ManIFF 2015: American Native - Cinema Review

'a noble film about voice, identity and agency'

The Ramapough Mountain Indians live just thirty miles outside Manhattan. You can see them, meet them, say hello to them. They have a hall, a chief, a younger element to the tribe. And yet, in Steve Oritt's far-reaching documentary, American Native, the existence of the tribe is in question. 'When is a Native American not a Native American?', goes the question. Apparently, when the US Federal Government doesn't formally recognise them as such.

The complicated picture that emerges mixes internal disagreement and disorganisation within the tribe, something amounting to persecution from 'fellow' tribes and a bureaucracy that looks and feels entirely white, male and middle-class in its origins. If that wasn't enough for the Ramapough to cope with, the polo club have since moved in next door and are beginning to take offence to the tribe's signs, buildings and general being. If you can perhaps judge a man by his enemies then all you really need to know about the Ramapough is this: Donald Trump appears to hate them.

Though the film at times struggles to bring an edit together that makes each of those lines clear (an idea around the myth of the 'Jackson Whites' is introduced a little late), American Native does tell a complete story of a people under pressure. What's more, the story it tells feels convincingly applicable outside of American Native's context. The Ramapough are the subject here, but the white vs non-white, little man vs big government, rich vs poor battle that takes place during the film could be anything any of us see or experience on a daily basis. The Ramapough's persecution is centuries old, as are the models of oppression used elsewhere.

Oritt does well also to deal out the complexities of the situation. A scholar who previously seems to have attempted to help the Ramapough, living with them for several years, is now demonised by the tribe, due to the ideas of genealogy he introduced, arguably incorrectly. His intentions seem noble, but the film shows just how easily noble intentions can turn. Delaware tribe chief Kerry Holton, now relocated to somewhere near Oklahoma, can perhaps hardly be blamed for his empire building, but his and other's very actions seem to have limited the Ramapough's chances at success, beyond the fact that Holton himself seems to be against helping them, even pro-actively set on hindrance.

As the Ramapough struggle to get themselves heard, through internal and external forces, American Native becomes a noble film about voice, identity and agency. The irony should not be lost on anyone that, during the film's conclusion, at a local powwow, the tribe's chief cannot get a microphone to work and struggles to get his message across.

Manchester International Film Festival runs from 10th - 12th July 2015 at the AMC Manchester Great Northern Warehouse. More details are available on the ManIFF website.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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