The music video for UK duo Chase & Status’ single Alive, filmed on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana, has prompted much discussion in the past week.
It is set on a present-day reservation and touches on some aspects of reservation life, including drug use and poverty. The video also depicts the redemptive power of ceremony and shows the balance between modern-day and traditional healing.
Some Natives tweeted that the video exploited poverty and ceremony for the financial benefit and entertainment of Europeans.
The producer Jake Bower did try to argue (on Twitter) that this also served to teach Europe about the after-effects of genocide.
But, many Natives disagreed. Some felt that a line was crossed with the depiction of Sundance.
Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, head of casting for the video, who lives on the Blackfeet reservation, viewed the video differently, as something positive for Blackfeet Country.
“My first concern was whether or not he [the director] wanted to record an actual ceremony or not,” said HolyWhiteMountain to ICTMN. HolyWhiteMountain and the Crazy Dogs maintain that the Sundance and sweat shown in the video don’t count as real ceremonies because they were staged for the video. “Later, I found out the Crazy Dogs were going to be overseeing the mock ceremonies, and that this was something they had had a serious discussion about and decided it was a good thing.”
The Crazy Dogs are a society of men on the Blackfeet reservation who oversee ceremony and do work with people in the community who have substance abuse problems.
HolyWhiteMountain said that the Crazy Dogs plan on using the video to help teach Blackfeet youth about addiction and healing.
“They’re not just talking about it online. They are on the ground, day-to- day. They are actually helping people heal and recover. This kind of work is worth more than its weight in gold because right now, our substance abuse problems in Blackfeet Country are pretty bad – from meth use to pill addiction,” HolyWhiteMountain said.
“If this video can spark a conversation in the community – which it already has, and if that conversation can lead to positive change – then I’m all for it,” he said.
HolyWhiteMountain also said that he wishes people outside the community would hold back on their criticism.
“When I see Indians from one tribe telling Indians from another tribe how things should go from a great distance, I hear echoes of federal Indian policy makers in 1887; sitting in Washington, D.C., writing policy for tribes across the continent,” HolyWhiteMountain said.
“Tribes of people they’ll never see, living in places they’ll never see, living in situations they’ve only heard about. You don’t have to be non-Indian to have a Great White Father complex.”
On the other hand, some Natives disagree. Sundance is something that is shared across multiple tribes, all of whom have previous prohibitions against filming or photographing it in any way.
Lakota hip hop artist Frank Waln (whose video for “AbOriginal” is set on the Rosebud reservation) was asked if he felt some topics were off limits. “I know we can find peace, understanding and purpose through our ceremonies. I lived that experience. Do I tell that story in depth to non-indigenous audiences? No, I don’t.”
Waln thinks that some issues in the Native community are too personal.
“I do tell that story when I am speaking to indigenous youth. I believe some of my own life stories and our ceremonies are too complex and sacred to translate to a non-indigenous audience. There are other ways to share the power and meaning of our ceremonies to future generations without putting them on blast for the whole world to see.”
In an open letter to the director, Blackfoot filmmaker Elle-Maija Tailfeathers said, “Yes, you might have had permission to film a make believe Sundance from the Blackfeet Nation, but knowing how strongly other Blackfoot communities like ours feel about the photography of sacred ceremonies, you shouldn’t have done it. … Ultimately, your portrayal of the Sundance reduces our sacred ceremonies to nothing more than a spectacle.”
Other Natives don’t see the video as problematic simply because of ceremony, but because it was written and produced by non-Natives for a largely European audience.
“As a person who was born and raised on a rez and as a Sundancer, I felt exploited,” Waln said.
Waln hopes people take the video as a challenge of sorts. “Outside eyes can’t see our communities and culture like we do. It’s impossible because we have different ways of looking at the world,” he said.
“I think this is a call and challenge to Indigenous musicians and media makers alike to step up and do our best to create high quality content that is authentic and true to our culture,” Waln said. “Personally, the anger and frustration I felt made me want to work harder and do better in the creation of my art.”
Related Content: Sterling HolyWhiteMountain gives his thoughts about the video here.