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Pow Wow Highway Response

Daniel Thomas
The film Pow Wow Highway depicts a modern Native American
spirit quest, in which two members of a tribe seek to reestablish
traditions and find the correct space to practice their culture in a
society that does not appreciate it. The movie outlines a process of
repatriation, which we have discussed in lecture. The characters seek
to reclaim some of their culture back from the white population that
has restricted much of it.
The film opens on the Reservation, where the tribe is going
through some turmoil. There is a debate over accepting the grants of
the white people, with the fear that the money, which would create
much needed economic development, could have adverse effects on
the environment of the reservation. It seems that the polemics of the
debate also revolve around questions of sovereignty: whether the tribe
can afford to sacrifice more of its power to those who created their
plight in the first place. Obviously, some of the pragmatic and
conformist characters in the film support the economic injection,
whereas our heroes, the warrior Buddy Red Bow and the idealist
Philbert Bono, want to protect the tribes history and ability to take
unilateral action.
The film develops from this conflict, and the large theme of
Native American tradition vs. racist white interference becomes even

clearer when Bonnie, the sister of Buddy, is arrested in New Mexico.

The characters are forced to leave the Reservation in Philberts new
pony, (a rusty, dilapidated sedan,) in order to rescue Bonnie. The
journey turns into a spirit quest for the two friends, as they visit
different sacred Native American countries throughout the U.S.
landscape at the behest of Philbert. Eventually, the two characters are
able to rescue Bonnie, while also finding on the road the importance
and meaning of their traditions, rituals and culture in general.
Several parts of the film include aspects of shamanism that we
have discussed in class. Much of the music, especially that played
during the opening, has stereotypical drumming, which we have said is
typical in shamanic cultures. There is also an aspect of verbal,
communal information, as Philbert visits an old woman in his
community for advice on attaining a medicine bundle. Comically, she
answers that she gets sick of being asked for good old indian wisdom.
I aint got non so get the hell out of here. This is not how I imagined
verbal culture was conducted when we discussed it in lecture.
The costume also plays a role in the film. Philbert is obviously not
well dressed, and is informed of this fact by Buddy. Buddy states that
both Philberts clothing and car must be transformed in order for him
to be successful in his goals. Buddy states that you wanna be a
warrior, you gotta dress right. Thats an essential part of the ritual.

Certainly, this is an example of material culture, as we have discussed

in lecture.
Finally, a trance experience takes place in the film. Philbert
unilaterally decides to drive to South Dakota after being informed of a
spiritual place there by a trucker. He visits the place, and enters a
trance, in which a traditional Native American approaches him. After
leaving the trance, he sees that a coyote had been the Native
American. This has a lot of the trance components we talked about in
class, like meditation, environmental and spatial triggers, and the
desire for knowledge. Philbert certainly had the capacity to converse
with spirits within him.
The film seems to advocate for the communitys return to its
shamanic roots. The spirit quest the characters embark on leads them
to realize the value of their culture, and its ability to aid the
community. Philberts idealistic nature is especially glorified, proving
that the creators of the film believe that a revitalization of shamanic
traditions is necessary.
Overall, I really enjoyed Pow Wow Highway. It was a comical take
on many of the themes we have discussed in class. However, one
should not ignore the importance of the film simply because it has
comedic elements. The theme of white vs. Native American conflict,
and the subjugation of the Native Americans by the U.S. populace as a
whole is certainly impactful and timely. The quest to regain old

traditions and culture is important as well, as many of those aspects

have been stolen from the Native Americans overtime. Pow Wow
Highway is a vibrant film for those who wish to understand the
importance of verbal culture, and historical traditions in todays
modern age.