“My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.”
Cowboy, humorist, actor, Cherokee Will Rogers
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among those are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
1776 USA Declaration of Independence
What do the following U.S. cities and states have in common?
Minnesota, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Michigan, North & South Dakota, Utah, Kentucky, Connecticut, Cheyenne, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Tallahassee, Lake Tahoe, Roanoke, Saratoga, Seattle, Chicago, Malibu and Manhattan.
Those are just a few places whose names are rooted (or believed to be rooted) in American Indian culture. It was in in the movie Wayne’s World that many learned from the great historian (and rocker) Alice Cooper that the city of Milwaukee was an Indian word; “It’s pronounced ‘mill-e-wah-que’ which is Algonquin for ‘the good land.’”(I even don’t know if that’s true, but if it’s in the movies it must be, correct?)
What I do know is one of the great things about America is it is indeed a melting pot of cultures and traditions. And Native American Indian culture is a huge part of that melting pot.
In some ways, if you grew up in America—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, whatever—your story is probably similar to mine in some ways. Today I live in Black Hawk County in Iowa, the town I grew up in the South was Seminole County, one of the colleges I attended was the University of Miami, I was born in Ohio—again all names rooted in American Indian culture. You can’t escape it and the mythology that surrounds it.
I grew up seeing old cowboy and Indian westerns on TV and enjoyed playing the Indian as much as the cowboy. What little boy doesn’t want their face painted? (One American Indian actor said he like pretending he was Gary Cooper in old West. Two way street, I guess.) I liked Tonto as much as the Lone Ranger. But the big American Indian event of my youth was seeing Billy Jack when I was 12.
Forget John Wayne oe Bruce Wayne. I wanted to be Billy Jack. Tom Laughlin played a kind of a peace loving half-Cherokee Indian who could kick ass if needed. And if you couldn’t be Billy Jack you at least wanted him to show up when you were in dire straits, because you knew he could take care of business. Then as Bob Marley sang in Three Little Birds, “every little thing gonna be all right.”
I watched Billy Jack a couple of nights ago to see if it holds up. It does. Low budget to be sure—message driven with some meandering improv scenes— but the emotional theme of standing up to injustice is there along with a Messianic-like Billy Jack to lay down his life for his people. (Like America, the movie is isn’t perfect, but Billy Jack is definitely worth looking today from a filmmaking perspective asking the question why it was such a tremendous box office success and still resonates with people today. I’ll do a post on this later because long before The Blair Witch Project that little indie film helped change the industry.)
I started to put together a list of movies featuring American Indians, but those waters are too deep for me to navigate at this time. (But I welcome you listing your favorite American Indian related films in the comment section—especially if you’re an American Indian. And please tell me what you think is good about the film.) Let me just make this blanket statement for now— that on this land, some incredibly moving pictures have been made. (I feel like I’m running for some political office.)
Since this is a blog on screenwriting let me end this week-long run on about American Indians talking about some high-profile screenwriters with at least some Indian blood.
Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglorius Basterds) was reportedly not only named after the Indian character Quint on the TV show Gunsmoke (played by Burt Renyold’s (how perfect is that in Tarantino’s legacy?), but Tarantino himself has Cherokee blood on his mother’s side.
Billy Bob Thorton (Sling Blade) is quoted as saying, “Ethically, I was screwed from the beginning, being Italian, Cherokee, and Irish.”
Even this blog as some Cherokee blood running through it. When I did a video shoot last year of a Cherokee artist in Okalahoma (Bill Rabbit, who just past away this year), I told him my grandmother’s grandmother from Kentucky was part-Cherokee, (“way down the line” as Johnny Deep says of his Cherokee roots) the Indian artist told me I was Indian and it didn’t matter what percent or what they looked like. He said he was half-Indian but he knew a blond lady who was more Indian than him. (James Earl Jones is said to be African, Irish, Cherokee.) I have a friend in Florida who also has Cherokee roots in Kentucky whose last name is Rainwater. I told him that Rainwater was a much cooler name than Smith and joked about changing my name to Scott Rainwater, He said “welcome to the Rainwater tribe.”
So there you go— a couple Academy Award winning-screenwriters, a couple of the finest American Actors (Depp & Jones), and the great Will Roger (and even the writer of an Emmy-Award winning screenwriting blog) all with at least a little Cherokee blood.
It may be an unlikely place to end this post, but I just get a kick out of imagining a ten-year old Quentin Tarantino sitting in a movie theater watching the following scene from Billy Jack where he stands up for some American Indian kids from the local reservation who’ve just been bullied trying to buy some ice cream in town. ( A scene that I also believe influenced the “I do not want to fight you” scene in An Officer and a Gentleman.) If Tarantino never saw Billy Jack, I don’t want to know it—it’d ruin my mythology.
P.S. I have a sudden urge to track down one of those hats Billy Jack wore and finally visit Monument Valley in Navajo Indian Nation. (Ouch, just learned those replica Billy Jack hats cost over $500—better start saving for that. Caliqo.com says the hatbands are handmade on a loom at the Kahnawake Indian Reservation and take 30 hours to reproduce.)
P.P.S. By the way, if you’re in the Santa Fe area this week (though August 19, 2012) you can catch the Native Cinema Showcase at the Santa Fe Market which is showing shorts, features, and documentaries that are dedicated “towards advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures in the Western Hemisphere.