Pow Wow Highway

1 January 2017

Highway I enjoyed this movie, based on a book by the same name by Davis Seals, a Native activist. The story is based in the mid to late 1970’s and begins on the Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. The two lead characters, Buddy Red Bow (A. Martinez) and his acquaintance (who later in the film becomes his friend), Philbert “Phil” Bono (Gary Farmer) travel to Santa Fe to rescue Buddy’s sister, Bonnie Red Bow who has been wrongfully jailed.

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Buddy finds out that his estranged sister has two small girls and he is determined to bring her back home to the reservation and get her out of jail. Philbert is a free spirit who sees visions and is very gentle natured. He is more in tune with the ancient traditions of their Tribe, stopping frequently to pray and meditate. Buddy Red Bow is antagonistic at first and very impatient with Philbert, but in time he starts to lose his inhibitions about praying and meditating and eventually joins Philbert in embracing the ancient chants and meditating.

Although Buddy doesn’t see any visions like Philbert does, he respects Phil’s insights and stops complaining, eventually joining him in calling out to the spirits on their frequent stops. The plot of the story is simple enough to follow. Buddy’s sister was wrongfully arrested in Santa Fe, and she was set up as a ploy by some strip mining developer goons back on the res in Montana to keep Buddy Red Bow (the activist who’s opposed to the strip mining) off the reservation so they can get the other tribe members to give them a favorable vote so they can proceed to exploit tribal land.

There are several underlying messages that become evident as you are watching the film that are begging to be noticed by the film’s director, Jonathan Wacks. Most of them are to direct the attention of the viewer as to the assimilation of the Native Americans and just how far reaching the assimilation has gone. One of the most notable scenes is how Philbert reacts to the commercial for the used cars, where the car salesman imitates stereotypical Indian words “How folks! ” “We got Heap-Big Savings”.

Phil was curious instead of offended and actually bought a car from the salesman, referring to it as a fine pony and then naming the old beat-up car, “Protector”. It’s heartbreaking when Philbert goes to see the medicine woman to get advice on how to go after his medicine and she ridicules him, showing him how bitter she is at their predicament. He nevertheless moves forward with his journey so that he can become a warrior. It’s his perseverance and serenity that is most endearing in this film.

The beginning of the film shows the stark poverty of the reservation, making the HUD housing look luxurious compared to some of the tin lean-to’s that were being lived in. Also, the reservation seems abandoned, even showing tumbleweeds blowing by, but in the next scene shows almost everyone on the reservation are at the local bar, playing pool, drinking and smoking. It also depicts the two extreme differences in the character’s personalities – Buddy Red Bow being the volatile, hot-tempered activist and Philbert as the mild mannered and generous spirited mystic.

Philbert is on his own quest to find his Medicine and Buddy is on a quest to rescue his sister. Because the two of them have lived on the reservation all their lives, Philbert remembers Buddy’s sister and offers his assistance and they take his “war pony”, the beat up Buick to go rescue her and her children. Along the way, they stop several times and there are many sad scenes that are lightly covered with humor. One such scene is where Phil stops off at one of the most sacred spots to climb to the top while Buddy sleeps in the car.

He makes it to the top and opens a large candy bar to eat it then recognizes the colorful ribbons tied to the branches that mark the spot as sacred. He then carefully re-wraps the candy bar and offers it to the Spirits next to the ribbons. Another sad moment of assimilation is when the children had newly escaped from the CPS office and they asked a native woman for some money to call their mother’s friend, Rabbit.

While on the phone with Rabbit, they had to sk which tribe they were from because they had no idea that they even belonged to a tribe much less that there was such a thing as a tribe, and not just “Indians” that existed because when the elderly woman gave them money for the call, she asked them which tribe they belonged to. The film is about a journey with a lot of meaning behind it. It was a way for each of them to find themselves and assess what is truly important in their lives and the need for them to get more in tune with their culture and customs.

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