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Interview with Navajo-Laguna Novelist and Filmmaker Aaron Albert Carr

Mathilde Arrivé

Notes de la rédaction

Entretien réalisé par Mathilde Arrivé le 22 février 2010

Texte intégral

PART 1 - “BEHIND THE CAMERA”: From Curtis’s photographs to Carr’s documentary films

La Revue de Recherche en Civilisation Américaine : To start with, I’d like to know how you respond to Edward Curtis’s photographs. Do you know them well? Do you often look at them?

Aaron Carr: I have several books by him. Curtis made thousands of pictures, thirty or forty thousand photos. I am not sure if he lived with the people, with the communities, or how he worked. What I am curious about, in terms of my thinking, of my work I guess, is truth. Because there are some researchers or some ethnographers who really lived with people for many years and they had ongoing connection and ongoing correspondence with them. Therefore, to have done so many thousands of pictures, of so many people, it seems Curtis had a certain connection with them. But I am not sure looking at this one [“The Vanishing Race”, Portfolio 1] if he really believed we were a vanishing race or not.

Edward Curtis, The Vanishing Race: Navajo, Portfolio 1: 

Edward Curtis, The Vanishing Race: Navajo, Portfolio 1: 

RRCA: Even though the pictures are staged, do you think they are totally foreign to Native Americans’ own strategies of self-representation?

AC: I think so. Because for one thing they are staged. And the other thing is, I don’t know how to approach them. For example, this one [“Medicine Man”, Portfolio 1] is a really interesting portrait of a man. But for some reason, to me it does not represent someone I know or I understand, even though I know it is someone who is Navajo…

Edward Curtis, Hastobiga - Navaho medicine-man, Portfolio 1 :

Edward Curtis, Hastobiga - Navaho medicine-man, Portfolio 1 :

RRCA: How do you think people felt when they sat in front of Curtis’s camera? Honored, ashamed, violated? Don’t you think they were also agents in the process? Because Curtis would argue that staging was part of Native American cultures.

AC: There are other photographers who have done some work with native people and I think you get more a sense of the life that is around them. It is difficult to know what to say because, say with Indian people, we tend to be a part of our environment, and a part of our community. And so if you take pictures of us this fact has to be taken into account—if this is a medicine person, you can’t really see his distinctions as one. It could have been just a label put on this young man. He might well be an assistant, because usually a medicine person is much older. So, right there, I think the representation of Native people generally within Curtis’s work is I don’t want to say “false” but I don’t want to say “true”. I mean they are true in the sense that they are people, but the photographs don’t really say anything about who we are, about Navajos.

But the thing too is that people of the younger generation looking at this picture might say “oh, that’s a very peaceful man, that’s someone very old, that’s probably someone with very strong powers”. Their thinking might continue: “This photographer came and thought this Indian person was very important and he had to make a picture of him. And he made it in a way that is very respectful and very beautiful.” And so it is very difficult for me–right after a young person thinking this–to bring up ideas of what is true and false. For many, it would be a true image. But for me, who is aware of the contradiction, aware of the bigger picture, images such as this tend, on average, to perpetuate the romantic. And many people are tired of it.

RRCA: That is another aspect I want to discuss with you. Curtis visited many different communities and photographed at great length Navajo and Pueblo people—and you happen to have both heritages. But in Curtis’s book The North American Indian, Navajos and Pueblos are associated with radically different sets of emotions, ideas and values. The Navajos appear as predominantly masculine, warlike, awesome and closely related to some mournful, funeral, gothic note. On the other hand, Curtis’s Pueblo Indians are mainly feminine, peaceful, sunny, culturally vital, etc. I guess your own experience and your mixed heritage contradict that clear-cut dichotomy, don’t they?

AC: To me it, it does not reflect what I know as being Navajo. If you allowed your picture to be taken—which is an issue in itself—you would want to make yourself look good, even if it is an old photograph, just like the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] photographs. In the government’s photographs, you would get a sense that people—men or women—put on their best clothes and jewelry, and really set it up in a nice way. And so that is a reflection of a person taking charge of the photo, of his own image. “I am choosing the way I want to present myself”. Whereas in Curtis’s photographs, for the most part, the control is really taken away from us. Although I find they are really beautiful, they are interesting simply because of the time when they were taken. These photos are really great for what they say, because some of these buildings are gone [looking at “Laguna Watchtower”, Volume 16].

Edward Curtis, Laguna Watchtower, Volume 16:

Edward Curtis, Laguna Watchtower, Volume 16:
  • 1  See for example, Scott Momaday, “Foreword”, Sacred Legacy: Edward S. Curtis and the North American (...)
  • 2 Partial Recall, with Essays on Photographs of Native North Americans, Lucy R. LIPPARD (ed.), New Yo (...)

RRCA: I understand there is no real consensus about Curtis’s images among Native Americans. Would your reception of Curtis’s photographs be closer to N. Scott Momaday’s laudatory and grateful stance1 or to Leslie Marmon Silko’s and Vizenor’s critical one2?

AC: I take the middle way. Because of the particular novelist and the particular filmmaker that I am, I tend to try to keep my emotions open. These pictures are very professional, the lighting is very nice, but on the emotional level… I am able to step back and say: “ok, they look beautiful, so what is the subject, the idea”. [Browsing photographs] For instance, when I see the pictures of other tribes, say the ones from the eastern tribes, they don’t tell me much about who these people were either. They are all of the same canvas. They all have the same general look: the beads, the feathers, the buckskins and all that. It is funny because these kinds of photos have been adapted for the romantic paintings you see all over the country: in New Mexico, in trading posts, in truck stops. But they do not say anything about who the people are. Like say, going back to the Navajo Medicine person - he does not wear anything in particular that says he is a medicine person. But there is always some detail that will speak about the character of the person being photographed.

RRCA: It is true that this portrait does not say anything about his status as a medicine man, but does it express anything about how he feels?

AC: To me—and it is probably a terrible thing to say—but it looks like the poor guy is…drunk! But again, this is my emotional response to this picture.

RRCA: Don’t you think Curtis used the motif of disappearance to express his own sense of…guilt, regret, alienation, anxiety…

AC: Yes. Because he was a photographer who was obsessed. And most of the time, with artists who are obsessed, they tend to put themselves into the image. That is why I don’t know if he is actually photographing his own emotional mental state or that of his subject—I mean, his mental state in terms of how he views Native American people as a vanishing race.

One of the things I always try to do, as a cinematographer, is when I come to a project, I always look at the people, to see their face, to ask how they are and what they do and to try to engage them in a conversation or something. Because what I do, and I think this is true with most photographers, is to observe and to try to catch the moment when you sense the subjects are expressing their inner selfwith their faces, their bodies, their voice. Because as human beings, the way we engage with a person is through the eye, the look, through the immediate sense of the eye. And so that is what I am always concerned with how we present our unique self in different ways.

When I made the documentary about my grand-mother [A Laguna Woman], I went through this whole process of shooting a lot of images about her, getting her voice and hearing it all the time, and still I wondered “How am I going to present this woman?” Then as I was listening to her voice all the time, I realized that if I had just been listening to her on a tape recorder, I would not have known she was an Indian person. She was basically a woman talking about her life. That was the way I wanted to present my grandmother. When you eventually do see her, she is just sitting in a chair, the way she was always dressed as I remember her, in a very simple dress and apron. One of my things is to try and change how we have been perceived in the past –as cultural artifacts—to reflect more honestly how we have always been: as human beings, as a people who are alive, as a people who have real lives. In another documentary [Kinaalda: Navajo Rite Of Passage, 1999] the way we presented Tanya was just as who she was—as a school kid, going to the gym, with her sister, with her friends. We are seeing and talking about this everyday young person, this child, and yet this child happens to be from the Navajo culture. So you see why none of these pictures [Curtis’s] really ever spoke to me, except when they make me think “what was the process? Did he talk to them or did he just set them up?” Obviously he couldn’t talk to them because they didn’t probably speak a lot of English, and so, for myself, I am thinking “What was his relationship to the people? Was it through an interpreter? Or did he try to communicate with them? Did he even really see them?” Because you can understand people just with the eyes. But sometimes, in a lot of situations like these, you tend to see the artist moving other people as objects.

  • 3  Carr , Aaron Albert, Eye Killers : a Novel, University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
  • 4 Ibid., p.130.

RRCA: In your novel3, photographs are referred to at some key moments of the plot. For Elizabeth, they are her only connections to the past and to who she is4. But there are also other photographs, particularly the ones Diana comes across in Native American homes and they seem to convey grotesque portrayals of people. I quote:

  • 5 Ibid., p.196

Diana looked at the photographs. In one, an old man, as wrinkled as a mummy, leaned on a cane under a juniper tree. In another, a small, raggedy boy grimaced into the camera, behind him was dilapidated hen house with openings in its sides big enough for wolves to steal through.5

Do these images refer to your own experience? Are photographs necessarily distorted and distorting media?

AC: These photographs are actual family photographs that I knew. And so these are my thoughts. As a child, looking at these old photographs, they scared me ... The old man did look like a mummy. It was not because he was Indian. For some reason the black and white photo just scared me. The little boy ... that is a photograph of my father. About the photographs in the book, all of them, I wanted them to say something about the characters. For me, since it was not a film, I wanted to give a sense of how the characters might look, or what kind of images they connected with, because images are very important for me, and people’s emotional response to pictures is very important to me. That is one of the reasons I am a filmmaker.

RRCA: And you are more comfortable with moving images than still photographs.

AC:Yes. I don’t know why.

 RRCA: On the other hand, from what I remember from your film, it sometimes shows like a series of still photographs, as if you used photography within the film.

AC: Exactly. One of the things about Eye Killers that I was very happy about was how much the University of Oklahoma Press allowed me opportunity to say what I wanted. Lots of photographers or cinematographers tend to linger behind the camera or the technology and it is a very comfortable place to be. It is like a wall. You only see people in the viewfinder, you don’t really have to engage with them. But now, for us Indian people, for us to start changing the image of ourselves, and thinking about films about ourselves, we can’t allow artists to hide behind the camera any more. We have to engage with them, like with Curtis. Now, it would be very important to say to him “come on, talk with us, come meet with us, or stay the night with us, come to one of our ceremonies”. If you ever visit the Navajos, if you get to know people, they will invite you: “come and have dinner with us so that you get to know us”. What our connections are, how we connect is very important.

In that particular film about my grandmother, it was really important for to be behind the camera as an Indian person, because I was struggling with a lot of images, a lot of memories and thoughts about my grandmother, about who she was. Later on, it became more important to include my story with that of the community. The rite of passage, the Kinaalda ceremony, is very much part of who I am. So I had to engage and go away from behind the camera, just be there, be there as a participant too. That is the only way to really get a sense of, to really understand what it means when you see Indians on horseback—our love of horses, our love of the land, our connection with, not the land really, but mother earth. Those things sound kind of cliché, but they are true. They are cliché because people don’t understand them; they don’t engage with us enough to understand—people are caught up in their own mindset.

Unlike Momaday or Vizenor, I think I see things from a totally different angle, maybe from underneath. I don’t know their reaction to Edward Curtis so I can't really say. But I think there are some things we all agree upon and there are some things we disagree upon. And that is good, because we Indian people ourselves are struggling with imagery, trying to engage with digital technology. We have not yet, as a whole, discussed how we connect with film, with still imagery, with still photography.

RRCA: That leads me to another question. We often say that story-telling is central in Native American cultures and participates to the transmission of traditions over generations. So I wonder if the image has also become a privileged media for that purpose. Can the image, or the visual in general, also have a part to play in transmission and identity issues in contemporary Native Americans communities?

AC: In the Navajo Nation, there is a film—and it is actually a community project— about the dangers of drug abuse in high school. It is fictional. It was funded by Department of Health money. They asked students and teachers to act, to take part. It is a very good film with a purpose, which is to talk about what drug use is doing to us, and how we can deal with it. It was not a commercial film, but it was very popular. That is the kind of thing we are doing at the moment, and it is important. We are just speaking to ourselves about issues. The themes seem to be this particular generation, the young generation, grappling with the past, grappling with the culture. It is lost, but in a very real sense it is continuous and alive.

But there is not a lot of discussion about how we will form an image of ourselves, how we form the image, what unique symbolism we use and how we represent the past: are we going to make it black and white, are we going to make it in color. We have not really built our own theory about the image, or about film.

RRCA: Is the image part of the culture originally?

AC: It is, but we have not worked out how to take control of this medium and say “what is our theory of film, of the moving image?” I think that will be really wonderful because it is a process that will take the participation, not only of techno-savvy people, but of elders too, and young people and those of middle age, people of my generation. To bring them all together and discuss how we are going to express ourselves with this medium”. And it can’t be pinned down as Navajo or Sioux, etc.. As a community, we have to start at the beginning and ask how we are going to bring in this digital technology and tell our story. Because we Native people are very image-oriented. So many of our stories, if you listen to them, or if you hear them, their details are very image-centered, with colors, textures—very action-oriented as with the Laguna language. It is always action, it is always distance and place. Always people. To maybe start at the beginning, with language.

RRCA: What struck me in your film is how it was not very plot-oriented or realistic, and you really worked out the idea of vision, hallucination and apparition, in an almost expressionistic way. I was wondering why it was important for you that vision be altered since you use overexposure very often, which struck my retina.

AC: This is the reason why I love film. Because you can actually go in to the camera and tweak the shutter, the film gate, and do things to it, and just see what happens with the image. It is something we still need to do, these kinds of effects— overexposures, things trapped in the shutter…Those experimental effects are like words to express thoughts or emotions. For me being out there filming, it was like holding time itself, in the same way that there are many different layers of time on the reservation. And probably everywhere else, but out at Laguna or at Navajo for me is where I sense time the most. When I was out there with my little Bolex camera, I could sense…—You remember the images of the birds? There is an image where the birds made these strange shapes in the sky…where mother earth was herself expressing her mind at work. And that is a true connection with “mother earth”; it is also my connection, and one way we can communicate.

RRCA: Your film is also fraught with a strong sense of time, just as if you were trying to materialize your own experience of time or memory.

AC: Going backward in time—that is something you can do very well with film you can do it with video too, but with film you have got actual time in your hands. So when you are in the editing room, you capture all this—the process starts when you capture the images, but it is also me listening to my grandmother’s voice and the editing—putting all these strips of films together and having them all around you, the sensation of them, and putting the strips all together, taking them all apart again… It is like a storm, it is like rain, it is like the wind—these things come together, and then go away, and come back, in different ways. It is a strange process. That is what I love about films.

PART 2— Nosferatu in Navajo? From Curtis’s “Vanishing Indian” to Aaron Carr’s “Eye Killers”, the gothic imagery turned inside out

RRCA: Having seen your film and read your novel, I could not but notice that the two projects were radically different, the movie being, as it were, shot from “within” and the novel from “outside”, since you do not try to get into your characters’ interiority. Do they correspond to different moments in your creative and personal life? Do you see them as two different projects altogether?

AC: It is a continuation I guess.

RRCA: Which one comes first?

AC: The film comes first. Eye Killers came out of my love of film, I guess, not really wanting to make a standard film, but wanting to make a similar kind of film as the Laguna one, the documentary on my grandmother. Because I realized I didn’t…—this is very hard. Because a lot of it is very, very personal. I am working on the second part of this book now.

RRCA: Why did you choose “eye killers” instead of “skin walkers” for the title of your novel?

AC: “Skin walkers” are fundamentally human. There is a different power involved. I guess what I was really grappling with was my relationship with my faith or my faiths. And Eye Killers refer to non-human creatures, they are part of the Navajo creation story. It is almost like artists making references to the Bible. Many American authors or filmmakers have their themes or characters based on the Bible. For me it is kind of the same. Only mine is not the Bible but the Navajo creation story. The figures I take are from there because they were such big part of my growing up. They are the foundations of who I am, really. And so that is the reason why eye killers are opposed to skin walkers. Skin walkers are dangerous, but not as much as eye killers.

RRCA: In your novel, you dramatize the idea of conflict—conflict between generations, conflict between life and death, between vitality and morbidity, between “savagery” and “civilisation”, and, obviously, between vampires and humans—but you displace these conflicts along different lines, giving them an allegorical significance and an almost fantastic turn. Is this a reminiscence of the historical conflict between White and Indians? And if so, were you trying to reverse the traditional categories?

AC: Recently I have been working in terms of health care for Native American communities in the South West, more directed at youth, because they are a lot of problems obviously—alcohol, drug abuse, gang-related behaviors, self-destructive behaviors, suicide. That has become a real crisis in our communities. For us, it has always been a crisis, but nobody really knew about it. We knew about it. We would see our friends self-destructing, see all kind of things happening. And the statistics are only now being compiled and analyzed for the Native American population - you can see the extent of this crisis in real numbers. And one of the things I was really interested in, in terms of filmmaking and learning about other films and cultures, or about the work of other filmmakers, was how similar it was that our different histories all had such an effect on our current lives, in modern life. And how we artists all continually struggle to come to terms with our pasts. Our Native past in terms of spirituality is always very much a part of our living present, it is always here, it is always around us, and it is always with us. And it is the same with the physical past, the things that happened to us—our conflicts, for us in the South West, with the Spanish invaders, the Conquistadors, and with the government, the white soldiers and all that. At that time, there were a lot of deaths. It was a very violent time. And not just with the Europeans, but also with other tribes—it was a very destructive time. But with the invading Europeans, we get a sense that we never really got over that, that original trauma, that original breakdown, people’s deaths. And in terms of family, the traumas to the family, the traumas to the parents, to the grandparents. You have this destructive continuum. And in terms of family, in the past, the father knew his role, the mother knew her role. It was very clear. And then this catastrophe happens—everything is changed, everything is cut to pieces. So much of our familial roles were lost.

But to heal oneself without help, without understanding the significance of the psychological trauma, was a big part of the crisis happening now. In the generations now, there is this inter-generational trauma. It is as if we have never really been able to get ourselves back to wholeness. The tribes in the South West are more fortunate because we had more control, we had less of this sense that we were conquered. We were able to retain a lot of our language, a lot of our culture and tradition, a lot of our place. But there is still much trauma involved; it is just there, it is in our present, and I think it is still working through us. With Eye Killers, it was that exact situation for me, in terms of seeing a way to healing. Taking control of history as a way of healing.

This was through one of the most beautiful films I ever saw, Nosferatu.

RRCA: Murnau’s?

AC: Yes, exactly. And a lot of that imagery really made sense to me.

RRCA: But Murnau’s imagery is very close to Curtis’s graphic universe, peopled with ghostlike Indian silhouettes, specters,dream-like wanderers or runaways, metaphorical exiles, etc. You too stress these same ideas. Why did you choose to use this imagery in your own work?

AC: There is one image in Nosferatu—it is up at the vampire’s house in London and it is in this expressionist style where it is distorted with these windows that are not straight. And when I saw this image, it gave me the sense it was a mesa at Laguna—just a mesa, but it had all these windows in it. That is when I thought: “what if a vampire was living in this mesa across from my grandfather’s sheep camp?” So that is where things started to come together. That is why I had a connection with that type of imagery, with what I saw of Europe, what I understood of this tragic past. And so in a sense, that expressionist style was the visual style I had for everything in Eye Killers—the vampires, the sheepherder Michael. For me the novel was almost like a film shot in that style, in that expressionist style, more dramatic, less melancholy, but somewhat like this. There was a lot of this taking control of our history involved.

Max Schreck as Count Orlock, the Nosferatu (1922):

Max Schreck as Count Orlock, the Nosferatu (1922):

RRCA: Incidentally, and very symptomatically, Curtis called some Native Americans “the living dead”. The vampire figure is not that far off… But it seems that you turn it inside out.

AC: Exactly, because I am now on the other side, I was the one with control. I think that is something that Indian people appreciate, when we do take control of our own imagery. And so, in a sense, I took that tradition —the vampire tradition—from where I was, and made it mine. I stretched it and made it work for my own purpose. And that was fun. Murnau’s imagery was mine too. I could use it. In the same sense Curtis is saying these people are mine and I can manipulate them and I can make them be what I want them to be… And that is what I did with the vampires, with the European images. One of the comments I get from Indian people is “I didn’t know we could do that kind of thing”, “I didn’t know we could write about that kind of stuff”. And I think it is because we need to get to the point when we can say: “this is mine too”, “this film we see, I can take this and mess around with it too.”

RRCA: By mixing different traditions and genres, you try to erase some barriers, but you still define yourself primarily as a Native American writer and filmmaker.

AC: Yes, because that is what I am. That is a complicated issue. On the one hand, you want to be just a writer, just a filmmaker. You just want to be an artist. You want to be a storyteller. But of course, you get pigeonholed in categories. But for me I particularly take that to heart, calling myself a Navajo-Laguna storyteller or filmmaker, because I feel a special responsibility when I do things, when I talk to people, when I talk at readings or conferences. I always feel there is not just of myself, but I am representing my tribe, I am representing my community. So it is important that what I say is as honest as I can make it, so that people can understand who we are, what we are feeling, not only what we are going through in terms of issues, but why there are such issues, why we are not the “living dead”, why we still need to tell ourselves that.

RRCA: Recently, post colonial studies have tended to stress the idea of vitality as a defining feature of Native American artistic output. But, in your novel, you rather seem to put the stress on corruption, degeneracy, morbidity. Are you trying to distance yourself from the current standards of what Native Americans litterature should be according to some?

AC: I am still a Navajo-Laguna writer, but also I am just myself. And myself is interested in the graphic, in the textures of life and death, the morbid. Maybe too much. Even my grandparents were always worried about the interest I had in these things.

RRCA: So it is simply a specific interest of yours, but it is not a political statement. Because the connection with the myth of the vanishing Indian is so obvious that it raises questions.

AC: Something most Native Americans writers tend to avoid is the messy detail, the texture of the human stuff, the body and its functions... And this is something we really need to understand or talk about for ourselves, in relation to culture or tradition. That is just the first layer.

RRCA: You use the motif of blood in your novel but you don’t seem to give it any racial significance. Is it just another way to go back to the body?

AC: Really, I could write a whole separate book about the idea of blood. In terms of the obvious, but also in terms of what it is, physically, but also spiritually: what it is, what it represents—but really what it is, and why it is in us, why we have particular reactions to it.

And blood is related to vampires. Because I think there is more to vampires that people do not understand either, which is very exciting to me. They have a depth to them because there is a sense of the ancient world of our ancestors which we all share. We don’t really know what they are, or where the idea comes from. It is traced, culturally and historically, but why? Why do so many cultures have this particular tradition?

RRCA: They are transcultural figures indeed.

AC: Exactly. And it is all a part of the past, so much of the past that we have lost.

RRCA: That what we usually say about the US, that there is no history, no past, that the people are emancipated from time and live in permanent actuality. But is this really true? I wonder if this is not some kind of intellectual fiction.

AC: How we interact with our own past, is characterized by how we deal with it psychically. And here in Europe, there are the ancient standing stones of the Romans, or just the architecture. But so much of it is just broken down, the blocks are used for new buildings. And to me, that is sad—the process here of just reusing the articles of the past instead of looking at them and saying “This is important because it represents something we want to keep of our past”. And that is what we Native people are trying to do, to keep places. There are places that nobody knows about. Some places that were included in the film about my grandmother, just looked like the desert. But those are places that are kept sacred, because there is something there, something in the arrangement of the stones, in the arrangement of things that represents a part of our culture, of our history, something which is very important to us as human beings. The tribes that were wiped out, not totally decimated but really conquered, they had that too, but they were removed. For us, in the South West, we are fortunate because these places are still around us, they are like different rooms of our home that are still standing. Anyway, what the vampires represent for me is that something human that was lost. We do not really know where they came from: Are they real beings? Are they still here? Or what was their purpose? I have my own ideas about how we connect with them, almost as holy beings. Skinwalkers are not holy, they are corrupt people, they are witches. Eye Killers are above us, so they are both good and evil.

RRCA: Do you have a moral perspective in your book?

AC: I am still trying to figure that out.

  • 6 Ibid., p. 79.

RRCA: If I may quote Hanna from your book again, saying “I am a flower plucked from my native soil and left to wither in this hopeless desert”6. That could well be a direct quotation from Curtis’s Indian romances, or maybe the words of native child in a boarding school…

AC: The vampires themselves are Indian to me. They are Navajo, they are Laguna—because I am. And so they express something that is an experience of something holier, because they have that longevity, that different perception.

RRCA: And at the same time, they are uprooted, alienated and haunted.

AC: They are corrupt, corrupted. But are they corrupted for a purpose? It can go on and on, you can go all over the place with these things. A character like Hanna is totally human, although she is in this role that is different. She is plugged in to something that is still not clear. That is why I hated to kill her off. She was really interesting to me because she was a person that understood her role, who understood things but did not understand the foundation. I could have written a whole book about Hanna, just finding herself. Anyway, I am just talking about myself, really.

RRCA: You are not. Your book is very much about learning and becoming oneself, as you said about Hanna. I guess we could call it a “roman d’apprentissage”, a bildungsroman, a “coming-of-age novel”, since Melissa gradually metamorphoses into herself as it were.

AC: Yes.

RRCA: But you depict learning as a traumatic experience. Why has learning to be so violent?

AC: This violence is expressive of the kind of world that we are creating for ourselves. Everything is just falling apart, violently. It is like we humans are this natural destructive force. All of us, and there is no stopping it. When I was younger, we had gangs in the high school but they were sort of shadowy—we did not know anything about them. But now they are like a real presence. It is just the way it is and it is going to get worse. So we need to figure out ways to acknowledge it and adapt. Evolve, I guess. In Curtis’s collection, there are a lot of photographs of old, very, very old people. What is interesting about their oldness is that you see their tiredness…maybe from the same experience of violence.

[Looking at Curtis’s pictures] We were violent people. Ethnographers tend to put us in a place of being, for the most part, very peaceful, inconsequential almost, but very peaceful, searching for peace, for calm, for beauty, which is true but also not so true…

RRCA: Using violence in your novel is a way of coming to terms with this cultural heritage…

AC: Yes, it is just what we are; it is what our creation stories tell us about ourselves.

RRCA: So becoming oneself necessarily involves violence of some sort.

AC: Well, not necessarily. Violence is something we have to live with. It is our past, it is something we have to come to terms with. There are some sports that we continue to have today that are extremely violent. Not even consciously, yet it is very important in terms of carrying on the traditions.

RRCA: As you said earlier, with Eye Killers, you were trying to come to terms with your faith…

AC: … And anger, and rage. That is a source again of so many troubles in our communities. For instance, the young men have a lot of anger. There is a lot of rage among young men. In the past, we were able to adapt to it. It was a part of the culture which we could channel for our own good. But now, with so many traditions that are not kept or followed, there are emotions that are not controlled any more, controlled not by the person but by the community. Therefore, their expression is just random now.

RRCA: You are saying that young men are more likely to be overwhelmed with rage. Yet, strangely enough, you chose a female character, Melissa, to represent that rage in your novel. And, generally, you seem to identify more easily with your female characters.

AC: Statistically, young men are more likely to commit violence not only against others, but really against themselves. The ones who, not just attempt suicide, but complete suicide, are usually young men, and Native American males. And there is this rage that grows with the person, and it really grows inward. For me, when I was growing up, the stableness of the home was constructed and maintained by women. Men were out doing stuff, they were working, they were absent. Life was much harder then. And so the representatives I saw of culture and tradition at home were the women, the female. Men were representative of what we were fighting for in the past; fighting against the soldiers, fighting against those other tribes, fighting to maintain a home that was still alive, and that was still around me.

RRCA: In your novel, eventually, Melissa has to choose and figure out where she belongs. So you make it a matter of choice. She is the one transforming. I was wondering why you chose this young girl instead of a young man who would have been closer to your own experience. I am always amazed at a male writer being able to write about women and identifying with his female characters. Was it just a literary strategy?

AC: It was just a character to represent the story of all these people. That is how I saw it and built everything around her. There are other reasons too… Because you write about people you know. I guess my characters, even Melissa, were people I knew. I saw them in these roles and they just made sense.

RRCA: Another ironic thing is the particular significance you give to the teacher figure, Diana. It is ironic when you think about the traumas historically associated to the school system and how painful the learning experience in the boarding schools for example was for many Native American children at the beginning of the century.

AC: The first teacher that really helped me was my fifth-grade English teacher. And she was a person who really became representative of what a teacher must be. I have known other teachers like this, but for some reason I came back to her. The person I had been thinking about the most is a Pueblo teacher. But for some reason, they just kind of fused and became this one character.

The character of Sarah is mentioned throughout the novel but doesn’t exist in its own right.

The reason is that Eye Killers was a lot longer. When I sent it to the publisher, they wanted me to cut some things out. So I made cuts and got rid of characters. Sarah, the mother, was actually much more present. But I really did not want to kill off any of my characters, because it is very important for me that they survive somehow. What was important in her character was that she described the most fearful thing for me, which was to have not had that strong female character in my life. I felt there was a force here that really kept things together, the Navajo community, that is part of our tradition. But also in my life—and it is not just necessarily strong, but just present, just there, taking care of everyday things, all the time.

RRCA: I understand ceremonialism is very important aspect of your life and art. I was wondering if shooting a movie or writing a novel was, for you, some sort of ritual act.

AC: Yes it is. It really depends on the filmmaker and not on your subject. I have worked with many Native American directors, producers, and there always seems to be that ritual element—prayers, a respectful and humble mode of being as you do these things. And this is not just in the South West. But it is a really gentle thing. It is not something too obvious. I was talking earlier about a theory of the image that we need to figure out, and that would be another chapter heading: “How do we retain respect and how do we keep ourselves from damage, how do we keep ourselves protected from what we are doing?” Because for a lot of us Native people, too much connection with the past means there is too much connection with the dead. It becomes obsession with the morbid. With death.

RRCA: But that self-absorption that you describe, which is something quite pervasive in Europe too, is not necessarily negative.

AC: For us, because so much of our sacredness is built on connection, it is not just ourselves affected. It is us and it is our world. In Navajo belief, if you think about certain things or if you do certain things, then you naturally connect yourself with that mode of thought or being. If it is positive, it is great— all the time— but if it is negative, it is not good at all. For us, it is respect, respecting with prayer. Always.

That is why when I was doing a film in Cherokee country, just being the cameraman, there was this whole ritual involved, because we were filming in this one community, and about the not very distant past. At that time many of these children had died from an illness and we were going to film their graves. Just little stones to mark their graves – a whole generation of this particular community was lost. And we were going to film this. We - a Native crew - all needed to do something; and as a cameraman, I did a private prayer for myself. But we all needed to do something in respect and in honor of the children. So it is not just like Curtis, or like a normal movie being made. There is a process involved. Even if they don’t understand, people usually respect it, because these are the rules. And that is okay, because this is how we Natives do our work.

RRCA: So shooting a film is more a ritual than a therapeutic thing?

AC: It is also therapeutic because it uses the mind, and it uses the heart. We can concentrate on what we need to do. But, you know, it can also hurt. As I mentioned before, my interest in some objects is non-traditional. I think we need to explore that more. Some young filmmakers are starting to do this—there are some issues, some themes, even some subjects that they deal with that people of my generation would say “you don’t talk about these things”. But it is part of their life, of their identity that is important for them. I think that is wonderful and important that we explore that dimension of our selves, because it is really part of all of us.

RRCA: When you talk about your work, you keep insisting on the intimate part of it. Yet, at the same time, you also say that you are invested with some collective responsibility.

AC: Yes, because when it comes down to it, it is really my responsibility if I choose to do something when the community or the elders would say “you shouldn’t say that, you shouldn’t write about that, it is no good”. And it happened with Eye Killers a lot. I was told that. I said I respect that, but I take the responsibility, because these things are just who I am, they are important for me. So I included them anyway.

Sometimes we do that too much, that is we tie ourselves too much to culture. I think it is important because there are so many other issues we need to talk about too. This idea of generational trauma, the things we lost, the things we hate, the things we love, whatever. And even in terms of television, so many filmmakers want to do something for the community, which is wonderful. But if you want to do something that will attract an audience, a bigger audience, they are not really interested in community things. If it is a program about Indians, they have their own ideas about it. And so there is this constant push and pull—making a film just for the community, or if we have this funding opportunity, are we going to broaden it and include a dialogue with everyone. It is a real issue with filmmakers. How much are we going to talk to ourselves and how much are we going to open to everyone else, so that other communities become involved too, so they don’t feel like they are just listening in, but they say “oh, I understand”. That is why the Kinaalda film is so accessible, because it is about tradition, it is about rites of passage, which are universal. And it does not have to be ceremonial, for the transition from child to adult affects everyone.

RRCA: In that regard, I think you are bridging many gaps. You also borrow from different things and build your own literary identity.

AC: Although I am mixed-blood, half Navajo and half Laguna, I am still full-blood Indian. And for me, it is just who I am, so I feel a lot freer about not always doubting my identity. I feel therefore a little bit more open, listening to ideas, looking for ideas from other cultures and writing, from other filmmakers or writers.

RRCA: I am also interested in how you use “old” or “ancient” material to devise a new rapport with the contemporary world, which is very post-modern. How is “the old” helping you to get a hold on the contemporary world, both in literary and personal terms?

AC: Most Indian people exist in the past. We live in the present but so much of our life deals with the past. With objects and things, in the old days, you would put ceremonial items on rifles, like feathers, and it is the same with cameras. I did that with cameras, because it is like, not like your weapon, but…

RRCA: Your fetish?

AC: Yes, in a sense, your ceremonial thing, your item, it is part of what you are.

RRCA: Does your European experience add to the sense that your past is part of your present?

AC: I was wondering why I am in Europe. It only made sense to me when I went back into the past, into our past, into dreams, which were trying to tell me something, saying “Don’t see it as a foreign place, but think of it as the part of a migration”. For Navajo and for Laguna, even now we are in a process of migration—we migrate and we establish colonies in a sense, we establish places in order to understand the outside world, so that we have a connection. It is like a single scout going out, seeing where are the enemies, allies and resources. Only when I realized that then this migration made sense, then it was ok, then there was a responsibility for me to be here in Europe.

RRCA: Is the sense of time here in Europe, the awareness of time, the historical depth, different from your experience of time in the U.S.?

AC: Yes, one of the projects I am working on is set here, in Europe, as a dialogue with American life –not only being Native American, but being American, what does that mean? For us, not just for Native Americans, but in the world. Because here, you hear so much about America: there is the sentimental and romantic, but also the distortions and everything. It is really interesting for me to just witness. Because people usually, at first glance, do not see me as American. I don’t think people really know what I am, until I open my mouth and start speaking. So I am allowed to just observe, and just listen to people. When there are Americans in the tram speaking next to me, I just listen to see what they’re talking about. I realize English is a very common language. Between people of different languages, the common language may be English. And when I go home and see my aunts and uncles, they talk about things but in a political way, like Obama’s nationalized healthcare plan, they want to know how it works here in France—what does it mean, how does it work—and I can tell them because I am part of the system.

RRCA: The ideas of transformation and becoming are central in the Americans’ visions of their own identity. By stressing the idea of metamorphosis, do you feel more American?

AC: I realized I was always very much American, because we always were, all of us, in my family anyway. Never, either from my Navajo or Laguna side, have I ever heard things about the Americans doing these terrible things to us. No, it was just you go to school, you work hard, you respect what people say.

RRCA: Were you raised and educated in the reservation?

AC: Yes, in Laguna. And then in the city when we moved to Albuquerque. I got the sense of two worlds, almost straight away. Even in our village, there was the American flag and we said the pledge of allegiance. We were just Americans. It was not true of the generation before, but for us now, that is part of our identity. That is complicated—it is interestingly complicated—and that is why I am writing about it, about how we have got to the point that many people in the tribes are Republicans. In a lot of pueblos, there are more Republicans than Democrats, more conservatives than liberals. It is an interesting question.

RRCA: Just as I asked you about how the use of old material could help you grapple with the contemporary world, I am curious about how the dream world can help you connect with the “real” world, provided there is such a thing.

AC: That is a really good question. That is also something we talked about, something not recorded. There is a really huge connection, not only between us and fiction, but between us and the fiction of other people. My favorite authors take dreams, the idea of dreams as fact, as something that is part of life, a function of life. Not only that we have to dream or we die or we go psychotic. No, it is different, it is part of who we are as human beings. It is something I appreciate, and not only from Native American authors, but also from authors of other countries.

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1  See for example, Scott Momaday, “Foreword”, Sacred Legacy: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Christopher Cardozo ed., New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000, p. 8.

2 Partial Recall, with Essays on Photographs of Native North Americans, Lucy R. LIPPARD (ed.), New York: The New Press, 1992. See also Gerald Vizenor, “Socioacupuncture: Mythic Reversals and the Striptease in Four Scenes”, in The American Indian and the Problem of History, Calvin Martin (ed.), New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, pp. 180-191.

3  Carr , Aaron Albert, Eye Killers : a Novel, University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

4 Ibid., p.130.

5 Ibid., p.196

6 Ibid., p. 79.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Edward Curtis, The Vanishing Race: Navajo, Portfolio 1: 
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k
Titre Edward Curtis, Hastobiga - Navaho medicine-man, Portfolio 1 :
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Titre Edward Curtis, Laguna Watchtower, Volume 16:
Fichier image/jpeg, 148k
Titre Max Schreck as Count Orlock, the Nosferatu (1922):
Fichier image/jpeg, 98k
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Mathilde Arrivé, « Interview with Navajo-Laguna Novelist and Filmmaker Aaron Albert Carr », Revue de recherche en civilisation américaine [En ligne], 2 | 2010, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2010, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL :

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