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Nancy Marie Mithlo
Interview with Nancy Marie Mithlo conducted by Elizabeth Weatherford, Film and Video Center, NMAI
NM: I am a cultural anthropologist by training and am very interested in contemporary Native arts, the world of creative production, creative thought, for indigenous peoples. I’m very passionate about foregrounding Native talent internationally and so I’ve been working with the Venice Biennale. I really have to give the tribal college system a lot of credit for me being in this field professionally.
My past story is that my father was one of those kids that was taken away from his community of Apache, Oklahoma—we’re Chiricahua Apache—by his mom, at a young age. It wasn't a forced residential school system, but it was a form of assimilation. And when he wanted to return home, I was a part of that process with him. It’s kind of sweet now, because my Apache relatives will say that I brought Dad back home, but I always feel that Dad brought me home. Out of my generation I’m the one that has a great longing and love for that community and that land and the extended family of the Mithlos that exist in the plains of Oklahoma.
It was at one of those gatherings when I was a teenager that I met my tribal historian, Michael Darrow, and he mentioned this school in Santa Fe [Institute of American Indian Arts] and suggested that I go. I was taken in by a new world and that world had to do, at that time, with cultural revitalization, cultural preservation; it was the start of the tribal cultural center movement. I worked under a really excellent educator named Chuck Dailey. He had a great love and passion that was not in any way separated from what he did in terms of professional training. I like that experiential kind of learning; the experimental things that they were doing there were very much alive.
One of the policies that the institute had was that students could actually check out objects and take them home with them to their dorm rooms. You could take a Maria Martinez pot home and sleep with it in your bed or draw it or whatever you wanted to do. It’s that kind of aliveness that I think captured me. I continued to go and do my educational training—graduate school at Stanford—[but] I kept coming back to Santa Fe to work at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art [with] whatever I could help with, in terms of research or exhibits, [and] in time, mentoring other Native students. So I really have to give the pan-tribal cultural center movement a lot of credit for how I entered into the field of visual arts and, by extension, into Native film.
EW: We've asked you to come in and be part of the selection portion of the Native American Film and Video Festival. I’m curious what you've been seeing and how you've been experiencing the viewing of these works. What do you take away from them?
NM: Okay. It’s an extension of our conversation about pan-tribal. In a lot of my academic work and my essays, [and my] book, I’ve been challenged for my adoption of a pan-tribal sensibility because I’m not being specific to one tribe, one geographic location, one time period. Our academic life has gotten narrower and narrower in scope, and at the same time the world has gotten broader and broader in terms of communication and globalization. I’ve found that I’ve had to advocate for a sense of what I know by common sense, and that means multiple tribal communities organizing together for higher goals—and that any kind of resistance to that is really a resistance to political and social development and change and empowerment.
And so, I’ve entered, I think unexpectedly, into the film festival feeling that same sense of pan-tribal indigenous empowerment through being able to observe and to watch and engage in that experiential learning. There is a sense of, still, indigenous communities being locked in time and space, indigenous communities not having access to the same resources, including media, [and] indigenous communities trying still to react against Western norms instead of being empowered outside of those norms.
For film, what I find is a very fascinating and very complex platform in which you can start to interrogate those issues of belonging, belonging in multiple ways. Typically, when I would have to justify my own scholarship, I’d say, “You know, I’m a tribal person, I’m a member of the Chiricahua Apache tribe, I’m a mother, I’m an academic.” I have a lot of different lives and a lot of different contributions to make, and no one’s ever asked me to choose [just] one of those. So, I don't have a conflict.
And here, I don't see that conflict, either; I see the individual selectors, we’re all coming in with our different strengths and experiences. In fact, we've had a lot of opportunities to compare war wounds with each other, on issues of appropriation, largely: who actually owns our stories and how those stores are getting reproduced, how they're getting circulated. And even if we have power over the production of something, often we don't have power over the circulation of that in terms of choosing the audience that we would like to be engaged.
Even after the film festival I’ll be carrying this question with me, “Why is there still a resistance to meeting the Native creative intelligence on its own ground...[or] an openness and willingness to say, “This is fresh new material never encountered before, and I’m absolutely fascinated and I want to go into it and know more.”
EW: What is your image of how it might work?
NM: The best students that I have in the classroom are students that truly know that they’re there to learn; they’re motivated to learn and for no other reason than they want to be a worldly person. The indigenous experience is an experience of the globe. And until America embraces that global citizenry approach to their basic knowledge of the world, then they probably won’t be motivated to know more about indigenous peoples.
Now, for indigenous people, in terms of the audience, we need to learn more about ourselves. Honestly. We really do. Not only in terms of self-identity, but I think the political empowerment of being able to exchange stores, swap stories, strategize with each other—it is all a part of this process. So it’s not only the non-Native audience that I think needs to seek a certain type of participation.
EW: And how do you think films can enter into the discourse around this?
NM: I wonder if visuals actually impact people’s opinions. Or do the opinions happen, and we make visuals that reflect those things? So in other words, are visuals powerful? And the way that so far I’ve come to answer that question is: I think that material discrepancies in terms of land, language, power, minerals, resources, and water—those are the things that come first, and visuals follow it. There’s been a lot of research that has been done that says even if you [just] spend more time around Native people, you learn more about them. This idea that you’d be sensitized doesn’t often play that way if there’s a competition for resources. And so I’m looking at all these films and I’m thinking, “Do they have the power to change people’s minds?” They probably don’t. Hopefully, they’ll have the power to create a sense of curiosity.
One of the questions that I’ve been kicking around in my sessions is, “Is this just a regular format film that has Native faces? Or…are visuals like a language? Do they differ? Do you actually read what you see, what you take in in terms of your sight, differently? And, of course, there’s been a lot of anthropological research around this, tying visuals to a language. There’s also a huge resistance to trying to attach words to images—aren’t they two totally separate ways of us using our minds and our bodies?
What I like to explore is what I think of as being the real evocative sort of body-oriented response when you see visuals. That sense of…you can smell, you might be able to feel. I’ve started into this journey looking at photographs. One of my projects is the Horace Poolaw photography project that takes place in Oklahoma. When I work with students we look at those images. I’ll see a face and say, “Wow, look at that face. I can see that face today even though this image is a hundred years old. I can still see that physical person, their face in the crowds of a tribal gathering in Apache, Oklahoma.” So that’s one part of it, just the physical beauty of Native people. And I don’t know if I’ve been trained in that beauty, but there are times when I think, “How could these films not get the kind of circulation that they need, because, gosh, these bodies, these faces, these characters, these personalities are so strong and so evocative?” That’s one area that I go into that’s definitely unique.
The other is: I can look at that older picture and I can see the hair moving and I can start thinking about the winds of Oklahoma, or I see the high clouds and I think it’s a dry summer day, because the clouds are high. Then I can start to smell the grass and hear the grass when it crackles when you walk on it.
It’s that kind of experiential involvement in the visual that I think is going to lead us somewhere. You could say that it is a unique way that they’ve filmed that piece. And maybe you’re seeing it because it’s a long take. We’ve talked about observational cinema, and how life actually takes that long in real time. But there’s also something that happens in the choice of editing, in the choice of subjects, in the casting and the narrative. I see patterns and repetitions in indigenous films that I think are unique from what we think of as standard Western genres.
EW: I think also when you talk about cultural sovereignty, one of the things that we immediately all go to is, “Where is language here?”
NM: I think that’s a great question. You’re referring to, I’m assuming, to indigenous languages on film, which is stunning! I just love tha. It’s as if there was a perfume and you never smelled that before…you know, you just want to take it in and listen more even if you don’t understand it at all fully. Being able to experience maybe 50 or 60 different languages, at least, through the viewing of almost 200 tapes has been remarkable for me. And to watch these with my daughter and have her actually see Native youth her age that are speaking in their own language—what a revelation! So I guess I myself am still in that first stage of “Wow! Native people speaking their own language on tape, that’s hip!” I haven’t even gotten to the second stage of “Okay, how does that impact what they’re thinking?”
Of course, everyone assumes the loss of Native language equals the loss of Native culture. But I think where we haven’t gone yet is: “We’ve got the language; in what ways are we empowered? And what directions do we choose? Where will this language carry us next?” I think, collectively, we don’t know. Is it enough that our license plates, or our tribal IDs or our calendars are in our language? That’s a great place to start, but those are all props. What does it mean inside for us? What does it mean in terms of how we mourn, how we raise our children, how we decide to educate others about our values? I don’t know that we’ve fully figured that part of it out. I think we’re still enmeshed in it.
EW: My intuition is, that it’s one of the reasons that you’re drawn to the arts, because that does become an arena for the kind of, let’s say, social experiment that you’re talking about. Because of the "not knowing" where the outcome will lie. Artists are really good at leading our way there.
NM: I think you’re right.
EW: And it’s my impression of why art is such an adventure for us that get exposed and are able to participate with creative Native talent…. There’s this kind of potential for this constant rediscovery for the form itself.
NM: But that could actually be, I would suggest, an indigenous way of learning: you don’t tie things up neatly. Even though, as we’re searching for something, I would love for something to be handy that I could use in my classroom that I could test my students on, and say here, “If you meet these definitions, then you’ll have indigenous knowledge down.” But I don’t think that’s even the goal. I think the messiness, the open-endedness, the search for integrity in yourself personally, the search for integrity in your community, those are things that are evocative, that depend upon time. I think maybe indigenous communities actually have a higher tolerance for not knowing—for being in a space where you live and learn by example, you contribute back in terms of service, and you may not arrive. Arrival may not be the point of all this anyway.
EW: Is there anything that you want to add into this interview?
NM: One thing that I didn’t say, and I’m still thinking about…is the depiction of Native women in the films that I’ve seen. I’ve been really surprised that there’s a large amount of what I perceive to be an extension of the “Pocahontas Perplex.” Rayna Green coined the [term], and basically it’s the Squaw, Drudge, or the Princess—these very narrowly defined roles that Native women occupy in world imagination, not just the American imagination and the cultural imagination. Part of this has to do with Native women being sexually available as objects—and I’ve seen a high degree of that circulated in the films that I’ve watched—and it’s not necessarily films by men, but films by women as well; the counter argument is that Native women are empowering themselves by showing explicitly sexual beings.
I don’t know that I agree with that whole-heartedly, and I’m not sure if that is a goal for the field that I would want to advance. I think given the high degree of sexual violence against Native women that we all know about, this is going to be an area that I want to think about [and] maybe pull in some new terminology or nuances. I think we’re moving into an area of, possibly, self-exploitation through the freedom of media, and it concerns me—it concerns me as a mother to two girls. It concerns me as a sister and as a daughter.
EW: I believe the dilemma that you’re putting out is a dilemma of a rather sexualized society [into] which these films are thrusting themselves…. There’s a seduction by popular culture’s way of thinking that’s going on—the hip-hop world has made a huge impact on younger filmmakers.
NM: That earlier point you said, “You’ve got to have a compelling person on screen, if you don’t have that personality you’re not going to have a compelling film.” I’ve actually used that [as I] viewed all these films: “Who is the person, who is the subject? And do I like them, believe them, and trust them?” So, when I see depictions of Native women that are not fully fleshed out, that are actually, “I’m just a sexually wanton object for consumption,” then that angers me, because it’s so selective. If I just use a visual analysis or story analysis in a generic fashion, then I say, “This is not a complex individual, this is not someone I care about, this is not someone I can get involved with.” Even on that score I’ll start there and move forward with it.
EW: That’s actually a good point. I do think in the public culture that museums represent too, there’s a huge effort to be counter to the stereotype. And, stereotypes are relatively shared. Most of us know what they are, but the responses to them haven’t been governed by much discourse, much sorting through the implications of the breakthrough against the stereotype.
NM: It seems like an inversion rather than a reappropriation—and I guess I’m more of an advocate of reappropriation. Take the stereotype, the conventional narrative and then extend it in a way, you know, toy with it, move with it, make us think about it, instead of just let’s take a Western construct and overlay indigenous on top of it.
It’ll be interesting to see if our genres of male producers making male films, which I see a lot of here, and female producers making female films—if that has any salience at all in the indigenous world, or where does that come from? Because I’m seeing very few cross over. We tend to be gender specific in the film products, and I don’t know what that is.