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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 3, 2004 - Issue 110


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Screenwriter Breaks Stereotypes of Native Americans

by David James Heiss

Valerie Red-HorseREDLANDS... Frustrated by not being offered legitimate roles as an actress in Hollywood or roles that didn't perpetuate stereotypes associated with Native Americans, Valerie Red-Horse wrote and starred in a movie after her husband suggested she write her own.

Red-Horse, of Los Angeles, showed her 1998 Sundance film "Naturally Native" at the University of Redlands' Orton Center Thursday evening. In it she portrays Vickie Lewis Bighawk, one of three sisters who struggle to launch their own business selling herbal medicines based on formulas passed down by their ancestors.

The film, based on some of Red-Horse's own experiences, offers insight into tribal infrastructure in America, the categorical treatment of Native Americans by the federal government, as well as gaming issues, sports mascot controversy, alcoholism and portrayal of Native Americans in film.

Red-Horse balanced filming the movie, under budget and in 19 days, while she was pregnant with her third child with starting up a Native American Investment Bank and actually coming up with some of the products created in the film.

She said that her herbal shampoos and medicines now sell on QVC and "make far more than the movie did."

In her film, she touches often on the government's insistence that all Indians have a number associated with them for identification and tracking purposes.

In the movie, she and her sisters are adopted. Through a series of family relationships, they are not members of a specific tribe, makings it difficult for them to receive loans. They are accused by members of other tribes of wanting to be part of tribes that have become financially-stable through casino income.

"How frustrating is it for us to have to prove our heritage to a country, run by immigrants, that we're Native Americans?" she told the UR audience.

Leela MadhavaRau, director of diversity affairs at the university, brought Red-Horse to campus after seeing the film at a college in Michigan.

"I brought her out because of the way she blew away a lot of stereotypes," MadhavaRau said. "It was a very conscious decision because I knew what she was going to talk about."

Wes Bernardini, an archaeology professor at UR who accompanied his wife, Liz, offered extra credit as incentive for his students to come to the convocation.

"I wasn't sure what the quality of the film was going to be like when it first started," he said. "But by the end of the story, you sure felt for the characters. She touched on four hot button Native American issues."

"I was glad that they put it in a setting that was unfamiliar," said his wife. "It wasn't filmed at a reservation. It was at a real house. She did a good job blending Native Americans and non-Native Americans and how they deal with the same challenges of being a mother as anyone else more so than the obvious issues they dealt with."

Naturally Native

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