Native spirit

A season of films celebrates the struggles of indigenous peoples

Coming on the heels of the glamour this month of the London Film Festival, the third Native Spirit Festival, presented by Native Spirit Foundation, offered a quieter, more serious programme. Hidden away from Southbank and the buzz of Leicester Square, the programme location was divided between the Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre in Shoreditch, the 16mm Cafe in Soho, and Fitzrovia's Bolivar Hall.

The Native Spirit Festival aims "to promote cultural exchange, self-respect, social and environmental awareness" by showcasing films and performances about and by indigenous peoples from across the globe, from the Navajos to the Maoris.

The backdrop to most of the films in the programme was the struggle to control the way indigenous people's stories are told to the outside world. Also prominent were the more tangible aims of economic development, education and compensation. For example, Wiek Lenssens's Pidislan's Gold and Nicolas Defosse's La Yerbabuena: a Community in Resistance tell all-too-familiar tales of communities facing eviction from their land and grappling with pollution from industrial development. Pidislan's Gold focuses on the pollution by mining of the north Philippines pastures of the Igorot people. La Yerbabuena celebrates the peasant communities of Colima in Mexico, a town at the foot of a huge active volcano, who are resisting eviction with the aid of the Zapatistas.

Central to the preservation of a people's identity is language. Lena Ellsworth's striking documentary Ulummi is told from the point of view of young Inuit people from Nunavik and Nunavu, in the far north of Canada. Isolated not only by the harsh weather but also by the unresolved battle between Inuit tradition and the ravages of capitalism, the Inuit also suffer higher-than-average suicide rates, as well as devastating levels of alcohol and drug abuse. Decades ago, forcible re-education of Inuit children resulted in a huge decline in the use of the native Inuktitut language. Today, the teaching of Inuktitut (or lack of it) in schools is at the centre of the struggle to reconcile tradition with modernity. Many parents worry that Inuktituk will fade out in a few generations and are working to reverse the tide.

Bennie Klain's Weaving Worlds, which is focused on the Navajo, shows how hard it is to strike a balance between the preservation of an old culture and survival in a modern economy. Klain is interested in the relationship between the Navajo rug-weavers of New Mexico and Arizona and the traders who helped export their now-famous and expensive rugs (an original antique rug can fetch up to half a million dollars at auction) around the world. Are the white traders -- some of whom have even taken the trouble to learn Navajo -- helping the nation by offering Navajos a way into the global economy, as some of them claim, or are they exploiting the people by paying far less than the rugs are worth?

Although it doesn't enjoy the LFF's crowd pull or its column inches in the press, the Native Spirit Festival's mix of short films and lengthier documentaries offers an illuminating and important alternative. And it reminds us that indigenous peoples across the world continue to struggle with the legacy of five centuries of invasion and colonisation.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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