NOTE: WHEN WE LAST LEFT OUR SELF-STYLED HERO, HE'D BEEN TOLD BY THE FIRST AMERICAN INDIAN HE'D EVER MET - A CHUMASH INDIAN MAN NAMED SEMU HUAUTE - THAT A YOUNG NAVAJO INDIAN HE'D MET THAT SAME DAY NAMED 'WOLF", WOULD BE PICKING HIM UP IN A COUPLE OF DAYS TO BRING HIM OUT TO A CAMP THAT SEMU HAD SET UP ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF LOS ANGELES.
THE PURPOSE OF "RED WIND" WAS TO PROVIDE AT LEAST A TEMPORARY HOME FOR HOMELESS OR OTHERWISE CONFUSED 'URBAN INDIAN" KIDS, WHO WERE THE PRODUCTS OF A CENTURIES-OLD AND CONTINENT-WIDE DIASPORA THAT WAS PEAKING AT THE TIME (THE EARLY '70'S) BUT STILL GOES ON TO THIS DAY. DON'T LET THE RELATIVELY RECENT APPEARANCE OF INDIAN-RUN CASINOS FOOL YOU. NATIVE AMERICAN PEOPLE ARE STILL SUFFERING FROM THE RESULTS OF THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT'S POLICY OF 'REMOVAL" OR "CONTAINMENT" THAT EVOLVED INTO WHAT IS NOW KNOWN AS THE "RESERVATION" SYSTEM.
SEMU'S APPROACH TO GETTING THE KIDS OFF THE HARD DRUGS AND ALCOHOL THAT WERE PERVASIVE IN THE STREETS OF DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES, WAS SPIRITUALLY-ORIENTED AND QUITE UNIQUE IN ITS IMPLEMENTATION. HE SLOWLY AND MEANINGFULLY INTRODUCED THEM TO THE "THE TRADITIONAL WAYS" WHICH HAD ALL BUT DISAPPEARED EVEN ON RESERVATIONS, DUE TO PERSISTENT ACCULTURATION BY THE DOMINANT CULTURE OVER THE YEARS. BUT A NEW WAVE OF AWARENESS WHICH HAD BEGUN IN THE LATE '60'S WAS SPREADING ACROSS THE COUNTRY, AND THE "INDIANNESS" THAT HAD BEEN DELIBERATELY STIFLED, IF NOT SILENCED, WAS ONCE AGAIN BEING REVIVIED -- AND IT WAS FINDING A NEW VOICE AMONG THE YOUNG, THANKS TO THE ELDERS WHO HAD HELD ONTO THOSE WAYS DESPITE MONUMENTAL CHALLENGES.
If I expected to see tipis that Saturday morning when Wolf drove me out to the RED WIND encampment in Box Canyon, I was dead wrong. What I saw instead were half a dozen camping-variety tents arranged around a large open fire pit and a couple of Porta-Potties over by a rock formation a hundred or so yards away. But, as I would soon comprehend after a few visits and a couple of overnight stays, that was somehow enough for the 10-15 (and steadily growing in number) Inter-Tribal males and females and Semu and his wife, to create RED WIND's palpably unique environment. What made it work was Semu.
There were no juveniles in the mix. All the RED WIND "kids" were in their late teens and early 20's. Semu had no children of his own, except these, and he treated every one with the singular attention of a father to a blood child. In addition to the talks he had with each of them on a daily basis, there was the drumming and singing at night. Semu let me bring a couple of my friends out to those evening sessions and there wasn't one who wasn't touched by the experience.
Regarding the talks Semu would have with the RED WIND kids, I was a recipient of a session or two along the way, myself. Their content was nothing less than an introduction to a different way of seeing things - and if one listened carefully, one's perception and the consequent meaning of what was being perceived could be affected. Years later, I would come to understand what was happening, from what I learned from David Bohm about something I've mentioned earlier and which we'll take a closer look at down the line, called "Participatory Thought". Briefly, Bohm was suggesting that our species was originally attuned to that more direct way of perceiving reality, before our consciousnesses became overwhelmed by the inherent power of the spoken and written word. But for now, as an example, I still remember Semu's first two "lessons".
1. The day you are born you begin to die.
2. Have compassion for all living things.
Just a few days ago, I happened to see Country Western superstar Tim McGraw on TV talking about what has become his signature song. It's called "LIVE LIKE YOU WERE DYING". He then sang it. Semu Huaute could have written the lyrics to Mr. McGraw's song.
About a month or so into this new developing relationship, my agents (ICM) heard about my new friends and were intrigued by what they heard. Recent events like the first confrontation at Wounded Knee and the takeover of Alcatraz Island by Indian activists were making their own headlines, so they asked me if
I thought I could develop a movie based on my ongoing RED WIND experiences. This
was long before Cable TV and the appearance of HBO or SHOWTIME, and
made-for-TV movies were still very much major programming mainstays for
the (only) three existing Networks - CBS, NBC and ABC. I told them maybe
we could do one of those then popular After School Specials about it, but they thought this deserved more. And before I could say "Yes, but..." , they'd made a deal for me to write a script for a
major movie that would be produced by a newcomer in the made-for-TV field, PLAYBOY - -Yes, that PLAYBOY.
While all this was happening, I got a call from Semu one day to come out to RED WIND. There were big changes in the air in his world, as well.
The news was quite stunning. Remember when I mentioned that there was a California statute that said that the land that once belonged to the so-called Mission Indians - which included the Chumash - was being held "in trust" ? Semu told me he had decided to test the validity of that statute, and a few days before, the good fathers of a Franciscan Mission in the San Fernando Valley were startled by the sudden appearance of the "young warriors" of RED WIND, led by their Chumash elder, standing on the front steps of the Mission, with a written proposal that suggested the following:
A statute still being carried on the books of the State of California declares that certain Indian lands are being held in trust by the Catholic Church for the Indians, who were "wards of the state". RED WIND, having been founded on Chumash religious perceptions was entitled to such a land-base. Furthermore, the land on which their Mission was built was not only Chumash land but "sacred" Chumash land. That being the case, did the good fathers believe that the RED WIND representatives standing before them were mature enough to no longer be considered wards of the state? If they did, then the only moral thing for the good fathers to do was to give up their land to the RED WIND group - unless of course the good fathers could come up with an alternative.
A few days after Semu told me about the incident on the steps of the Franciscan mission, he received the alternative from the good fathers in the form of a check for $10,000 - I believe in today's economy that would be equivalent to about $50,000 - to be used by RED WIND for the purchase of another piece of land for their base.
Within a month, Semu called again to tell me he had been led to the piece of land - a 200-acre parcel of beautiful hilly terrain outside of San Luis Obispo. His discovery of some ancient Chumash Rock paintings on the land, like the one you see at the top of this entry*, was verification enough for him to make a down payment on the land. A few days later, Semu and the REDWIND band struck camp and moved North to their new home.
CBS and the producers of the movie I'd started writing the treatment for were elated to hear the news, because of the cinematic possibilities inherent in re-creating the non-violent confrontational scene on the steps of the Mission, and also because they now had a whole new environment that would be available to them that even had authentic Chumash petroglyphs on it, to add to its authenticity. They were excited enough to start making plans to scout the location as soon as Semu and the RED WIND group had settled into their new home.
Things were happening so fast now, that I decided to go up to the new RED WIND encampment for a few days, figuring it would be just what was needed for me to focus on finishing the treatment. Maybe because I was inspired by the environment, it didn't take me long to flesh out a rough draft. The story was an amalgam of the stories the RED WIND kids had related to me of their experiences on their Reservations prior to meeting Semu -- stories which parallel President Obama's recent statistically graphic depiction of life on today's Reservations:
"Some of your reservations face unemployment rates of up to 80 percent. Roughly a quarter of all Native Americans live in poverty. More than 14 percent of all reservation homes don't have electricity. And 12 percent don't have access to a safe water supply. In some reservations, as many as 20 people live together just to get by." President Barack Obama -- November, 2009
And these RED WIND kids' stories told of the much worse Reservation conditions that existed 35 years ago, from which they had escaped. I then melded in Semu's story, which included flashbacks of the Chumash encounter with the Spanish Conquistadors and the Franciscan missionaries. With RED WIND's acquisition of the new land from a present day Franciscan Order, I now even had an modern day denouement to it all, since the centuries-old statute could not have been challenged without the actual existence of a RED WIND and a Semu Huaute.
When I'd finished it, I invited Semu into my tent to read it. He liked what he read, and perhaps emboldened by all the new developments, he also made a request. He asked that he and a small group accompany me to CBS when I submitted the draft to the CBS brass an the producers. "Great idea!", I said. Furthermore, I thought that the proviso he wished to personally present to them, was certainly a novel idea -- even a groundbreaking one. I set up the meeting, and before that week was over, Semu and I and a small group of RED WIND representatives drove back down to Hollywood.
The halls of CBS's Television City in Hollywood were abuzz with the arrival of Semu and his young friends. I doubt if anyone around there had ever seen real Indians before. The CBS VP in charge of movie stuff and the producer and my agent from ICM were equally pleased to see us all. They literally gushed over Semu's willingness to come all the way down to Hollywood to meet with them. And they gushed even more when I handed then copies of the treatment draft.
"Just a rough outline of what we have in mind", I said.
The CBS VP glanced through the pages I'd put together and smiled, saying, "I'm sure it's going to be great". And the producer agreed, while quickly turning the pages of his copy of the draft.
"Semu has a request he'd like to make". I said.
"Of course", said the CBS VP, "What is it, Semu?"
"In order for me to give my approval to use the name of RED WIND in this movie, I would like all of the Indian parts to be played by Indians ... real Indians."
Silence for a BEAT and another BEAT and another BEAT.
"You mean", said the CBS VP haltingly and pointing to Semu and the others, "you want to play yourselves in the movie?"
"No", said Semu, "We just want whoever it is that plays us and the other Indians in the movie, to be real Indians."
Have you ever been in a meeting, where the room temperature seemed to suddenly drop to below freezing?
The meeting didn't last much longer after that. The CBS VP said they would have to discuss this matter further with "others". When I asked why further discussion was necessary, they said "You know Bill, this is kind of an unusual request." "What's unusual about it?" I asked, like I didn't know. Evading a direct answer, the CBS VP assured me he'd get back to me in a day or so, as soon as he checked with "the others." We all shook hands in a dominant culture's civilized way, and that was it.
Their answer was delivered to me by my agents. "CBS said, that what Semu was asking for was unprecedented and sounded like a militant demand -- and they were not going to be pressured into any such position at this time." I responded with one word : "What?!" There was more. Evidently, as a direct reaction to the Indian activism that was being seen in different parts of the country, "someone" had called the producers and told them that the new RED WIND land was being used as a storehouse for weapons and ammunition for upcoming Indian uprisings, and not to go up there on their proposed visit to scout the location, because of a possible ambush.
The term "pissed off" can now be heard even on TV sitcoms, but back in the early '70's those words still had some serious meaning behind them. And folks, I was seriously pissed off - at CBS, at PLAYBOY and my agents, all of whom had been scared off by the ridiculous spin someone had put on the reality of what REDWIND was. And from the particular attitude of my agents, I knew that I could forget about movies-of-the-week, and possibly even further representation. This was the middle of the Nixon Era, with its "enemies lists"-- and, as I would soon learn - and CBS and PLAYBOY and ICM most certainly already knew - there was now an FBI file with my name on it.
As I drove up to REDWIND to tell Semu of the news, I thought of what a possible next move might be. By then, I had come to the realization that what had begun three years before with Earth Day in 1970, and was now evolving into a nationwide awareness of the word "Ecology" was, in effect, a reflection of Indian spirituality. Despite the many different language and cultural differences that existed among the many Indian tribal entities, they all had one thing in common. Simply put, what we called "Ecology" they called "Religion". What I decided to do, was make a documentary about this (to me) amazing revelation.
Semu did not seem surprised by what I told him about the now dead movie deal. He said he knew it would go that way as he watched the CBS VP's face when he told him about wanting Indians to play Indians. He also thought my idea about the documentary was a good one, but something else had developed. Word had quickly spread within the Indian world of our failed attempt to make a different kind of Indian movie. It had even reached a Hopi elder who requested that I come visit him on the Hopi Reservation. "Who is he"?, I asked Semu. "David Monongye is a Hopi elder of elders and 'Keeper of the Hopi Prophecies'." I had no idea what that meant, but I would soon find out.
* This Chumash petroglyph is from the well-known "Painted Cave" near San Marcos Pass in California. It is visited by thousands every year and, thanks to an iron grill closing off the cave entrance, is still in excellent condition.
PS: Happy 76 to me. And I don't mean trombones.