Gary Patrick Harvey
Eye of the Story
Writing American Cultures Review
Virtual Reservations (excerpts)
Within the majority of these works lies a rich opportunity for self discovery, identifying that which makes us who we are or where we come from. These studies act to voice a truth not necessarily predetermined by the writers themselves.
The first chapter, written by Ataya Cesspooch, lays out a relevant example of how a peoples story can be arrested by the projection of an outside source and driven by popular media. Ataya discusses the 20/20 episode hosted by Diane Sawyer “Hidden America: Children of the Plains.” He writes that it ‘followed the story of three youths on the [Pine Ridge] reservation against the backdrop of high alcoholism and suicide rates. It documented the struggles and hardships that some of the youth have been through and how they have overcome their troubles.’ (pg 10) It might be argued that the producers and Ms. Saywer herself might have thought they were doing a service to the community. Indeed opening a lens that is rarely seen to a mass audience may spark further inquiry to those enlightened to it for the first time. However what is argued by Rob Schmidt, a reporter for Indian Country Today, is that the question “Why are people in these conditions?” is never asked. He goes on to say that “It’s not that any of these stories are false or unrepresentative. But they seem chosen for the maximum heart-tugging effect. You’ll suffer with the children in the first half, and you’ll feel their joy as things improve in the second half.” Ataya concludes that the real problems are crafted into a heart-warming television special.
“It seemed they were always focusing in on all the negative parts. They were focusing on them and either loathing us for them, or pitying us… If they did show some success story it was drenched in pity: some phoenix child who had risen from the turmoil of the reservation to fulfill her true potential.” (P 10) The 20/20 broadcast is guilty of building it’s plot off of this stigma.
I recall our classes previous discussion of James Baldwin’s eye on plot from the Devil Finds Work. Baldwin states that “a plot must come to a resolution, prove a point; a plot must answer all the questions which it pretends to pose.” The 20/20 piece imposes this plot upon real people and inevitably omits the back story, context and unspoken elements of the people. It speaks for them rather than letting them speak for themselves. As filmmakers and writers we don’t want to undermine the ethical responsibility we have in our modes of representation. How far will we impose our voices and how far will we allow the subject to be the voice.
Sawyer asks “Why don’t you just leave the reservation?” Ataya’s shares writer Vic Glovers passage as the answer. “You could say that many of us living up here have given up on the American dream, because we find that the values extolled and pursued by commercial, consumer-driven American society, in and of themselves are illusory, mythological, essentially empty, and selfishly unfulfilling. Where in American culture is the heart?” “Living outside of the American Dream, people are able to provide real meaning to their lives, through strong family ties and strong cultural identity.” (p. 12)
He writes on (pg 10) of the American perception of Native America, “They couldn’t understand why we would want to stay on the reservation and how our values differ from theirs. They never could quite grasp the complexity of it, the way that we were living out tradition but in the only way we could, in the present.”
Jack Sukimoto: JA/LA: Shifting Meanings of Japanese American Identity, Culture and Community.
This final paragraph of my essay on Ataya ties into themes in other writings from this book. In particular Jack Sukimotos “JA/LA: Shifting Meanings of Japanese American Identity, Culture and Community.” As he journeys through a gentrified area of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles he sees how his old home has transformed into a place more welcoming for tourists and non-Japanese American people. “It still feels Japanese, but some of that authenticity I remember is gone. I realize how touristy it is, clean and straight, neat and rigid. And where were those mobile knick-knack and food stands in the middle of the wide walkways? Were they even there in the first place, or was that just my imagination?” (p 94.) As he learns of these changes he identifies ways the community holds on, the Japanese-American Baseball League, the Girls Club… things that are arguably American conventions, but are redefined by the people who adopt them. The Japanes-American Baseball League itself is a response to the banning of Japanese from the games during World War 2.
In response to Jack’s concerns about the loss of the culture his subject Craig responds: “One day, if and when you have a family, if it’s that important to you, you’re going to make sure it happens in your own family, and that’s how tradition gets passed down. You may not be cooking the same stuff; you may be cooking taco salad instead. That’s how tradition changes.” In the end Jack asks “How might the culture change , and how can we embrace this change to find our own Japanese American experience?”
I think this question can be said of any culture, of any community. We live often separated from our roots, our homelands, our home towns, our ancestors. Somewhere in history the American Dream became something so viciously hoped for that some of our ancestors actively forgot and actively deprived their offspring of ethnic history. Unfortunately that hope was not always born in the lightest of circumstances. It was often born in discrimination, fear, oppression. In Ataya’s case, his community reacts to set the story straight with media. In Jack’s case, his community creates and participates in organizational activities.
Khmao Euy Khmao: Colorism Amongst Cambodian Americans
Linna Teng’s account uncovers an internalize racism. It appears that her Cambodian American community internalized a bias of light skinned over dark skinned people which was passed it down generationally. The language translates “Dark but beautiful” and there is no term for “Dark and Beautiful.”
She returns to her community to discuss how Americanization manifest in her Cambodian community not only in style and food, but also in a preference in many that she interviewed to have partly white, not fully Cambodian children. “There seems to be an abundance of interracial Cambodian children and so many Khmer Americans giving their children American names, how will I know when someone is Khmer?…This seems to be a trend amongst many that I interviewed many were uninterested in having full Cambodian children.” (p 55)
What this collection of stories tells us is that sometimes we need to dig deeper and even pry out our respective histories. And these histories are not always a given, not celebrated and highlighted in our mass media. Our elders may not even have access there own loss of culture, there own histories, their own biases built around normalizing into the American way. It’s through engagement, conversation with our elders and community that we learn where we come from. I also think that we, as the documentarians, visually or written, should remember that we play a role in revitalization, in the continuation of our stories. When I returned to my home town to piece together my uncle’s story, my family history, most of these folks had not talked about it in years. This was a new chapter for them as well. We shouldn’t take our own influence for granted. We should take care to present and represent as honestly as we can. Giving voice to the voiceless is not a game.