“A story can mean a lot of things to a lot of different communities, to a lot of different peoples,” says Native American artist and filmmaker Sky Hopinka. “I think as humans we search for stories in everything as a way to understand, as a way to process.” Hopinka, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and a descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño people, describes his creative practice as centred around “personal positions of Indigenous homeland and landscape, designs of language as containers of culture expressed through personal, documentary, and non fiction forms of media.” I’ve recently come across his latest short film, Sunflower Siege Engine, which was commissioned by the San Jose Museum of Art and the Institute of Arts and Sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz, and is currently installed at the San Jose Museum of Art, US until 9 July, 2023.
Commissioned as part of the university and museum’s initiative Visualizing Abolition, the 12-minute film collages together scenes of reflection, resistance and ancestral identity. As Hopinka's artist statement puts it: “Moments of resistance are collapsed and woven together; from documentation of the Indigenous led occupation of Alcatraz [Island, California], to the reclamation of Cahokia [Illinois] and the repatriation of the ancestors, to one’s reflections on their body as they exist in the world today, These are gestures that meditate on the carceral inception and nature of the reservation system, and where sovereignty and belligerence intersect and diverge.”
These words recall those of anthropologist and photographer Edgar Kanaykõ Xakriabá - of the Xakriabá people of Minas Gerais, Brazil, in Issue #12’s Ethnovision - whose work, much like Hopinka’s - explores the “Indigenous gaze as an instrument of struggle and resistance”. To view the world from an Indigenous gaze, Edgar Kanaykõ Xakriabá writes, is to understand that imagery and symbols are loaded with culturally specific meanings and interpretations: “Such a way of seeing, perceiving, and realising things is an expertise, so to speak, of Indigenous practices, which are intrinsic to learning and producing knowledge.”
In Sunflower Siege Engine, Hopinka engages in exactly this, incorporating into the film historical imagery of Indigenous resistance such as the 1969 occupation protest on the San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island against US federal policies related to Native Americans. Alcatraz, largely known to the public as an infamous penitentiary and now as a tourist attraction, is instead presented in the film as a subject of liberation and possibility. In historical footage from the 1969 occupation, protest leader Richard Oakes draws attention to the parallels between the prison and reservations - both restrictive and punitive places - and raises the paradigm-shifting potential of moving beyond a carceral framework.
Throughout the film, these archival clips and materials are intermingled with scenes of the director’s self-shot 16mm film footage of coastline and forest. Overlaid is Hopinka’s personal narration, which takes a visceral tack: examining the body, the corporeal self, as a site of resistance. Here, as always, the personal is political and the political is personal - but moreover the viewer is transported through the power of Hopinka’s gaze into an imaginary that exists outside of colonial notions, signs, symbols and historical narratives. As Lauren Schell Dickens, senior curator of the San Jose Museum of Art, says: "Hopinka’s visually striking and linguistically rich work embodies an indigenous worldview that isn’t defined by settler colonial history. It shows us a different present.” In Hopinka’s work, and in Edgar Kanaykõ Xakriabá’s, another story is not only possible or present, but rather has existed all along - with land, the self, and community as markers of thought, struggle, and freedom.
Until next Sunday,
Sunday Newsletter Editor