This past July, Dr. Randy Lewis published his third book, Navajo Talking Picture (University of Nebraska Press). I sat down with Randy to discuss the conception of the book, its challenges, its delights, and how the narrative he tells engages with broader conversations within American Studies and beyond.
Where did the idea for this book come from? How did the film [Navajo Talking Picture] and the filmmaker [Arlene Bowman] come onto your radar screen initially?
Probably about ten years ago, I realized that there wasn’t much scholarly literature in film studies and none in American Studies on Native American cinema or indigenous media in a global sense. I started thinking about how to remedy that. I began collecting texts to consider and got deep into Alanis Obomsawin’s work, which I thought was just going to be a chapter of a book that would look at some of the major figures in Native American cinema who had been neglected. It just kept going into a book. It’s hard to imagine this, but it was the first one devoted to a Native filmmaker. This says something about how much “Native art” is narrowly associated with traditional art forms in opposition to modern, technologically-dependent art forms, as well as how rarely Native people have been able to get their points of view on screen, even as they are obsessively represented by outsiders like John Ford.
While I was writing the Obomsawin book that came out in 2006, I was aware that I had these other things that I was really interested in. Part of it stemmed from writing in the southwest at the School of Advanced Research in Santa Fe for a year. I was really close to Navajo Nation, and I was coming across a lot of amazing Navajo artists and getting a sense that not only were they doing a lot with Navajo-language radio on the reservation, but there were a lot of Navajo media professionals doing all kinds of projects that were not on the film studies or American Studies radar. And I learned that there was a Navajo filmmaker named Arlene Bowman, who was really early in this story of Native filmmaking, who seemed to interest and dismay audiences equally. I wanted to see this film she made as a graduate student that had made a little splash in the 1980s when it came out, at a time when she was the first Native woman in film school at UCLA or probably anywhere else.
So I watched the film called Navajo Talking Picture, and I found it kind of confusing and unfamiliar. Then I’d show it to other people, to friends and students. What got me really hooked on it was that I had never seen something upset people and divide audiences so much. Apparently back in the 1980s when she screened it at festivals, Bowman said, there were these camps that were set up. Some people said, “You have the right to make this film, and you have a right to put your traditional grandmother on film even if she appears unwilling.” And other people would say, “This is an example of everything that you should not do in documentary.”
As I started to register the depth of the divide and the racially-infused animosity, I became interested in the film itself as a cultural object, as a kind of wound, as I write in the book. I’m probably more interested in this question of wounding – or, let’s use the metaphor of a rock and ripples, because I have to have my eccentric metaphors. The rock is the text under consideration, and it drops into the pond of the culture, and it creates ripples. The ripples are the things that really fascinated me: why there were so many strange responses and strange resonances to this very small film.
The fact that it’s a film almost became incidental. I became fascinated by what you could learn about the way different audiences responded. About why some viewers had such strong expectations about what Native artists, or Native women, were “supposed to do.” About what was “authentic” and “appropriate” for Native artists, things we rarely ask about non-native artists, you know? I ended up writing some of the first pieces about the reception and intentionality involved in the reception of native art. Why do we want it to be this way and not that way? Why do we think it was meant to do x and not y? And who is the “we”? These are revealing questions in terms of race, power, and gender.
I’ve done a little bit of reception work, and I took a course in reception studies, and I’m always fascinated by how hard it is. Were there any challenges that you confronted in taking that approach? Was there anything particularly difficult about the process as a whole, if you’d like to broaden it out?
It was just one chapter that focused literally on reception of audiences, and the other chapters are addressing larger kinds of ripples and resonances having to do with our ideas about the southwest, ideas about Indian art and earlier kinds of novels about Navajos, family portrait cinema, cultural nationalism, etc. But reception is about the hardest thing you can work on. It’s a maddeningly challenging proposition to try to figure out what audiences are really making of a particular text, based on all the psychological variations and cultural factors that are operating.
The best you can do – well, I don’t know if it’s the best you can do – but what I did was I’d watch people watching. Talk to them. Have conversations with them for an hour or so about the screening experience. Collect their Rorschach comments anonymously and wade through them. Like I said before, I realized that people had a lot of assumptions about what a Native American artist, and in particular a Native American woman, “should be doing” and “should not be doing.” That fascinated me. I wanted to really dig at these assumptions and all the baggage that audiences bring to this film.
Was there any one aspect of the whole process that you found most fulfilling?
I’m embarrassed that I’m going to use another metaphor. But there’s a way in which, for people who really love writing, that it’s almost like ironing out wrinkles at a certain point. When you have something that’s drafted pretty well, and you’re really smoothing it so that the prose is very fluid and the ideas are really clear, that’s kind of a joyful experience for me. I love doing that. I know that’s maybe kind of weird, because I do hate literally ironing. But they always say that writing is rewriting. The rewriting, if you feel like it’s close to what you want it to be, is really pleasurable and satisfying.
What’s not satisfying is when you’re mystified, wondering, “Why is this not working?” and then you realize that you need to cut that whole page or you don’t have a leg to stand on with what you’re saying somewhere down in the conceptual basement. I think one thing that I really appreciated about the last project was that I gave myself the space to make those pivots, some with humility, some rather boldly I think, where you are moving around a lot, weighing everything that comes into view in this fantastically wide open space of American studies. I feel like there was a kind of poetry and judiciousness simultaneously at work in that process. That was the first time that I let myself do that fully in a book project, I think.
I want to ask about how the book is in dialogue with what there is in American Studies. If there isn’t much in the genre itself, what kind of gaps do you see it filling? Is it in conversation with any particular books or scholarly trajectories that you were explicit about?
That’s a hard question. There are probably ways that it could have been more explicitly in dialogue with certain texts in American Studies now. But when I started working on Native film, I felt so disappointed by what American Studies had to say about this phenomenon generally that I would have had to stretch to accommodate too much to what was out there. I didn’t want to plug into the normative circuitry. I wanted to do something else, something that came organically out of me and the subject equally.
The people who I was in more genuine, organic engagement with – many of them were in Anthropology, English departments, and Native American Studies, and especially Native scholars such as Craig Womack, who wrote Red on Red to get into the vagaries and challenges of tribal centrism and who has a right to speak about native art. Did I have a right to say anything about this? Did Arlene have a right to speak about her more traditional grandmother? These are the questions that Womack and other native literary critics have explored. And the cultural nationalism question afloat in Native American Studies was much more powerful and relevant than anything in “American Studies” broadly. Some of those scholars consider themselves also American Studies as well, of course, but their interests weren’t widely shared in ASA as I saw it five or ten years ago.
Can I add one meta-comment about American Studies at a national level? There are certain aporias and also odd emphases in American Studies as a field at any given moment and I feel them quite acutely in recent years. ASA is shifting, and it’s not what it was 5, 10, or 20 years ago even, at least as the field is represented in American Quarterly and ASA as a convention. You go to that conference and it feels like there are some things that are really in motion but that motion is also weirdly static. Like there are a thousand gerbils in a thousand wheels running as fast as they can in the same direction. Yes, of course, there’s a lot of intellectual energy and a lot of brilliant people doing extremely interesting things. But when you step back from it, you realize they’re really running in the same direction, channeling the same energies, the same theories, the same methods.
I’m always interested in the people who are running in other directions, fleeing from orthodoxy (or somehow productively unaware of it). The people who don’t fit at ASA but who have a lot to say about the state of this country. You realize that professional conferences like ASA don’t cover 90% of what’s happening in the culture. What’s happening in the streets and in the minds of most Americans is often unaddressed at ASA. I say that with sadness and also a recognition that ASA does provide a great deal of heat and light in its own way. I’m glad it’s there, but it’s not what makes me tick. I suppose it has become narrowed in a way that the interdisciplinary space of American Studies in its ideal form would not be for me. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and probably won’t stay that way. It’s like they say about the weather back in Oklahoma. “If you don’t like it, stick around ‘cuz it’ll change.”