United Tribes News Speech Archives
ON THE BANDWAGON OF THE ARTS
By Gary Farmer
Jack Barden Center, United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, ND
March 18, 2010
Gary Farmer added a stop at United Tribes Technical College to a spring tour of his blues band, “Gary Farmer and the Troublemakers.” The Canadian artist, writer, actor, media producer and musician is from the Cayuga Nation of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquis) Confederacy. His acting roles, especially in the films Powwow Highway and Smoke Signals, have endeared him to tribal audiences throughout Indian Country. Prior to the music concert, he spoke to students and staff members in the college’s student union and signed autographs.
Thank you so much. I’m so sorry for being late today. We got lost out there. Its beautiful country you have up here. I was supposed to come here last year and work up at the casino and play some music for the community but something happened and wasn’t able to make it then. We’ve driven all the way here from Santa Fe, New Mexico. I have four other members of the band with me. We’re a blues band and we’re doing a tour. We often tour our music all over the place and go to native communities to help out wherever we can. We were in Cheyenne River last evening at the auditorium at the Cheyenne Eagle Butte School there; that was really nice. The night before we were in Pine Ridge. And we were in Wyoming and down in Denver. Of course, the powwow is this weekend down in Denver; I suppose some people are heading to that.
It’s nice to be here. I’ve lived my life as an artist, primarily as a performer. I started off as a film maker, making television, making radio. I got into publishing at an early age. I’m from the Six Nations Rez, which is a Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois community - the Six Nations Community, which is near Brantford, Ontario. And that’s where this tour ends. We take it all the way over to Minneapolis on Sunday; we’re over in Watertown, South Dakota this weekend; and then we go to Chicago Indian Center. Then we go over to Salamanca, Seneca Country. I grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, so I’m taking the band to the casino at Niagara Falls.
You know, when the Confederacy was together before the Revolutionary War, after getting beat up by the Finger Lakes there, half of us went and sided with the British and fought against the Americans. That’s why Canada even exists. We were, kind of, the Viet Cong of the day. That history, a lot of people don’t know it. And the only reason I’m allowed to live here in the United States is because we are Native Americans from Canada and there’s that Jay Treaty which allows free passage over the border. But of course, that doesn’t work going into Canada; it only works coming down into the States, so the Canadian Indians have a huge advantage politically that way to come down here to work and live.
I grew up in Niagara Falls and Buffalo even though my rez is about 60 miles north of the border between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. That’s my home territory but I’ve been in New Mexico for the last five years because it’s so beautiful and the light is nice. And the Pueblos seem to take care of the ceremonial life there and the weather is nice, so I like it down there.
That’s where we made Powwow Highway as you remember. We started in Sheridan, Wyoming back in 1987, so that was 23 years ago now. It’s a long time. Well, life is short, actually. Those years of my film life, as a film actor, have gone really fast. I was telling some of the students just the other day in Pine Ridge High School, I’m an older man now, a little older anyway, with a diabetic condition – typical Indian – and I was telling them ‘you gotta take my place.’ Because I’ve had quite a career and all those fields of communications – in radio and television, in film making, as a film actor, as a film director, as a film producer.
I’ve produced a lot of events in my life for Native American-based ideas and tried to get the people to embrace the arts in communities across the whole country, because I think that’s one way we can achieve political change – for change we need in the world, for the betterment of our children to live generations from now. We can take control of our own stories and begin to interpret those in film and television, with our own ideas and not with Hollywood’s ideas. It’s really hard to change the course of history if we don’t start embracing the areas where we can affect an audience. The concept being that if you can make someone laugh or cry you can make ‘em think. So, that’s what I’ve been working on.
I didn’t necessarily become an actor to become famous so everyone would want my autograph. That’s what I do, though, I sign everyone’s paper. (Laughter) Everyone has a picture of me someplace within their family. Every Native American family on this continent has a picture of me, with them, somewhere. (Laughter) I’ll do that the rest of my life; I don’t mind that at all. But that’s not why I did it. I did it to change the world. I didn’t know I could.
I got into acting because I saw when I performed for my mother the first time that she did laugh and cry, and we were telling’ a story that was pretty hard. It was a hard story about the Beothuk. You may not even know of them. The Beothuk people were killed, they were murdered in Newfoundland. They were hunted like animals like many of us were here in the Dakotas. Telling that story in a theater production we used techniques to make people laugh. They were laughing at the first act. It wasn’t ‘til the second act that they realized it was indigenous people that were being slaughtered. So, then, that really made them think. And when I showed that to my mother, and my home community, it had a profound effect on her; she didn’t know a lot of the history of the country. Nor do a lot of the people. Young people don’t know our own histories. So, the theater and film and television was a means to tell those stories and help right the wrongs of history. Because it’s always from one point of view.
I remember as a young actor working with a woman who had a boyfriend from Uganda and Idi Amin was a cultural hero for him. And when Britain was bombed by the Germans they cheered after 300 years of colonial terror in Africa by the Brits and French. And when somebody bombed ‘em they were kinda happy about it. So, history is all perspective. And who writes history?
We can change the story, if we don’t like people using our images. Like the Washington Redskins, though, I think if you polled the Indians half of ‘em would be OK with it, right, they wear the caps and everything. But, if we want to make those changes we have to humor them into change. We have to make them laugh about how silly it really is in 2010 to still be going around with the mascot issue. It’s like Michael Moore; he uses film to reverse everything. And we can do that sort of thing, and change the course of history so the young people won’t have to put up with so much prejudice and all that stuff we’ve gone through forever.
I’ve used the media for that means and now that I’m an older person, a little bit, I don’t get hired as much. So, I had to find alternatives. I’m a performer, so I turned to the love of my whole life, which is music, the blues, you know, the harmonica. I’ve been playing my whole life. Since I was in college it’s been a friend, since I left home. I’ve been playing that harmonica as a friend, so you’ll see that tonight, where I’ve taken it. And I have an all Indian band, or at least, they all have Indian blood.
I still want to communicate. I’m curious about those years when the Indians were the agronomists, when all the people came here in the first place. We were in the fields when they brought the blacks here because they didn’t want to farm the land. The history of American music is really rich in Native America. The blues is really based on the round dance rhythm. So that connection is influential. It’s more of a form from my era when I grew up in the 50s and 60s.
I grew up in an industrial age and the kids today are growing up in the age of communications. It seems a little bit healthier than the industrial age. I grew up in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, which is the armpit of industrialization in the world. My grandpa dug the hole for Love Canal. My father build the biggest power project there ever was. My people were migrant workers just like everybody else. It used to be cherries and apples then it turned to steel. (Laughs) All the fruit turned to steel. That whole history is something I explore in music. And it’s really exciting for me.
When the Tuscaroras were beaten up on by the U. S. Government for years down in South Carolina, North Carolina, I think it was like a 10 or 12 year war from 1700 to 1712, that’s when they decided to come and join our five nations, which is Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Mohawk and Oneida. I’m a Cayuga and we’re the ones that brought them in. That’s when we became Six Nations when the Tuscaroras came in 1712. The Tuscaroras had the biggest corn ever. They were wonderful farmers and so we integrated that corn in with our corn. We got about 15 different corns. And that trail they came up north from those Carolinas was the Tuscarora Trail. That’s the Underground Railroad. That’s how the blacks were freed to the north during that whole period. So, our history between those folks and our folks is really little known. So I’m exploring that too, as a musician, as a player. And we’re going to show that for you tonight.
I’m still doing films; I just finished one up in Montreal. It’s kind of a scary film but I hope it’s not too scary. It’s more of a thriller, I guess. I play a cop. That’s why my hair is really short; cut my hair off for a paycheck. (Laughter) I’ve had a lot of fun working with a lot of the big time actors at some point or another. So, I had a nice taste of it.
I was saying the other day, when we made Powwow Highway a Wall Street broker guy was the producer along with George Harrison the Beatle. And I’m going to play a song [tonight] from George and his relationship with Jesse Edwin Davis, who was a Kiowa guitar player. How many of you people know of Jesse Edwin Davis? See, I think that’s a bit of shame, because he was THE session player during the sixties, seventies and eighties. He was with John Lennon minutes before he died. He’s on John Lennon’s last album. He toured with George Harrison on the Bangladesh Tour, which was the first tour of music to be of benefit to something. He played with every jazz musician, every rock musician in the history of rock-n-roll during that period. He was a Kiowa Indian. When me and Graham Green, he’s my cousin, that other actor guy (Laughter), we used to kick around Buffalo in all the music clubs. Graham was a musician and so was I. He was more of an audio technician, really. When we used to go around Buffalo everyone said, ‘Hey, are you Jesse Edwin Davis?’ Me and Graham knew him at that time and it was amazing how much Jesse and Graham looked like each other. Anyway, we play some of his music too, because we try to keep the Native American influences in music, in American music, really alive. There’s a woman named Mildred Bailey. How many of you know of Mildred Bailey? See, that’s kind of shameful too. We should have a hall of fame for music. How many people know Black Lodge Singers? (Laughter) See, that’s different. There’s powwow culture here. It’s interesting. You know, that NAMMY’s thing, that’s really not ours yet. We don’t even have control over our own music stuff. Those are people from outside our community kinda manipulating that. Those are the kinds of things I was interested in us keep taking control of – our image.
When I turned to acting, the people ahead of me were Will Sampson and Chief Dan George. There may have been others in this and that but nobody had ever really had a career in it ‘till Graham and I and Tantoo Cardinal and a few others. I think it’s really time for us to move in that direction, because we can really affect an audience. We have some great stories that can move people, to change. That’s why I’ve been on this bandwagon of the arts as a life, using the arts, whether it’s just visual or whether you combine several mediums, television or film expression, but that all generally starts with the written word.
On the technical side, I got into radio because I knew that television puts your mind into beta, which means you only become a receiver of information. That’s why the television replaced the church. They used to herd us into the church so they could convert us. Then it was easy for them to come and negotiate for our land rights, our mineral rights, our water rights. But now they don’t need to do that. They just have to consumerize us. You put television on; you watch it five hours a day and you’re getting’ sixty-thousand commercials telling you how to live your life. And then when they want to come in and negotiate it’s really easy, right. Cause now you’ve been consumerized. Television consumerizes culture; that’s what the basis of television is.
The other thing is that all stories told on television are based on conflict. They’re always looking for the conflict of the story. Whereas, I don’t know about your culture, but mine is based on peace. [I’m talking about] the concept of taking young Native people, training them in television, but giving them [knowledge of] those concepts. Let’s change the face of television, so that it’s more based on peace than it’s always based on conflict. I think that’s powerful. And I tried to do that in Canada when we got the license for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. But, for the most part, with a lot of us Indians the policies of assimilation worked on us. Half of us are assimilated into mainstream culture. It’s very hard for us to think on the other side of the Indian way, about how we could attack the medium of television as Indian people, [with] our concepts of reality trying to maintain peace, rather than always looking for conflict.
I grew up as an American as well as Canadian. We’ve been at war my whole life. My whole life, the country I have lived in, has been warring on some other country. And I didn’t realize it ‘till I actually moved to Canada, having been living in the States all my life, when all of a sudden that country hasn’t been at war all the time. All of a sudden I didn’t have to look over my shoulder and see who’s gonna bop me. Growing up on the west side of Buffalo is a tough neighborhood. I realized that we have gangs and everything else because we just follow the example. If they’re at war, then why aren’t we at war? It’s always about this little neighborhood of land. That’s what we used to fight about as kids in Buffalo; we protected our neighborhood. There were gangs, right, and we fought each other. And it was nasty and hurtful. I just think we’re emulating our leadership, in this country. They’ve always been at war so we’re supposed to be at war too. And I found that until I moved to a country that isn’t at war all the time that that really opened my eyes about war and aggression and about why they’ve been using our people to man their wars forever. And our people gratefully go because we think that we’re protecting things. But meanwhile we’re just protecting their rights to get the oil. I’ll tell you, Afghanistan’s a war over drugs. Really. That’s where all the drugs for heroin are developed and they just ship that stuff all over the world. And a lot of times I think that’s what our people are over their fighting for.
How do you maintain peace in a society? Among my traditional people – I don’t get to the ceremonial ways at home as much as I’d like because I follow another path at this time – we’re struggling so hard to maintain peace in our communities and get enough land for our people to sustain their lives in this modern age. These are the big questions. I don’t know how else you deal with ‘em sometimes. I kinda moved away from the theater. I’ve moved more to music as a way to find answers for things and to talk my history. I’m just getting to the point where I’m starting to write songs. Most I’ve been performing other people’s songs that I find endearing.
I can talk all night long. Anyone got a question. I know there was one.
QUESTION: How did it feel to roll down Bear Butte?
Not too bad. The stunt man rolled down Bear Butte. I did the first little roll then the end roll. (Laughter) I got the white guy to do that. (More laughter) You know, that was a proud moment for me. In the old days, I guess those are somewhat in the old days, when you made a film in Native America, they may send a script to the tribal office but be gosh if anyone really read it. That was the case, we ended up in Lame Deer and we only shot five or six days in the actual community but nobody knew what was happening. Nobody knew we were making a film about them, or at least, two guys from there, fictionally. So, Jimmy Red Cloud was the guy that really was Philbert, in Lame Deer, and a spiritual leader for me and for a lot of people there. I had never been in a sweat lodge before. We don’t have a sweat lodge in Haudenosaunee country. So I never knew about the Medicine Wheel; I never knew the story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman. I didn’t know those songs. That was a real song from Jimmy that I sang in the river. The film makers didn’t know anything; they got that from David Seal’s book and just adapted it into a screen play. What I’m saying is somebody else wrote a story about Lame Deer and those two guys but nobody had ever been there. The director had never been there. The writers had never been there. So the minute I got to Sheridan I said, ‘look I gotta go down here and see what’s going on,’ right, and make sure we connect the dots. And it was Jimmy gave me all that. The location manager had met him and took me to him and Jimmy and I were like glue for two weeks before we started making that film.
It was around Halloween time, and everybody was having those powwows where everyone dresses up funny. I’ll never forget they had President Nixon dancing with Yasser Arafat, the guy from Palestine. They were dancing together; they were very sophisticated. I thought, wow, these folks are real worldly. And all the men were dressed as women, and all using things from the bathroom, old material, old things from the household. It was funny, the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. And Jimmy got me to come in front of the powwow crowd and tell ‘em what was gonna happen. So I had to go up and say, ‘well, there’s a movie going to be made and it’s about your people and this is the story and we wanted you to know.’ Because nobody knew.
The first day shooting we went from Sheridan, Wyoming – there was like 70 people on the crew – and drove all the way to Sturgis, South Dakota to Bear Butte. They were going to go up on the mountain and Dog Soldiers showed up. They said ‘you can’t shoot here.’ I’ll never forget, the director said, ‘well if we were at Mount Sinai and Hasidic Jews came out and said we can’t shoot here I’d go ahead and shoot.’ I was so proud of the people because the information got from Jimmy taking me to these little powwows during Halloween to tell everybody what was going on. Word got out about this story and what’s really going on and they decided we don’t want your movie shot on our sacred territory. After driving seven hours all day long, with 70 people that cost a lot of money. And we shot some of those things at the base before they actually arrived. But they didn’t want us to go up there. And so we all agreed, hey, we can fictionalize this Bear Butte. We can fictionalize the name of the sacred one. We can fictionalize where we shoot this. That’s when that film, when we agreed with the Dog Soldiers and agreed not to shoot there, that’s when that film picked up all the power. We’re still talkin’ about it 23 years later.
A lot of film crews don’t do that. They don’t talk to the people. They don’t communicate. All of a sudden there’s a film being made about you and you don’t know anything about it, and no one’s culturally looking after this to ensure that our welfare is looked after in terms of what we don’t want shown or what we don’t want told or what don’t want turned into a tourist resort. Those people at Twilight, that community is all in a spin now cause there’s fifty-thousand more, a hundred-thousand more people going there. I haven’t seen the film but everyone’s going to where that film was made now to get some [super-natural] experience or something. So the community doesn’t know how to deal with a hundred-and-fifty-thousand extra people coming to their land. They’re reaching out trying to find help. So, the people didn’t want that to happen [at Bear Butte] and they didn’t want their sacred location desecrated. That’s what made that film so powerful to me, because that’s when things really started to happen, when we realized we really had something. And the film still has an impact on young people today. I believe it’s for that, that the people gave way to the Dog Soldiers and cultural life should be taken care of. That’s not a cinematic event. Anyway, that’s a long answer to somebody’s question. (Laughter)
QUESTION: We have a young man here who is a playwright. What do you tell a young person aspiring to do that?
Lot of people ask me that. What do you tell a young actor, a young playwright now? With filmmaking, the technology is so user friendly. You can get a high-end camera for like a thousand bucks, enough to get what you need, HD even. I’m not up on the latest technology. But you can get quality enough to make television inexpensively, now. In the old days you used to have to go to Hollywood when they shot film and used those film cameras, and processing and all that. You need a lot of money, that’s why filmmaking is a white people’s thing, because they have money. They know how to manipulate the marketing and make money off the film, whereas most of America, most of us, don’t have that kind of economy to play in that game.
That’s why radio is so powerful because you can develop your story for nothing. Remember, we used to use cassette tape. But CD technology now and digital editing makes is so easy for a student of screen writing or anything to make their material for radio. You even have a network, in Lincoln, Nebraska, called AIROS [American Indian Radio On Satellite]. A few networks are looking for theatrical things right now; they’re always hungry for theater plays for radio. That’s the route I would go.
But also, the public theater in New York City, which is downtown. The guy who used to give big money to the public theater, that guy that got arrested for rippin’ everybody off, that fella that’s in jail now, [Bernie] Madoff, he used to donate, like, millions of dollars to the public theater. I guess they’re gonna miss him. (Laughter) Anyway, they have a Native American program now, where they try to develop playwrights there, and you can tell him to submit his play to the public theater in New York City. If it gets chosen, it gets developed and possibly produced right there in New York City.
I encourage everyone to do the plays at home. I often use youth programs that have a few bucks and get the youth involved to tell the story. And maybe cast a few elders if you need them in the community and produce it locally. In Canada, we have companies. There’s an Anishinaabe community in central Ontario where the largest employer in the community is the theater company. They produce not only in English but they produce in their own language Anishinaabe, Ojibway, and they tour those plays to other Anishinaabe speaking communities. Then they tour around the world at theater festivals. They’ve been doing that for 20 years or so. You need to find support in your community to produce plays.
Just imagine if a person from United Tribes Technical College won a major award for a piece of literature. I think that would be of value. I don’t understand why the casinos don’t all get together and put up a million bucks each into a fund that turns over and we just take the interest and give it to native youth to do plays, movies, literature, all of those things, music, traditional music, and explore. We need to support those people who are exploring the things that are ours and create new ways to tell those stories. There’s no support for our artists in this country. Obviously this particular school had enough wisdom to turn my appearance here around in two weeks. So, there’s a lot we can do for the artists at an institution especially like this.
One of my favorite things is a 24 hour playwriting contest, where anyone can submit. You charge to enter and get a few ringers. You get a few famous Indian writers here, offer a 24 hour play writing contest so they participate and do workshops with writing, acting and stuff. Bring a couple of odd ball actors, like myself, and we’ll do some work with the youth to get them to learn how to attack the writing of Sherman Alexie as an actor. Those kinds of things are inspirational and a lot of fun and it gets people off their butts. We got to get people out to participate and interact. It’s hard being a human being on stage. You know what happens; we shut down that ability to go out in front of people because of what’s happened to us. But it’s really good at developing self esteem, working with young people on theater training, as well as adults, even those healing workshops, sexual abuse, all those things, if we can use the theater as a tool. Because, the more you know yourself inside and how you feel about things and what you think and expose that, the more confidence you have in your own abilities. The theater training helps people, anyone who deals with the public or anyone that’s got to be able to communicate. Sometimes we want to keep everything inside. Or we get a lot of training that says, ‘don’t speak unless spoken to.’ Or you can’t express yourself. Nobody wants to hear. Right. These are things that are tragic at a level, sometimes in our communities where we’re so repressed that we can’t express ourselves and that’s when things get potentially violent because we don’t have an outlet. So, the arts are a great forum for that because we can explore our consciousness and all that stuff.
QUESTION: We are planning for an American Indian Film Festival next year. What advice do you have for us? Would you consider coming back for a visit as part of it?
The abilities of Native people now in cinema, in terms of what they’re doing, their ability to story-tell using film has really come far. There’s a plethora of young native people who are skilled in terms of film directing and stuff. The trick is to communicate that effort so that you get submissions starting now because there’s a lot of material out there to weed through to get the best you can. It’s a great idea. You guys, you rule, here in North Dakota. I mean, there’s not a lot going on for indigenous anything, I’m sure, so this school is a real Mecca, potentially for a lot of great festivals and I’ll help in any way I can. Of course.
QUESTION: Who’s your favorite Indian?
Nooobody. (Laughter) That’s a film a lot of communities haven’t seen. How many of you’ve seen Dead Man? See, look at that. People, that’s THE film. That’s the one. I mean, Powwow Highway is more us, I suppose. That was Robert Mitchum’s last film; I’m playing opposite Johnny Depp. It’s a black and white film; it’s two-and-a-half hours long; Neil Young does the sound track. You know, we took it to Cannes, France. It was the first American film, ever, to win the best foreign film from a European Academy Award. So, that should tell you something. It never got distributed in the US because the distributor didn’t like the film director at the end because he wouldn’t cut it down. But it’s a black and white film; it’s a treasure; you guys should watch that tonight. If we got a choice of films, that’ll be the one.
It’s because it has such an interesting story. It rewrites western history. It’s like an acid western, I guess. It gives a more honest approach to the settling of the west; it’s more from the perspective of the Native American than what we normally hear. It’s really kind of a hard story; it’s a little hard to follow sometimes. It’s a little arty, a more arty film than we’re used to. For the film students and the people studying films and our contemporary culture, that’s a must. It’s called Dead Man. It came out in ’95.
If you didn’t see Dead Man, when I’m in Sherman Alexie’s film, and he wrote, I swear those words are there, and I say, ‘who’s your favorite Indian?’ to my son. And he says, ‘Nobody.’ Right. Well that’s who I play in Dead Man. I play Nobody. That’s what I call myself in that film, Nobody. And the reason I call myself that is because I was captured as a young boy and caged and taken over to Europe and schooled. The only thing that made sense to me was the poetry of William Blake. And William Blake was a white guy from England who they all thought was crazy because he thought there was life in trees, that there was life in all living things. Those are foreign concepts; he was the first white guy to, kinda, get it. Right. And he was from the early 1700s and he wrote some beautiful poetry. So, I got taken as a young Indian kid to England and schooled. And the only thing that made sense to me was this poetry of William Blake. So when Johnny Depp comes to me and says he’s William Blake, I know that William Blake is dead, so the film’s about me taking William Blake back to the spirit world. It’s just a profound film that way, from a Native American point of view. It’s the most important film I’ve ever done. And hence, who’s your favorite Indian? Nobody. Nooobody! (Laughter) It’s a little inside film humor.
Did I answer the question? What was the question? (Laughter) Ya, I answered the question. No I didn’t. OK. Ask the question again.
QUESTION: Who IS your favorite Indian? (Laughter)
My mom, I guess. She’s my favorite Indian. Shirley Farmer.
Any other questions?
QUESTION: You mentioned that you are following a new path with your music and many of us students here are on new paths too. Would you have any advice for us?
Well, when I started I figured out young enough that what I had to do was hone a skill. So I worked on the acting skill at a young age and it was all by mistake. I discovered acting because I was hired for theater training going on for Native American kids in Toronto. They went way up north to an isolated spot with these British people, who didn’t really understand them. The artistic director was James Buller, a Cree man from Saskatchewan. He had a career in opera back in the 40s and 50s. He wanted to inspire more Native kids to go into performing and visual arts. I connected with him because I was a photographer back at the time. He hired me to go up with the kids to theater train them. And I fell in love with the process. I’m the one that got all the training. The kids were a lot younger, 13 or 14, and they were still puttin’ frogs in his bed and stuff and he was getting’ upset with that, so, I went up there and worked with those kids. I went in and did all the training and those little kids followed me. That was where I got my experience as a theater participant. Then I just took off from there. I tried to go home and train everybody but nobody wanted it, really, or it was too weird for them. We were a sports community, lacrosse and hockey players and baseball, and no arts, right, traditional singing but that’s not even powwow singing, right. So, I went off and did it myself and that’s how it came to be.
I did everything, I started to write I started to publish, I started to produce radio, and I started to produce television. I don’t know why. I’m Gemini. I don’t know if that has anything to do with it. (Laughs) I just saw that communications was the way to go. I wanted to get trained in as many areas as I could. You have to be as diverse as you can. People know for the last couple years that Gary Farmer is on the road playing blues music. So, someone can write me a story where I play a singer, right, whereas they might not know that Gary Farmer can sing prior to that. The more you can diversify your abilities and skills as a talent, whether it be writing, directing, film acting, you know, producing, making things happen…the more skills you have the more employable you are as a participant. It’s getting those skills enough so people know you have those skills, is the trick.
But, I still think the best way to do it is like Lebron James, you know, he formed a basketball team with his friends and just took it to the top. In the same way you do that in your own community. You form a team of filmmakers; form a team a rap group; form a team a theater group. You form a team however you put it together and you commit. As the actor that’s the first thing the agent said to me, ‘are you going to commit to being an actor?’ And what does that mean. Well, it means being available. On this particular tour, because it’s pilot season, I’m still committed as the actor. I’ve set my band up that if I get a call from ABC to be in their series for five days between tomorrow and next Thursday, I’ve covered myself with the band. So the band can carry on. I run off and do the TV episode; I come back and join the band, because they pay me enough to do that. So, I’m still committed as the actor. You have to have that kind of commitment to sustain your career. So, making that commitment to being an artist is a big commitment.
Any other questions?
QUESTION: Are you going to do a signing?Yes. We can do it now. I’ll sign anything you got. (Applause)
Gary Farmer Interview
by Lisa Casarez
UTTC Art/Art Marketing Program
March 18, 2010
After signing autographs, Gary Farmer was interviewed by Lisa Casarez (Three Affiliated) a student in the United Tribes Art/Art Marketing Program.
QUESTION: What kind of influences did you have when you were growing up? Was there anybody in particular even before going into acting? Were there any creative people that motivated you to become a performer?
Well we had that advantage that there was this organization in the 70s called the Association for Native Development in the Performing and Visual Arts and that was pretty motivating. You know, I went to college and studied to be a cop. Then I realized it’s so corrupt and the system is all, kind of, screwed up. So I thought to myself that I gotta do something I enjoy. So I turned to photography, which I took an interest in. That led me to a lot and opened me to a whole new world. I wanted to do something to help but then I realized that working in the system wasn’t the way to help because you just gotta conform. I needed something more cause I had something to say. But I was a typical shy Indian, always in the back of the bus, always last in line – I grew up in a non-Native environment. But once I started…once you start doing creative things or working in the theatre for instance it was my peers, the people I’m working with that encouraged me. Because they saw something in my performance or saw something in my abilities that told them, this is something that’s really good for you. You know you’re doing good and I needed that as a young actor, because it’s hard to be objective about what you’re doing sometimes. You don’t know if you’re doing good or bad or you’re not a good actor. But I don’t think there is no ‘not being a good actor’ unless you can’t be heard – technically when you’re not reaching the audience. So mostly from my peers, once I started [acting] but before that we did have an organization that supported native people to do these things.
QUESTION: Do you think it’s beneficial for Native youth to have an opportunity to build on?
This organization still exists in Canada in Toronto. It doesn’t serve the whole country; it tries and has a theatre school now. But I know of no organization in the United States that does anything to help Native Artists, in training or anything else. There might be a one-off program. I know the American Indian Film Institute or the San Francisco Film Festival tries to do something, I don’t know [but] I’m sure there’s some theatre experience in Haskell still happening. There are a few little pockets, but there’s not much happening for Native artists in this country. There’s no economy for it I guess, that’s part of the reason and nobody sees it as a priority, which I find disturbing. I think everyone goes off and becomes a lawyer. And when you sign to be a lawyer you gotta commit to the crown or you gotta commit to the judicial system, which is not our system. So I don’t understand that. People send their kids out to be lawyers but nobody sends their kids out to be, like, prolific writers. I think that has more of an impact than becoming a lawyer and spending your life in court rather than spending your life lookin’ at life and writing about life. So I don’t think theres near enough support for Native people in that region.
QUESTION: You are considered fairly successful not only in Native cinema but in mainstream cinema as well. What would you tell a young aspiring Native actor to keep in mind when trying to become part of mainstream cinema or the entertainment industry?
Well, unless you have a lot of luck and find yourself there, I wouldn’t worry about that as much as I would about trying to learn to tell a story on your own using your own people and just trying to tell your own story. If it’s a one-man film, what you do is you submit that to festivals around and if people like it, you might have a career. You might get enough money to make the next film. So I think the actor today on the Rez has got to be a filmmaker too. If they really want to work in cinema they gotta start making films at home, first, then prove to the world that’s what you want to do. Then you’ll get lots of shots because there are lots of opportunities for Native actors. But if they’re just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, that’s not the way to become an actor. You wanna be an actor you gotta act. So you gotta act any way you can, whether it’s a little local theater or a little local film.
When I started training actors – I got training after I decided to become an actor – I focused and honed those skills, like I said, by teaching other Native people. I remember in Hollywood I used to try to teach Wes Studi and all those guys. But they got so much machismo, so much male kinda Indian thing going on that they couldn’t even break down and get into the scene. So, I don’t see a lot of Native people having that kind of commitment, to the process. They got all this other kind of baggage in their way. You gotta bust through that stuff. You know, sometimes the gay guys can do it because they’re already out there. They’re already so far out there in the Native community that, why not go all the way, right? There’s something about them that’s a little bit more enlightened than the cowboys. You know, the cowboys are kinda uptight.
QUESTION: You mentioned how in mainstream cinema there always has to be conflict in the storytelling. What would be an alternative?
Peace. You know, in a seven- act television teleplay, it’s all driven by conflict. Now, conflict can be man against nature, which is probably a little bit more sincere than always promoting man against man and man against scary beast and all that stuff. When you create negative things, some of those films are pretty dark. If you don’t know how to go into it, like knowing who you are and where your spirit is. And you just go deep into this real dark place and you don’t know how to come out, and you don’t know how to protect your heart and heal all that before you go home to the kids, you know, you’re gonna have problems. That’s why all these actors are OD’ing and crazy. It’s like ceremonial life, if you’re a clown, a traditional clown, you prepare. You go fast; you do things, you know. So people don’t do it right. They don’t know what they’re doing, if they’re doing it for the right reasons, first off, cause its not always about money. It’s about enriching people’s lives. It’s about telling them something they don’t know. It’s about giving them wisdom so that they can make a decision, about their diabetic condition, about committing suicide. I mean, those are some of the things that are most pressing for us right now: youth losing total inspiration, losing all reason to live. That’s where the arts can really battle upfront with that stuff cause that’s what you use it for. You use it for good. So it depends what your reasons are for getting into it. If you don’t have any raising in the culture and race off you might get caught up in all the madness.
To me it’s just an extension of our cultures – storytelling and all that, ceremonial you know. Only we’re doing it out here; we can do it with the camera. My folks ain’t gonna let that camera in the long house for our ceremonials, right. So it’s almost like you have to interpret what you know. You can change your story, you can manipulate that but you don’t take this into the sweat lodge. But I think if we had the motion picture camera back in the past they would have used it to tell stories. Cause they certainly had feelings right?
QUESTION: What makes a film universal? Not just a Native story or a story about a tribe or a reservation, what makes it relate to everybody?
Well, as an actor you always looking for the love. Always. You’re always making positive choices as an actor. You always make the most positive choice you can for the performance cause if you make any negative choices you know how people are with that. You don’t want to be around that; you’re gonna get turned off. So it’s always motivated by love. It can be a Native story, doesn’t matter. It could still be universal, as long as it’s about a search for love.
QUESTION: Is there a certain film that stands out in your career that speaks to you on a personal level or that you feel is more of a personal accomplishment rather than professional?
Anytime I had to do a Native American role it was a hundred times harder and hence a hundred times more stakes. Stakes meaning that the stakes were higher because the people’s culture was involved and I, as the actor, had to go find out what’s true and what’s not true or not right for them. So, anytime I’m playing a Native American it’s ten times harder than if I’m just playing a cop. If I’m playing Philbert, I had to go find out about Philbert. I had to go find out about Note Me Mesa. I didn’t know about Northern Cheyenne people; I’m from the east you know. So there’s a commitment to that. Information is power. The more information you can get as the actor to make decisions about these words your performing, the better off you are and hence the better the effort in the end.
QUESTION: How do you think filmmaking and storytelling has changed over the years since when you first started with making films and acting? Do you see a trend?
I don’t care about trends; I could care less about trends. The important thing is that when I speak, I make sure that you’re hearing me, what I’m saying. That little nod that you just gave lets me know and acknowledges that the words I’m telling you are communicating to you. I have to understand the words that I’m saying, as the actor, in order to communicate it to you. Then I have to make sure that you understand what I’m saying. If not, then there’s gonna be a misunderstanding. So, it’s all about words; it’s all about language; it’s about intonation; it’s about the body language. Your body’s your hammer. If you’re a carpenter what’s your tool? It’s your hammer. If you’re an actor, it’s your voice; it’s the movement; it’s all your language, you know.
QUESTION: Your band, the Troublemakers, can you give me some history on that, such as when did you guys get started?
We started in 2004. I got a call from the National Museum of the American Indian and they wanted us to play music for their annual film festival in Santa Fe and so I put a band together. I was in California at the time, at the reservation down there in southern California, its called La Jolla Indian Rez. And I picked a bunch of fellas up and we rehearsed for a couple weeks and we went to Santa Fe and played a bunch of gigs. And they went back to California and I stayed in Santa Fe and picked up some other musicians and kept it going and I been playing music full time ever since for about five years now. But I do acting too.
I structure tours. This one is for 27 days, doing 22 shows in 27 days. And I go home and rest and catch up and start booking again. I have another tour planned for probably about mid-May to about the 6th of June. Then we come home and were off for about for two weeks till the 20th of June then we go all the way till about the 20th of July to Washington State, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Northern California, and Southern California. So yeah, that’s how I do it.
QUESTION: You said you just got done wrapping up a movie? Notre Dame de Grace?
Yes, Notre Dame de Grace, a French titled film, which is a neighborhood in Montreal. It’s kind of a murder mystery about a particular apartment building where there’s a killer about, who is killing young women. And I’m the cop who tries to investigate the thing with my partner. It’s a young filmmaker and I’ve worked with him before in other films and he’s kind of a real popular filmmaker in Canada. Young guy, he was a childhood actor, he’s like Canada’s Opie. But he’s a great guy, Kevin Tierney produced it so it’s kind of a family project. They’re family of filmmakers in Montreal and I’ve worked with them before so it’s like going home to family.
QUESTION: Is it going to be released in America?
You know Quebec doesn’t need to release their films anywhere but Quebec.
QUESTION: So, not so much mainstream?
It’s mainstream but it’s just in another country. They’ll sell to Europe and it’ll play around Europe and Asia. It may not come to the States because the State’s market is kind of weird. It’s hard for an independent film to get distribution in the United States. So everyone just goes to China. You don’t need the United States, take your film to China and make way more money and make another film; don’t even need this [American] market anymore. They like it, of course. And this French film’s bilingual. So when’s the last time you seen a French/English bilingual film on American television?
QUESTION: Just one last question, what kind of impression are you hoping to leave on future generations?
Get off your ass and do something is the kind of impression I’d like to leave, you know. You can’t just sit around waiting for the phone to ring. You wanna make change and make things you gotta get out and do things. An elder told me a long time ago that it’s not time to talk, it’s time to do. I don’t care what you do, just make it good and get to it, cause the Earth is in trouble and if we’re the caretakers of mother Earth then we been doing a piss poor job. So do something and make a difference, you know. So I think it’s time.THANK YOU.