Faculty Research: Dr. Randy Lewis discusses new book, ‘Navajo Talking Picture’

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.

Arlene Bowman, 1980

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.

Reading the ripples

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.

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