The Ojibway, like all indigenous groups in today’s United States, experienced a violent upheaval in their culture because of colonization and forced assimilation. What does it mean to be Ojibway now, in 2016, when ancestral artifacts are often inaccessible in museums and the knowledge that remains of the past has been deliberately fractured, in both boarding schools, where language was lost, and missions, where beliefs were stripped?
INAATE/SE/ [it shines a certain way. to a certain place./it flies. falls./], which had its world premiere last Monday at the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) Doc Fortnight, is an attempt to address that question. It was created by brothers Adam and Zack Khalil, who are both Ojibway, originally from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and now based in Brooklyn, after attending Bard College.
“We set out to retell the Seven Fires Prophecy,” Zack said at a Q&A following the screening. “It’s one of those stories that has continued to evolve. It’s always contemporary. It’s always being updated.”
The Seven Fires Prophecy, which predates colonialism, is said to have foretold the arrival of Europeans in North America and the devastating consequences of their appearance. Importantly to the film structure, it’s not just a story of the past; it’s one where you’re always looking simultaneously to history and to the future.
“It’s a living story that can function across time,” Adam added at the screening.
The film mashes up styles and media: straightforward documentary interviews are followed by trippy animations, accompanied by grinding electronic music. The animations are overlaid on the screen, so that art by Norval Morrisseau mixes with grainy archival photographs. The eerie Brutalist Tower of History that presides over Sault Ste. Marie like a monolith — its collection promotes the past told from the point of view of the Jesuits — transforms into a science-fiction horror in several increasingly hallucinatory sequences. This fluid approach to indigenous history contrasts with footage from a visit to the Smithsonian Institution archives, where artifacts are gathered and tagged like fetish objects. The sculptures, pottery, baskets, and other pieces appear almost cryogenically frozen, plucked from their cultures and now placed out of reach of the lives for which they were made.
Some of the shaky footage has all the finesse of one of those 1980s educational films that still screen on VCR at off-the-beaten-path tourist sites. But that fuzziness seems like a purposeful response to the Tower of History’s own questionable film of historic reenactments. Although they veer close to the stereotypes that often feature in Native documentaries, such as the shaman and the drunk, here the characters are much more complex and humanized. The traditional healer at the local clinic is interested in using tribal knowledge in concert with Western medical treatments, and an isolated, grizzly-voiced elder who consumes massive amounts of whiskey proclaims his “true Indian” life of living off the land, while at the same time echoing the introductory message of the film — that “once this land couldn’t even be owned.”
One of the running threads is a set of birch-bark scrolls said to have been hidden away in a cliff sometime after the Europeans arrived in the 17th century, when Ojibway life was threatened by colonization. Whether or not those scrolls will ever emerge isn’t the point; it’s the action of continuously sharing knowledge through currently available mediums, and for the Khalils, that’s film. What’s lost may never be recovered, but what remains is just as valuable to consider and communicate.
INAATE/SE/ [it shines a certain way. to a certain place./it flies. falls./] screened on February 29 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) as part of Doc Fortnight.