Film & Literature Module: NATIVES & THE ELECTRONIC AGE

Created by Rhiannon Sorrell (Diné), MLIS, MA, 2014

Adaptable To Courses In:

  • Intro to American Indian Studies
  • American Indian Literature
  • Contemporary American Indian Issues
  • Select topics in environmental sciences, digital humanities, natural resources management

 

Relevant Search Terms

  • General Dynamics
  • Leslie Marmon Silko
  • (treatment of) technology
  • cultural survival
  • uranium mining on the Navajo Nation
  • uranium mining

 

Primary Sources

 

Introduction to the Sources

  • The Film:
    • The major theme of this film involves the industrialization of the Navajo Nation in the 1960s. The film features significant transition shots between traditional Navajo activities and activities related to industrialization and "modernization," particularly focusing on this change occurring in the 1960s. A significant portion of the film features the amenities and benefits brought on by the tribe's cooperation with General Dynamics
  • The Book:
    • The book follows its protagonist, Tayo, through his struggles with battle fatigue after returning from World War II and witnessing the death of his cousin, Rocky, in the Philippines. While many of his compatriots find solace in alcoholism and violence, Tayo seeks a cure for his mental trauma in the traditions and ceremonial practices of his people. 
  • Their Conversation:
    • Throughout, the book and the film feature frequent juxtapositions of technological and traditional imagery. The equating of industrialization with Western notions of modernity and progress has proven to be problematic for many American Indian peoples, as it often devalues traditional culture in lieu of an industrialized, consumerist mentality. "Progress" has often been equated with the acceptance of assimilation and the forfeiting of one's cultural and linguistic identity. Questions surrounding the beneficence of technology -- especially the types of technology featured in both the film and book - arise in the study of the two. The film frequently uses words and phrases such as "wealth," "promising future," "modern," and "space age" when referring to the industrial ventures into the Navajo Nation. It has a more positive portrayal of these ventures. In contrast, Ceremony is wary of negative impact technology has on society and the environment, as well as its place among the traditions of Native Americans. Given the context of World War II (which serves as the backdrop of beginning of both the film and the book) as a catalyst for these technological advancements and industrialization endeavors, both sources call to question the nature of technology and industry from a Native American viewpoint.

 

Background

World War II marked a unique societal and economic transition for many Native American communities. Many young men had no qualms about enlisting with the same forces that had, only a generation before, been their enemies. Many others found work off of the reservation as a way to contribute to the war effort. As the war ended, however, many Native soldiers returned to their homes, to desolate areas with few jobs and little opportunity, at least until the start of the Cold War. The mining of uranium near the Navajo and Laguna Pueblo reservations marks one of the most profitable industrial measures of the 20th century in the area's history. The post-World War II nuclear arms race with the U.S.S.R. encouraged uranium mining production in the United States. Many large deposits were found on or near the Navajo and Laguna reservations and private companies hired many local employees to work the mines. Unfortunately, due to poorly regulated mining practices, the area suffered considerable and lasting environmental contamination and disease as a result of that contamination.

The failure of the industries and the federal government to regulate or improve conditions for Native workers and the continuing impact of environmental contamination highlights the dubious relationship American Indians have had with industries, especially those with interests in national defense. While General Dynamics, a defense and aerospace company, has cooperated with and brought jobs to the Navajo Nation, its promises of progress and prosperity through "space age" rhetoric belies the true nature of its business and technology.

 

The Plan

Watch the film, The Navajo Moves into the Electronic Age. While watching, take note of:

  • The juxtaposition of various scenes: from traditional ones to more modern ones.
  • How the film talks about war; how World War II "helped" the Navajos.
  • How the film describes "meager" existence.
  • The type of "wealth" oil deposits brought.
  • The types of industries on the reservation, both external and tribal owned.
  • Raymond Nakai's General Dynamics dedication speech.
  • The activities of Navajo General Dynamics employees
  • The imagery of Navajo hands.
  • The closing segments and use of words and phrases like "space age," "promising future," "modern society," "dignity," and "self-respect."

 

Read Ceremony, paying particular attention to the imagery on page 119, the verse story starting on page 132, and the section starting on page 244. While reading, take note of:

  • The imagery of Betonie's residence; the various items in his home.
  • The images of the calendars beneath the rawhides and medicine bundles, and the pictures and names on the calendars.
  • The story the witch tells in the poem starting on page 132 and how the witch describes white people.
  • The emphasis on objects in this story.
  • The hills in the story and the importance of these hills.
  • Old Grandma's story about the light beginning on page 245.
  • How Tayo traces the relationship between his uncle, Josiah, and the Japanese on page 246.

 

Discussion Kindling

  • Both the film and the story have some degree of provenance in World War II, although both were created during the Vietnam Era. Compare and contrast the aftermath of the war as it is depicted in both the film and the book. How do you think the war influenced race relationships between American Indians and non-Natives? What influence do you think it had on the socio-economic status of American Indians? What significance do you draw from the scene transition of the individual shooting the arrow to a missile launch? To what degree is this a positive or negative image, and why?
  • Old Betonie, the medicine man, makes the following comment on page 121: "In the old days it was simple. A medicine person could get by without all these things. But nowadays..." What does he mean by this? Which things is he talking about? What is the significance of these things? To what degree do you think he is talking about physical objects and what degree do you think means something else entirely? Something perhaps rooted in the concept of "modernity"?
  • Consider the film's use and implication of the phrase "space age." Think of the phrase in context of the film, in industry, and in the context of the witch's story starting on page 137. What is implied by the phrase "space age"? To what degree does it mean "progress" for the American Indian? To what degree to you think it means "grow[ing] away from the earth"? Does the phrase imply a preference for objects?
  • What do you make of film's transition from a weaving scene to a scene of hands "weaving wires"? What is the significance of the hands in these scenes? Is this a positive or negative transition and why?
  •  Near the end of the book, Tayo realizes "why the Japanese voices had merged with Laguna voices, with Josiah's voice and Rocky's voice; the lines of cultures and worlds were drawn in flat dark lines on fine light sand, converging in the middle of witchery's final ceremonial sand painting." What is the "great evil" that caused these unlike voices to emerge with one another? What is the nature of this evil and how does it relate to elements depicted in the film?  

 

Further Reading

Brugge, Doug, Timothy Benally, and Esther Yazzie-Lewis, eds. The Navajo People and Uranium Mining. (Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, [2007], c2006).

Cheyfitz, Eric. "Balancing the Earth: Native American Philosophies and the Environmental Crisis." Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 65.3 (2009): 139-62.

Derosa, Aaron. "Cultural Trauma, Evolution, and America's Atomic Legacy in Silko's Ceremony." Journal of Literary Theory 6.1 (2012): 41-64.

Killingsworth, M. J. "The Literature of Living Water: Literary Environmentalism in the American Southwest in the Wake of World War II." South Central Review: The Journal of the South Central Modern Language Association 28.2 (2011): 18-30.

Ortiz, Simon J. Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land. Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, 1980).