Saturday, October 7, 2017

Powwow Highway, A Film Review

Powwow Highway (1989)
Authentic Film About Modern Indians
By Dakota Wind
Powwow Highway. Directed by Jonathan Wacks. Produced by Jan Wieringa, George Harrison, and Dennis O'Brien. By David Seals, Janet Heaney, and Jean Stawars. Performed by A. Martinez, Gary Farmer, and Amanda Wyss. U.S.A.: Handmade Films / Warner Bros., Feb. 24, 1989. Film. 87 minutes.

When Powwow Highway (PH) hit the Pheasant Drive-In Theater in Mobridge, SD, in the spring of ’89, my maternal grandparents took my brother and me to see it. I remember an impatient evening, waiting for sundown, and then a sense of growing anticipation for darkness to descend on a largely vacant parking lot. I watched it again, and made my sons watch it with me.

It’s low budget, made in the ‘80’s, and set on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana. And it’s a buddy road trip movie. It’s the biggest movie to come out featuring natives since ‘83’s Triumph of a Man Called Horse, and unlike ‘Horse, PH holds up fair.

If one has spent considerable time on a reservation, one experiences a ten to twenty year time lag, and as a result, PH time is ambiguous enough to have been filmed in the ‘70’s or the turn of the twenty-first century. The clothing (lots of denim, apparently Indians like to wear jean anything), vehicles (rusty “rez” cars and pick-ups on the verge of falling to pieces are still driven today, and probably without insurance too), and depressing, crowded homes (project homes built cheaply and without variation) are as much a part of genuine Native American reservation life as the film exposes.

The protagonist, a hot-headed Buddy Red Bow (named in honor of the Oglála Lakȟóta musician activist) attends a tribal council meeting in Lame Deer, MT and advices his people (the Northern Cheyenne) against a new strip mining contract – in real life, the Northern Cheyenne passed a Class I Clean Air Act on their reservation, which was challenged by the strip mining town, Colstrip, MT (located just north of Lame Deer, off the reservation) which was challenged and taken all the way to the US Supreme Court, who ruled in favor of the Northern Cheyenne, which required that Colstrip install filters on all their stacks. There’s more to this story, and I couldn’t appreciate the details as a punk kid).

The Rez runner "Protector," or Philbert's war pony. Your reservation experience isn't real until you've ridden in one. 

Buddy’s sister is set up for possession of illegal drugs during a traffic stop, and the police officer knows just where to look for the stuff when he pulls her over. Buddy needs to get his sister and her kids out of New Mexico and back to Montana, but he’s unable to get there and back again with just enough money to make bail too, so he enlists his part-time friend and recovering alcoholic. Enter: the eccentric Philbert, who works in a vision quest and gathers traditional medicine along the way.

Philbert sleeps nude. He loves food, and leaves a Hershey’s chocolate bar as an offering to the ancestors in his hero’s journey. Philbert looks at a field of rusty, broken, peeling, junked cars out of a filthy window and sees a herd of horses. He trades his weed for a spotted war pony. His car is practically a character in itself, and is a humorous, yet genuine, addition as the protagonists’ vehicle: Protector.

The film reaches its climax when Buddy and Philbert rescue Buddy’s sister Bonnie. Buddy finds his “medicine” when he chooses to stand and face down a police car, and Buddy unexpectedly transforms into a warrior – Protector’s window becomes a tomahawk – when he leaps into the air to protect his own. Reality is suspended for just a moment, or maybe it’s the viewers’ turn to see Buddy as he sees himself.

PH is categorically a drama; maybe it is too serious at times to be a comedy, but it isn’t dark. Nor is PH a tragedy. The fact is, this is a quintessential ‘80’s low budget “B” movie. The acting is great, but this is a “B” movie, and there has to be some stilted, wooden acting. Thankfully, Joanelle Romero steps in to cement this “B” movie’s status, but her scenes are few and fast.

PH isn’t bad enough of a “B” movie, and nor does it have popular “cult” movie status, so it will never be riffed on Mystery Science Theater 3K. It doesn’t need any of that. It’s not high art. It’s a good escape at about eighty-plus minutes. Go see it. 

Dakota Wind is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He is currently a university student working on a degree in History with a focus on American Indian and Western History. He maintains the history website The First Scout.