Interview with Philip Red Eagle
Let’s talk about
your book a little bit…
Red Eagle: It exploded out of me. I wrote the first manuscript of eleven short stories in a month. It was like a catharsis of sorts. And then I won the Louis Littlecoon Oliver Memorial Prose Award for that year among Native writers. It was really a way for me to deal with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after coming home from the war. I didn't want to talk about it with anyone, but writing seemed to help.
Angel: You mentioned the book as "mythical realism" earlier. What is that?
Red Eagle: Well that's been around and it's been called "magical realism." Native people don't believe in magic, so Native people are very backwards, it's not all the movie-stuff that you think. We (Natives) gathered together in 92', we went into this room and we had a meeting. We decided that we wouldn't use the term "magical realism" for the work that we were writing. We decided to call it "mythological realism." So it is basically a case of the "epic journey." That's what the book [Red Earth] is.
Angel: Have you heard from anyone responding to your book? How it affected them, etc.?
Red Eagle: I've heard some people say that their brother read the book, or their dad read the book, and they cried. Once you do that, you start moving stuff. (Interrupts himself as we pass a group of students talking basketball) Is Washington playing tonight? I really need to make it back to the hotel in time to catch the game. That's my team!
Angel: So tell us about the Canoe Way: the Sacred Journey, what the film explores.
Red Eagle: Well, what we're trying to do is bring the traditional conduct back, or the traditional way of thinking. And it's really radically different from what we think of as the American way of life.
Angel: How so?
Red Eagle: Well, one of the mechanisms used was "pot-latch." "Pot-latch" is an anglicized version of the native word. It's basically a gifting, a giveaway. Some of the old tribal families would get a lot of wealth, which is not measured in money but in material goods, then they would suddenly give it away … just impoverish themselves. They would have nothing, they would give their canoes away, give all their wood boxes away, and that would grant them higher status among their people. In fact, it's like the tide going out, and the tide coming back in.
Angel: How did all of these beliefs become realized in the "Canoe Movement"?
Red Eagle: Well, we had an organization called the Cedar Tree Institute, and we were practicing this stuff. We had taken it out of oral history and Britain history, and we began to put it together and practice it. It's historical, and we wanted to bring it back. So we had been doing that for a couple of years and one of our group people had put together a healing of the bay in Olympia. So she gathered waters from the seven rivers that pour into the Puget Sound and had a prayer, and a blessing, and a pouring of those waters into the bay from the four directions (North, South, East, West). There were four canoes, and as the canoes came up to get the water they just kind of glided in and I was looking at them, their beauty and everything, and I had seen a canoe before. They came in and they took the water, and suddenly the light went off and I turned to Tom, and he was looking at me, and I says, "you know, we oughta' take what we know, what we've been doing for the last few years, and put it in the canoe." And Tom said, "I was thinking the very same thing." So we started working on that and then put it into action through two journeys in 95' and 96'.
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