If Only I Were an Indian
Directed by John Paskievich.
Winnipeg: National Film Board of Canada, 1995. 80 minutes.
Currently in theatrical distribution; contact the NFB for pricing and
Indians of North America-Czech Republic-Social life and customs.
Czech Republic-Social life and customs.
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Charmagne de Veer.
"The prophecy stated that our people would suffer under this domination of
the white people. And at that time the world would have been in such a
state that a lot of things were destroyed, that white people would come
to the Indian and learn about the ways of our people. . .
A group of Czechs and Slovaks, disenchanted with both communism and its
aftermath, gathers in a field to build and live in teepees, create and
smoke peace pipes -- to get in touch with the North American aboriginal
way of life and live it. When three aboriginal elders from Manitoba go to
visit them, a film crew documents the trip and thus If Only I Were
an Indian is born.
At the start of the film (which kicks off its commercial
distribution with a launch at the Winnipeg Art Gallery November 10th),
the sight of 150 pale, pasty Eastern Europeans -- clad only in thongs,
whooping and dancing around in a pastoral valley -- is amusing to say the
least. But director John Paskievich's sensitive handling of the
situation turns it from a joke to a deeply touching tribute to aboriginal
He begins the film from the perspective of a Cree couple and an
Ojibway woman, all from Manitoba. They are, naturally, shocked by the
sight of these Europeans mimicking their culture. But, focussing on the
teepees (and not the Europeans) that dot the hillsides, the man remarks
on how real the setting appears.
Paskievich quickly takes us to a series of up-close interviews with
the Czechs. They discuss, without irony, how Russian communism left them
lacking any sense of community, able to trust no one but their immediate
family. One man describes how the "Indian" way of life has given him
trusted friends and taught him that "human beings exist as part of a
larger whole and only then does life have meaning." As the film moves
along, their clothing and near-nakedness become less and less absurd.
Paskievich gives some historical perspective to their situation:
well known throughout Europe are the novels of Karl Mays, which portray a
cowboy hero who is helped by aboriginal peoples. And even more popular
are the works of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century naturalist
Ernest Thompson Seton (many of whose stories were set in Manitoba's
Carberry Hills, where he once lived). Seton predicted ecological disaster
if Westerners did not adopt a harmonic acceptance of nature, and he even
encouraged children to attend camps teaching aboriginal ways of life. One
of the Czech "Indians" delivers a touching speech:
As a child, I didn't want to be an astronaut . . . but neither did I want
to be a world record breaking potato sorter . . . we had no role models
except from the Indians of those stories.
By the end of the film, when Paskievich returns to the perspective
of the aboriginals, the humour of the movie becomes touching rather than
mocking: the Czechs demonstrate their version of aboriginal dance for one
of the elders but it is so sloppy and a-rhythmic that he can't join in.
But he doesn't laugh. Instead he says, "it must be hard to learn
traditional dances from a book . . . you need a teacher. That's not
something these people have access to." He even discusses raising funds
so he can fly some of the Czechs to his reserve in Manitoba to teach
them. His comments reveal the film's greatest irony -- that the Europeans
who once crossed the ocean to conquer a culture, now see that same
culture as their only salvation.
Teachers may find the film's sound quality to be inadequate in a
classroom setting, and its nudity (while not gratuitous) to be
potentially distracting to young students. But in the classroom, If
Only I Were an Indian will spark discussion about cultural issues.
Charmagne de Veer is a freelance writer and editor who currently
writes for Herizons magazine.
An interview with filmmaker John Paskievich appears in this issue of CM
Copyright © 1995 the Manitoba Library Association.
Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is
maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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