Volume 2 Number 4

image 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 availability.

Subject Headings:
Indians of North America-Czech Republic-Social life and customs.
Subculture-Czech Republic.
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. . .

image 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 culture.

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.

Highly recommended.

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.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364

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