In my class on Native American culture, we just finished watching an interesting film called The Business of Fancydancing.
This movie centers on the life of Seymour Polatkin, a successful, gay Indian poet from Spokane who confronts his past when he returns to his childhood home on the reservation to attend the funeral of a dear friend.
The film explores the tension between two Spokane men who grew up together on the Spokane Reservation in eastern Washington state: Seymour Polatkin and Aristotle. Seymour’s internal conflict between his Indian heritage and his life as an urban gay man with a white boyfriend plays out in multiple cultures and relationships over his college and early adult years. His literary success as a famed American Indian poet, resulting in accolades from non-Indians, contrasts with a lack of approval from those he grew up with back on the reservation. The protagonist struggles with discomfort and alienation in both worlds.
— The Business of Fancydancing on Wikipedia
I relate strongly to Seymour’s cultural conflict and struggle for self-identity. I grew up in a small town in rural Arkansas, where community might be considered as intricate a part of life as it is on the reservation. Unlike a reservation, on which a community is defined largely by extended tribal families, our small-town community was defined by the local school district. (My community literally had a few churches, 1.5 convenience stores, a small health clinic, and a fire station, with the school district being at the center of it all.) However, some families have been rooted in my community for generations, so maybe its more like a reservation after allâ€¦
Numerous scenes in this film focused on the lack of approval for Seymour’s poetry by the Indians remaining on the reservation. Many people consider this disapproval to stem from dislike of how reservation life is portrayed, or the idea that Seymour “used” the others for his own self gain (in the form of the stories and experiences of reservation life from which he draws inspiration). However, I think the issue was independent of the poems themselves; the poems are a tangible object on which the remaining reservation Indians focus their disapproval for Seymour’s rejection of their way of life.
Many people would say that I’ve rejected “my people’s” way of life as well. Most of my hometown peers, as defined by my high school graduating class, never left our small community. A large portion of them did not attend college. Many of them married others from my small high school or neighboring small schools. Quite a few couples already have multiple children together, at a ripe age of 22 years. Yet here I am, five years later, completing my masters degree in Philadelphia.
One of Seymour’s subtle but important behaviors was his identification with mainstream society when in the company of Native Americans, and identifying as Indian when in the presence of non-Natives (“whites”). In either case, he always identified with the opposing culture. In one scene, Seymour’s childhood friend Aristotle accused him of thinking he was better than the other Indians ever since he was a child, saying that Seymour never really fit in as a child and was always looking for a way to escape the reservation life. Seymour denied thinking that he was better than his family and friends, but admitted to always dreaming of a better life. Yet, numerous scenes consisted of a reporter challenging Seymour about his Indian roots, culture, and ties. Seymour tearfully depicted scenes from his childhood and recanted reservation stories that shaped him as a person. In both cases, he defended the opposing culture.
My experiences have been very similar to Seymour’s. I never felt that I really belonged at my home in Arkansas; my interests rarely aligned with that of those around me. Yet arriving in Philadelphia, I often felt that most people’s life priorities were out of balance. And the people around me agreed that I was out of place: among my high school peers, the general reaction to the news of me moving to Philadelphia is one of two things: “good for him for getting out”, or “screw him–he always did think he was better than us.” Yet, upon arriving at Drexel University in Philadelphia, one of the faculty members promptly exclaimed his surprise that a boy from Arkansas was wearing shoes.
Now that I have been to Arkansas, I am not sure if I should hug you (for getting out) or slap you (for leaving that beautiful state)
— A friend and colleague who recently traveled to Arkansas on business.
Within myself, however, there’s a strange subconscious pull for both cultures that I still don’t really understand. When I’m in Philadelphia, I love blasting country music. When I’m in Arkansas, I’ll tune into to R&B/rock or other more mainstream music. (By the way, I hate it when people respond to the question “what kind of music do you listen to” with “anything but country”.) In either case, I always feel this twinge of “I don’t belong here” mixed with a bit of “home sweet home,” and I always find myself defending and identifying with the opposing culture (perhaps caused by the “grass is always greenerâ€¦” phenomenon?).
It really is a love/hate relationship with both cultures, where I identify strongly with some aspects of each while I strongly dislike others. For example, I love the intellect and drive for progress in the North, but I love the family/love/life priority balance of the South. Conversely, I hate the superficial social life commonly found in the North (where self-worth is judged by the number of friends and material possessions), and the often-narrow mindset of the South (where things are done because they’ve always been done this way and there’s no chance that anything else is better). Strangely enough, I suspect these would be many of the same aspects of life with which Seymour has a love/hate relationship. Seymour wanted to explore, learn and engage in mainstream society. But in almost all of the scenes set in mainstream society, Seymour was either alone or with the lover who he openly rejected as an embarrassment; he lacked the familial and community aspect of the reservation. The sad fact is that finding a middle ground is almost impossible, and I suspect this would be even more so with highly differing cultures, such as mainstream America and reservation Indian cultures.
The film ended rather abruptly, and I suspect it left quite a few people wondering. I think the ending merely signified that Seymour’s story isn’t finished; this is the one time in the movie that he outwardly showed unsolicited affection for his lover, and it was in response to his recent trip to the reservation. Before long, I expect him to start identifying most strongly with the reservation once moreâ€¦ Seymour’s identity is merely meandering back and forth between the two cultures.
And the identity crisis continuesâ€¦