Bon Iver’s "Towers": A "Tribute to Native American Preservation Land"?

In Bon Iver, misrepresentation, music videos, Native American Preservation Land, Native American-Preserved Land, Preserved Native American Land, ranty rant rant, Towers by Adrienne K.11 Comments

It’s been a while since we’ve had an all-out Native Approps Adrienne K. rant against something on the blog. Actually, it’s been a while since we’ve had anything on the blog. So I hope you’re ready, cause it’s well after midnight, and I’m ready to rail on some stupid language choices, powers of representation, and claims of “honoring.”

Bon Iver released his third video today for his song “Towers.” Now, I don’t claim to have any knowledge of Bon Iver before Justin Timberlake’s awesome impression on SNL–so please, Bon Iver fans, if I’m somehow “missing the point,” bring it on.

To start, here’s the video. It has a high production value, some beautiful, beautiful scenery and camera angles, and a lovely soundtrack of mumbling falsetto, if you’re into that.

Bon Iver – Towers (Official Music Video) from Bon Iver on Vimeo.

Nothing inherently wrong with the video itself. An old white dude with a beard drives around in his truck, wanders through the woods, across a beach, and rows out in the ocean where we see some massive wooden towers. Then one falls, and SPOILER ALERT the old man dies. or something. It is so magical and mystical! We don’t know what it means!

But don’t worry, this randomness is a “tribute” to “Native American preservation lands”! Yeah, “preservation.” Not reservation. Preservation. A new term, invented special by the editors of Huffington Post and the director of the music video:

The story and aesthetic is very similar to “Holocene,” shot and directed by Nabil Elderkin, of the production house NABIL. Like Iceland in “Holocene,” “Towers” is a true tribute to the Native American preservation land in Washington state where the video was shot.

At first I thought HuffPo just mis-used a quote from the Paste Magazine article (linked in the last sentence of the quote above), which reads:

Elderkin also noted that “Towers” was shot mostly on Native American-preserved land in Washington state, and the video features the moving work of an actor named Mystic.

“Native American-preserved land” is super loaded and problematic too, but could have been a mistake. So I tracked down the actual quote from the director, which doesn’t necessarily make anything any better:

Nabil Elderkin, director: “The video was shot in Washington State, mostly on Native American preservation land.   The idea came from when Justin sent me a breakdown of what certain parts/lines of the song meant to him, so I did my best to decode it and curate into something simple, and hopefully the viewer can take from it their own feeling of what the towers represent.  It was very run and gun with Larkin my DP, Mystic my actor, Kathleen my producer and Nature, who is the best low budget art director ON THE PLANET!” 

Then there’s this Hollywood reporter article that twists the language even more:

“Towers,” which features an old, heavily-bearded man venturing from the forest and into tumultuous sea, was shot mostly in preserved Native American land in Washington State. 

“…preserved Native American land”? Really?

Ready to unpack this? First of all, the term “preservation land” or “preserved land” or “Native-preserved land” doesn’t exist. Is this all stemming from a possible mis-quote when Nambil actually said “reservation”? Quite possibly. But here are the things that bother me.

In these quotes, the Native land becomes a novelty, an unnamed backdrop for the “art” of the video. Why mention it was on Native land at all? Because it adds to the mysticism. It gives it a hipster-edge. “We didn’t just shoot a video in nature! we shot it in NATIVE AMERICAN NATURE!”

The unnaming of the land bothers me too. If they shot on tribal lands, I sure hope they got tribal permission, and therefore, you know, had to know who’s land they were on. There are 30 or so tribes in WA state. They’re all different. They’re not generic “Native American.” By just calling it “Native American…land” they’re contributing to that whole Native-American-culture-is-a-monolith myth that I bring up again and again.

So then the whole evolution of reservation–>preservation–>Native preserved–>preserved Native-land is fascinating. Let’s assume the original slip was a typo/mis-quote, but I think how quick the other media sources were to pick up on it says something about the imperialist nostalgia hidden right under the surface in the US. “Reservation” sounds sad, a reminder of how “we” (dominant culture) subjugated “them” (Natives). But “preservation” sounds nice. Like “we” saved it for them. Set it aside. Cause we’re thoughtful like that. And “preserved” sounds even better! Like “they” held onto those traditional old ways that we tried to get rid of, remained stewards of the land, and kept it pristine and beautiful so “we” could come shoot our music videos on it. How wonderful for everyone involved.

Icing on the cake is how HuffPo calls this a “true tribute to Native American (p)reservation lands.” A “true tribute” to Native land is a white actor named “Mystic” wandering around and then dying on unnamed tribal lands? Um, notsomuch. But thanks for trying. I’m really, really tired of the rhetoric of “honoring” or “tributes” being drawn upon to somehow erase Native peoples anger at the way we’re being represented by outside forces. Mascots? Hipster headdresses? YMCA Indian Guides? Quotes about Bon Iver music videos? Don’t get mad, we’re honoring you with our gross mis-representations of your culture!

Please don’t tell me that I should be “glad” that Native people are being “recognized at all” and throw out the “Would you rather that Native people were just forgotten completely and never mentioned or shown again?” I’m sorry, we’ve been somehow “disappearing” for over 500 years, yet we’re still here. Our cultures are still strong. We’re not going anywhere. So your ridiculous “honors” and “tributes” that do nothing to truly represent our peoples and our cultures aren’t “saving” us from extinction. They’re continuing to oppress, erase, and marginalize our living, breathing existence.

So much loaded in one mis-quote, huh?


Here’s the original HuffPo article: Bon Iver’s new video is a tribute to Native American preservation land 

UPDATE: Thanks to some amazing detective work by @NativeApprops twitter follower Jac (@java9lives), it appears the mysterious preservation lands we’re talking about are those of the Hoh Tribe. How’d she figure it out? By matching the picture on their homepage to the shot at about 3:15 in the video, the one I happened to screenshot above. Incredible. So in her honor, I’d like to end with an alternate post title from her brilliant mind:

“From Typo to Tribute: The Birth of Native American Preservation Land”

I think it’s quite fitting.

  • When will they listen? Maybe never, but don’t stop; share your strength because the rest of us need it. Thank you for the eloquent rant. – JoAnne

  • Kristina

    If it’s any consolation, Bon Iver is a fantastic band.

  • Kat

    For anyone who doesn’t know: The Hoh are a band of the Quileute and this is where several of the Twilight beach scenes were also filmed.

  • Gary

    Or, it could just be that they are saying that the tribe has land that they preserved. Here in Cherokee country, we have lands that we have preserved and hold still as protected. I am not defending this band, but the word preserve and preservation could be just that.

  • I was sort of worried to read this because I love Bon Iver’s music…but yeah, I totally agree with you, the word choice was definitely problematic.

  • Mebethel

    When I first read this, “preservation” sounded weirder than all get out to me… sounds like it’s been put under a dome or sealed in a Mason jar somehow.

  • SE

    I still have no idea what “preservation” land refers to, but to call some specific part of North America “native land” implies that there are parts that aren’t.

  • A Seneca

    What do you think about the Native model dressed as Pocahontas in America’s Next Top Model?

  • Bummer deal .. I’m a fan of Bon Iver too … but damnnn. and it’s even a bummer on top of a bummer because Justin Vernon (front man) is from Wisconsin..
    I know Wisconsin is know for their ignorance and racism against Natives …but I was hoping it was getting better.. :( let’s hope this wasn’t the band members idea too..but they obviously had to agree to it & heard ‘preservation’ instead of ‘reservation’ you think someone would have corrected them …

  • Vanessa

    Let’s not mix Bon Iver with the director. Many a times a director will shoot a video without even telling a band the premise, where they REALLY are, and sometimes, a band won’t even be consulted. Justin Vernon and Co. might not have even been aware of the director’s comments or his idea. So, rather than get angry with the band, who are great, let’s direct the rant to the direct.

  • I actually think the song itself is about the “towers” dorms he lived in while in college…that and losing his virginity while in them and the associations the buildings had since that time. Regardless, I can see your issue with the statements made by the director and such. I actually think the video is a little silly after hearing what the song is about, but it still make sense (sorta). Anyway, I wouldn’t take the ridiculous statements too hard as it really doesn’t matter who “claimed” the land in the long run. It is beautiful land though, huh?

    from here:

    The place name’s on the album, do they relate to the content of the songs at all?

    Yeah, they all do, take ‘Towers’ for example: ‘Towers’ is the name of the dormitory that I lived in in college; it’s made up of these two towers – North and South – my girlfriend lived in one and I lived in the other. It’s about falling in love, but also about what happens when you’ve long fallen out of love and those reminders are still there. You drive by them, these two buildings, and you look, and you realise that we really built that up. That we really built that love into these things, and for a long time afterward looking at them really made me feel sad; to see these empty buildings that I don’t go in to anymore. But then, as time goes on, they start to become kind of joyous in their own way: you can look at them and think ‘that love was great and these buildings still stand tall’. But there’s also an element of the fact that they’re just buildings – they’re gonna fall down one day, and they’re not that important because there’s new love in your life and you’ve got to break things down that get built up.