We learned about the movie last minute and found ourselves biking, a little late, to catch it at this theater neither of us had heard of before. I kind of knew we weren’t going to make it there on time. “There’s always a ton of previews!” my girlfriend reassured me, trying to keep her old bike out of traffic. Indian movies; how often do you get to catch one in the theater? At thirty seven, such things still kind of meant something to me. “I’m not so sure about that!” I yelled back, smiling. “Come on!” she said, ducking down and peddling faster.
We locked up our bikes and rushed into the theater. It was dark, a quiet, red-haired hipster sat at the ticket-taker’s desk; the movie was playing on a screen and we saw that this theater was really just a huge, crumbling, old building with a ton of fold-out chairs in rows and a couple couches in the front for seating; a young Indian boy that made me think of myself when I was a little guy was up on the screen, a river rushing nearby, his grandma with a face like an old pouch full of secrets. “Go find us some seats,” my girlfriend said as I stared up at the screen. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’ll wait.” The boy was saying good-bye to his parents, seeing them off as they paddled away. Will they ever come back? I thought; Can they?
We sat on this comfy couch up near the front; there were only three other people there, sitting by themselves in chairs and apart from each other; I wondered if any of them were Indian. We leaned against each other like we were at home and sunk into the movie, taking to it right away. It wasn’t shoddily made or held together by gum and prayers but was smooth, polished, a story told in scenes and rhythms that quickly cocooned us, carried us under its arm and took us through the boy’s journey; we were happy; good Indian movies are hard to find.
There were the residential schools. Young Indian children squeezed and slammed into the Christian horror house, their braids lopped off, their Native tongue treated like it was an offense against Christ himself, their Indianness like a skin that needed some of the most ugly ripping off you could ever imagine. And there was hockey, Canada’s national sport? Not to give anything away but horse turds used as makeshift pucks, spirited bonding on the ice in a sweet handmade rink in the yard outside the school, falling in love with the game, skating in secret in the early morning light with a smile that you can’t help but know and love because at some point in your life you’ve smiled that innocent smile too. And then there was what happened when the boy became a young man, got adopted out to a family on a reserve that was situated right in the shadow of a sprawling, pollution-spewing mine. The young man’s battle cry and learning through the years with his hockey stick in hand. The opportunities, the racism, the unseen hits, the bombshell. My girlfriend and I felt every beat in the movie, every feeling in the story confirmed by invisible ancestors who were watching the movie with us. “This makes me want to cry,” she whispered. I felt it too but just kept on watching; I was used to it.
When the movie ended we stayed through the credits. I felt like standing up and singing the old thank-you song we always sang in the sweat back home, to honor all the relatives who were made visible through this excellent movie, and because sometimes I feel a great fuck-it and want to unleash a huge whip-snap human solar flare of Indian soul just because there ain’t enough of that in our culture and just because why not? and just because, you know? But I didn’t. I thought of people I know I’ll probably lose most of my memories of someday and silently communed with them as I saw their faces in my mind’s eye. I felt the truth of how impossible it was for our Indian people to ever really vanish. My girlfriend looked over at me. “That was a good movie, huh?” We kissed. When I closed my eyes I saw Niobrara. “Yeah,” I said. “I really liked it.”
I didn’t want to leave the theater, to step out of that spell of big-time, cinematic, Native storytelling; the room crackling and blowing upwards with the faraway/very near energies of my people. One of the people behind us lingered as well. We all got up slowly and made our way to the doors like people who’d shared a real experience, who’d been imprinted by something special, who were a little more human than they’d been before the theater darkened, who had had the bulk of what was truly good in them gratefully increased. We went back out into the New Orleans night and saw a whole city busy and bustling, deflated but fighting, chin-up, striving, recovering, conflicted, joyous, as musical as it gets, painted up, coughing, winding down, flying towards tomorrow with resilience and hope, a place for many, for the two of us, for our love, our story, even a quality Indian movie on the big screen on occasion. We unlocked our bikes and took off into the night, still talking, extra alive and joyous. “That shit really happened?! Can you believe it?! Canada has apologized! Now, it’s America’s turn…!”
The movie was Indian Horse, based on the novel of the same name by Richard Wagamese. You should go and see it if you get the chance.
By Cliff Taylor
Cliff Taylor is an enrolled member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. He has written a book on Native spirituality, The Memory of Souls, a book of short stories about the stand for water in Standing Rock, Standing Rock Stories, and a memoir about coming-of-age in Nebraska, Special Dogs, all of which are unpublished. His dream is to see those books in print and to use his words to help his people. He currently resides in New Orleans, where he is hard at work on his next book. Contact Cliff @firstname.lastname@example.org