Update (Dec. 21): This article was published prior to news that broke on Dec. 17, which put Michelle Latimer’s Indigenous identity under scrutiny. The film Inconvenient Indian has been pulled from active release. The news about Latimer’s contested heritage has sparked notable dialogue with Indigenous creators, particularly as it pertains to identity and ancestry and documentary ethics. Latimer has noted on social media that she stands by her claims of ancestry and seeks to prove them in time. We are monitoring this story as it develops, and are using it as a learning experience. We are committed to sharing Indigenous perspectives, including more aggressive outreach for participants within our organization. We sincerely apologize for any distress our coverage may have caused. As a documentary publication, POV appreciates the role of trust that is inherent in documentary filmmaking, and we will hold ourselves to higher standards to repair and maintain this trust.
Update: (Jan. 5): Please read our full statement and apology here.
– Pat Mullen, publisher, POV Magazine.
The first Indian to appear before a motion picture camera danced in a short vignette called Sioux Ghost Dance (1894). There’s no evidence that what was filmed for this, one of the first of Thomas Edison’s series of “actualities,” was actually a Ghost Dance. Whether or not it authentically shows what it claims to depict, it has been nevertheless immortalized in celluloid and thus in film history.
What’s true is that Indian dancing was strictly forbidden at the time. Exceptions were made, however, for entertainment and ethnography—in other words, for white pleasure and study. The dancers filmed were performers in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, who were forbidden to dance or wear traditional dress in the comfort of their own communities but were allowed to do so for the amusement and money of white audiences in Europe and the United States.
And the Ghost Dance, the spiritual movement that encouraged its followers to break the law by dancing, was considered especially dangerous; it prophesied the return of land and the ancestors back to the Indigenous. In 1890, the United States deployed half its standing army to crush that dream, killing hundreds of dancers at Wounded Knee four days after Christmas. Before the dancers could be captured on film, first other Lakota people had to die.
From 1887 to 1906, the Wild West shows staged thousands of mock Indian battles. Custer’s Last Stand was a notable crowd-pleaser the losing side turned a defeat at the hands of the Indigenous into a heroic triumph. In the make-believe version, re-enactors fired blanks at each other. The losers of that battle—the cowboys—didn’t need real weapons any more to kill their enemies—the Indians—when their own fairytale legends did it for them. The moral of the story is that Indians don’t win even when we do.
Michelle Latimer’s Inconvenient Indian shatters this narrative. Latimer, a Métis and Algonquin filmmaker, uses Sioux Ghost Dance and other archival footage to show how Indians have been directed by white filmmakers largely for the consumption of white viewers. What if the Indian re-enactors in the Wild West shows (some of whom had a hand in making Custer famous by killing him at the Battle of Greasy Grass in 1876) did the directing, and loaded live rounds into their repeating rifles to make a mock battle a real one again—to not only kill the stereotypes and myths once and for all but also to make Custer’s Last Stand really his last? The stakes are much higher when the tables are turned, the gaze redirected, and sights aimed at entirely doing away with the tired tropes.
Latimer’s film does this in a way that says, “Not today, Pilgrim,” to an industry that has been, from its inception, profoundly anti-Indigenous. But hers is as much critique as it is revolutionary storytelling.
“Part of the issue of Western civilization is that the past remains in the past,” she tells me. “We walk everyday with our ancestors. Our past and our future are right now.” Nations like the United States and Canada are trapped by their inglorious pasts, which inform how they behave in the present and imagine a future, no matter how much they try to ignore or “reconcile” with it. Canada 150, the national campaign that commemorated the country’s 150 years of existence in 2017, commemorated “the worst 150 years for Indigenous people,” the Cree artist Kent Monkman remarks in the film. Indigenous people are an inconvenience because they are long-memoried, very present, and came before on a land that is supposed to be settled.
Latimer’s film is inspired by Thomas King’s book The Inconvenient Indian, and he is the film’s main narrator, reading detonator passages from his bestseller: “We don’t need the truth—we have the legend,” King says of the Custer mythology, and he recites his famous line, “The truth about stories is that’s all we are.” Building on King’s trickster spirit—poking, prodding, teasing at harmful tropes—Latimer goes further. Her film takes place eight years after the book was published, in a cultural landscape that seems to have profoundly shifted and radically altered the craft of Indigenous artists like herself. While the book is something of a monologue serendipitously published in the year of the Idle No More movement, the film is a chorus of voices inspired by the multitudinous spirit of Indigenous movements, like that of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock in 2016.
“I wanted it to be a collective voice,” she says, not just experts and celebrity interviews. “Almost like a Greek chorus.” That shift in style came while she was directing the series RISE for Viceland. It happens quite noticeably on screen between the two episodes on the Standing Rock movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. The first episode features Anishinaabe narrator and host, Sarain Fox. The second episode has no main narrator but tells the story of Standing Rock through a diverse spectrum of Indigenous voices that come to define the struggle—a method mastered in Inconvenient Indian. Some of those interviews were the last things she taped while in Standing Rock, Latimer recalls. “That interview space became like a confessional,” she says. “It was the perfect marriage of the right time, the right place, and the right energy. We were enough into the conflict that people were ready to talk.”
When I ask about this choice with her new work, Latimer recites a Louis Riel quote from memory: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” Movements, after all, transform art, and artists, in turn, inspire movements.
“I felt like this film [Inconvenient Indian] was a healing journey for me coming out of Standing Rock,” she explains. Latimer was on the ground for nine months beginning in April 2016, when the encampment began, long before the major news outlets showed up. In fact, it’s where we first met. (She and I shared roadkill deer stew by the fireside in my relatives’ camp, and we called her Xena because of her striking resemblance to Lucy Lawless.) We both witnessed, and she filmed, the urgency of that moment: its beauty and unsettling violence. An Indigenous movement galvanized so much possibility; it was an election year much like 2020 when authoritarianism loomed large, and the police behaved with utter depravity against powerful Indigenous prayers as much as they do against Black aspirations for justice. Like many in Indian Country, the Standing Rock experience fundamentally altered our psyches and spirits, clearly demarcating what’s possible, which became exponentially greater than what’s not.
Latimer uses Inconvenient Indian to bring that Indigenous spirit back. As much as it’s filled with righteous anger, it’s not a protest movie. As much as it critiques whiteness, it’s not central. “The greatest presence whiteness has in the film, besides the police montage, is probably through industry,” she tells me, referencing the Mordor-like images of the Alberta tar sands development that drives the Canadian fossil fuel economy. (There’s also a scene depicting a Halloween parade of white partygoers wearing headdresses, feathers, and fake buckskin.) Instead, Latimer aims to show “what it looks like living in our full potential and our full power.” But that doesn’t make the stories easier to tell.
“I wanted a poetic response,” she says to me. The film is more of an essay—what she calls “a meditation” told in a non-linear way—that explores the ideas King puts forth in his book. The film begins with a fictionalized hunter in stereotypical Plains Indian garb, such as the ubiquitous headdress, discovering a city intruding upon a pristine green prairie landscape. It’s the Toronto skyline, a cityscape that King cruises through in the backseat of a taxi driven by Coyote, played by Gail Maurice, a Two-Spirit Métis actor. The two become recurring figures alongside Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman’s alter ego. There is a subtle nuance a casual viewer may not understand about the decolonization of sexuality through the trickster personas of Coyote and Miss Chief, who embody the spectrum of sexualities and desires that exist outside and beyond the heteronormative binaries imposed upon Indigenous people by Europeans. These figures are “the antithesis to settler colonialism,” Latimer explains. In other words, inconvenient Indians.
Another figure that plays a prominent role is the hunter. We follow an Inuit hunter on a canvas of white ice directing the cameraman to “get down” as he whispers something in his Indigenous language (perhaps a prayer), puts a seal in his crosshairs, and takes his shots. He drives his snow machine to finish off his kill by clubbing the animal to death. Latimer says when the film was first screen-tested, some viewers expressed concern over the clubbing. That’s why she juxtaposed the distribution of the seal meat with images of police attacking Water Protectors at Standing Rock and Land Defenders in Wet’suwet’en Territory, which occurred just months before the film was released. “If you’re not okay with a seal being killed on camera but you’re okay with hundreds of our people being shot with rubber bullets and tear gas,” she says, “there’s a problem.”
“The hunter is the most inconvenient Indian of everyone,” Latimer says to me. “He doesn’t need the state to survive. He can provide for himself and his family. He’s comfortable on the land. He’s grounded in his traditions, and he’s providing for the community.”
“We are the land, and the land is us,” the Métis artist Christi Belcourt says. She’s in a culture camp where youth grow traditional foods and carry on entire conversations in Anishinaabemowin. There are no subtitles, no clues to help the uninitiated. “We don’t have a right to things, we have a responsibility to the land,” Belcourt continues. It’s a reminder that this isn’t a voyeuristic exercise. Latimer imparts a message to the audience: you only have the right to know what we want you to know, to see what we want you to see; you have a responsibility, however, to listen, observe, and act appropriately as visitors to this land and story. This kind of filmmaking is like an Indigenous language itself, fundamentally built as a relationship between subject and object and audience; it is a storytelling technology that is embedded in the values and cultures that come from the land.
The style contrasts greatly with what is considered the first feature-length documentary film, Nanook of the North (1922). During filming, Robert Flaherty, the white director, asked Inuit people to use harpoons to hunt, not the rifles and modern technology that the hunters were most comfortable with, explains Nyla Innuksuk, an Inuit filmmaker. The documentary genre’s origins have much in common with museums, where Indians are supposed to be dead specimens of a bygone era. Again, Latimer breathes a spirit back into the stories.
That spirit-giving breath is audible throughout the brilliantly revised version of the originally silent Nanook by Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, who in 2012 composed a mesmerizing soundtrack to the film, which featured her ancestors. It is a visceral reclamation of voice. The soundscapes of Inconvenient Indian are as evocative and pleasurable as the landscapes. You have to pay close attention to both to understand what they’re saying. Telling the story are knife scrapes on a seal carcass, the buzz of a tattoo gun, the powwow step of the club bumping A Tribe Called Red, and the atmospheric music of Indigenous artists Laura Ortman, Ziibiwan, and Melody McKiver, which are juxtaposed with the jarring noises of bustling cities and the industrial machinery of mining.
The era of truth and reconciliation figures prominently in the film. Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril is helping bring back traditional face tattoos. But there is an uneasiness about Indigenous cultural advances and the feelings are complex. Arnaquq-Baril says it’s painful for a “middle generation”—the adults old enough to have lived through an era of residential schools and forced adoptions to see young people reclaiming their identity and culture. And for Latimer it was also painful.
As we’re about to get off the phone, Latimer tells me about her mother. “She was deeply Catholicized,” says Latimer, and has a difficult time reconciling that with her Indigenous heritage. But Latimer was raised to be proud of who she is. Although she attended public school, on Fridays Catholic nuns would teach class. “Animals can’t love,” one nun told the young Latimer: “Only humans can love.” She was so upset she told her parents. “It was the antithesis of what I learned at home,” she recalls. “I stood outside the principal’s office while mom reamed him out,” she remembers. “She protected us and she made a different future for us, even if she couldn’t deal with it on her own.”
The story resonates with a broader message of the film: Canada’s truth and reconciliation seems to be aimed more at letting Canada get over the guilt of Indigenous genocide than at assuaging the trauma of those who survived genocide.
Inconvenient Indian represents continuity and rupture with that past, aiming for an unapologetic Indigenous future. The end of the film is actually the beginning of the whole story. It ends with Thomas King sitting down with the director Michelle Latimer to begin the real story. Latimer has created an invitation to cross that threshold with her, staking out a new perspective that provincializes white supremacist empires like the United States and Canada. She acknowledges the price of the ticket might be too much for those attached to the false promise of a redemption narrative. The future of film is Indigenous. The first step is to kill the colonizer in your head and the one behind the camera.