Where the wild things are

The new Haida film Sgaawaay K’uuna is as far from Hollywood as can be – and that’s its greatest strength.

 

Near the end of Sgaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife), the film’s anti-hero, Gaagiixid, enters a dimly lit camp after surviving a winter alone in the rainforest — a punishment self-imposed after he caused the death of his best friend’s son. Gaagiixid offers himself as a sacrifice to Kwa, his former best friend and the movie’s protagonist, and Kwa is given the chance for deadly revenge. The audience would readily forgive him for taking it, but Kwa acquiesces to Haida tradition. Gaagiixid, “the Wildman,” is bound and restrained instead, and in a flurry of cedar capes and low murmurs, the administration of medicines begin.

To correct his erring character, Gaagiixid is administered a therapy to convert him back to his former self.
“Edge of the Knife” film still

It’s a glimpse into the way things were handled in 19th century Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the West Coast of Canada, where Indigenous values prevailed: You didn’t just lock someone in jail and throw away the key. You can rationalize the decision; perhaps the community needed every member alive, and it was worth rehabilitating wrongdoers whenever possible. Then again, perhaps it was more than that — an entirely different way of looking at the world. Regardless, it’s an instructive and fascinating scene to watch, unburdened by a white protagonist providing voiceover, or worse, an anthropologist taking notes off to the side. Throughout Sgaawaay K’uuna, audiences watch Haida tradition and life unfold without settler intrusion, making it easier to absorb the themes of this film: redemption and healing.

Directed by Hluugitgaa Gwaai Edenshaw and Jaada Yahlangnaay Helen Haig-Brown, Sgaawaay K’uuna is the story of friends who might as well be brothers. But their friendship reaches a horrible impasse, and each man must make his own journey toward reconciliation. Kwa is the responsible one, with a son, a wife and good standing in the community. Adiits’ii is reckless, driven to madness upon making a horrible mistake. This results in his slow transition into Gaagiixid, a wild supernatural creature.

Sgaawaay K’uuna is advertised as the first Haida language feature film. That alone makes it remarkable, but it is more than that. The film is a window into the inner workings of a Haida community, its members’ ideas of justice, humor, and matters as simple as food and daily entertainment. These details are often handled in a cursory fashion by non-Native filmmakers, usually given a brief exposition and then brushed aside in favor of the Anglo protagonist’s worldview. Not in this film, not this time.

Featuring Haida actors coached and trained by fluent Haida speakers, Sgaawaay K’uuna is a successful endeavor, quietly good and confident in its material. From the opening credits, audiences may recognize the name of Zacharias Kunuk, one of the film’s producers and the director of the 2001 hit Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Kunuk, who is Inuk (Inuit), shot Atanarjuat with an Inuit cast in the Canadian Arctic, and it was the first feature-length film to be written and directed in the Inukitut language. Sgaawaay K’uuna shares DNA with Antanarjuat, but lives in its own universe, in its own wonderful way.

There are no fish-out-of-water narratives or rite-of-passage elements in either Atanarjuat or Sgaawaay K’uuna, and neither film features white men (or women) finding their way, strangers in a strange land, learning important truths about life that the Indigenous people they encounter have always known. Audiences are accustomed to these recurring, tired old plot points, which serve non-Natives well but leave Indigenous people as the supporting cast. That’s true even in films that brim with Indigenous content. Take, for instance, “Woman Walks Ahead,” released earlier this year, which stars Jessica Chastain as a painter and Michael Greyeyes as Lakota Chief Sitting Bull. Chastain is a fine actor, and her character, Catherine Weldon, is an interesting subject. But Sitting Bull’s story likely offers more to viewers than that of the non-Native who painted him. This trope is not only insulting, it can also clutter a film with so much exposition that the actual story becomes lost to cliché. 

Sgaawaay K’uuna spares audiences such expositional labyrinths, instead plunging them directly into Adiits’ii’s world, where community members depend on each other and the person you hunt with is as important as the one you eat with. It is a world built on trust.

The film marks a huge step in Indigenous film agency. How many times have you wanted to see a movie set in a pre-contact era about a tribal community without the Anglo conduit? I want to see Geronimo’s story without having to listen to the U.S. Cavalry lieutenant who pursued him. I’d love to hear Quanah Parker’s own story, without a drawling Texas Ranger spinning us a yarn. How did Tecumseh help create a confederacy of warriors to take on the United States in 1811? I want to hear these stories and more. Sgaawaay K’uuna takes us to this place, offering not only a compelling story but another blueprint for future Indigenous filmmakers.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and an occasional actor) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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