by Jessica Mosby
This Sundance award-winning film was recently released on DVD and is widely available at mainstream video rental sources. Oklahoma native and writer/director Sterlin Harjo writes and directs what he knows: Seminole-Creek Indians living in Oklahoma. Although the film is fictional, it has an air of authenticity that left me contemplating the special situation of Native Americans like the Seminole-Creek Indians, who do not live on reservations.
The story of a young and adrift guy finding his way in a confusing world has been done – too many times. Though I usually would not go see a film about this sort of fellow, I found myself intently watching a film about just that at the Mill Valley Film Festival. In part it was the name that intrigued me, Four Sheets to the Wind, but what really inspired me to attend the screening was when I read that it was a film about Seminole-Creek Indians by a Seminole-Creek Indian. A niche market if there ever was one.
The film opens with Cufe Smallhill (Cody Lightning) dragging his father’s limp body through the woods toward a lake, where he proceeds to submerge him and conduct a beautiful make-shift funeral ceremony. After he returns home, we learn that his father had committed suicide because his diabetes had become too debilitating to go on. Cufe’s mother Cora (Jeri Arredondo) is beside herself, in part because she feels a public burial is needed, but now there is no body to inter. A madcap cover-up ensues as Cufe and his mortician cousin fill a donated coffin with rocks! Cora then tells the community that her husband died from diabetes, an unfortunately all too common occurrence in Native American communities, where over 15 percent of the population is diabetic.As Cufe is trying to deal with the emotional repercussions of his father’s death, he has no one to turn to. Near the end of this life, Cufe’s withdrawn father was the source of angst and conflict for the entire family. However, now that he’s dead, Cora prefers to reminisce on her family’s good times, rather than confront their grief. She soon starts dating a chubby white guy with whom she reconnected after he donated, in a misguided act of reverence, the coffin the family ultimately uses to bury the rocks. In a rare comic funereal moment, the cheap coffin is decorated with its donor’s sincere attempt at Native American decor, but he misses the mark with art that looks more like a kindergarten art project.
Ironically, Cufe and Cora seem quite functional when compared with the daughter, the troubled Miri (Tamara Podemski), who is so broke she steals gas to drive home for her father’s funeral. Although Miri has managed to get out of Dodge and move to Tulsa, she is still a self-destructive alcoholic: she even steals money from the café where she works as a barista! As much as Miri once clashed with her father in life, she misses him terribly. Though she has the skills and the support to cope effectively, her grief and guilt just further her self-destructive patterns. Miri personifies the unfortunate stereotype of a Native American alcoholic. According to a 2003 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Native Americans have disproportionate rates of alcoholism: 30 percent of men and 18 percent of women suffer from some form of alcohol dependence.
Soon after the funeral, Cufe decides to visit his sister Miri in Tulsa. Ironically this seems like a smart move, since Cufe leads a life of nothingness, literally. There are allusions to his having some sort of job, but mostly he just hangs out at his rural house or walks to the rundown Oklahoma town nearby. His life lacks hope, ambition, and any positive role models. After his father’s funeral, Cufe asks his cousin, “Ever feel like getting the f*ck out of here?” His cousin responds with the sad truth: “Yeah, but where would I go?”Once in the big city of Tulsa, Cufe sits in front of Miri’s apartment waiting for her to come home. Her neighbor Francie (Laura Bailey) feels sympathy for Cufe and takes him out for a drink. Francie soon becomes Cufe’s best and only friend: she actually listens to this man of few words ramble on about his grief and lost dreams. In one painful monologue, Cufe tells the well-traveled Francie that he has always dreamed of visiting California because his father had promised that the whole family would some day vacation there. Then as he grew older, Cufe says he began to understand his family’s finances, or the lack thereof, and he finally realized that his family could never afford such a big trip, despite his father’s well-intentioned promises.
Cufe’s relationship with Francie enables him to imagine himself with a different and better life. I won’t ruin anyone’s viewing experience by divulging the drama or personal growth that follows Cufe’s arrival in Tulsa. I will only say that in Four Sheets to the Wind Harjo creates a piece of art that gives hope to an entire generation of Native Americans and non-Native Americans alike.
Four Sheets to the Wind is so interesting because it shows us a marginalized and underrepresented community from the inside. Harjo’s script and direction never panders or lectures; rather, the viewer comes to understand the lack of choices in the lives of young Native Americans who have grown up in communities devastated by poverty, alcoholism, and a profound lack of hope. Four Sheets to the Wind makes it clear what we have to gain as a nation by empowering the Cufes among us.
For instance, when was the last time you heard positive press reports about the millions of Native Americans living in the United States, other than that some are now making huge profits from gambling resorts? Who are the positive role models for this community?While watching Cufe and Miri’s struggles, it is hard not to remember the appalling 2005 school shooting at a reservation in Red Lake, Minnesota. That was where Native American teenager Jeffrey Weise (whose father had committed suicide four years before) killed seven people before killing himself. In the wake of that tragedy, the country collectively acknowledged and discussed the problems that Native Americans face, particularly the younger generation -- at least for a few weeks.
But then something else distracted us. Maybe the public’s attention was consumed by Britney or some other celebrity of the moment, who was more entertaining than desperate Native Americans. In the 2000 Census, the United States population was 281.4 million people. Of the total, 4.1 million, or 1.5 percent, reported themselves as American Indian and Alaska Native. This does not count the additional 1.6 million people who reported they had American Indian and Alaska Native blood mixed with one or more other races. What will it take for us to reverse the centuries of disregard, abuse and neglect we have inflicted on our country’s native population, whose cultures were almost destroyed and who were nearly extinguished as a people?
Although Four Sheets to the Wind may sound like an unmitigated downer, it is not; it is a compelling film that explores an underrepresented and marginalized community. The characters are complex and have relationships that evolve in very interesting directions. Even better, ultimately they find choices that each of them can live with.
About the Author Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Berkeley, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.