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An Overlooked History Lesson: Powwow Highway at Emerson College

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Powwow HighwayEmerson College is renowned for its eclectic assortment of professors and students, and judging by its list of famous alumni – including Jay Leno, actor Henry Winkler and television producer Norman Lear – it is certainly also underestimated. So it is fitting that Jonathan Wacks, director of the 1989 Sundance Film Festival contender Powwow Highway, would choose to screen his film there as to be appreciated by a large conglomerate of Boston hipsters.

Now chair and professor of Visual Media Arts at Emerson, Wicks will be accompanied by the associate professor of VMA and Powwow writer Jean Stawarz. Following the film, the two will be conducting a Q&A session focused toward (but not limited to) their 21-year-old masterpiece. Although it scored a measly $283,747 nationwide in its 1989 theatre release, A Martinez and Gary Farmer were applauded for their performances as activist Buddy Red Bow and warrior-wannabe Philbert Bono.

Powwow Highway is set in Lame Deer, Montana, where the Northern Cheyenne tribe resides. Developers seeking to turn the reservation into a mining facility threaten the tribe’s existence, but despite Buddy’s efforts to turn them away, it seems inevitable that the Cheyenne council will be persuaded. Philbert, on the other hand, is relatively apathetic about the fate of the reservation and is instead interested in his sacred visions. After trading almost everything he owns for a 1964 Buick named “Protector,” he accepts Buddy’s plea to drive to Santa Fe and bail out his newly arrested sister. Polar opposites in almost everything, Buddy being short-tempered and angst-riddled, Philbert being easygoing and pastoral, they take some time to adjust to each other’s company. But with that adjustment comes a unique sense of companionship.

The Powwow Highway takes them parallel to the Bozeman Trail, which was a route connecting gold rush territory in Montana to the Oregon Trail. With the significant number of white settlers traveling this way in the late 1800s, Native Americans were threatened and even campaigned against. Attacks were common. Buddy has trouble letting go of his resentment upon arriving at the Trail, while Philbert is more forgiving and contemplative. Addressing this historical lapse in judgment, as well as others, earned the film three awards at the 1989 Native American Film Festival – best picture, best director, and best actor for A Martinez.

Of course, George Harrison’s role as producer and editor didn’t hurt. An avid believer in Indian mysticism, he expanded The Beatles beyond the western world in part because of his love for the then-“alternative” religion Hinduism. Undoubtedly inspired by Wacks and Stawarz’s benevolent ideas for the film, he signed on and caught the industry’s eye. (Harrison also had a production and distribution company of his own entitled “HandMade Films,” which lasted from 1978 to 1994.)

For those who enjoy looking at America from a historical perspective that doesn’t involve skipping from Christopher Columbus to George Washington, Powwow Highway will be a harrowing, yet eye-opening, experience. Progress that organizations and the government have made to compensate Native Americans families for their ancestors’ oppression still don’t alleviate the identity crises that real world Buddys and Philberts sometimes continue to face.

The event will start at 7pm in the Bright Family Screening Room in the Paramount Center at Emerson College (559 Washington Street in Boston) on Sunday, December 5th. The cost is $10, $7.50 for ArtsEmerson members, and $5 for students. Those using the MBTA should take the Orange Line to Downtown Crossing.

–Megan Riesz is a Contributor to The Free George.

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