Chapter 6 – Native North America

In this section we will be looking at dreams in First Nations productions, but the category has quite a bit of slip in it between primarily First Nations productions and those made with largely non-Native writers, directors and producers that convey or portray elements of Native American stories and beliefs. Again the films are chosen because of their dream sequences or the address of dreams and their presence and role in characters’ lives, and we will be looking mainly at the relation of dream sequence to narrative whole. The smaller (if ever-growing) rate of production of Native films, and the limitations of distribution, make the choices in this chapter to some degree about availability, so there is some fluctuation between more experimental films and made-for-TV afternoon specials, in many ways is a more immediately visible level of variation. In the following examples, we see many recognizable traits of genre and other cinematic conventions: detective stories, surrealist elements, and the satisfying personal trajectories of central characters. But in these films, in this world, dreams have a different role, a different substance, and we begin to see a very different kind of attention accorded to dreams and visions. Although there is much variation in the following examples, generally it can be said of the dream sequences that there is not the focus on the incoherence or illogic in dreams; there is not the gleeful revelry in the bizarre that we see from the Surrealists; there is not the deeply personalized internal state and nostalgic reverie of Professor Borg in Wild Strawberries; there is no notable interest in science, and dreams do not need to be explained as a phenomenon in the material world. In this world, dreams seem to have a kind of solidity – dreams are something that are taken as messages or even as real events, and are brought into waking life as something requiring corresponding action. Within these examples we see a broad range of storytelling styles, using sometimes loose but other times very strong causal links. We will be looking again at the relationship between dream and waking life – the extent to which they feed one into the other, influence each other, is our main point of interest. The operative question is: how does the world view, the philosophical understanding of dreams and what they are / how they function then relate to the narrative?

Little Big Man

One of the goofy, early cinematic versions of Native American stories is Little Big Man , completed in 1970. The film is epic in scope, but has a tonal levity to it, thanks largely to the slightly cornball performance and narration by main character Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman). The dreams in the film emanate from his adoptive aboriginal “Grandfather” (played by Chief Dan George). We do not see Grandfather’s dreams – they are not visualized and his subjective experience is not explored, they are simply told to and by Hoffman’s character, Jack Crabb. This second-hand telling, or filtration via narrator Jack Crabb creates an ambivalent, semi-investment in the dreams as narrative events – it allows for the events to be spelled out as they have been dreamt, yet the voice-over keeps the relationship between dream and unfolding events in an ambivalent position, on the one hand showing the possible causal connections between dream and reality, and yet told with a question mark, almost a whimsical feel to the telling, as to nostalgic events that seemed magical at the time, but maybe you had to be there.

Grandfather’s dreams are given plenty of articulation via Crabb’s narration, and their visionary, prophetic quality plays out as the film progresses. But the connection between dream and event is made with an ambiguous, questioning tone, leaving the interpretation or direct causal connection quite vague. Although what Grandfather dreams generally comes to pass, the links are left somewhat loose, as second-hand musings. It is a whimsical approach, charming, yet rife with the narrator’s doubt, as he says repeatedly, “now I don’t know why,” remaining non-committal to reading to much cause and effect into anything.

In one interesting example Grandfather dreams of the distress of the tribe’s ponies, but as the moment of the ponies’ distress comes to pass, it is in the middle of a raid by white soldiers. Confused at the presence of the soldiers who were not part of the dream, and trapped in the camp and looking for a means of escape, Hoffman’s character suggests that since there were no soldiers in the dream, they are insignificant. Using a kind of reverse logic on the prophetic nature of Grandfather’s dreams, he figures that since the dream about the ponies did not include the invading soldiers, they themselves must not be visible to the soldiers, and the two of them stumble through the murderous mayhem unharmed. It is a kind of goofy cause and effect reversed – if it was not dreamt, it cannot be.

Suite Indian

Shelley Niro’s 2005 piece, Suite Indian, is an episodic mid-length film composed of various short segments. Niro is a Mohawk artist and filmmaker who works in and speaks to a highly developed dreaming culture so there is a prominence given to dream and vision type sequences in many of her film projects. Most of her films to date have been experimental, or experimental narratives, sometimes performative with either dance or performance art elements, often dipping into a campy aesthetic. Some of the references in her work are very specific to Haudenosaunee culture – in particular there is much retelling of the major cultural narratives of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, two figures of enormous prominence in Haudenosaunee history and storytelling.

One segment from Suite Indian, entitled Mars Thunderchild Gets a Calling, tells the story of a young woman who dreams an elaborate dream of talking to Sitting Bull on the phone about identity and the suffering of different generations. Using a tonal levity, via both absurdism and an animation sequence, she is able to evoke a dream quality and address serious issues. In the dream, Sitting Bull gives Mars Thunderchild “the world”, in the form of a glowing blue disco ball, that she places under her pillow. When she awakens, hidden under her pillow, is the shining blue disco ball – she still has “the world in her hands”. It is a filmic representation of the notion of wishes of the soul being fulfilled immediately. “The force of the unconscious desires of the individual, which are so compelling that ‘it would be cruelty, nay, murder, not to give a man the subject of his dream’.” (Wallace 242) Although the “how” of the dream and waking reality is not a concern, and does not feel necessary given the levity and kitsch symbolic nature of the piece, the need for manifestation of dream wishes and their gratification is conveyed.

Kissed by Lightning

Kissed by Lightning is a feature film by Shelley Niro, which I viewed several times in the rough cut and fine cut stages. It is an exceptionally dream-filled film, highly subjective, and with many strong elements of Haudenausonee culture in content and structure. The film features a complex weave between present and past within the waking narrative as well as the dreams which dominate the film – the waking narrative appearing to be almost secondary to the dreaming narrative. In fact, it is not unlike the approach of Ruiz’ Shattered Image, in that the film is structured and split according to the main character’s psychic struggle. The story involves a woman’s need to let go of her husband who has passed away, and engage fully with a man who loves her in the present. She dreams frequently and vividly, and fragments of the Iroquois Condolence Ceremony are told or explained as a historical story, mixed in with her grief for her husband. The Condolence Ceremony refers back to a story of grief and healing that any Haudenosaunee person would have heard many times – the fragments recalling the whole, the storyteller recalling the tradition in its entirety. It is the story of a ceremony that was brought to the Haudenosaunee people by the Peacemaker, is a running subtly embedded theme, as is the Peacemaker’s journey through the ancestral Iroquois homeland of upstate New York, evoked by the driving trip Mavis (Kateri Walker) and Bug (Eric Schweig) make, stopping at notable landmarks like the Kateri Shrine.

There are several things happening with the dreams on their more personal level – they function as both back story of the main character, Mavis, in the most expository sense, but also as a force with which she must contend in the present. They are her grief alive and in her life in an ongoing vivid way, and yet they also give the keys for healing. Dreams are a substantial element of the film, giving the sensation of the character’s large preoccupation with their content, her longing for her dead husband, Jessie (Michael Greyeyes). Yet this husband character also shares reminds her of the condolence ceremony and this mechanism and capacity for the release of grief.


This 2003 ABC mini-series, directed by Steve Baron and written by John Fusco, is a kind of gorgeous CGI production of the Greatest Hits of Native American Myths strung together into a longer story of a boy and his Grandpa on the road to the pow-wow. Shane (Eddie Spears) is a troubled teen from the Pine Ridge reservation, and Grandpa (August Schellenberg) needs to pass on his stories to his grandson, to help him grow up, and help him make the connection with his culture. Grandpa’s teaching and storytelling begins with the words, “I will tell you as it was told to me. When a young person was seeking his way, looking for answers to guide him on the Good Red Road of life”, he would seek a vision, he would go up on the mountain looking for a dream to show him the way. Eagle Boy (Chaske Spencer) is the main character from Grandpa’s story that runs throughout much of the film, parallel to many of Shane’s misadventures, and he begins the film up on the mountain seeking his vision. Eagle Boy’s story of seeking his path and his power, runs analogous to Shane’s coming of age, weaving structurally through the entire piece.

Eagle Boy’s story and the other stories Grandpa tells are like fables or parables – the fable as guide to behaviour in real life. Eagle Boy’s vision uses striking special effects to give a magicalist sense of the real world erupting, the mountain transforming, revealing itself as an enormous living animal, like a dream in transformative and surprising, impossible ways. This dream / vision is not greeted with ridicule or skepticism, as a crazed delusional hallucination by Eagle Boy or his society, but is a sought after, powerful gift, and a lifelong directive of how life is to be lived, granting strong personal power. Eagle Boy’s vision story is a complex one – his power does not mean a weightless freedom, but in fact brings many burdens with it, on one who can see too far and too deep. “Do you know what power is?”, Grandpa asks Shane. Shane is dismissive of the old ways, as Grandpa tries to instruct him. While the Eagle Boy version of the story contains the vision as the event, the inciting incident which motivates and explains that which follows, it also becomes a parallel for Shane’s story in his contemporary narrative. The stories of the two young men play out in parallel, rendering them both equally vivid and suggesting an interpretation that reads the two stories as one. Shane’s situation finds him in trouble and under pressure to drive his Grandpa to the pow-wow. Both Shane’s path and Eagle Boy’s story are learning stories, calls to maturity, to facing one’s problems and accepting one’s role in life. Eagle Boy’s classic coming-of-age via the vision quest, and his ensuing colourful adventures become a kind of proxy / parallel narrative to Shane’s apparently ordinary modern problems – problems with money and gangs, a remote and absent father. So Shane’s education and maturation piggy-backs on the adventures of Eagle Boy and others as told by Grandpa while they drive many many miles of dry dusty roads.

One of the short stories within the larger narrative about Quillwork Girl, played by Teneil Whiskeyjack. Quillwork Girl dreams quillwork designs and makes the designs she dreams. She dreams of a lodge and seven brothers, so when her mother says to her, “dreams are sacred, they are teachers – they tell us of paths to follow”, she follows the vision, walking alone, followubg where her dream has told her to go. She finds her way to the lodge with the seven brothers, and makes her home there – she finds her purpose there as she has been shown it in the dream. Again, Quillwork Girl’s story shows how a dream offers direct instruction to find what it is the soul longs for – it shows the path leading to the place where one should be, the dream is the guiding light. The dream itself offers knowledge and guidance which then becomes the character’s goal – the character is motivated to fulfill the dream – and that goal is the basis of the story itself, directing and creating the shape of the narrative.


Directed by British filmmaker Michael Apted, and written by John Fusco, Thunderheart (1992) is loosely based on the events in Sioux country in the 1970’s during the rise of the American Indian Movement that led to the detention of Leonard Peltier. (Wikipedia) The film is an interesting hybrid or crossover of cultural and narrative impulses, as it is a star-studded American political suspense film with the clear character delineation and goals, action sequences, strong underlined timelines and causality, but there is a fidelity to the primacy of the dream and the vision in Plains culture. It bears the shape of a Hollywood suspense film, yet the role of visions has been deeply incorporated into the narrative structure of a political thriller.

Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer) is an FBI agent with a job investigating a murder alongside a senior Frank Coutelle (Sam Sheppard) on a Sioux reservation. The revered Coutelle is impatient and dismissive of Levoi’s role and capacity, as is local tribal police officer Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene). Levoi has been placed on this job because his father was native, not because of his credentials, but he is a big city kid, uninterested in his roots. The investigation introduces Levoi to many of the characters on the reservation, most importantly, Grandpa Sam Reaches (Chief Ted Thin Elk), an ancient wizened medicine man known as the spiritual guide of “ARM” (the stand-in for the American Indian Movement). At first impatient and condescending to Sioux traditional ways, necessity forces Ray to begin to drop his guard. The slow rapprochement between Ray and Grandpa Reaches begins to open many doors for Ray, the most important being his insight into and acceptance of his past. This acceptance and coming of age is tightly tied into Ray’s comprehension about what is actually going on behind the murders on the reservation.

Grandpa Reaches is a man of visions who speaks with the spirits – he sees Ray Levoi’s past, his childhood, can read him “like last month’s Sears catalogue”, as Crow Horse puts it. Through these visions, he reveals to us Ray’s back story in the most expository sense, the character’s desire to deny his roots, which becomes an essential plot point, his recovery of self, woven in with the murder investigation. But the way Grandpa Reaches speaks his visions out loud to Ray is very strong dramatically as it becomes not only the revelation of an internal conflict, but deepens the understanding of his conflict with and condescension to the locals. However, as viewers we do not see most of Grandpa Reaches visions, he is not the main character and we are not generally privy to his point of view – we are told of them, and they are presented as insight and later as instruction on how to proceed. The spirits deliver instructions about what must be done. His dreams are not video montages of what is about to happen or a mysterious string of images, they are instruction for what needs to be done to succeed again the evil corrupt forces of Frank Coutelle and the corrupt local gang.

When Ray Levoi begins to have dreams / visions, we do see his visions, we do experience his subjectivity as the main character. Ray has shimmery waking sightings of the Ghost Dance, drifting off in his car, he dreams of “running with the old ones” as Crow Horse calls it, and he dreams of what he is going to see, what exists for him to discover about himself, who he is, and from whence he came. The dream sequences are realistic, not heavy on effects, and in the same landscape, appearing to be real life until Ray startles awake in his car, sweaty and confused. These dreams reveal information and knowledge – what he needs to know, what he almost can see, what he is about to do to understand who he is. It becomes clear that this is a deep driving unconscious character motivation, linked to, yet also distinct from the external goal of discovering the truth about the murder under investigation. His identity, his sense of self, and his ability to be empowered as an individual, and as an individual in service to the greater good of the community, is rooted in the ancestral memories being revealed to him in his dreams. His ability to understand the assistance being given to him by the residents of the reservation opens up exponentially, and he begins to grasp the significant role that he must play in helping the community in the grip of pernicious problems – the corruption and violence of local politicians, the poisoning of the waters, the ongoing shootings and murders. Ray’s determination as an FBI agent to find out the truth about the murder that opens the film ends up requiring that he have insight about who he is on a deeper level, and what this place and community are really about, to help him overcome the ruses and obstacles set out by his FBI partner, Frank Coutelle.

If we compare for a moment the dream elements of Thunderheart to those in From Hell, we see that Detective Abberline’s visions give him fragments of the present and / or future, of what is or what is to come in pictures, but without truly helpful clues about who or where or why. In Thunderheart, Grandpa Reaches appears at first glance to get visions that are similar to this – he sees the past, he sees Ray’s childhood and his older lineage and heritage, his connection to the ancestral Thunderheart. Ray also begins to receive these flashes of the past, of his own childhood, but also what has been in the past with these people, with his people. However Grandpa Reaches speaks his visions aloud to Ray, as though pulling the pain and denial to the surface – they have a healing, cathartic role. And the spirits have told him that this Ray person has an important role to play in the community. Further, we can see that Grandpa Reaches also gets another kind of vision which is not about the past, but involves instructions from the spirits on what must be done – the spirits say Ray and Walter Crow Horse must go to Red Deer Table together – they must go as two. The spirits say so. The visions guide Grandpa Reaches on what should happen, what path it would be best to follow – even if it seems unreasonable or unlikely. Walter Crow Horse insists they must not mess with the visions, and Jimmy Looks Twice (John Trudell) also berates Ray for not following up. This message from the spirits in a vision thus become an imperative that is discussed as a community, and the individual who does not follow instruction is pressured to do so.

The chain of cause and effect thus originates to some degree from the vision. There is a problem in the community; the vision supplies instruction on action required; and after some delay in Ray’s ability to take this seriously, the instruction is followed. And when the two finally drive out to Red Deer Table it becomes clear that what is really going on is illegal uranium mining and the various shootings and murders are a cover up, involving none other than his own FBI partner, Coutelle.
Folded into the film is a retelling of the Wounded Knee incident, when 300 people were gunned down for participating in the Ghost Dance. One of those killed was named Thunderheart, who was killed while running for the Stronghold, a geographical landmark. What is placed in Ray’s lap is the responsibility to rise to a vision of Thunderheart reincarnate – “Thunderheart has come to a troubled place to help his people – that’s what I’m told”, says Grandpa Reaches. So when Ray and Crow Horse drive to the Stronghold at the end of the film, it is an echo, a following of the path of the original Thunderheart.

Throughout this film we see causality as a powerful narrative force, in the service of a culture of dreams and visions – where the dream is progressive rather than regressive. Dreams and visions are not so much about the past, but must be acted upon. A dream imposes an imperative to action – it is an event, a directive, telling the character what must happen next, even if they don’t know why, they must follow through.

The Journals of Knud Rasmussen

Written and directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, collaborators for many years, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2007) is an exceptional example of a feature deeply connected to a living culture. The Kunuk / Cohn partnership has produced numerous videos and more recently feature films using a unique process of community involvement and collaboration. Born from a video artist background, they have worked for years totally off the Hollywood grid, less influenced by the imperatives of a classical narrative structure and more by the bringing to life a culture in its recent past for the enrichment of that same culture in its current form.

Based on the actual journals of explorer Knud Rasmussen, “during Rasmussen’s ‘Great Sled Journey’ of 1922” (Wikipedia), the occasional use of voice overs of the women, Apak (Leah Angutimarik) and Orulu (Neeve Irngant), immediately gives a feeling of a documentary, of the capturing of a time. The “plot” or story, is a fairly simple one where several white men have met up with famous shaman Avva (Pakak Innuksuk) and ask him to guide and accompany them to Iglulik. But it is more about the demise of a community and in particular the family of Avva, who struggle to maintain their traditional ways in a period when it is difficult not to move towards integration into larger Christianized communities in the 1920’s. While it is clear that Avva, the father, wants to maintain his culture and his community and is in a fight against hunger in the effort to keep his values alive, this powerful conflict is played out slowly, cryptically at first, never overstated.

We can see that the basic structure is one where the Inciting Incident (foreigners arrive and ask for travel companions) is followed by Complications (travel through blizzards with no food) and Crisis (the arrival at Iglulik and being forced to choose between food and Christianity), through to the very sad Resolution (where Avva gives up and sends his spirit helpers away). But the film never has a sense of singularity of focus on this story arc or on character motivations and goals. It is in this context that it is perhaps helpful to remember Kroker’s point about storytelling that “suspense, passive curiosity as to what happens next, was of little interest.” (2) Instead, scenes unfold without obvious purpose towards the unfolding of the “plot”. They reveal and explain values, ways of thinking; the reason or method for becoming a shaman; the nature of Spirit Helpers and Shadow People. Or they are scenes of the endless voyages across the snow, the meals shared, the laughter and dances of the community. It is part of the “large rhetorical structure”. (Kroker 4) This exploration of the culture as it was disappearing, the intensity and uniqueness of the spiritual values are the heart of the film.
The dreams in the film belong to Apak, Avva’s daughter, who dreams of having sex with her dead husband. Spatially, her dreams are massive on the screen – they are unusually close up, unlike the style of the rest of the film. The large washed out images of her face and body during sex suggest an intense subjectivity, as though deeply inside her experience, though the rest of the film does not necessarily follow her primarily. Although she narrates a little at the beginning, it is only a brief narration – later, her mother speaks as though in an interview. And the main character is really Avva, whose fight to save his traditional ways is the main story – the intense identification with Apak’s point of view as a dreamer does not mean a connection to a central conflict theory in a big way with her character. However it does create a strong point of identification with her as one of the sources of tension feeding her father’s losing battle to hold on to the culture. The essentially paratactic nature of these two story lines and the lack of a clear central focus on one character – this shared center of the narrative between father and daughter – is part of what is unusual in the film.

Within this generally loose narrative, her dreams, though subjective experiences, do have consequences and repercussions – they have an impact in the external world. Although they are her subjective experience, everyone seems to know about them. Her grandfather, a Chesire Cat of a character, is there watching and chuckling (or is he?) and / or makes his way into the dreams themselves. Various people tease her about “having sex with a dead man” – this is something to comment on; they are a social event. Her first boyfriend, Nuqallaq (Natar Ungalaq) reappears in their lives and teases her, asking whether she has to do “all the work” when having sexual relations with dead people. Worse, these dreams are a disappointing waste of her talents, according to her father. He complains, “the only child of mine with the power to call the spirits and she wastes it having sex with her dead husband”. So the dream and the spirit of her husband are in a sense, real, of enough substance to create trouble – it is considered an act that she is engaged in, not a dream. Dreams and visions are not less real than waking life, and are considered alongside elements of waking life. They actively form part of the narrative, these tensions around Apak’s activities forming a kind of loose sub-plot.

Also unusual and notable in the film are Avva’s spirit helpers. They are rendered realistically, simply as people, quiet but present – they are not other-worldly in any obvious sense. His female namesake helper in particular is present in a number of scenes, simply sitting unobtrusively in corners. The final scene of the film where Avva says goodbye to his helpers, insisting they leave him, and they reluctantly turn and begin to walk away, wailing, is a heartbreaking goodbye both to them and to a way of life he has to give up.


%d bloggers like this: