Jesse Wente assesses Indigenous representation

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on December 1, 2016

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Jesse Wente. Photo from Cinema Politica.

Jesse Wente connects his Indigenous family background to contemporary struggles like the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and the Cleveland baseball team brand.

On Nov. 30, 2016, the University of New Brunswick’s Department of Education hosted pop culture specialist Jesse Wente at Marshall D’Avray Hall, on UNB Fredericton campus. Wente’s talk was also live-streamed online for the public by the Faculty of Education.

The Dean of Education, Ann Sherman, is a member of the UNB Task Force on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action, “as they relate to post-secondary education.” According to Sherman in her introduction, Wente, in his media appearances, pushes us to question “images we see, use, accept” of Indigenous figures.

Wente said he felt at home in New Brunswick because he’s been coming here for 21 years, since his wife is Acadian. His maternal family is Anishinaabe, a group that has been on the land for 13,000 years, but said he was also “vaguely American.” Wente indicated that he would structure his talk around three themes: movies, baseball and family.

Movies

For Wente, film has been “misrepresenting reality” since its dawn with the Lumière Brothers in France and the Edison brothers in the U.S. In The Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, Sioux actors did the Buffalo Dance in an Edison film from 1894, effectively the first U.S. film. The performers were acting for the camera, but this “was interpreted as being real.”

One of the impetus for making the film was “to capture the vanishing race.” According to Wente, the “old west” period was over and there is plenty of evidence of a possible vanishing of Indigenous culture because of the emphasis on “nation-building” and the “attack (..) relocation and assimilation policies both in the U.S. and in Canada.” The dances in the Edison films were illegal because of the anti-Potlatch laws of 1890, but they were allowed because they were being filmed. These ceremonies were thought to be pagan and were banned in Canada until 1951.

From 1890 to 1910, 95% of Indigenous land had been sold as agricultural land. At the same time, residential schools were made mandatory in both the U.S. and Canada. One of the most infamous residential schools was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a campus where Indigenous athletes and actors were groomed.

Edison continued to make silent films pre-Hollywood, and it was the boom of the Westerns (a term first used in 1912) that were usually 10 minutes in length. Much of these films have been lost because of the type of volatile film stock used. These films were also screened in residential schools as teaching tools to dictate the Indians’ place in society; they were “best dead” at the time, according to Wente. Once “talkies” were invented, Westerns were not as interesting, but, in 1939, the Western was relaunched. The film, The Stagecoach, launched John Wayne’s career as an actor.

Photographer Edward Curtis famously made the representation of “the stoic Indian” because he asked the Indigenous people not to smile in his pictures. His film, In the Land of the Head Hunters, came out in 1914 and was made in B.C. The film, a “minor success” according to Wente, remains the “last testimony of what life was like” in the reservations. Even though it is only a film, it presents itself as a contemporary representation. Wente affirmed: “We [Indigenous people] are always presented at this point in time, as part of the past.”

Flaherty’s Nanook of the North came out in 1922. The family (unrelated actors) were asked to act out the traditional activities like the seal hunt. This hunt was presented as a spear hunt, when the “Eskimos” had been hunting with firearms for years. Another incongruence, according to Wente, is listening to the phonograph as if it was a new item with the prospectors. According to Wente, this represents a “cognitive dissonance” for Native Peoples, but come to represent Indigenous reality for others.

Indigenous actress Sasheen Littlefeather refused the Best Actor Oscar for Marlon Brando in 1973 and spoke out against the representation of Indigenous people in the media, but little has changed since then.

Baseball

In 1914, the Cleveland Baseball team, changed its name to the “Indians.” The reason behind this is highly disputed, although some argue that it was after an Indigenous player. According to Wente, it was a choice made because of the “popularity of Indigenous iconography at the time.” This was done 20 years into the Potlatch ban, 70 years into the Residential schools, and after much of the Indigenous relocation had been done.

In sports, the representation is still used in much the same way. Wente has participated in a Human Rights Complaint against the Cleveland Baseball team and is very critical of the use of mascots in the different baseball leagues. Wente hoped to devalue the brand, through taking away the names of the teams, and making the sports brands what they truly are: “a celebration of racism and genocide.”

Family

TRC testimonies were for some the first time they spoke the truths and Wente admits that he loses his “broadcast façade” (i.e. gets emotional) when he hears some of them. Wente’s grandmother was six years old when she was taken to St. Joseph’s Residential School (in Spanish, Ontario) where she was “tortured.” His grandmother did not return to her community, because “she was ashamed of who she was and pretended to be Italian.” Wente’s parents met and married in Toronto, in 1972.

Wente shared his love of baseball with his father and of movies with his mother, who helped him “unpack the magic behind the movies.” It was during baseball games, when he went up to bat, that Wente discovered the “war woop,” something that he had never heard in his Indigenous household. His teammates had learned them from movies, it had “become the truth.”

In the recent 2016 Baseball World Series, the Blue Jays played Cleveland. Wente really wanted to watch the series with his children but he “couldn’t watch with [his] kids because it was too painful” because of the agony that had been inflicted on his grandmother’s entire family. Wente affirmed: “The game I love made me turn away.” Wente said: “I am very angry” but cautioned that, in contrast, his grandmother “did not feel like she deserved to be angry.”

Representation

Representation is not a direct cause, but what Wente calls the “representation cycles” have “dehumanized” Indigenous people for decades. Wente stated that the Indigenous “are only noble in defeat (…) doomed.” Wente mentions Standing Rock (Dakota Access Pipeline), the “largest gathering of Indigenous nations in the world,” under a media blackout, where contemporary Indigenous people are absent, called “protesters” and deemed to be “in the way of progress.” Trudeau’s recent pipeline announcement echoes this endless call for “progress” as well, declared Wente, but “consultation does not equal consent.” Many treaties are previous to the founding of Canada, like the Anishinaabe Treaty of his people.

Wente suggested to the public that they “listen and believe” the Indigenous people. He advised that they are not “exaggerating” and “it’s finally time we got to know each other.” He told the audience to “learn the treaties that govern the territories you live in” and “seek out Indigenous art.”

Referring to the current post-TRC circumstances, Wente declared “media got us here and media can help to get us out of here (…) but it has to be made by [Indigenous people].” In Wente’s opinion, this needs to be done for the children and next generations because “what we do now resonates seven generations into the future.”

Sophie M. Lavoie is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op and writes on arts and culture for the co-op. 

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