Crooked Arrows: The good, the bad, and the flute music

In Crooked Arrows, Iroquois National Lacrosse, Iroquois Nationals, movie review, native film, Native movies by Adrienne K.Leave a Comment

“Join the Tribe”? o_O?

So last weekend I finally saw Crooked Arrows, the new-ish Native lacrosse movie. I’d been eagerly anticipating the film since last year when I saw all the casting calls in New England for Native actors, and when I heard the Onondaga Nation was on board as a lead sponsor and producer, I was even more intrigued. You know how um, passionate I am about representations of Natives on the big screen (cough, Tonto, cough), so I thought I better go check it out.

The only problem is I waited too long, and the movie was already out of all the theaters in Boston. Cue my awesome friend Mikaela, and her truck. We drove almost 45 minutes out of the city to go see it in the suburbs. When we arrived in our theater a few minutes before showtime, we were greeted by throngs of excited fans, all stoked to see a Native movie….

…yeah, actually, we had an unintended private showing. Which ended up being kinda awesome, cause we could laugh at inappropriate times, point out all the ridiculous things, and talk back to the screen when things were eye-roll worthy. I also could scribble notes on a random pack of post-its in my purse (yes I’m the type of person who carries a pack of post-its around in my purse), which means I can have a comprehensive review for you! We also debriefed the whole way home, so these thoughts include some great feedback from Mikaela (who’s Navajo) as well.
So, I guess it’s necessary to put a SPOILER ALERT here, though if you’ve seen any Mighty Ducks/Bad News Bears/Little Giants/etc movie in your life, you know exactly who the characters are and how the plot turns out in Crooked Arrows. Definitely nothing new here. Just FYI.
Ok, quick plot synopsis: Mr. FancyPantsIndian (“Joe Logan”) (Superman) wants to expand the tribal casino. In order to do so, he has to get approval from the tribal council. Tribal council says yes, cause they like the idea of having a new hospital and stuff, but with the condition that he has to “work on his spirit.” Superman’s dad (Gil Birmingham) is in charge of deciding when and how that happens. He tells his son that he has to coach the tribal HS lacrosse team. They’re a hot mess, lol! The mean prep school keeps beating them! Luckily Mr. FancyPants was a lacrosse star in HS! So, long story short, through lots of clever training exercises and plenty of flute music, the team wins the championship. And Mr. FancyPants learns a lesson about his tribal heritage and decides to not screw over everyone by bulldozing the lacrosse field, and “brings lacrosse back to their people.” THE END! 
Here’s the trailer, if you want a little more context: 

The things I liked (yes, I liked things! A lot of things, actually!):

  • I loved that they cast tons of local Haudenosuanee and other East Coast Natives as major roles (like all the lacrosse players), and all the extras were also local, so that was fun. I kept seeing people I knew–oh hey! There’s Shiala! That’s Charlotte! Look, that’s Jonathan drumming!
  • The Natives weren’t painted as backwards-stuck-in-the-past. This one seems like a “duh” kinda thing, but you’d be surprised. The students were shown using smart phones, ipods, laptops, etc., posting to twitter, Gil’s character is shown posting to the Haudenosaunee Facebook page, which comes into play later. Even the elders made pop-culture references. Which is how I know the Native community (we use social media at higher rates than most other ethnic groups!), but most people think of us living in tipis without wifi.
  • There were a few little jokes that were just for the Natives in the audience, which was cool. Like at the beginning, Superman asks the twins on the team if they’re “cousins? or brothers?” and they just reply “yeah.” Which made Mikaela and I laugh. 
  • This wasn’t something I really noticed, since I’m not a LAX player, but apparently the action and all of the details around the sport itself were spot-on, and they included a lot of insider references for true fans of the sport. Nice. 
  • I liked the playful Indian humor throughout–like the whole “vagina dodge” joke (Superman mis-translates the lacrosse term “v-cut” into the tribal language).
  • Overall the representations of Native “culture” (I should mention that the team is from the fictional “Sinoquat” Nation, which is supposed to be part of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy) were done well, or as well as could be expected in a campy, cheesy sports movie. It was abundantly clear that the directors/producers tried very, very hard to show this was a Native film (more on that in a bit), while still appeasing majority non-Native audiences. They definitely showed a level of care and awareness that I haven’t seen in a movie about Natives in a loooong time. Goes to show all the Native involvement in the film paid off. 

Now on to what I’m good at–applying my social commentary filter and tearing apart things you didn’t even know should bother you! In no particular order, things I gave the side-eye, or had lingering questions about. For my Iroquois readers, if any of these are cultural references I just totally missed, please correct me in the comments.

  • The opening credits–I burst out laughing and grabbed Mikaela’s arm. Picture flute music, and Gil Birmingham’s deep Indian voice saying “A long time ago….a ball game was created…to please the creator.” while a breech-clout-warpaint-wearing-old-timey-Indian runs through the forest, accompanied by, as pointed out by the 1491s, Papyrus font. Admittedly, it made me reeeeal worried for the rest of the movie. It was just so over the top. 
  • and Oh Em Gee the flute music. Every 10 seconds the flute music. Anytime a Native character had a revelation or did something “Native,” cue the flute music. (The 1491s had a similar reaction). So. much. flute. music. and correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t regional music be the rattle-and-drum variety, rather than flute music?
  • Also, the horribly CGI-ed eagles. They were supposed to represent Superman’s (non-Native) mom watching over them, or something? But they appeared about as often as the flute music. Flying over the lacrosse field, sittin’ on a pole, as scene transitions, eagle, eagle, eagle. We get it. Eagles are important.
  • The Casino. The point of the casino (I think) was to show how Superman had “lost his way,” so it was supposed to be over-the-top and offensive. And to most Natives, I think it was. The slot machines played the Calvary Charge, the waitresses were dressed in Pocahottie outfits and dancing on the bar, they called Superman “chief,” and he wore a feather headband and carried a suction-cup bow and arrow set while giving out “wish feathers” for luck. It was bad, intentionally. But the problem is, I don’t think most non-Natives would realize that was “wrong”–because that type of imagery is so normalized in our society, from kids parties to halloween, they probably didn’t give it a second thought. So I wonder if it did more harm than good?
  • The character of Julie Gifford (“Dr. Gifford”) really bothered me. She’s a non-Native lady, Superman’s ex, who has a “great appreciation” for Sinoquat culture. She went off and got her PhD and wrote “the only book on Sinoquat language and culture,” and then returned to the rez as a HS teacher, where she is educating the kids on contemporary Native authors, the history of their nation, and their language. Can we talk about the white savior mentality here?? The cultural “expert” and the one encouraging the kids to embrace their heritage is a white lady. She gave up her fancy life to come back and save the kids. How nice of her. Honestly, why couldn’t it have been a bad-ass Native woman who went off and got her degree and then was using it for the good of her people? It made me cringe when Superman was trying to translate words into his language and he’s flipping through her book. Why not go ask his grandma who’s sitting in the living room? Before you get all mad, I’m not saying that non-Natives can’t come in and “help” communities. Many non-Native folks do, and do it right. But if you’re only given a few characters in the movie, why choose to reinforce notions of imperialist nostalgia (we have to “save” Indian culture before it’s all gone!)?
  • The sweat lodge/spirit animals scene. This is the scene that irked me the most, and the movie could have been completely successful without it. The team goes in a “traditional” sweat lodge, and when they emerge, are asked what “vision” they saw. They each name an animal and are given that symbol on a necklace as their “spirit animal.” So, from my limited knowledge and research through internet friends, sweat lodges as they were presented aren’t a tradish Iroquois thing, nor are “spirit animals” (though someone said the animals were representative of the Iroquois clan systems?)–and it just felt really stereotypical and unnecessary to me.
  • I didn’t understand the character of Mwag. This tall, traditional, Native kid who just happens to be of HS age and an expert at lacrosse, emerges from the forest in traditional clothes, speaking fluent Sinoquat, wearing the worst wig since Adam Beach’s in Smoke Signals, and everyone is just like “cool, come play on our team and be in our HS class.” I was told the character was based on a traditional story of a forest spirit dude that is well known throughout these communities, but the transition just didn’t make sense to me. I know it’s a movie, not real life, but I was confused, ok?
  • Finally, at the final lacrosse championship game, the conniving casino developer comes and confronts Superman on going back on his building plan. He threatens to sue, and Superman looks up at the Native crowd of supporters, who all stand up in unison, and says “In whose court? We are a sovereign Nation! Your laws don’t apply on our land!!!” I groaned and was like “Um, not exactly. But nice try?” Dear America, that’s not how tribal sovereignty works. He should have said, “In whose court? We are a sovereign nation. We will hear the claim and make a decision in our own tribal courts.” But I guess that doesn’t have the same impact?

There’s more, but this is already the longest post in the history of the world. Hope you’re still with me.

Bottom line: Cute, cheesy, campy sports movie, predictable plot line and characters, but cool to see so many Natives on screen, cool that at the minimum the audience will walk away realizing lacrosse is actually a Native sport, and cool that so much of the East Coast Native community was able to get involved. Some problematic stuff, but overall, not horrible. I enjoyed myself, and might watch it again if it ever comes out on Netflix. 

And now, some pictures I’ve been holding onto from when the real-life Crooked Arrows (The Iroquois National Lacrosse Team) came to play at Brown U, to remind us that this movie has roots in real life. Enjoy!

Brown Students gettin’ in the spirit
I decorated my sunglasses, and then promptly smudged them (as in smeared, didn’t pull out the sage. haha.)

 Team huddled up, love the back of the jersey’s with the Hiawatha Belt image!
(Thank Mikaela!)