“Winter in the Blood”: compelling Native American drama

Whenever I think about what happened to the indigenous peoples of this continent (plus the islands!), I want to howl at the moon, gnash my teeth, foam at the mouth, pull my hair out by the roots and rend my garments – and I’m descended from Europeans. So imagine how Native peoples feel about their conquest, genocide, displacement, etc., at the hands of the settlers who stole what we now call North America away from them.

Winter in the Blood imparts an excellent sense of the impact this foreign invasion and occupation has had on America’s aboriginal inhabitants. Although its co-directors, Andrew and Alex Smith, who co-wrote the script with Ken White, are all of European ancestry, the author of the source novel of the same name, James Welch, was of the Blackfoot and Gros Ventre tribes. Welch was born in Montana, where the gritty Winter was shot and set.

The screen image of the losing half of the cowboys and “Indians” motion picture paradigm is a truly fascinating subject beyond the scope of this review. Suffice it to say that the celluloid stereotypes of Native Americans have been, as a general rule, controlled by non-indigenous people and intended as mass entertainments marketed to ticket buyers of the predominant majority culture. Self determination, on the other hand, means the “self” – not the other or the outsider – determining how one is portrayed and presented to the world. Every once in a while a landmark film helps to redefine America’s indigenous people. In 1989 there was the rebellious Powwow Highway, followed by two seminal 1998 movies: Smoke Signals, based on Sherman Alexie’s fiction, and Naturally Native (the latter two starred the sublime Irene Bedard).

Now Winter in the Blood has joined this rarefied “tribe.” It co-stars Gary Farmer, who appeared in Powwow and Smoke. Alexie is an associate producer of this adaptation of Welch’s troubling depiction of America’s troubled Natives. David Morse (who plays a detective on HBO’s Treme and is in World War Z) portrays a con man in this searing drama, which fluidly goes back and forth in time. Chaske Spencer (who appeared in the Twilight movies and, like many cast members, is of tribal origin himself) plays the lead character, Virgil First Raise. He is a self-destructive young Blackfoot who romances Agnes (part Choctaw and Chickasaw actress Julia Jones) and Marlene (Lily Gladstone of the Blackfeet and Nez Perce Nations), as he desperately tries to find himself in “whitey’s” world. Bedeviled by booze and an abusive streak, when he awakes from spending the night with Marlene, she rather charmingly asks Virgil to perform oral sex on her. Instead, for some strange reason, Virgil punches her in the face.

After its Los Angeles Film Festival premiere last month, Winter’s cast assembled for a Q&A. Gladstone (who was excellent as Carlisle in the 2011 play The Frybread Queen, presented by Native Voices at the Autry Museum in L.A.) spoke about the feature’s importance for Native Americans. In a drunken rage in one flashback Virgil’s outraged father, John First Raise (Richard Ray Whitman), screams in a saloon: “This is our land! This is our land!” This reviewer asked if this was the movie’s crucial dialogue: that today’s dysfunctions, addictions, etc., in America’s indigenous communities flow from the conquest by whites. Casey Camp-Horinek, who plays Theresa First Raise and has appeared in movies such as 1993’s Geronimo, raised a clenched fist, said, “You got it!” and asked: “Are you listening, Obama?”

Winter is a compelling, no-holds-barred look at contemporary Natives. When Virgil encounters the aged, traditional Yellow Calf (Saginaw Grant, a venerable actor of the Sac-n-Fox, Iowa and Otoe-Missouria Nations, who appears in 2013’s The Lone Ranger and HBO’s Family Tree comedy series), before imparting ancient wisdom that will reveal clan secrets to the confused Virgil, Yellow Calf rather symbolically unbraids his hair before telling all. One could say that Winter does the same. Watch for local release.

Movie information:
Winter in the Blood
Directed by Andrew and Alex Smith
Starring Chaske Spencer, David Morse, Gary Farmer

Photo: Chaske Spenser as Virgil First Raise by Michael Coles, from film’s official website.



Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.