By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
And that is how, pregnant, her world as chaotic and tumultuous as it had ever been, Yvonne Walker saw her life put to film.
On December 8, 1974, Moses Yakanac, a 47-year-old Native Alaskan, was knifed to death in a Skid Row alleyway. Alone and adrift, most likely an alcoholic, Yakanac was an easy target, becoming the second victim (10 years after the first) of downtown’s notorious “Skid Row Slasher.”
Though Yakanac’s end was certainly atypical among American Indian émigrés to Los Angeles, the life he lived prior to his murder was hardly unique in its destitution. Yakanac was one of hundreds of American Indians stranded on Skid Row at the time.
“Indian Skid Row,” recalls Hanay Geiogamah, director of the UCLA American Indian Studies Center, “was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
The emergence of an Indian Skid Row and the murder of Moses Yakanac came at the tail end of the downtown Indian enclave. While the lives depicted in The Exiles bear little resemblance to such abject poverty, the film is anything but a rose-colored portrait of Native life. Its characters are complicated and troubled. Walker seems resigned to a life of hardship, projecting all hope for a happy future onto her unborn son, while Homer and Tommy live to drink and make trouble. Their antics seemingly mask a darker pain — the loss of their culture.
Yet despite the complexity of these characters, the film hasn’t been immune to criticism.
“I used to teach film at USC in the ’90s,” says John Morrill, one of three cinematographers who worked on The Exiles, “and when I showed my students the film, many of them told me it was racist. They thought it was stereotyping drunk Indians.”
Even Thom Andersen, whose regard for the film helped to launch its rediscovery, seems to accept at face value the pallor of fatalism, calling The Exiles “a movie about drunk Indians and the women they mistreat or neglect.”
In an essay in the July issue of Film Comment, Andersen latches on to one of the film’s undercurrents — the existential pain, stemming from the loss of culture, that accompanied the move from reservation to city. Andersen notes one of the final scenes, in which Indians from all over the city gather on “Hill X,” an empty lot overlooking downtown, to dance, drum, chant and let loose without the interference of the white world.
“There, they try to reclaim that cyclical, preindustrial time,” he writes, “but their effort to revive the old ceremonies and solidarities breaks up into almost desultory sexual assaults and fistfights.”
Andersen goes on to note that even Hill X, as unsatisfying a replacement for reservation tradition as it was, was bulldozed shortly after the film to make way for Dodger Stadium.
“The Exiles is the most concrete and detailed record we have of these doomed spaces,” he concludes.
Andersen is right — these spaces have disappeared. But rather than a railing against the dying of the light, as it were, by Natives unsuccessfully struggling to keep the ancient ways alive, the climactic fracas depicted in The Exiles is actually something relatively new — a pan-Indian phenomenon not unique to any specific tribe. The practice, called “49-ing,” originated in Oklahoma, and at the time of The Exiles it would have been a fairly recent development on the West Coast.
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“The origins of the 49 were as a preparation for war among the plains tribes,” explains UCLA’s Geiogamah. “But since that doesn’t happen much anymore, it’s become a way for young people to let loose, to deal with all the stress they’re facing.”
All new cultures suffer growing pains, and pan-Indianism was no different. The rebellious nature of 49-ing helped give birth to the American Indian Movement and to the American Indian political consciousness of the 1960s.
And although Hill X was leveled, emerging pan-Indian traditions didn’t fade. They migrated to the streets.
“I remember having a massive 49 on Main Street in 1965,” says Geiogamah. “A couple of guys brought their drums, and we raised all kinds of hell in a parking lot until the police shut us down around 2 a.m.”
“That was my Saturday night,” says Indian artist, actor and early Exiles enthusiast Ben-Alex Dupris. “Good or bad, The Exiles speaks to our id.”
Dupris hopes the re-release of The Exiles will spur an Indian cultural renaissance, and that the film’s unapologetic portrayal of urban Indians will help to validate a lifestyle that has often been seen as “un-Indian.”
“I think Native people are in a cultural depression,” he says. “They feel burdened by every aspect of our traditional lives.”
Dupris may get his wish: Doug Miles of Apache Skateboards, who hails from the same San Carlos reservation as Yvonne Walker, is already planning to launch an Exiles-inspired skateboard line.
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