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Indian Time: Dispatch from Tulsa
Reservation Dogs, goodbye to all that, all my relations
Good morning, Substackers. The weather in Oklahoma, as some of you know, is nuts: I landed late-night on Friday to what felt like snow in the air; earlier that evening, my daughter had left her production office with the tornado sirens ringing, and this morning, it’s in the 70s and sunshine is piercing the wisteria on this beautiful porch.
On Friday morning Tafv (rhymes with “lava”, and pictured above) called me in NYC: Maybe I could fly to Tulsa for the weekend? She’s working in the prop department of a new FX series; location shoots are always exhausting, a little mom time would help…
I knew about location exhaustion. I met her dad, Tim Sampson (above right) on a shoot in South Carolina. He was stunt-doubling his dad Will (center) on the PBS mini-series Roanoak. I wrote a “Modern Love” for the New York Times that included how we met:
We had met on a movie set in South Carolina when I jumped off the back of a production van and into the path of Tim and his father, Will Sampson. I recognized Will from his role as the Chief in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but had never in person seen anything like these two men: hugely tall, dressed in cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans, Tim’s hair black and lustrous, Will’s silver hair braided with red ribbon.
I said “hey” and was gone. Tim later told me that as he and his father had watched me run off, Will had drawled, “Not baaaad.”
The piece above also talks about how, despite Tim and I breaking up before Tafv was three, we stayed close, and then, drew closer, Tim moving in with my husband and me during his first cancer, and then the second, which we knew in August 2018 was terminal. Tafv flew from New York to Portland to be with her dad; her boyfriend Nick often joined her. Tim was very bad off in September of that year, when Nick said to Tafv, “It’s never been a question of if but when.” And so in October, with four days prep, we did this:
And Tim, boy, that guy! He hung in until July. I’ve written about all of it and will no doubt write more. Quick version: he is with me every day, every day, he’d have it no other way.
Anyway, Tavie is here working on Reservation Dogs, which FX picked up as a series after seeing the half-hour pilot. The director is Sterlin Harjo, half-Creek (Tafv's tribe; Harjo is a big Creek name), half Seminole; he wrote the series with Taika Waititi, director of JoJo Rabbit and, one of my favorites, Thor: Ragnarok; an interesting dude doing stuff in new ways.
When I met Will Sampson, he was really trying to push the envelope in how Natives were portrayed in Hollywood, which had mostly wanted them to play "Indians." (See docu-series, Images of Indians.) Gross story Will told me: the the Academy was considering nominating Chief Dan George for his role Little Big Man, but then decided, why would we give an Oscar to an Indian for playing an Indian?
Incremental progress was made. Will had a recurring role on the TV series, Vegas. Other Natives have played, you know, just people (e.g., Benjamin Bratt in Law & Order). Tim did lots of TV (e.g., Northern Exposure); he appeared on Broadway, and, on the production side, worked for years on an all-Native grip crew called The Grip Wolves.
Still, if I asked you to name movies about 'skins, I’m betting you think John Wayne and Dances with Wolves and trouble, always trouble, Hollywood is halfway built on the back westerns and the slaughter and occasional honor of Native peoples.
Fast forward to 2020/2021, and attention paid to BIPOC, and People Making Art To Be Political About Making Art. Which has never been that interesting to me. Art made only by women, by blacks, by Hawaiians, cool; how’s the art? But then, the political tides also roll in opportunity...
There's such a weird dynamic when people approach me, as being a Native American. They bad mouth themselves as who they are. I feel like if I were, “Yeah! Feel bad about that!” I'd be just as bad as the person.
Oh my god, what do they say to you?
They feel like they need to make themselves less human to feel accepted by me, a person of color. There's something about that I don’t enjoy. It’s like, ‘You don’t have anything to prove to me.’ It’s great that you acknowledge that,’ but that’s where I feel the conversation needs to keep going rather than, I’m just going to make it better by saying, ‘fuck white people.’ Yeah, yeah, that’s great, but let’s talk about other stuff. That kind of approach, it's just so weird. I've seen it so much my whole life, when people start being really self-deprecating.
I've seen some of that obviously with Tim, “Oh you're so spiritual. Oh we're so terrible, we stole your land.” How is this helping? Who does this help?
I think there's a bit of mysticism that people don’t get, from a Native standpoint, that Natives actually rely more on our sense of humor and that's a huge thing that it's hard to teach people. Unless you really get it, then you get it.
Yup, 100%. And it’s a funny thing; you never see that represented, right? Or rarely. People around Natives see it all the time; know it in their skin, know how to roll with it and love love love it. But the people making TV and movies? Not so much, and so we’re left with the default: Natives, they be spiritual, let’s put them over this pedestal over here.
And yet, there is something to that spirituality, a knowingness, an economy by which information is transmitted; a motion, a look, a generosity. I could tell you, and may someday, about how Tim and I came to be together, but it was something not of this world (I think Will might have been behind whatever shazam he pulled that day, and I am pretty sure he’d grin to see me writing that), but for now will suffice to say that Tim said, the minute he saw me, he knew we would have a child.
Okay, so cut to now. I get to Tulsa and ask Tafv, is a lot of the crew Native? Oh, yes, she says; very much yes, and also, that they are the children and grandchildren of the filmmakers and painters and artisans who were trying to make film and art back in the day. Also, that on Friday, the first day of shooting, Sterlin Hargo (the director) gathered the entire crew gather and said, "We are going to have a blessing for this shoot." And the drum came out, and a hundred-plus people (not all Native but many) stood and wept, Tafv said she became hysterical, because it was all there, what had come before, all the relations...
And you know what they're making? A FUCKING COMEDY, about native kids; it's fun and funny and all-teasing and also there's hard stuff, and as Tafv told me all this I cried, it’s what the people I’ve known in this world have been striving for, art where they are more than, as Harjo put it the of the blessing, “props,” art about being people plus Native plus comedy.
Did I mention that Tim and Harjo’s mom were prom king and queen back when they were at school at Sequioa Indian School? Yeah.
I’ve spent the better past of the past year writing about protests, about people fighting for the rights of themselves and others in ways that sometimes seem to me to be more destructive than productive, and you know what? It just doesn’t have to only be that way. Matt Welch and Kmele Foster and I talked about this on the last Fifth Column Patreon; how there are so many ways to create. I want to do that now. I want to get in my new car (which, darsh garnet, I will buy in the new two weeks!) and get out on the road and talk to people about new ways. Here is one of my favorite people, Tim’s cousin Rusty, whom Tavie and I drove out to see yesterday in Okmulgee. In this photo, he is whispering in my ear, “Thank you for taking care of my brother Tim.”
Mtvo, Rusty; mvto to all my relations.
One more day here. We will cook - Tafv has requested the eggplant parm from the last Substack! - see some honky tonk, and then, back to NYC.
Until then, all the love and a hot and melty hunk of this xx