Doug George-Kanentiio: 'Crooked Arrows' scores on the screen

“Crooked Arrows”
Producers: J. Todd Harris and Mitchell Peck
Co-producers: Neal Powless (Onondaga) and Ernest Stevens III (Oneida)
Director: Steve Rash
Writers: Tod Baird and Brad Riddell

Crooked Arrows marks a new venture in filmmaking, one in which Native people break free from being mere subjects of a movie into a new reality where they have become actors, script editors and producers. In this instance, the Onondaga Nation contributed heavily to the movie, assigning one of their own, Neal Powless, to work in conjunction with Ernest Stevens III to insure the project is consistent with Native culture while including aboriginal athletes as primary actors and hundreds of other Natives as voluntary extras. This gave the film an excitement which was palpable at the movie’s national premiere held in Syracuse, NY on the ancestral territory of the Onondagas.

The movie stars Brandon Routh, Chelsea Ricketts, Gil Brimingham,, Dennis Ambriz and Crystal Allen. The story takes place somewhere in the northeast, presumably on the territory of the fictional Senequoit reservation, a member of the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois) Confederacy.

There are many references to the Haudenosaunee but no explanation as to the Confederacy’s well known opposition to commercial gambling which is at odds with the Senequoit who operate a nondescript casino in a featureless warehouse. The casino is making money but a non-Native investor wants to expand its operations and turn it into a Foxwoods sized operation which will generate greater wealth for the Senequoits.

Joe Logan (Brandon Routh) is the mixed blood manager of the casino who secured a college degree at Syracuse and is persuaded to return by his father Ben Logan (Gil Birmingham). Joe Logan is clearly a pawn of the developer, the obscure Mr. Geyer (Tom Kemp). He expects Logan to deceive the Senequoits governing council into allocating more land for the expansion even if it means the destruction of culturally sensitive areas including the lacrosse field where the game has been played since time immemorial.

The governing council agrees to Logan’s plan but assigns him the task of proving his leadership by coaching the high school lacrosse team which has considerable talent but under the tutelage of his father has neither the will to win games or the discipline to compete in the New York State Prep League. All the other teams in the league consist of mostly white players (there is at least one black player), superior to the Natives in every facet of the game except for stickhandling.

The identities of the non-Native teams are hidden behind their helmets and never given much recognition except for the sharp contrast between the trailer schools of the Senequoits and the manicured grounds of the preparatory academies. That the Senequoits are in the elite academic league is not explained but the intent is to show the deprived material conditions on the reservation as a rationale for the governing council’s decision to defy the Confederacy and move ahead with development. When the lacrosse fields are bulldozed the council does not intervene but leaves it to Logan to take a stand and defy Mr. Geyer who threatens Logan but does not act on his words.

Logan’s father is a gentle, soft-spoken man, a widower who was married to a non-Native. Joe Logan and his sister Nadie are shown reflecting on the loss resulting from her unexplained death but while Nadie (Chelsea Ricketts) finds her place as a lacrosse player and as a Native teenager on the reservation her brother is haunted by his ambiguous feelings about his heritage. He recalls how he was once an elite player but at a crucial game literally threw his status away by hurling the ball away at the end of the title game. Neither brother or sister are ostracized because of their mixed blood background nor is their father denied chairmanship of the nation which might not be the case among some Iroquois communities given their matrilineal customs.

Lacrosse as an Iroquois invented sport is the game at the center of the film. It is shown as it may have been played 1,000 years ago with the athletes running through fields, darting around trees, spinning from their opponents and rushing towards a distant goal. The players metamorphosis into their 21st century descendents but with slightly less physical endurance.

The contemporary Senequoits know the game but are not stimulated to play it as a team. When Logan takes over as the coach they are reluctant to follow his lead until he embraces his heritage by going through his own changes. He is tutored by Crooked Arrow, a Senequoit elder (Dennie Ambriz) who brings the team into a sweat lodge where each young man is purified and given a totem meant to carry them throughout their lives. He also explains that an arrow, even if crooked, may strike its target with the right aim. The conditioning Logan brings to the teenagers highlighted by the renaming of the team to reflect the influence of the elder, results in a winning streak which takes them to the league championship.

For Logan there remains the conflict of fulfilling his promise to Geyer and converting the lacrosse field and the school into a new casino hall by a late May deadline. When the team finds out Logan has a hidden reason for serving as their coach they become discouraged and leave him behind. Logan elects to stop the construction, re-sod the lacrosse field and coach the team to the championship game against their hated opponents the preppies of Conventry. In a remarkable film sequence the amazing skills of both teams are highlighted showing the inherent beauty of lacrosse. From body checking to superb stick handling the game becomes an orchestrated contest, fast, intense and brutal at times.

When the Crooked Arrows are in danger of losing the game hundreds of Native fans show up, flags waving, singing and dancing as they march into the stadium. Stimulated by their support the Arrows begin to control the game but when their most skilled player Silverfoot (Tyler Hall) is brought down by a vicious body check they seemed destined to lose. But Silverfoot elects to return to the contest and, with one arm dangling at his side, snaps the ball and hurls it towards the goal, scoring for his team and winning the league title.

The Senequoit team consists of all Native players with one exception, a short slender white teenager named Toby (Jack Vandervelde). They are new to acting but perform their parts with skill. Their athletic talents are as obvious and impressive as the Hickory Huskers in the film “Hoosiers” which, like Crooked Arrows, relied on existing talent and community support to supplement the project’s budget.

Prominent in the film as Crooked Arrows players are: Lyle Thompson, Miles Thompson, Shaye Thomas, Derek Bennett, Orris Edwards (all Onondagas); Ty Thompson, Cree Cathers, Michael Hudson, Alex Cook (Mohawks); Emmett Printup, James Bissell and Aaron Printup (Tuscaroras). Mr. Cathers provides several funny scenes in the film, proving he is as adept with a punchline as he is as a goaltender. Rene Haynes, the casting director, did well in the selection of the Native actors.

The film is historical since it represents a commitment by the Onondaga Nation to become actively involved in this most powerful of mediums. It should certainly stimulate the Nation and the many Native fans of the movie to master the techniques of film production from script writing to directing, editing and marketing.

There are great benefits ahead for the Onondagas and other Native nations who may be considering movies as an endeavour. There is one shining example of a movie made with Natives, about Natives and featuring a Native cast with a powerful story with universal appeal: Whale Rider, the stunning film about a young girl in modern Maori society. This is the kind of storytelling Native nations should support.

Overall, Crooked Arrows is a positive film, particularly for Native youth. It shows the complexity of Native life and the difficulty in blending traditional values within a casino culture. While there are tensions grinding at the teenagers they are made aware that hope and inspiration come from many sources even a well meaning non-Native teacher (Crystal Allen) who has to teach them (and Logan) their own language. There are many scenes of Natives dancing and singing particularly at the game’s end when all of the players and fans engage in a spontaneous stomp dance although the special effects eagle did not fly so well.

As a movie Crooked Arrows scores before it reaches overtime.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the former editor of Akwesasne Notes, was a member of the Board of Trustees for the National Indian of the American Indian and the author of "Iroquois on Fire" among other books. He may be reached via e-mail: kanentiio@aol.com

Related Stories:
Doug George-Kanentiio: Living in a time of predicted changes (5/2)
Doug George-Kanentiio: On Audrey Shenandoah's passing (03/28)
Doug George-Kanentiio: One man's impact on the Mohawks (3/13)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Why ceremonies are vital to Mohawks (2/16)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Solving Canada's Indian 'problem' (2/9)

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