Story as Sustenance
Examining the role of Native Americans in making and consuming popular culture.
By Kimberly Guerrero, assistant professor of theatre, film & digital production
Twenty years ago, I found myself in Nashville sitting in a packed theater at a Native American Film Festival with my husband and other indigenous actors and filmmakers.
The final film to be screened was “The Doe Boy,” by Cherokee filmmaker Randy Redroad. Set in Oklahoma in the 1980s, it had received rave reviews, and being from Oklahoma myself, I was thrilled to finally be seeing it.
The film’s opening was a simple, beautifully shot sequence featuring a young Indian kid in a football jersey — with brown chubby cheeks framed by a thick fringe of black bangs — running through the woods of eastern Oklahoma. No big deal, right? All of a sudden, my chest tightened. Then my throat. I couldn’t breathe! I’d been a young Indian kid in a football jersey — with brown chubby cheeks framed by a thick fringe of black bangs — running through the woods of eastern Oklahoma. I heard my own voice in my head cry out, “That’s me. That’s me!”
The next thing I remember is breathlessly leaning against a brick wall outside of the theater, my husband’s voice calming me down before finally asking the big question: What happened? It wouldn’t be until later that evening when sharing the experience with friend and fellow actor Michael Horse that the answer came —story happened.
In all my years of ingesting television and film like spiritual Happy Meals, I’d never seen myself represented on the screens I spent so much time in front of — until that day. I’d just sat through six-plus hours of nothing but Indians! And it was wonderful. So wonderful it had triggered a full-blown panic attack.
Suddenly, seemingly disparate things began to connect. Why had I done something as idiotic as coming to L.A. to pursue an acting career when no one on television looked like me? When I’d drive across America’s reservations where folks barely had enough to scrape by, why were so many of their yards anchored by gigantic, costly satellite dishes? And when I’d get invited inside their homes, why would they have stacks — stacks! — of recorded VHS tapes full of every single Indian movie, documentary, or interview they could find? And the weightiest question of all — why were tribal people suffering health issues, incarceration, addiction, violence, and suicide at rates often double that of other Americans? At that moment all those years ago, I wondered out loud — could it be that we’ve been starved of story?
As Native people, we were clearly getting story wherever we could find it, but our stories had been replaced by other stories. What if those stories were keeping us alive, but malnourished? As indigenous peoples, there were, and thankfully still are, stories that had kept us strong for millennia, reminding us of our purpose and responsibilities as human beings, highlighting the power of choice and consequence, connecting past and future in a way that would empower us to live wisely and well in the present. Now that I’d realized my own existential hunger, couldn’t that knowledge empower me to be more conscientious of the stories I was feeding myself and the kinds of stories I could feed others?
From that point on, in addition to acting, I also began to write, produce, and direct, as well as teach Native youth how to harness the power of storytelling through digital filmmaking. In a wonderful, full-circle moment, a TV pilot I co-wrote was recently purchased by a major streaming platform, and if all goes well, it will star a large cast of Native actors — including my old friend Michael Horse. And then, who knows? Maybe we’ll get the chance to tell a story that will feed the whole world.
Guerrero is an actor, writer, and director whose practice-based research centers around righting the misrepresentation and underrepresentation of Native peoples in mainstream media. She played Winona, Jerry’s Native American girlfriend on “Seinfeld,” and she can be seen opposite Oscar-winner Julianne Moore in the upcoming film recounting the life of writer/activist Gloria Steinem, “The Glorias.”
The Translation Conundrum
An impossible yet necessary quest to preserve a story’s essence.
By Padma Rangarajan, assistant professor of English
The English poet Percy Shelley famously compared poetic translation to throwing a violet in a crucible in order to understand its color and elusive fragrance. For Shelley, the analysis of language necessitated by translation killed the essence of poetic creation, rendering a dynamic thing inert.
For anyone who lives bilingually this makes perfect sense. So many of us have stories we know in a place far from here, or heard from a person far from here, that only really live in the language of their original telling. To remove them from that location is to kill the story. Often the things that create strong cultural or generational ties — jokes, aphorisms, quips — are the ones that translate the most poorly.
But before we cast translation aside as, at best, mechanical composition, consider that Shelley, the creator of this seemingly damning axiom, was deeply reliant on translation. Some of his best poems, “To a Skylark” and “Adonais,” draw from his translations of classical Greek poetry.
He is in good company. William Shakespeare relied on translations — of Ovid, of Italian folktales — as inspiration for his inimitably English plays. English Romanticism, a literary period that championed the idea of original genius, was profoundly influenced by German literature like Friedrich Schiller’s melodramatic “Die Räuber” (“The Robbers”). We may bemoan translation’s limitations, but it is a practice that is central to the creation of narrative.
Historically, many people felt that a good translation told its story without drawing attention to its translated-ness. Stories were adapted to suit their audiences, and translators smoothed over cultural and historical differences.
In the introduction to his 1697 translation of “The Aeneid,” John Dryden announces his intention to “endeavou[r] to make Virgil speak such English as he wou’d himself have spoken, if he had been born in England and in this present age.”
Such adaptation often tells us more about who we are than the culture we have translated. When the 12th-century Tamil poet Kampan adapted the Sanskrit epic “Ramayana” (sixth-century B.C.?) into his “Irāmāvatāram,” he infused the epic with motifs particular to Tamil culture. Valmiki’s epic, which begins with a history of the author, is transformed by Kampan into a lyrical passage on the progress of rain from the heavens to the rivers, reflecting the special place of water imagery in Tamil literature. Kampan’s “Irāmāvatāram” falls into the hazy category between translation and original creation, faithful reproduction and creative infusion.
In recent years, greater acknowledgement of the importance of translation has led to a move away from seamlessness, as authors increasingly opt not to disguise translation’s trace. This can be a quest for authenticity or a refusal not to assimilate quietly.
Such translative choices have considerable political purchase. When Rudyard Kipling “translates” native speakers’ Hindi into English in “Kim” (1901), he makes an implicit statement about how people in the East think and live: they’re antiquated, ponderous, and overserious. In contrast, Junot Diaz’s refusal to translate, or even italicize Spanish words in “The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao” weaves his protagonist’s bilingualism into the texture of the story, forcefully conveying a reality of the second-generation immigrant experience in America.
This leaves us with something of a quandary. We are frustrated by the limits of translation, and we are reliant upon it. How we tell stories — and how we tell the stories of other places, and of other people — is clearly a difficult and dynamic thing. But it is precisely this conundrum — the necessity and impossibility of translation — that is the crucial link between translation and storytelling.
Literature, at its best, takes us outside ourselves and opens new emotional and cultural worlds. Translation serves a similar purpose. Both can be acts of radical empathy. In a period where border crossing has taken on newly political significance, the importance of bridging the borders of the mind — of the imagination and of language — has never been clearer.