecological knowledge in the native world is important.” 

For the past 4 years, Sisk and a collective of Indigenous women, activists, and allies have held Run4Salmon, a 300-mile prayer journey that follows the historical path of the winter-run Chinook salmon between the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the McCloud River in order to raise awareness of  practices and policies that threaten the waters, fish, and Indigenous ways of life.  

Fiscally sponsored by Robert Redford and the Redford Center, Salwalmem was selected as a finalist in the Tribeca Film Institute short film program and has been selected to screen in nearly two dozen film festivals since its release.

This review was also featured in the Winter 20-21 issue of News from Native California.

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.

Deets and Geets S3:E5— Indian Matchmaking

LRK and I spent last week watching Netflix’s polarizing hit Indian Matchmaking. Our latest podcast episode runs down our thoughts on Sima Aunty, her matches, and the matchmaking process in general. You can find both an audio-only and enhanced video version at DeetsandGeets.com. Content is also available on our Youtube channel:

If you’ve already binged the show, you might be wondering what happened to the matches afterward. Luckily, Netflix India’s Dolly Singh interviewed most of the cast during the pandemic to catch up:

While no plans for Season Two are on the horizon, Season One is definitely worth a watch if you remotely like dating shows or just need good timepass while sheltering in place.

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.”

Review: Land of Our Ancestors

mission sugar cubesA popular rite of passage for many California fourth graders is the “mission unit,” an element of the state’s History / Social Science educational framework designed to help teachers navigate the complexities of the California mission period. Unfortunately, mission unit lessons often devolve into little more than scale mission models made of sugar cubes and popsicle sticks. The 2016 update to the framework denounces the literal sugarcoating of mission history and provides instead content standards geared more toward researching the experiences of the people who lived in and around the missions.

With that in mind, teachers looking for more mindful material for mission unit lessons may want to consider historical fiction works, such as Gary Robinson’s novel Lands of our Ancestors. Robinson (Choctaw/Cherokee) wrote the book for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, and notes that while the story focuses on characters from the Chumash Nation, it represents what happened to the Indigenous people from nearly forty tribes who encountered the Spanish priests and soldiers that came to the region to establish religious missions and colonial outposts. Robinson also notes that the Chumash depicted in the book lived in the Santa Ynez Valley and spoke a Chumash language called “Samala.”

land of our ancestorsLands of Our Ancestors begins as a light-hearted coming-of-age story during the California mission period. The protagonist, Kilik, is a twelve-year-old boy who trains to become the “ideal Chumash man” like his uncle Salapay, who is as knowledgeable and strong as his name implies. As the narrative progresses, however, an uneasiness sets in.  Kilik’s father reads the night sky and sees an inscrutable change coming for his people. There is anxious talk between Chumash villages of strangers who “speak an odd language and wear odd clothing that covers their entire bodies.” Readers knowledgeable of California mission history will know who the strangers are and what they want. What they won’t know, however, is what happens to Kilik and his family after encountering the strangers. Along with other narrative draws—including relatable characters, high stakes, good pacing, interpersonal conflicts, and balanced syntax—the unknown ending, the open loop within a known history, makes the Lands of Our Ancestors a definite page-turner.

The novel includes in its introduction an overview of relevant Chumash words, character names, and tribal history, but also refers readers to the accompanying teacher’s guide for further exploration of the Chumash people in pre-Columbian California.  Created by Robinson and Cathleen Wallace, the guide also includes highlights of Chumash cultural revitalization work, images of traditional Chumash life, critical thinking prompts, additional vocabulary, and project ideas designed to meet fourth grade History / Social Science Common Core Standards, per the guide’s description.

History has been whitewashed for various reasons, some more insidious than others. Land of Our Ancestors strikes a great balance in its effort to provide another perspective of California mission history to young people and their educators.