I have a habit of writing when I’m angry. This time its because a number of my colleagues and students have asked me what I (“Humber’s designated Indian Expert”) think about the movie Black Robe. Here goes.
Early in the movie an Algonquian man has a dream in which a raven plucks out his eyes. “Black Robe” is a film in which the viewers’ eyes are removed just as certainly, preventing them from seeing an accurate picture of natives in Canadian history.
The vision we do see is a blinkered one, dazzling us with the beauty of the Lacc St. Jean scenery and of a standard stereotype Indian Princess - all sexuality, few words. (Any connection I wonder with the true story of “Conspiracy of Silence” in which a young native woman is killed for refusing to have sex with a group of white males?) It is a white man’s tunnel vision of Canadian history, the faded old images from generations of textbooks, colorized with big screen technology, and the reflected light of a much better movie, “Dances with Wolves.”
Why does this film disturb me? I see the native spirituality I respect diminished in stature in a shouting painted midget who plays the role of shaman (spiritual visionary, healer and sometimes sorcerer). I see a complex people, the Huron, reduced to child-like beggars meekly asking the Black Robe, a Jesuit missionary priest to love them and therefore cure them from the white man’s disease with baptism. I see the Huron presented without the sense of honor that fueled their survival over tremendous odds (the film says they were killed off, by the way).
In the movie, they kill a priest within the palisaded walls of their village, something they never did, even though they knew the diseases that knocked off more than half their number followed the missionaries as surely as did their footprints in the snow.
Also presented without honor are the Iroquois. We see them as mindlessly violent, violent without explanation - as the snow was cold and the river flowed without explanation, the presumed “natural order of things”.
Even members of the Mafia are presented with more sympathy and understanding in the movies. We see the Iroquois torture without reason, kill a child from sheer savagery, and do what appears a small thing in a non-native context, but would have been a big thing to the 17th century Iroquois. They have their prisoners sing a death song - true to the culture. However the singing prisoners were laughed at, very unlikely, as a death song tended to be respected. Those who sang such a song were deemed brave for their being able to sing when a weaker person would have cried out. The singing prisoners would have been respected for their bravery, part of a code of honor the movie did not show. Sure the Iroquois were sometimes violent; they were sometimes silly, peaceful, reasonable and honorable.
In traditional Huron belief the raven was a visionary messenger; in Black Robe: it creates blindness. The difference between this movie and a balanced accurate portrayal of Canadian history is a difference between ravens.