Honor The Treaties. Directed by Eric Becker. Seattle: We Are Shouting, 2012. 14 minutes.

Tinku Kamayu. Directed by Mabel Maio. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2008. 30 minutes.

Reviewed by Verna St. Denis

The two films reviewed here both address the ways in which indigenous communities are represented in film. While in Honor the Treaties the director actively deliberates about the politics of his representation of the Lakota people, Tinku Kamayu asks viewers to reimagine agency and conditions of dispossession through its depiction of indigenous women in northwestern Argentina who create a community of craftswomen. Though these films address distinct topics, each poses questions about self-determination in relation to broader systems of capitalism, racism, and oppression.

Honor the Treaties is director Aaron Huey’s process of self-reflection, as he and award-winning documentary photographer Shepard Fairey, a street artist and graphic designer activist, embark on a collaborative urban campaign—resulting in a 60-foot mural project—to bring attention to the social and political conditions of the people of Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.1 This is a story of how Huey’s photojournalism shifted to activism as he developed over time a relationship with Lakota people on this reservation. It is narrated by Huey, and we learn that he realized that he was no longer simply a journalist when in a TED talk he told the Lakota side of the history of genocide, as the Lakota asked him to do. In the film he plays audio from TED talk juxtaposed with visual images as he argued in that TED talk that “people like myself, eager to take the land, the hills, the gold and the water” produced this “place with a lot of suffering.” In turn, Fairey explains that the project is intended to “create curiosity, compassion and empathy” towards the people of Pine Ridge, believing as he does that “art can remind people that they need to care.”

At first I was annoyed with the film. Initially, I interpreted the story of Huey and Fairey as yet another example of self-aggrandizement, but on second review I could appreciate the effort made to complicate the process of telling a story across unequal power relations. As Huey explains in the film, he “failed for a long time in this project in not telling the story right,” but ultimately we do see a complex picture of the Lakota people, their land, and their devastating poverty. There are also many contradictions in the film; for example, while it is the voice of the Lakota that must heard, it is the voices of Huey and Fairey that can reach an audience far beyond that which the Lakota command. As a result, Honor the Treaties provides an opportunity to discuss with students the politics of representation, specifically who and how one represents the point of view of a profoundly exploited group of people, if it is ever possible for photojournalism of the disenfranchised to be other than voyeuristic, and if art can motivate people to care about injustice.

Tinku Kamayu documents an indigenous (Quechua) women’s cooperative in the region of Catamarca, Argentina, which began during a time, as narrator Margarita Ramirez explains, when “everything was still,” which is an euphemism for economic hard times. This is a story of people developing a life-affirming alternative to an individualist ethos. It shows how women, by asking for help from the “souls of their ancestors,” sought to support each other through the spinning of wool. The film opens with a song lamenting the “gift of the thistle tree,” and the heart’s suffering as a context to frame the story. Through the process of reviving and rediscovering the craft of spinning, both with spindle and machine, the people “work together”—tinku kamayu—to care for each other and their ecosystem. The women make decisions and solve problems together on the principal belief that if the wool is valued then so too must the gift of the llamas, the sheep, the people, and the land that also includes a reciprocal, mutually sustaining relationship between themselves, their ancestors, the animals, and the land. The cooperative became a place where women could share their sorrows and their joys and could develop their strengths as in the case of the woman, Polita Condori, featured at the end, whose gift is singing. The cooperative provides an opportunity for the community to benefit from that gift and that has made her, her family, and the community healthier.

The film does not show us as much as tell us the story, but there are many points for discussion that address women’s and gender issues, particularly those exploring economies in third world countries. Presenting alternatives to an individualist capitalist economy the film shows the value of cooperatives, the importance of community-based initiatives and indigenous knowledge, and the drawbacks of receiving funds from government programs and NGOs. It also provides an opportunity to discuss the place of education and the importance of reading and writing, as well as the limits of formal education. Because of the way it complicates ideas about production and economic success, the film provides an opportunity to explore the meaning of ”development” by offering alternatives to orthodox understandings of “development work.”

1 Honor the Treatiescan be viewed at the following URL: https://vimeo.com/47043218.

Verna St. Denis is a professor of education in the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan. Professor St. Denis teaches courses in anti-oppressive education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Her research explores the history of indigenous education in Canada post WWII and the influence of anthropological theory in conceptualizing problems and solutions in indigenous education. She has conducted several studies of the professional knowledge and experience of indigenous teachers in public schools.