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Truth telling

Image via Indian Country Today
"August: Osage County" actress Misty Upham, a member of the Blackfeet nation, went missing last week.
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EDITOR'S NOTE* (1:20 p.m. Oct. 17, 2014): We are saddened to have to report that the body of a woman found in a Seattle ravine was that of actress and Native American activist Misty Upham. One of her co-stars in the Oklahoma-set film August: Osage County, Juliette Lewis, Tweeted (@juliettelewis) today that "Misty spoke out alot against injustices within Native community. And had known enemies. Police must do an investigation." #RIPMistyUpham

OKLAHOMA CITY – I finally had the chance to watch the Oklahoma-set film August: Osage County last night (well, most of it) and it’s a good film with great performances from Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch. A superb cast all around.

And I was impressed with Blackfeet actress Misty Upham, the young Native American woman who plays a Cheyenne working as a kind housekeeper and cook named Johnna in the Pawhuska, Okla.-area home of Beverly and Violet Weston.

The film, based on the Pulitizer and Tony-award winning dramatic play by Tracy Letts, examines a dysfunctional family facing "harsh truths" when they come together in dog-days-of-summer Osage County, Okla. when their father vanishes.

Quite coincidentally – or, perhaps, synchromystically – I was looking up some information on the film and noticed a news story about Misty Upham. Apparently she disappeared a week ago and has not been seen since. Concerns are that she is suicidal. We certainly hope she is found soon.

In the film, Johnna (Upham) is offered the job of housekeeper by the T.S. Eliot-loving, alcoholic, poet patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard – Shepard also plays the corrupt, anti-Native American FBI Agent Frank Coutelle in the fantastic 1992 film Thunderheart). Quoting Eliot, Beverly says, “Life is very long.” He adds that while man, since time immemorial, has thought this, it was Eliot who gets credit for it because he actually wrote it down.

Here we go ‘round the prickly pear / Prickly pear, prickly pear …” Beverly says, reciting a line in Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.” This is a signal that Beverly is unhappy in his marriage and with his life. In Eliot’s poem, as in Beverly’s life, he finds himself in a dry, arid land (like Osage County, Okla. in August – intensely hot and dry – not a cloud in the sky).

But such hellish conditions allow for truths to be forged and made clear. That is not a wavy mirage in the distance (sync with the aforementioned Thunderheart and Val Kilmer’s Native American FBI Agent – derisively called “The Washington Redskin” by other Natives).

Beverly is not long for this “dead land, this cactus land” and he soon goes missing, ironically, found drowned in a lake. A dust devil dream forms on the horizon …

August: Osage County has very interesting themes. Being a good person. Connecting with loved ones. Treating people well. Coming to terms with past wrongs ... 

At one point, one of the Weston daughters, Karen (Juliette Lewis) notes that an old fort where they used to play “Cowboys and Indians” as children has been torn down. Violet, who is in the middle of some awkward, hard-hitting “truth telling” over a family meal, screams at Karen – and the whole family – that saying “Indian” is shameful - although she doesn't really believe it. It’s “Cowboys and Native Americans,” Violet says, clearly high on pills. Ahh ... truth telling.

Earlier in the film, when Beverly hires her, Violet (dying from oral cancer and popping pills like candy) asks if Johnna is an “injun.” Barbara (Julia Roberts) had also corrected her angry mother, saying that Indians should be called Native Americans. Violet is having none of it. She is set in her ways and will go to her grave – kicking and screaming.

All the while, Johnna (Upham), is a calming presence in the chaotic household. She could leave, sure, but her presence is needed. Beverly seemed to realize that before his death by drowning.

And on this Columbus Day (which Red Dirt Report would like to be replaced with Indigenous Peoples’ Day), a lot of “Violets” here in the United States aren’t having it either. They are quite content with Columbus Day. What do they care if Columbus was an imperialist, genocidal maniac

For instance, just this morning, right-wing radio host Glenn Beck was making fun of cities like Seattle, Washington (the area where Misty Upham was living and where she was last seen by family) for ditching Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. An insenstive jerk, Beck cracked jokes about the “I” word and the “N” word and the “R” word (Washington Redskins). Beck either doesn't get it or, he does get it and doesn't care. People like Glenn Beck are part of the problem. 

Perhaps, like many white hipsters around here (Christina Fallin, Wayne Coyne), they are o.k. with featuring dogs wearing Native American headdresses and co-opting their culture.  Misty Upham's tribe, the Blackfeet, have experienced a lot of injustices and social problems, no thanks to the way they were historically treated. Meth abuse is rife within the Blackfeet nation, and other tribes in the American Northwest and elsewhere.

People like Glenn Beck and others of his ilk don’t like a little “truth telling,” as matriarch Violet Weston puts it. But America, which is in the opinion of author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz a "crime scene," and the truth needs to be told and wrongs need to be made right.

Writes Dunbar-Ortiz in the newly released An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States:"In the United States the legacy of settler colonialism can be seen in the endless wars of aggression and occupations; the trillions spent on war machinery, military bases, and personnel instead of social services and quality public education; the gross profits of corporations, each of which has greater resources and funds than more than half the countries in the world yet pay minimal taxes and provide few jobs for US citizens; the repression of generation after generation of activists who seek to change the system; the incarceration of the poor, particularly descendants of enslaved Africans; the individualism, carefully inculcated, that on the one hand produces self-blame for personal failure and on the other exalts ruthless dog-eat-dog competition for possible success, even though it rarely results; and high rates of suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, sexual violence against women and children, homelessness, dropping out of school, and gun violence."

Red Dirt Report suspects that Columbus Day's days are numbered. As we come to accept our role in oppressing the native peoples of the North American continent, Columbus Day will be thrown on the ash heap of history. One can only hope.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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