Bellevue film fest celebrates Native Americans
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
There were 100 million people in the Americas in 1491, or more than the population of Europe at the time, by at least some academic estimates.
This is just one of the truths of the American Indian experience that award-winning Issaquah filmmaker Phil Lucas tries to bring into focus for a largely white audience.
The Bellevue Community College (BCC) professor will host the first American Indian Film Festival at BCC, today through Friday.
The festival will feature films made by and about American Indians, including award-winning independent films "Smoke Signals" and "The Fast Runner," as well as music, seminars, special guests and a potluck lunch on Friday.
The pony-tailed Lucas, a Choctaw, recently discussed the history of white settlers' exploitation, theft, murder, broken treaties and cultural genocide. His sadness, however, is tempered with a deep-seated optimism borne of faith in an ancient prophecy.
Lucas will show at the festival his two-hour documentary, "People of the Northwest," which uses a storytelling style and uncomfortable historical facts to hold its viewers.
Before white settlers arrived, the film reports, tribes in what is now California spoke 200 languages and dialects, some as different as Chinese is from English. People often spoke as many as 15 languages. They had ocean-bearing canoes and lived well off the abundance of the ocean, rivers and forests.
Just 65 years after Spanish missionaries arrived in Monterey in 1769 to bring Christianity to the American Indians, the missionaries had more or less enslaved them. By the time the missionaries were finished evangelizing, two-thirds of the American Indian population was destroyed, the film reports.
Farther north, in what is now Oregon, Washington and Idaho, questionable treaties reduced the Nez Perce Indians' 13.5 million acres of claimed land to 750,000.
California Mayor Peter Burnett (1849-1851) is quoted in the film as saying the "extermination" of American Indians is "inevitable."
University of Texas historian Al Crosby, who has written extensively on the subject, was blunt in his assessment of white settlers' impact on American Indian life: "We were the worst thing to ever happen to them," he said in a telephone interview. "There was a hell of a lot of Indians, with a highly developed agriculture from Seattle to Paraguay."
They developed maize, beans, potatoes and other vegetables and legumes — what has become the global diet. Without that agricultural advance, Crosby said he could not fathom the world's recent population boom.
Lucas' films also deal with the destruction of American Indian culture and language. Even with the disappearance of the genocidal policy — typified by U.S. Army General Phillip Sheridan's statement: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" — the U.S. government made it official practice to destroy American Indian culture, Lucas said.
He cited the boarding-school policy that began in the 19th century and continued into the 1950s.
Agents sometimes either abducted or coerced American Indian children from their families and tribes and put them into boarding schools where they were forbidden from speaking in their native tongue. The result: a wholesale destruction of languages and culture.
A linguist who specializes in native languages agreed.
"Killing gave way to an assimilation that tried to destroy languages," said Michael Krauss, a professor at the Alaska Native Languages Center at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
Where there were once more than 300 languages in North America, there are now just 175, all of them severely threatened with extinction because children are not speaking them, he said.
The festival is part of a small effort to preserve and cultivate indigenous languages and culture, Lucas said.
Despite the history, Lucas speaks with optimism and a sense of hope about the future. "Prophecy told us that we would be subjugated, but that when the eagle flies as high as the moon, our future would change."
Since 1969, when Neil Armstrong told the world "The eagle has landed," American Indians have seen great progress, Lucas said.
After the American Indian population dwindled from as many as 18 million in 1491 to as few as 225,000 in the 1960 U.S. Census, it has grown again to 2.2 million. A sobriety movement is growing strength; many tribes are using gambling revenues to provide better education for their children. And young American Indians are taking a renewed interest in their cultural heritage, Lucas said.
His next films, a two-part series titled "Native Americans in the 21st Century," will examine that future. He summed up the feelings of American Indians' persistent refusal to further surrender their heritage.
"This is our land."
J. Patrick Coolican: 206-464-3315 or email@example.com