heartbreaking but beautiful tale draws attention to the struggles of reservation life

heartbreaking but beautiful tale draws attention to the struggles of reservation life

Fancy Dance is a powerful, disquieting film. Written, directed and acted by Native Americans, it gives an unflinching view of life on the rez (reservation). Writer and director, Erica Tremblay (of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation) does not shy away from showing the darker side of things, including the frequent murder of Indigenous women.

Rez life is shown as tough, especially for women. They are seen to survive through sex, drugs, petty crime and general hustling.

On the Seneca-Cayuga Indian reservation in northeast Oklahoma, Jax (Lily Gladstone), her sister Tawi and Tawi’s daughter, Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) all share a house. But before the film begins, Tawi has disappeared. Part mystery, part road trip, part cultural journey, the story tracks Jax’s desperate attempts to find her sister and keep custody of her niece.

Opening with a calm, riverside scene – Jax is using a metal detector to locate anything of value and Roki is collecting river bait – the mood changes when they spot a white man fishing. Instantly and instinctively, they become partners in crime.

Jax distracts the fisherman by semi-undressing and bathing within his view, while Roki pockets his keys. Together they steal his truck and sell it to the Rez Auto-Trader, Boo (Blayne Allen).

Boo works at the nexus of reservation crime, receiving stolen goods and dealing in drugs. Unsurprisingly, Jax once worked for him and has a previous conviction. After her sister disappears, it’s this criminal record that enables a white child protection agent to take Roki away to place her under the care of her semi-estranged white grandparents.

The close relationship between Jax and Roki, their shared mission to find Tawi, and their determination to attend the Oklahoma state powwow – a vibrant annual celebration of Native cultures led by drum and dance – provide the spine of this film.

Elements of Seneca-Cayuga culture are unobtrusively introduced, presenting an educational thread for audiences who are not Indigenous.

For instance, Roki explains to her grandfather that powwow clothes are called regalia, not costumes. This is because they carry sacred, spiritual significance. The childhood ballet shoes gifted to Roki by her well-meaning, white step-grandmother, cannot substitute for her regalia and the powwow that Roki will miss. Powwow, Roki explains to her step-grandmother, is not just about dancing: “It’s a way to be together, everybody shows up … My mom dances next to me. It’s like a connection or something.”

A similar cultural moment occurs when Roki gets her first “moon” (period). Jax extravagantly takes her out to a diner and invites her to order anything she wants, to celebrate her entry into womanhood. The waitress is baffled, off-handedly noting that she didn’t think a period was ever a reason for celebration. For Jax, Roki’s first “moon” marks the moment when she will take on the sacred responsibilities of a Cayuga woman. With a light touch, Fancy Dance illuminates cultural disjunctures and differences.

The dialogue moves easily between English and Cayuga (always subtitled). Like most Native American languages, Cayuga is endangered. Today, there are fewer than 100 fluent speakers. Yet the actors in Fancy Dance have learnt it and the Cayaga language lies at the heart of this film.

There is a powerful moment when Roki insists on Jax’s maternal obligations to her. She reminds Jax that the word for auntie in Cayuga is “little mother”, so Jax must carry all the responsibilities of being her mother. The Cayuga worldview and cultural values are carried in the language.

The action moves fluently between quiet domestic scenes and harsh threatening encounters. At one moment we see Roki carefully counting her jam-jar of powwow savings and sewing regalia for the missing Tawi to wear for the powwow mother-and-daughter dance. Next, we follow Jax on her delivery of drugs to workers at the oil camp, as she desperately tries to track down her sister. Surrounded by five menacing men, Jax holds up a missing poster for her sister, and is immediately body-searched, but not hurt.

This film has a lot of joy even though it tackles the hard reality of being an Indigenous woman living on a reservation.

Wind River (2017), which also examined the ongoing tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the Oscar-winning Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), both depict the violence of reservation life. But Fancy Dance is different. All the violence occurs off-screen, leaving culture, resilience, humour and love to take centre stage.

Significantly, Fancy Dance is Native American-made and sheds light on the important issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

At powwows, a dance to memorialise missing and murdered Indigenous women has become a regular feature over the past decade. The Sovereign Bodies Institute, which produces research on gender and sexual violence against Indigenous people, keep a database of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. As of 2022, in total, the Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates there are 4,200 missing and murdered cases that have gone unsolved.

Astonishingly, the final scenes of Fancy Dance are joyous. The beat of the drum, the singing and the colours of the swirling regalia affirm what Gladstone has said herself about the film: “In a world that is often crafted to pry us apart; from our languages, our children, and for far too many of our relatives, from life itself. In spite of it all, we are here… so we dance.”

The post “heartbreaking but beautiful tale draws attention to the struggles of reservation life” by Jacqueline Fear-Segal, Emeritus Professor in the School of Art, Media and American Studies, University of East Anglia was published on 06/26/2024 by theconversation.com