It began with an eagle feather.
A gift from a Native friend, Swedish writer Annika Banfield understood its cultural significance; it really didn’t belong in her hands. She carried the feather, wrapped in cardboard and twine, and traveled across the globe to find the rightful owners of the sacred symbol.
The feather provides the metaphor for Spirits for Sale, the 2007 documentary Banfield co-produced with filmmaker Folke Johansson that takes an unvarnished look at the European fascination with all things Native. A fascination, Banfield recognizes, that often exploits the very traditions it purports to extol.
“(Europeans) either hold the New Age view that all Natives sit outside tipis praying to Wakan Tanka—people here think all Indians are Lakota—or it’s the Hollywood image from John Wayne films,” she says. “People don’t see Natives as real people; they see them as film clichés or fantasies. Many people over here believe that Native Americans don’t even exist.”
This ignorance has allowed a cottage industry of ersatz Indians to offer costly, flawed and ultimately disrespectful ceremonies to culturally starving Europeans. Whatever the intent, it has fueled the hackneyed stereotypes of Natives among blue-eyed blonds sporting braids and beads. That reality troubles Banfield, who has spent a good part of her career working on behalf of Native issues.
“It is selfishness; we are spiritually bankrupt and we want the pre-packaged quick fix because we are too lazy to go out in nature and try to connect to our own roots. Anything that can be bought for money—Most people don’t have a CLUE about the reality.”
The film mainly focuses on interviews with Native academics, spiritual leaders and a family seeking to restore their ethnic identity. Whereas the interviews help frame the documentary’s thesis, it would have packed a stronger punch if it didn’t assume the didactic tone of an educational video. I wanted less lecturing and more real-life footage, such as the sweat lodge ceremony of a phony-baloney Indian leading clueless Danes through a ritual that would be laughable if it wasn’t so offensive.
But the film is what it is—and Banfield and Johannson deserve props for tackling the topic head on. It is not an easy task to make a film in a language not your own profiling a society not your own. It’s even gutsier to shop your production to two audiences who, for wildly different reasons, are likely to remain dubious of your intentions. So far, however, the response has been positive—Spirits for Sale earned Best International Film at the 2007 South Dakota Film Festival and had a March premiere at the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C.
“We’ve gotten a great response from Native audiences, which makes me so relieved,” she admits. “We’re two whites with a camera making a film about, above all, Lakota spirituality. So we kept in touch with elders and spiritual leaders all the time and asked for their approval before we released it. But now we can breathe again.”
She is likewise pleased it has opened the eyes of a largely uninformed European public. Some viewers have remained in denial, some have ceased speaking to them, and even a few who have made a career out of appropriating Native ceremonies have threatened both filmmakers directly. But, she maintains, making Spirits for Sale has been worth the angst and anger.
Which brings us back to the eagle feather.
Yes, the same feather that brought Annika Banfield to span the ocean and criss-cross the American continent. Rest assured, it eventually does find its way to its spiritual home. And thankfully, it’s far, far away from a Danish sweat lodge.
For more information, please visit: www.spiritsforsale.com