Editor’s note: Starting today, Indian Country Today debuts a new column, Indigenous A&E, with the latest news on arts and entertainment. It will run every other Friday.
Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today
A nearly forgotten Chemehuevi story tops news from Hollywood this week, with a new film version of a true story starring major Indigenous actors. And in the arts world, a solo debut in Miami and a deep dive on a pioneering painter put the spotlight on Indigenous artists.
FILM: Chemehuevi story to premiere at film festival
Aquaman Jason Momoa, Native Hawaiian/Samoan, produced and co-stars in “The Last Manhunt,” the story of the last American manhunt of the Old West based on the oral history of the Chemehuevi in Joshua Tree, California.
The film, a tale of love and death in the desert dust, premieres May 27 at the Pioneertown International Film Festival at the iconic California city created for Western movies in the 1940s.
The true story follows Willie Boy, played by Martin Sensmeier, Tlingit/Koyukon-Athabascan, and his lover Carlota, played by Momoa’s real-life cousin, Mainei Kinimaka, as they flee into the Mojave desert after Willie accidentally shoots her tribal leader father in a confrontation.
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The local sheriff leads a mounted posse along with two Native trackers seeking justice for their murdered leader. As Willie Boy and Carlota evade capture, fake news stories add to the mounting pressure to bring them in. The search in the harsh climate forces everyone to face their demons.
The film features a largely Native cast, including Zahn McClarnon, Hunkpapa Lakota, as Carlota’s father; Lily Gladstone, Blackfoot, as Carlota’s mother; Raoul Trujillo, Apache, as Hyde; and Tantoo Cardinal, Cree/Métis and a Member of the Order of Canada, as Ticup.
It is directed by Christian Camargo, a Mexican-American actor and director perhaps best known for his roles in “Dexter,” “House of Cards” and parts 1 and 2 of “The Twilight Saga.”
Momoa, who plays a supporting character known as Big Jim, said he became fascinated by the story of the Chemehuevi desert runner Willie Boy while visiting Joshua Tree.
“I love Joshua Tree and the community out there,” Momoa said in a press statement. “I remember hearing about Willie Boy, the Desert Runner, and was fascinated by the story surrounding him. What should be a universal story of a relationship gone bad, quickly became a muddy, complex story about the power of crooked media and how Native Americans are portrayed to the public.
“The true story of Willie Boy has never been told, and it’s a beautiful one,” he said. “I developed the story with my team because I wanted to set the record straight, and set the spirits of this story free.”
Momoa and co-writer Pa’a Sibbett met with tribal leaders of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, a Chemehuevi people, some of whom are direct descendants of people caught up in Willie Boy’s story. They presented tribal leaders a script describing how Willie Boy was miscast as a savage murderer, and requesting permission to adapt the story. The leaders agreed to the adaptation, and filming began with a tribal ceremony with members of the Chemehuevi, Serrano and Cahuilla tribes participating.
The story of Willie Boy had been adapted for the screen once before, in the 1969 film, “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here,” with Robert Blake as Willie Boy and Robert Redford as the sheriff.
According to producers, Willie Boy’s story was spun into a tale of “savage Indian murder” by fear-mongering publications of the day. The film production includes consultants Dr. Cliff Traftzer, a long-time researcher and scholar of California’s desert tribes, and elder Matt Leivas, keeper of the sacred Chemehuevi Salt Songs.
The producers said that the truth of Willie Boy’s story lies in the overlooked voices of the desert, the generations of Chemehuevi people. They say Willie Boy wasn’t a savage murderer, he was a man who fell in love with a woman who wasn’t meant for him.
The film premieres in Pioneertown, California, in the high desert above Joshua Tree. The town was created for movies by cowboy actors including Roy Rogers, who needed an authentic setting for their films close to Hollywood.
The Pioneertown International Film Festival is in its second year, and will also feature live music, filmmaker dinners and a masterclass in filmmaking.
ART: 'Spiritual embodiment' from Navajo artist
Canvases become shawls, and pigments and minerals provide the color patterns to tell stories in the art of Patrick Dean Hubbell, Diné, in his first solo exhibition, “Everything About You,” that runs through May 28 at Nina Johnson Gallery in Miami, Florida.
Studious and soft-spoken, Hubbell lives and works on a ranch in the Navajo Nation where he makes art from the earth, using colored pigments collected from his homelands to create two-dimensional paintings and drawings.
Taught sewing by his grandmother and graphic art design by his father, Hubbell fuses his background and art training to embody what he calls “spiritual entities” into his work.
“The foundation is our Diné philosophies as it pertains to nature, the cycles of seasons, times of day, different stories within how I was raised surrounded by elders and the ceremonial life,” he said during a walk-through of the exhibit before it opened.
His use of natural pigments began after he was awarded a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant in 2017.
“Through that grant, I began a project where I collected natural earth pigment from around the Navajo Nation,” he said. “It connected to the use of Navajo ceremonial sand painting. I began to make a synthesis of traditional manufactured paint and the natural pigment paint that I make, using the color variation within the regions of the Navajo Nation.”
The canvases began to take on new life as robes, blankets and fringed shawls hung on stretcher bars to “deconstruct that substrate and specifically deviate from that Western ideology of what a painting is,” Hubbell said.
“It’s still in the conversation of painting, because I'm still using that stretcher bar, I'm still using all of the materials of what painting is normally thought to be, but then I'm also using the foundation of my Indigenous identity through the look and the reference to the textile.”
The works, he said, are “alluding to that figure of spiritual embodiment of how it relates to the stories and philosophies that I'm referencing as well.”
The cross shape is recurrent in the works, a New Mexico symbol that he says is “a strong history within the way weavers use it and in traditional Indigenous arts through basketry, pottery, beadwork, blankets, and word textiles.
“I'm using that as the original reference, but also allowing some of these patterns to speak to geometric abstraction, and genres of different schools of painting,” he said.
One piece started with a curio textile – a black-and-white, Native-patterned blanket he gathered from a truck stop. He then painted over it with the earth pigment paint.
“I know it's for the tourists,” he said. “A lot of them carry Native-made things but this one is not Native; this is fully foreign manufactured, so this is part of the reclamation of bringing back that Indigenous-inspired object, and appropriation, and reusing what has already been taken.”
ART: Painting pioneer Leon Polk Smith draws new attention
A pioneer in many ways, artist Leon Polk Smith, of Cherokee Nation descent, is featured in a show of his select works at the Palm Springs Art Museum through Aug. 28.
An innovative painter and closeted gay man, Smith (1906-1996), made significant contributions to 20th century art that are now being more widely recognized.
The exhibition, “Leon Polk Smith: 1945-1962,” shows his paintings and sculptures from the period featuring just two bright colors and simple, minimal forms that can be read as nature, architecture or the human body.
He dissolved the distinction between foreground and background and let go of the traditional rectangular or square painting format, opting for shapes that are more free-form.
Born to half-Cherokee parents in Chickasha the year before Oklahoma became a state, Smith grew up and worked on his family’s farm, one of nine children. Years of hardscrabble labor followed until the farm was foreclosed on during the Great Depression.
Freed from that burden at age 27, he decided to be a teacher, then an artist. In 1952, at age 46, Smith moved full time to New York City, attracted by the art scene and the promise of a creative life.
His unusual approach to abstraction attracted the attention of art dealers and other young abstract artists. He had gallery shows and eventually exhibited at top New York City museums.
He saw the results of his influence in the year before he died, when the Brooklyn Museum curated “Leon Polk Smith: American Painter,” a retrospective exhibition of Smith's career.
When asked why he took the classic and narrow path he did by Arts Magazine in 1985, he replied, "People said Mondrian had hit a dead end, or a stone wall, and I said, ‘I don't think so.’"
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