(Valerie Red-Horse’s ethnic background is Sioux, Cherokee, and Caucasian. Look for C.E. Chambers’ critique of “Naturally Native” at Film Critiques on the sidebar.)
“You sound too educated to play a Native American woman.” That comment was all too common when Valerie Red-Horse, actress, stockbroker, and UCLA honors graduate auditioned for TV and movie roles. Yet it was only one reason among many that propelled her into writing, producing, co-directing and starring in Naturally Native.
Naturally Native, a full-length feature film about a contemporary Native American family living in suburban California, is more than an ethnic icebreaker, it challenges deep-seated stereotypes about Indians on almost every conceivable level. When questioned about the movie industry’s culpability in perpetuating – if not creating – prejudices, Valerie Red-Horse explains, “It’s not just about the movie industry. The problem is pervasive in our schools. For example, children are learning about the Mayan culture and the British Monarchy, but they don’t know the first thing about Native American tribal infrastructure. Sovereign immunity is not defined, meaning most people think the average Indian doesn’t pay taxes – which is not true – and most people don’t understand that reservations have their own police force and even take care of their own sewer problems.”
She goes on to say that Native Americans have lobbied Washington, D.C. for years regarding vital issues. One example is the infrequently used but well-known word “squaw” (e.g., there’s a Squaw Peak in Nevada). Red-Horse explains that it’s an epithet, an obscene gynecological term “derived from the French.”
Naturally Native unflinchingly tackles, among other issues, Indian mascots, spirituality, alcoholism, and tribal enrollment. (The latter refers to the government’s mandatory numbering of Indians and the inaccurate demographics.) “No one has complained about the acting or the screenplay,” Red-Horse shares. “People have commented that the movie is almost too educational.” When questioned about the authenticity, Valerie Red-Horse answers, “Art is truly imitating life: Ninety-nine percent of the movie is based on true-to-life experiences.”
One scene will cause those unacquainted with the Native American community to rethink their prejudices. Mary Kay Place stars as Madame Celeste, a psychic and potential financier for the Bighawk sisters’ new business venture. They turn Celeste down not because she can’t come up with the money, but because she typecast them before meeting them. She had lumped them into the stereotype that says all Native Americans are spiritual gurus.
“We’re not all shamans giving people the answers to the universe,” says Red-Horse, a Christian both on and off the film.
Red-Horse’s husband, who comes from a German background, was a major force behind her decision to take artistic control. “He saw my frustration at being offered mostly ‘Indian Maiden’ roles and encouraged me to begin writing my own screenplays.” She adds, “We have three children. I’ve had to walk out of movies with my 14-year-old. In Naturally Native, I portray a healthy, passionate marriage, one that parents are comfortable allowing their children to watch.”
This film is the first one entirely funded by an Indian Tribe. The Pequot Tribe contributed $700,000 to the budget, which enabled the crew to shoot 15 days in the Los Angeles area and one day in Connecticut with the Pequot Tribe. The Viejas Tribe reservation, based in California, is also featured and is the scene of one of the movie’s major turning points.
“That’s my favorite part of the movie. My sisters (played by Irene Bedard and Kimberly Norris Guerrero) and I have exhausted almost every possible avenue for funding our cosmetics business, and we argue about it. We’re hesitant to ask for help from our Tribe because we were raised by a white foster mother. We hold hands and pray. Rita Coolidge, who is Cherokee, is singing ‘Amazing Grace’ in the background. I get a lump in my throat every time I watch that scene.”
The movie industry’s response is disturbing. Distributors described it as “too family-oriented” and “a little too spiritual.” Oblique criticisms were made regarding the lack of female nudity.
“Films are media-driven,” shares Red-Horse. “We had very little money for advertisement; still, a grassroots movement is behind us which precipitated the film’s release in Seattle.” The movie has also been shown in France, Belgium, and Germany.
Naturally Native, the first film written, produced and starring Native American women, has already become a rehabilitation tool for women incarcerated at Dublin Prison in California. Also, Valerie Red-Horse is currently involved in the creation of two other controversial movies: Whisper the Wind, based on the true-to-life exploits of the Navajo code talkers, and Eagle Vision: Return of the Hoop.
The future looks bright for Valerie Red-Horse. As she says, “ I don’t get angry when I see discrimination. I just get involved and do things myself.”
(Written by C.E. Chambers and published by “The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition,” Volume 22, Number 1197, December 14, 1999.)