The men are made tapu (sacred) while the women are left noa (common) for doing all those things at the back, like preparing and serving food. Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikaheke, Maori noble and recorder of Maori traditions.
I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? — Sojourner Truth, at the 1851 Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio.
Curious about the scenery and forewarned about the schmaltz, I saw Luhrmann’s Australia. Like Dances with Wolves, Australia purports to express enlightened attitudes towards indigenous people. In both films, the good guys (and gals) go native; the directors condemn the casual, brutal racism of the eras they portray; and they show the indigenous people as possessing spiritual attributes vastly superior to those of their white supplanters.
In fact, these movies and their relatives shift the emphasis in “noble savage” from savage to noble but keep the condescension intact, leaving films such as The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Black Robe, Smoke Signals, Rabbit-Proof Fence and Frozen River to do the real heavy lifting. However, Australia reminded me of an uncomfortable issue ignored or glossed over in both the real and virtual world: the treatment of native women by their own men.
In Australia, the grandfather of the young mixed-race protagonist looks after his grandson’s welfare by protecting him from enemies and dangers. The grandfather appears to possess magic powers that allow him to turn invisible, charm animals, travel faster on foot than whites do by car, unerringly find his way under any circumstances and in all terrains, show up whenever the boy truly needs him, and kill more efficiently with a spear than others can with a gun.
Yet the same powerful shaman lets his daughter die a gruesome, lingering death by drowning as she struggles to hide her child from the authorities that would take him to a mission school. She is a vessel for continuation, not of intrinsic worth in herself: Her father never taught his daughter to Sing or Dream, precious cultural knowledge that he’s eagerly imparting to his grandson to keep him grounded and connected to his people.
Hollywood films kill off mothers with distressing frequency, presumably so that the heroes won’t run the horrible danger of getting contaminated by excessive contact with women (aka girl cooties). But given the impact that films have on society, the positions in these films pose specific dangers to both native cultures and the relationships between them and those of the West with which they coexist. Letting the young protagonist’s mother die without a shrug — or any visible effect on him — allows film-makers and audience to ignore her cruelly inequitable treatment as the stuff of cultural fabric, unquestionable in its wisdom and perfection borne of pre-lapsarian, pre-contact mores and traditions.
Many argue that women’s position in indigenous cultures was enviable before the extreme dislocation brought on by genocide and subsequent disenfranchisement and marginalization. Yet the cultural norms prior to the arrival of colonialists with their guns and germs were a far cry from the idyll that revisionist Western directors portray. Even more tragically, the deracination brought on by the carnage of conquest gave the male survivors of the cultures a reason to grimly hang on to the least humane aspect of what defined them as men: brute dominance over those who could neither resist nor leave — namely, their women.
When the social pendulum swung from automatically denigrating native cultures to admiring them almost uncritically, the embracing was done primarily by men following the drumbeats of Robert Bly. And there is much to envy from the viewpoint of a cubicle drone, if he is male: Native men went on vision quests, hunting parties, raids. They had the privileges of carrying weapons, having initiation ceremonies, enjoying sweat lodges, speaking up in council, becoming war or peace chiefs.
While the men played, the women toiled at all the repetitious, semi-invisible tasks that keep the sun rising each morning: they raised the children, cared for the elderly, constructed the dwellings, collected the “gathering” portion of the victuals, prepared the food and clothing, cleaned up after everyone, alive or dead. They invariably ate last and least, and the most nutritious foods were forbidden to them: bananas in Polynesia, cocoa in Mesoamerica.
And if a hostile party raided, the women’s lack of weapons didn’t spare them. Women were booty — but unlike valuable livestock, they were often killed either outright or by extreme mistreatment during captivity, after the routine of being raped and witnessing the butchery of their children. In all fairness, that was also their fate in the supposedly chivalric West unless they were noble and/or rich enough to merit ransom.
The revisionist attitude, part guilt, part geopolitical convenience, part belated recognition, has resulted in “respecting traditions” by tolerating inhumanity against women in non-Western cultures — even allowing enforcement of separate, regressive family, education and healthcare laws in non-Western communities embedded within Western societies. People are called imperialists if they dare decry genital mutilation, stonings, forced marriages, honor killings. Had this viewpoint been adopted a century ago, footbinding and suttee would still be with us (though the latter continues indirectly as bride burnings).
If the West is responsible for the deracination and corruption of native cultures into caricatures of their former selves, then it must also take responsibility for the fossilized versions of the gender relations its interference allowed to persist. And if Western art wants to investigate the stories of indigenous women with verisimilitude and integrity, it owes them the respect of animating their narrative to a degree that the audience can appreciate their plight as well as their strength.
Women’s oppressed status in Western and native cultures is not going to be cured by the cinema. But one thing is certain. Filmmakers don’t do any favors to indigenous women or what is left of their cultures by depicting them either as disposable props or as immersed in unquestioning bovine pre-lapsarian bliss.
Credits: Top, Molly (Everlyn Sampi) and Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) in Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence. Bottom, Lila (Misty Upham) and Ray (Melissa Leo) in Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River.