In 1975, a BBC reporter visited South Dakota’s We Will Remember Survival School, created by the American Indian Movement (AIM) to reacquaint Indigenous youths with a culture that was erased in the state education system.
Interviewing founder Madonna Thunder Hawk about the Survival School curriculum of “natural resources, legal rights, and spirituality”, the skeptical Brit journalist protested: “But aren’t you making these children more Indian? Aren’t you making them less able to fit in?”
With a withering glance, Thunder Hawk snapped back: “Yeah, you bet!”
Coming about six minutes into Warrior Women, this tattered old film clip offers an uproarious introduction to a figure who is little known yet central to the rousing account of Indigenous radicalism that follows.
“Every once in a while, you get to see what I like to call the ‘face-melting Madonna’,” says codirector Elizabeth A. Castle, calling the Georgia Straight from Ohio. “It just reminds you that, you know, she has a presence.”
That presence will certainly linger with anyone who catches Warrior Women when it opens the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival at the Vancity Theatre on Tuesday (March 5)—even if the Lakota activist was, initially, a somewhat reluctant participant in the project.
“She has little tolerance for agenda seekers or career builders when so much is on the line,” Castle says. “There’s a reason we don’t call it Thunder Hawk.”
Still, her utility to the filmmaker is obvious. As Castle says: “Someone once called her the Forrest Gump of Red Power. You name it, she was there.”
Directed with Christina D. King, Warrior Women marries archival footage with contemporary interviews to explore the role of women in some of Red Power’s most historic actions, from AIM’s 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island to Wounded Knee in 1973 to Women of All Red Nations’ successful expulsion of Union Carbide's uranium-mining operations from the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1980.
As noted on-camera, fighting alongside local farmers brought about “the first cowboys-and-Indians alliance in the history of South Dakota”—a particularly poignant statement given the tales we hear of gang rape at the hands of white ranchers decades earlier in the same state and the vigilante ambush a young Thunder Hawk organized to decisively end an epidemic of sexual violence that the police ignored.
Even amid these tales of abuse, overt and covert government attack, and cultural genocide, Warrior Women imparts an irresistible sense of joy. Thunder Hawk’s endeavours consumed her entire adult life—the film catches her still swinging away at Standing Rock in 2016—and it impacted her relationship with daughter, Marcy. But the film finds Thunder Hawk and her relatives cracking up over their frequently dangerous exploits.
“Of course, these women have very serious trauma that they carry with them,” Castle says. “But, I’ll tell you, everyone I interviewed, they think of that period in their lives as the most shimmering, empowered period, where they thought anything was possible and they felt like they were doing something. It’s scary, but what human being doesn’t want to have a purpose? And one that’s super in-your-face?”
There is, in fact, a lot of subtext in Warrior Women that Castle and King necessarily elide, partly because of the constraints of time but also to maintain the film’s focus.
In her other life, Castle is a historian whose initial student work, under the supervision of American author and political activist Angela Davis, was a comparative study of women inside the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. (A subject, she dishes, that was met with “laughter” when she took it to Cambridge. “They said, ‘That’s not history; that’s five angry women in a room.’?”)
If it was depressingly common for the radical groups of the ’60s and ’70s to adopt patriarchal power structures, Castle also allows that “it was a period when people were actively trying to change both policy but also social attitudes, and quite often their rhetoric about women and equality and opportunity was way ahead of their actual daily behaviour.”
In any case, if Warrior Women is designed to redress a lopsided view of history, spiked with what the filmmakers call “the swagger of unapologetic Indianness”, then it can be considered a conclusive success.
As we hear from one of the film’s rare male voices: “If you want good words, invite the men. But if you want something done, bring the women.”
The Vancouver International Women in Film Festival runs from Tuesday (March 5) to next Sunday (March 10) at the Vancity Theatre.