New York

Harold of Orange

For the past four years the Museum of the American Indian has hosted a modest but important festival of films and videos about Native Americans. The predominant genre is the sympathetic documentary, but in most cases, production crews are white. Under these circumstances, whose world vision does the documentary project? Implicated in the miasma of fear, nostalgia, and guilt by which the dominant culture incorporates different peoples, the anemic, consuming eye of the camera takes up a position that can hardly be other than anthropological, with all its underlying vampiric connotations.

Thus punctured and drained of identity, given a language that speaks for them, this body of peoples appears as no more than a punctuation mark at an erased site of difference. But hey, listen—the revenge of the vampirized is close by “Trickster,” one of the primary figures in Native American mythologies, has been called forth from its torpor. Trickster is the ventriloquist in the masquerade, the “word-dancer” in mythic time, a giver of life and death. This body traditionally without writing has been retranslating itself through the language of another, and a new Native American literature is emerging. Among its most original authors is Gerald Vizenor, scriptwriter for a rare fictional narrative Harold of Orange, a film directed by Richard Weise. Vizenor’s “wordarrows,” honed on the forked tongue of history, punctuate the film.

The storyteller introduces us to the playful tale of Harold Sinseer (played by the Oneida actor/comedian Charlie Hill) and his Warriors of Orange, “tribal tricksters determined to reclaim their estate from the white man.” “Word-driven” from the land, Trickster now returns in “mythic time” to take his revenge. The Warriors’ “school of social acupuncture” is well versed in those venous pressure points guaranteed to rouse the white fathers of the foundation whose grants aid the reservation. Seeking imaginative ways to tap into grant money, the Warriors have already hit the foundation for support for a fictitious scheme to grow miniature oranges. They are proposing a further project to grow “pinch” beans and set up reservation coffeehouses in a feint of white gentility Their trump card is that coffee will assist in the “sober revolution” to stamp out alcoholism, a goal close to the vampiric puritan heart. A presentation to the foundation takes the form of a bus trip to “tribal places,” introducing the party of officials to such sacred rituals as a softball game accompanied by the William Tell Overture (echoes of the Lone Ranger and Tonto).

Underneath the self-mockery, playing on stereotypic white images of the Native American, is a serious plea for the right to speak. “Indians” are the invention of white anthropologists; they have been robbed of their own proper names, their right to language and place thereafter infantilized and romanticized into fiction as the white American’s Other. But in mythic time an accounting takes place, irrespective of history, and it is here that the Indian is other-wise. Trickster, the disseminator of confusion, plays a game that no one wins, least of all Trickster itself (a perplexing strategy from the anemic eye’s point of view). Thus the ball game between the Anglos and the Indians, each wearing the other’s sign, is a Trickster ploy to invert the cultural order of things. Harold cons $1,000 from the foundation director by resorting to his recurrent excuse that his grandmother needs to be buried, a deception justified against another official’s description of his family’s theft of tribal artifacts. Typically, Trickster is himself obliged to relinquish the check to pay a long-standing debt to the foundation’s sympathetic adviser, Fanny.

What is exposed at the core of this exchange of properties is the transference of a debt. The vampirized body likewise arises as a debt (a depletion of blood, of identity) that cannot be discharged, since it always creates a further demand. Here, perhaps, is the enigma of representation in its transference from one language to another, an untranslatable remainder demanding another (impossible) translation. Capitalizing on this paradox, Harold the Trickster orchestrates a game of parody and irony in which he is both transgressor and transgressed, translator and translated—always doubled, double-crossed, doubling back, and doubled up with a double entendre. Mute and eloquent, his spirit erupts where the self that matters cannot speak and the self that speaks does so in another’s tongue, where representation is understood as a matter of feints and disguises, and where the most effective utterance is not speech but laughter.

Jean Fisher