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.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World

Told in segments, akin to short films unto themselves, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World hops regionally across the United States to examine Native American influence on American popular music, most notably rock music.

rod_and_stevie_1

Executive producer Stevie Salas (Apache) said during a 2017 Electric Playground interview that Rumble was conceived while he was playing a gig with Rod Stewart. “I said to myself, there’s not a lot of guitar players that look like me. So, I started to research if there were other, you know, Native American musicians out there, and as I dug in, I started to realize there were a lot, it’s just, people didn’t know it.” He then mentioned being interviewed later by music journalist Brian Wright-McLeod (Dakota-Anishnabe) in Canada during a rock music festival where Wright-McLeod mentioned a research project he was working on, The Encyclopedia of Native Music. “He really turned me on to these guys,” Salas said, “you know, Jesse Ed Davis (Kiowa/Comache) and Link Wray (Shawnee), and that really got the seeds going.”

As the title denotes, Link Wray and his hit rock instrumental, “Rumble,” with its distorted guitar and throbbing bassline, are the launching points and connecting themes of the documentary. The impact of “Rumble” and its reverberating influence throughout American popular music is expounded upon throughout the film’s 143-minute runtime, integrating photographs and archival footage with contemporary interviews from stars, such as Slash of Guns N’ Roses, musician and actor Steven Van Zandt, Wayne Kramer of the MC5, and Rolling Stone editor David Frick.

Rhiannon Giddens

Giddens

Directors Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana also feature interviews with Taylor Hawkins, Taj Mahal, John Trudell (Santee Dakota/Mexican Indian), Iggy Pop, Steve Tyler, George Clinton, and Tony Benet, who not only note the influence of Wray, but also of other musicians of Native ancestry, such as jazz pioneer Mildred Bailey (Couer d’Alene) and Delta Blues titan Charlie Patton (African-American/Choctaw), whose segment convincingly illustrates the Indigenous essence of his music. Other segments in the South feature such artists as the Neville Brothers and musician and actress Rhiannon Giddens (Occaneechi) of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and “Nashville” fame, that show not only the influence of Native music in the region, but the shared history and beautiful melding of African and Native cultures.

Buffy Saint-Marie

With a roster of Native musicians similar to that of the 2016 book  Indigenous Pop: Native American Music from Jazz to Hip Hop, the documentary also features jazz musician Buffy Sainte Marie (Cree), who speaks about being a target of the FBI due to her music’s activist essence, and other “Native Axmen” besides Link Wray, such as Robbie Robertson (Mohawk), Jimi Hendrix (Cherokee/African-American/Scottish), and Jesse Ed Davis, who formed the Grafitti Man Band with poet and civil rights activist John Trudell in 1985.

While Robertson recalls being told as a youth to “be proud you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell,” Pat Vegas of Southern California band Redbone, on the other hand, recounts singing traditional songs and wearing regalia in shows, as evidenced during the live 1974 performance of the band’s hit “Come and Get Your Love” on NBC’s “The Midnight Special.” “We used to mic the floor,” Vegas says in the documentary, “so, when we came out, the stomping sounded like a heard of buffalo coming.”

Taboo_11Vegas’ segment blends unexpectedly into a joint segment with Taboo (Shoshone/Mexican-American) of the Black Eyed Peas (BEP). In a music studio, Taboo and Vegas share a moment of camaraderie, due to both having lived in East L.A., while Taboo loops a section of “Come and Get Your Love.” He demonstrates to Vegas how the bassline is similar to the BEP song “Let’s Get It Started.” He then explains how his Indigenous roots inform his musical style, but also how Vegas’ pride and positivity as an Indigenous man continues to inspire him.

Joined by Trudell near the end of film, Salas recounts the time drummer Randy Castillo (Isleta Pueblo), who played with Ozzy Ozborne, took Salas to Indian Country amid Salas’ descent into the darker side of rock star life. Trudell, who passed in 2015, adds, “The secret to Indian Country is, when you’re losing your mind, only lose the parts that need losing.”

1958-rumble-cover300Rumble concludes with footage from the Dakota Access pipeline protest in Standing Rock, North Dakota to the tunes of Taboo’s song, “Stand Up for Standing Rock,” and those of several other Native artists, before returning to titular “Rumble” and a reenactment of Wray in a garage, poking holes into a speaker to create the song’s infamous distorted guitar—a sound that contributed to the song being the only instrumental in United States history to be banned for fear it would incite gang violence.

 

 

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.

358daa4f-95cc-445e-9472-70b78ad41762

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.

Review: Redskins? Sports Mascots, Indian Nations, and White Racism

For centuries, the concept of race has forged our beliefs about one another regarding identity, culture, and even humanity. Though widely used as a classification tool for various genetic purposes, the social construct is not supported scientifically as an accurate marker of human genetic diversity; yet, the popular belief that such diversity exists continues to have a profound and, in many cases, devastating effect on our lives.

Redskins coverIn Redskins? Sports Mascots, Indian Nations, and White Racism, James V. Fenelon (Lakota / Dakota), sociology professor and director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino, adds a critical viewpoint to race research  through an assessment of the Washington team’s mascot.

Building from the historical framework of white supremacy, the book astutely argues how the conquests of the Americas was racialized and how framing people of color as inferior others “is critical to the maintenance of racial domination.”  The overall scope of Redskins? will not be shocking to those forced to deal daily with systemic racism and the fallout of settler colonialism, but the finer historical details and the accompanying images of Native caricatures, Neo-Nazis protesting to “Keep the Redskins” football team “White,” as well as crazed football and baseball fans in headdresses and redface all do well to crystalize that the criticism of Native mascots goes well beyond being defensive.

We tend to think of murderers as wicked individuals or small groups of degenerates, but what of the organizations and governments that perpetrate genocidal acts in some delusional belief they have the knowledge and the right to do so?

cartoon-lalo-honoring-youAs evidenced in the “Indian wars” and genocidal slaughters such as Wounded Knee, there has been an overt attempt by the United States government to exterminate Native Americans. Fenelon illustrates in Chapter 3, “Redskin,” how the media propagates abhorrence of Indigenous peoples  through defamatory language and racist imagery. A clip from an 1853 Yreka Herald piece reads, “We hope that the government will render such aid as will enable the citizens of the north to carry on a war of extermination until the last redskin of these tribes has been killed.” Headlines from the Bismarck Tribune in 1890 read: “Old Sitting Bull Stirring Up the Excited Redskins,” “BAD, BAD INDIANS,” and “Some Bad Redskins.”

In the chapter “Surveying the Landscape of Racist America,” Fenelon explores how mascots and negative stereotypes hurt Indigenous Nations and people, specifically children. He references one such incident from Erik Stegman’s and Victoria Phillips’ 2014 report on “hostile environments” in schools, described by a Miwok student at a California high school, that involved a cheerleader shackled against her will while dressed in a Halloween “Pocahottie” costume as other cheerleaders danced around her, feigning the beating of a slave.

Fenelon also mentions late Native activist leader Fern Mathias (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota) and her fight against various mascot issues such as California’s Arcadia High School “Apache” mascot. During a July 12, 1999 Public Hearing on “Official Insignia of Native American Tribes” held at the San Francisco Public Library, Mathias remarked:

“I didn’t bring my evidence,  like the  Cherokees, the jeeps, or Dakota Trucks.  Too big to bring. My name is Fern Mathias.  I’m director of the American Indian Movement in Southern California…I came from a school called the ‘Redmen.’ I did not feel comfortable going to that school.”

She continued:

“Indians are always told that  sports  mascots honor  Indians.   Where is the honor in a name  like Redskins?   Where is the honor in a grinning stereotype like the Cleveland Indians’ mascot?  How do you think it makes Indian children feel?  How does it make non-Indian children feel?   It teaches them racism.  No wonder the people of America are racist.  Racism is taught in the schools of America.”

Redskins? reads like a scholarly work written plainly and passionately. In under 140 pages, Fenelon manages to successfully delve into the what, how, why, and what now? of White America’s conscious and “blind” fervor for historical and continued racism towards Indigenous people.

Q4 2016 Media Review Roundup

Below are several reviews I wrote for News from Native California last year, condensed for roundup purposes:

Doctrine of Discovery

Through interviews and effective use of historical maps and artwork, the hour-long documentary demonstrates how obscure fifteenth century Vatican documents created a worldwide code of institutionalized domination that continues to haunt Indigenous people.

Both approachable and academic, Doctrine‘s main strength is in its encouragement of thought and questioning a system that serves certain types of people and condemns the rest.

 

***

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Showcasing activism within the San Francisco Bay Area Native community, the documentary short Beyond Recognition does much in its twenty-five-minute runtime, managing to intertwine federal tribal recognition fallout and the colonization of Native California.

Winner of Best Short at the 2015 San Francisco Green Film Festival, Beyond Recognition has been shown at the American Indian Film Festival, Human Rights Festival, Cinequest Film Festival, Wild & Scenic Film Festival, Cine Las Americas International Film Festival, and the Native Spirit Film festival in London, and has been broadcasted on several public television stations.

***

Almas FronterizasAlmas Fronterizas brings a twenty-five minute style infusion of both the traditional and contemporary on its 2015 self-titled release.

In the same spirit as the band’s live performances, Almas Fronterizas advances themes of decolonization with a collection of vibrant, wistful rock and folk offerings.

While the trio hasn’t garnered much mainstream press coverage, Almas Fronterizas has maintained an underground presence online through YouTube and its Bandcamp site, as well as a word-of-mouth following through live stage and street performances throughout California and Mexico.