The Roots of APTN

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From Jennifer David, author of “Original People, Original Television: The Launching of APTN”:

Thank you so much to Dr. Dawg for inviting me to post here. Struggling Canadian authors need every inch of exposure we can find!

Original People, Original Television: The Launching of APTN” touches on many of the themes that Dr. Dawg and his co-bloggers have addressed - the evolving state of Aboriginal culture and society in Canada, the turbulent relationships between our nations, and our struggle to create bridges between them. The network has thrived where many other specialty services have failed. Over the last decade its members and its contributors have garnered Junos, Geminis, awards and praise at festivals around the world, and many APTN-sponsored programs have been snapped up for distribution internationally.

But on launch day, September 1 1999, we had no idea whether or not we’d even get the first show to air. My book tells the story of APTN on two levels. One is the tale of Launch Day itself, and the terrifying, exhilarating experience of trying to produce a live, three hour launch special with untried crew, an untested network, and pre-digital technology, for a live, onsite audience of thousands. The other story is the history of the Aboriginal broadcasting movement in Canada, and how, to quote my editor Balbulican, “…a handful of producers in Canada’s most remote and poorest settlements successfully managed to change the Broadcast Act, pull together a national coalition of artists, political leaders, broadcasters and supporters, and create the world’s first native-themed, full-service TV network.”

Here’s an excerpt from the first Chapter, “Backstory”.

Imagine turning on your television set. Up comes one of those weird Japanese game shows. People are doing crazy things to each other, speaking in a language you don’t know. There’s a studio audience that seems to get it, but you don’t. You’re looking through an electronic window into a culture you can’t understand at all. You reach for the remote and click to another channel. Some family is yelling at each other, slamming doors, exhibiting bizarre behaviour, all in a foreign language. It’s completely incomprehensible. You keep on clicking. But every channel is the same.

If you can imagine that, you can grasp how most television looked to Aboriginal Canadians before APTN.

The “Native as Other” perspective in film is almost as old as the movies themselves.

It began with Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). Hailed by many as the first modern documentary, “Nanook” was considered revolutionary for the honesty of its images of Inuit life on the Hudson coast a century ago. As northern broadcast historian Lorna Roth points out, “Despite some simulation, Nanook presented a fairly accurate depiction of life in the Arctic and brought to many southern audiences the first glimpse of that remote and enigmatic world.”

And yet we see the land and its Inuit inhabitants at a distance, albeit through the eyes of a talented and sympathetic documentarian. We are watching an anthropological oddity. Jocular title cards and a faintly patronizing narrative reinforce our separation from the film’s subjects.

“Nanook” set the tone for a generation of future filmmakers. Thirty years later the same amused detachment suffuses “The Caribou Hunters”, a 1951 National Film Board documentary. Imagine this scene.

Classical music plays in the background. A church bell tolls and clusters of contented Cree families stream out of the church. Now smiling, industrious Indians are making moccasins, and bringing them by dogsled to the Hudson’s Bay Company. A narrator speaks for those depicted in the film. ‘It is good to get credit at the store, so that when we meet the other Indians coming in from the trapline, we all have a good time’, he intones, while a harmonica-playing young man and young woman smile for the camera.

Like Nanook, the documentary is “accurate.” Yes, Cree hunters did hunt, trap and skin animals. Yes, they did trade at the Hudson’s Bay post. But the omniscient narrator is describing the Cree in tones a biologist might use to introduce the inhabitants of a particularly fascinating Petri dish. The “Indians” are unmistakably “Others”. They are exotics, creatures to be observed, even admired, by the audience and narrator; but they are not given voice, they do not tell their own story. This is a story about “them”, told by one of “us”, for an audience of “us”.

Aboriginal people are the original inhabitants of the land we now call Canada. So how did Aboriginal Canadians become the outsiders?

Daniel Francis, in “The Imaginary Indian”, describes the ways in which the stereotypical, romanticized notion of the Indian served the purposes of law-makers, policy developers and the public’s imagination.

*”When two cultures meet, especially cultures as different as those of Western Europe and indigenous North America, they inevitably interpret each other in terms of stereotypes. At its best, in a situation of equality, this might be seen as a phase in a longer process of familiarization. But if one side in the encounter enjoys advantages of wealth or power or technology, then it will usually try to impose its stereotypes on the other. This is what occurred in the case of the North American encounter between European and Aboriginal. We have been living with the consequences ever since.” *

In media, those consequences include decades of Western movies replete with bloodthirsty savages, shifty half-breeds, stoic warriors, and exotic Indian Princesses in buckskin.

The best-known “celluloid Indian” is undoubtedly Harold Smith, better known as Jay Silverheels, a Mohawk actor from Six Nations in southern Ontario. Silverheels, who died in 1980, was a boxer, stuntman, and a gifted actor with more than ninety roles to his credit. But today he’s remembered for only one. Throughout the 1950s, he played the Lone Ranger’s faithful sidekick, Tonto. It was a stereotypical part—subservient, impassive, and monosyllabic. But it was work, and a rare opportunity for an Aboriginal actor to play a sympathetic Aboriginal character.

Silverheels was frequently instructed in his scripts to “say something Indian”. To this day, some of the older people in Six Nations will tell you of their favourite scenes where Tonto, laying waste to legions of bad guys, would shout out bloodthirsty war cries in Mohawk like: “Anybody want to go for a burger?” Silverheels’ private act of rebellion had Mohawks in stitches whenever they went to the movies, and left non-Aboriginal audiences wondering why those strange Indians were laughing at the mayhem onscreen.

Even the earnest ethnographic films of the 1950s and 1960s, often directed by sympathetic, non-Aboriginal filmmakers, carried their own cultural baggage and dominant societal attitudes. They are suffused with a melancholic, elegiac tone, a sense that Aboriginal stories and ways of life must be recorded and preserved because the cultures were dying, at the brink of absorption into the Great North American Melting Pot. Many Aboriginal people protested these erroneous and offensive stereotypes. But the message was clear: Indigenous people were vicious, vanquished, or vanishing. And we got the message. When I was growing up in northern Ontario, and the kids would play Cowboys and Indians, nobody wanted to be Indian. Not even us Indians.

If you’ve enjoyed this excerpt(and doesn’t THAT sound like an informercial!), you can read other excerpts here, at the book’s official website. And if you’re really curious, please join our facebook page, or follow the book’s twitter feed.

I’d also love to meet any of Dr. Dawg’s readers at our official launches in Winnipeg and Ottawa!

Dr. Dawg, thanks once again for the opportunity. If you have room for another post over the next couple of weeks, I’d be delighted to provide. It was a pleasure!

Jennifer David Stonecircle Consulting

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This page contains a single entry by Balbulican published on August 14, 2012 10:10 AM.

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Not such a belle province for les autres is the next entry in this blog.

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