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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If tattoos could talk: Glen Campbell's life in music

The late singer made a trade of music, and made it look easy.

There was a rudimentary tattoo on his left upper arm, which he’d given himself at the age of nine: a small cartoon dagger, scratched with a needle and filled with ink, 72 years ago, in the yard of the house he shared with 11 brothers and sisters in Bills­town, Arkansas. In his last years, doing interviews about Alzheimer’s in his final home of Nashville, he’d wear T-shirts and you could just make out the tip of the dagger emerging from his sleeve. But for decades you wouldn’t have seen it, beneath flower-power shirts on his late-1960s TV show, or the fitted tuxedos of the 1970s, as he played the “William Tell Overture” on his guitar with the philharmonics of the world.

His accent came and went, too, as he adapted his vowels and crossed his Ts for the sophisticated compositions of his regular musical partner Jimmy Webb, another southerner making his way in LA. Campbell was the son of a sharecropper but he didn’t like getting his hands dirty. When he left home at 14 to become a musician, it was a practical move for the family – the money was good, and without him there was more room in the house.

As the first-call guitarist in the elite LA session group the Wrecking Crew, he played on 500 tracks in one year. Carole Kaye, who later delivered the bass line on his most famous song, “Wichita Lineman”, told me they all went out to buy big diamond signet rings with their wages one day. Glen peered into his: “Hey, look, I can see Russia,” he said.

Dirt poor, down-home, authentic – he may have been those things, but it was not his business to claim to be. He wasn’t a songwriter; he was an interpreter of other people’s material – a concept almost alien in a modern musical climate that expects songs to be a reflection of an artist’s inner life. He would take the most urbane track and throw it back at his audience with an incandescent ordinariness. “It is like a bird flying, it’s like somebody breathing, it is easy for him,” his musical director TJ Kuenster said.

Exactly how he achieved it was more mysterious. He had a habit of speeding things up, injecting light and energy into songs and turning them into something kinetic and fresh. His vocal entries often lagged a fraction of a second behind the beat, making each one sound like a spontaneous thought.

On his prime-time TV show, with his hair sprayed into a high wave, he’d awkwardly navigate the light comedy of the day: the Smothers Brothers riding hippos through the studio, or the skits with Sonny and Cher. His talking voice was chirpy; then he’d sit down to play Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and it was as if a switch had been flicked. His face fell into a state of instant clarity, intense but faraway, with sometimes a hint of pain – though you knew the pain wasn’t his.

He never sang about himself, which made the private self a separate entity. There was the lost Glen of the late 1970s, blank of eye and huge of beard, free­basing cocaine in a Vegas hotel room, having fisticuffs with his girlfriend. There was the middle-aged golf-playing Republican, baptised in a freezing creek under the watch of his younger wife; then tanned and born again, happily doing his Donald Duck impressions on stage. There was the lapsed Glen who hit the whiskey again as a pensioner, drove drunk, attempted to knee a policeman in the genitals, ran down a freeway, got snapped for a famously bad mugshot and spent ten days in prison, where he still managed to perform an impromptu set on a couple of hay bales.

But at any point in the 55-year ride, amid the personal dramas and lapses of musical taste, he’d open his mouth and what came out was deeply serious. You couldn’t imagine him writing a shopping list but he had an ear for poetry – teeing up particular lines in Webb’s songs for his audience, asking how someone so young could write “Asleep on the Wind”, an impressionistic portrait of a legendary bird that spends its whole life in the air. He’d take Webb’s tracks away and arrange them for his guitar, playing them back at their composer in his trance-like state. When the song was over, he’d snap out of it and laugh. “Those chords! If I start thinkin’ about them I miss ’em! I love it! Write me another one like that!”

When I noticed the tattoo sticking out of his T-shirt, faded like a biro scrawl, it struck me as strange that the same piece of skin had passed through so much of 20th-century music, with its changing notions of what it means to be “authentic”. The arm had travelled from sacred harp singing in Steinbeck’s south to Bob Wills’s hayseed country shows in the golden age of 1950s TV; from Vietnam protest songs to the stifling world of residencies in Las Vegas – and finally to the life of a “country legend”, via the theatres of Missouri and the golf courses of Arizona. In middle age, he recorded religious albums that sounded as pure as “Wichita Lineman”. Once again, he was acting as a funnel, for a different kind of light.

He was the real deal not because he turned his personal experience into a marketable commodity but because he made a trade of music, and made it look easy. He followed the gold rush, sold himself, got himself back just in time – yet in his playing, and the very touch of his tongue on his teeth, he was astonishingly truthful. It was the ultimate life in music, and in that sense, too, he is a piece of time lost. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear