ROCHESTER, N.Y. – St. John Fisher College’s final contribution to the 2008 Rochester Native American Film Festival on April 6 was an emotional one, prompting tears from guest speaker LeAnne Howe.
Howe was on hand to present ”Indian Country Diaries: Spiral of Fire,” and speak about its creation following the screening. ”Spiral of Fire” is a documentary that showcases her journey to get in touch with her Cherokee roots.
The 2006 documentary primarily focused on Howe’s individual journey. But the deeply personal film touched on many issues that Natives face as well. The film touched on topics such as commercializing Native culture, feeling like second-class citizens compared to non-Natives, and dealing with the diabetes epidemic.
But before any of these issues were highlighted, the audience got an in-depth look at Howe’s life. Howe, the interim director for the American Indian studies program at the University of Illinois, was raised Choctaw but also has Cherokee roots. Howe’s father, whom abandoned her mother before Howe’s birth, is Cherokee.
The documentary follows the Oklahoma native’s journey to Cherokee, N.C., to learn about the father she never knew by discovering his – and also her own – heritage.
”Native stories have power,” Howe says in the opening sequences of the film. ”They burn through our lives like a sacred spiral of fire.”
”Spiral” continuously incorporates spirals into the film. The film’s opening showcases Howe driving through a spiraling mountainous road. The intricate editing also highlights how her individual journey and the Cherokee culture’s quest for preservation swirl together into a metaphorical spiral of long-sought self-acceptance. ”Spiral” often shows Howe looking into the camera telling a personal story and then jumps from her first-person narrative into her conversations and experiences with the Cherokee.
Her first Cherokee experiences were clearly not what she expected.
”I am not prepared for the tourist spectacle I find,” Howe said. The camera shows quick shots of the stereotypical souvenirs such as dream catchers, as Howe rattles off the name of each souvenir in amazement.
Howe incredulously asked Henry Lambert, who dresses up in an elaborate costume to become ”Chief Harry” and charges $5 to get a picture taken with him, about the commercialization of this Cherokee town.
”Who is to criticize anyone on how to make money?” he said matter-of-factly.
It wasn’t mentioned in the documentary, but Howe said Lambert told her he put his children through college with that job.
Making life better for Cherokee children was an important theme of the film.
The Cherokee youth’s struggles to both preserve and heal from a treasured but painful past were highlighted through a traditional non-Native sport – football.
The audience of approximately 50 people cheered along with the students on screen as the Natives won their first victory against a rival non-Native school in two decades, but Howe’s narration raised an interesting point.
”Can a football victory erase years of feeling second class?” she asked.
Sports may not be the answer, but cultural preservation may be the way to instill a permanent sense of pride.
”As soon as you say ‘I’m Cherokee,’ I’m going to expect something out of you – knowledge,” Bo Taylor said to Howe.
Howe spent her trip trying to obtain that knowledge, but admits one major accomplishment still eludes her – learning the language.
”Cherokee language defines who we are,” said Laura Pinnix, on camera. ”If we lose the language, we will not be Cherokee.”
But language is not the only thing being lost. Diabetes is claiming the lives of countless Cherokees.
”What is it that makes us not want to do what we need to do for our health?” asked Patty Grant, commenting on the fact that it is difficult to get Cherokees to acknowledge the severity of the diabetes problem.
It is a severe problem indeed. That subject is what prompted tears from Howe following the screening.
”This breaks me up,” she said, explaining that many of the people shown in the film have since passed away. Howe called it the ”most important, poignant story” because it affects Indian country in ”profound ways.”
But in the film’s conclusion she makes a solemn vow: ”I will speak of the things I have learned on this journey.”
And so she has.