Volume II Number 4

Interview: John Paskievich

director of If Only I Were an Indian

CM interviewed award-winning director John Paskievich November 9th, the night before the launch of If Only I Were an Indian at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

CM: During the movie the view of these Europeans who dress up as Indians changes, from seeing them from the outside, as somewhat absurd, to seeing them more sympathetically, more as they see themselves. Did your perspective change while you were making the film?

Paskievich: It changed, but not so much when I was making the movie, as when I was doing the actual research. I went over there on Aeroplan points, actually, just to see what these Czechs and Slovaks were about -- I thought I might just make a novelty piece on a bunch of eccentrics. But while I was researching them, I found there was a lot there, and that these individuals were incredibly articulate and knowledgable about the world, and my attitude changed.

When I told the natives in Manitoba about this, their attitude was pretty much like mine at the start; they assumed these people were just eccentrics. And I didn't argue otherwise; I wanted them to experience what these people were about on their own.

CM: How would you sum up the attitude of the native elders?

image Paskievich: At first they were sceptical. They had an open mind, but still a sceptical attitude. But then they really liked these people, they liked what they saw and the hard work the Indian activity involves -- everything over there is done by hand; here often the native artifacts are made in a much more commercial fashion. Even bead-work is something that relies on industrial goods. But the Czechs and Slovaks use only quills, rather than beads, for decoration. Though they have to use hedgehog quills, because there aren't any porcupines.

The elders were also impressed by the European's spirituality; that's something they weren't expecting. So the elders liked them. There was no animosity at all, just some scepticism at the beginning -- it would be like a Scotsmen visiting the Orient and finding this group of Asians who played the bagpipes and wore kilts . . .

CM: What did you take away from making If Only I Were an Indian?

image Paskievich: I learned that all things are possible in human affairs in terms of sociology or anthropology. That all things are possible and too often we use boxes when we talk about issues like racism, for example. That to me is always a stupid issue; there's no such thing as race; people all blend together. But people in power seem to want to box people in, whether it's to keep power, or to help people, or to fight oppression. The whole issue of cultural appropriation has to do with boxes. I find the box thinking clumsy, and it doesn't make any sense. For instance at the Art Gallery opening (on November 10th), a company run by natives in Manitoba is supplying the soft drinks -- they've adopted white business culture. I wanted that because it seemed to me to parallel what these Czechs and Slovaks were doing in adopting native culture.

All these lines we've drawn are artificial. Talk about race doesn't make sense; you have to deal with specifics. I've always felt that, but this film made it immediate to me. Individuals can make themselves anything they want to -- Grey Owl was an Englishman, but he wanted to be an Indian, and I don't find that scandalous; why not? But at the same time of course, individuals and nations and groups do exploit others; that is so.

But I think the age of ideology is over. One of the horrible things about our century is that it has been the age of ideology. Political and cultural ideology, and even things like psychology, which was almost an ideology. It's all positivism, all-encompassing systems that profess to hold the truth, and it turns out everything is more complicated than that.

CM: This is a film about culture; I have to ask what your own cultural background is.

Paskievich: I grew up in an ethnic, working-class culture; I emigrated as a boy, after the war, in the fifties. My parents were illiterate refugees. The were victims of an ideology as well. From Ukraine. That's where some of my perspective comes from.

CM: Your film couldn't help but remind me that in North America, thousands of people try to recreate European medieval history in the Society for Creative Anachronism; and here were Europeans trying to recreate North American history . . .

image Paskievich: I think you're going to see more of that; you're going to see all kinds of people seeking a kind of cultural intimacy of their own. In a way, we don't have a culture anymore. We have high culture, with the opera and the symphony; and we have low culture, with things like hockey and baseball; and then we have pop culture, which is different from popular culture -- pop culture is all business. What we don't have is a culture where all people get together and have rituals. Churches used to provide that, but I think most people now, that great middle class, are culture-less. Nobody knows how to dance or sing at ritual events . . .

What keeps the mass culture we have going is novelty, and money. But if we ever have a society with less money, I'm not sure what's going to happen, because we're kind of a culture-less society. We have a culture of work. Even people with lots of money put in eighteen hour days at work. . . It's all kind of strange.

A review of If Only I Were an Indian 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

Go back to CM Welcome page Go back to Table of Contents for this Issue