"Nonetheless, Today It Is This Way"
The short films of Sky Hopinka
Sometime in 1983, a white anthropologist named Henry Zenk interviewed Wilson Bobb, an elder on the Yakima reservation in White Swan, Washington. One of the few living speakers of Chinuk Wawa, Bobb was nearly blind, and on meeting with Zenk, mistook him for a young indigenous man. No white man, he thought, could pronounce the complexities of the Chinuk jargon so accurately, and without being able to fully make out the face of his interviewer, Bobb gently ridiculed him for his lack of fluency in a language that once served as a lingua franca across the Pacific Northwest: “There’s not a little bit that you know”, he scolded, “not even a little bit do you know. It’s not even a little bit you don’t know. You don’t even know a little bit; you don’t know very much anyhow. A miserable excuse for an Indian you are. You can’t speak Chinuk Wawa well.”
Wawa’s effectiveness lies in its juxtapositions: Nestled among footage of Hopinka participating in a Chinuk Wawa learning group in New York, far from the language’s origins, the roughly six-minute-long film features a retelling of Zenk and Bobb’s encounter which grows increasingly inscrutable as its English subtitles attempt to include more and more linguistic nuance. English translations of Chinuk Wawa are gradually riddled with brackets, grammatical interpolations that search in vain for the subtle shades of meaning inherent to linguistic understanding. The central concern of wawa is the untranslatable and irreplaceable nature of each indigenous sphere of knowledge, language, and culture. “Being that he never [for/when in the past/if]”, the subtitles frantically explain, “knew a white man who [know/understand/remember]”. Indigenous experience and knowledge, both past and present, cannot be reduced to an ethnographic oddity.
As wawa makes clear, Hopinka’s short films attempt to create dense palimpsests out of fragments of myth, language, music, image, memory, color, and personal experience. Despite their repeated engagement with the apocalyptically violent changes brought to bear on indigenous societies, languages, and systems of meaning by settler-colonialism, Hopinka’s films are not merely reminiscences of the past or meditations on the loss of an idealized indigenous way of life. Rather, Hopinka’s films are nuanced examinations of the ways in which these cultures, peoples, and modes of understanding have survived and adapted in the present day. In Kunįkága Remembers Red Banks, Kunįkága Remembers the Welcome Song, for instance, contemporary technology is not rejected as a means of communicating the essence of older cultural traditions. In fact, contemporary artistic media are embraced as non-linguistic “translations”, ways of recovering and expressing certain shades of meaning which cannot be reconstructed through linguistic translation or abstract knowledge alone. Thus, Hopinka’s films attempt to create a new artistic language from the fabric of contemporary life, one that can express the nuances of the old stories even as it actively shapes a new body of myth for the present.
At the heart of Kunįkága Remembers Red Banks, Kunįkága Remembers the Welcome Song is the origin myth of the Ho-chunk nation, a people native to the American mid-west and of which Hopinka is a member. In a telephone conversation with an elderly native man, Hopinka is told that the speaker went to Red Banks, Wisconsin to see the origins of their people for himself, only to find that there was nothing outwardly remarkable about the place. It gradually becomes clear that his knowledge, too, is based on written documents more than oral tradition, and that the speaker’s memories of Ho-chunk lore and culture are mediated by ethnographic studies and anthropological theorizing. When Hopinka himself travels to Red Banks, however, the film blossoms into the realm of myth, and an unnamed Ho-chunk speaker begins to retell the origin myth of his people: “They talk about how we were blessed with a language. Now it is like at the very end of this life. We still hold our Hocak language sacred, for that reason.” The origin myth of the Ho-chunk is intimately bound up with their language, and this language, often considered the originator of the Siouan language family, forms the core of Ho-chunk identity. As the Ho-chunk speaker continues, footage of Red Banks is layered, edited, and made to support the speakers words as he intones: “This is a very sacred story, one that cannot be fully told. Nonetheless, today it is this way, using moving pictures.”
Hopinka’s films look at the state of indigenous cultures today and give them leave to be what they are. That is, they attempt to draw on the knowledge and understandings of the past without romanticizing or trying to recreate them. If a song is known to one elder as The Welcome Song, Hopinka’s films hold this to be a valid and appropriate name for the song regardless of its traditional name or function. The experiences of the contemporary indigenous are given equal weight to those of their ancestors even if their lives do not conform to the notions of purity or authenticity which so often color discussions of indigenous traditions. In Hopinka’s films, the stereotypical settings of indigenous life and experience are replaced by the settings they actually experience today: highways, gas stations, classrooms, small towns, beaches, bridges, and hiking trails. Although centuries of colonialism have systematically and violently divorced many indigenous peoples from their cultural heritage, the fragments that remain are free to be reworked, repurposed, and recreated to serve the needs of those who survive.
The multimedia nature of Hopinka’s work, which also spans visual art, poetry, and installation, can easily cause his films to feel overwhelmingly dense. With its jarring juxtapositions of past and present, sacred and mundane, indigenous and non-indigenous, Hopinka’s approach can at times draw near to the ambiguity expressed in a passage from a work by the architect Kengo Kuma which appears in Hopinka’s Anti-Objects, or Space Without Path or Boundary: “The image remains fragemented; it never coalesces, even when a number of different aspects are overlapped. The silhouette is ambiguous.” Throughout the film’s twelve minutes, Anti-Objects confronts the viewer with images of contemporary Portland, Oregon, extracts from Zenk and Bobb’s conversations, colorful abstractions, ethnographic recordings of indigenous music, and passages from Kuma’s architectural treatise. Yet its parts largely fail to come together into a cohesive whole, and serve more as realization of Kuma’s theorizing than a fully-formed work. Anti-Objects is Hopinka’s least readable work, and is perhaps best seen as an experiment in pushing Hopinka’s trademark techniques and forms to their symbolic limit.
This is not to say that Hopinka regularly flounders at the edge of readability. In fact, his film Fainting Spells, while similar in form and style to Anti-Objects, manages to hold Hopinka’s disparate influences and techniques together via the strength of its central story, an allegorical, imagined origin myth for Xąwįska, or the Indian Pipe Plant. As text, ostensibly in Hopinka’s handwriting, scrolls across the screen, images and music swell and contract to support this central story, blending mediums to imbue the film’s central image, that of being revived by the smoke of Xąwįska after fainting, with a mystery and poetic charge that would be impossible to realize via text alone. Still, the text is a dense web of metaphor in its own right. Its interlocutor unclear, the text remembers: “when I was little you held my hand as we went out for a milkshake and walked through the spirit world”, mixing myth and personal experience with a free and easy hand.
Fainting Spells is the film which most strikingly and effectively melds Hopinka’s habitual content and forms into a cohesive whole, one which is at once personal and universal, concrete and abstract. The film’s final scene, in which the ghostly voice of Arlene Nofchissey Williams & Carnes Burson’s indigenous anthem “Go My Son” exhorts the listener to “go and climb the ladder” and “make your people proud of you”, features a simple beachfront scene which Hopinka turns to the mythical. As colorful negative images of people and children are pulled up into the sky, a gateway is opened up to the unknown from the heart of the everyday. The mundane, then, is on intimate terms with the sacred.
Hopinka’s short films can be considered multimedia works in their own right: they wield music, sound, color, and text, in a way that avoids the primacy of image so characteristic of film, providing sharp yet subtle critiques of the past and the present alike. Despite their preoccupation with indigenous life, Hopinka’s films, like Wilson Bobb, cannot be reduced to mere symbols of the tragic indigenous past. Rather, Hopinka’s films are concerned with language, tradition, myth, and history in a broader sense, metaphorizing aspects of the present in an attempt to live through a past one never experienced but the presence of which one always feels. Rather than privileging one artistic medium over another, Hopinka blends them all; rather than falling back on a romanticized indigenous past, Hopinka transforms the present into a new myth for a new age. In Hopinka’s films, the people have been given a new language and a new voice. What remains is to learn how to use it.