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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Final chapter of film trilogy shows how Indigenous peoples influenced world culture

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 3, 2024

Red Fever, the newest documentary from Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond and co-director Catherine Bainbridge, explores the roots of cultural appropriation to reveal the profound influence of Indigenous cultures on the world’s fashion, sports, arts and even politics. 

Following the award-winning Reel Injun’s analysis of Hollywood stereotypes and Rumble’s look at Indigenous voices in music, this final act of the trilogy opened in theatres June 14 after a triumphant premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival in May. 

“The film evolved over a long time,” Diamond told the Nation. “It was going to be about cultural appropriation, then the Covid pandemic hit, and it evolved into the influence of Native Americans on world culture. People have a very distorted view of Native people.”

With the Black Lives Matter movement shifting perceptions about culture and privilege, the filmmakers felt that people now knew they shouldn’t appropriate but didn’t really understand why. Examining the imagery underlying much of Western culture, Red Fever asks why people are so attached to enduring fantasies of “fierce warriors” or “magical peoples.”

Exploring Indigenous influence on fashion, sports, politics and the planet, Diamond serves as the film’s guide on both sides of the camera. Bookended by beautiful portrayals of Eeyou Istchee, Diamond’s travels around the world exude warmth and curiosity. 

“Neil brings a very Cree humour and point of view to the documentary,” said Bainbridge. “He comes at it never wanting to shame people, just teasing and really open. That’s what makes it a place where people can come into the room and be part of the discussion.”

While illustrating high fashion’s longstanding scavenging of Indigenous designs, Red Fever highlights emerging Indigenous talents and bridges wider trends with personal reflections. Finding a hat made from beaver in New York City leads Diamond to discuss his hometown of Waskaganish, the site of the Hudson Bay trading post that launched the international fur trade.

The infamous appropriation of an Inuit shaman’s parka inspires Diamond to visit his friend, filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, in Igloolik to learn about the significance of these traditional garments. A rousing glimpse of seal hunting is followed by a moving ode to the end of shamanism in Inuit culture.  

With thousands of sports teams based on offensive caricatures, Diamond wanders through a crowded bar where Kansas City Chiefs fans crudely imitate a tomahawk chop. However, rather than dwell on stereotypes, the film prefers to emphasize positive stories such as the sacred practice of running in Navajo culture.

A digression on the extraordinary career of Jim Thorpe, one of the most celebrated athletes of the 20th century, reveals the Indigenous boarding school he attended introduced key strategic elements that made American football the game it is today. 

Some of the doc’s most provocative points come when Diamond argues that the ideals of freedom and democracy so fundamental to the American Dream were inspired by interactions with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Their Great Law of Peace that united warring groups influenced European colonizers, as did inherently Indigenous values of respect, individualism and female empowerment.

“It’s a hidden part of North American history,” asserted Diamond. “Imagine the very first settlers had been living under kings and queens for generations and generations, and they meet people who don’t bow down to anybody.”

Bainbridge suggested that era’s violence overshadows the much more routine communication and trade. With proximity between settler and Indigenous communities, she said that more than half of trade at the time was cross-cultural, which inevitably influenced both sides. 

The film conveys how Indigenous contributions are woven through modern society, charting Indigenous peoples’ growing power and cultural revitalization. The breezy presentation and striking visuals make it an easy watch as the editing team led by Rebecca Lessard layers the narrative with an impressive depth of visual archives.

“The imagery Neil is able to capture behind the camera is so evocative,” said Bainbridge. “The canyons and young runners in the Navajo territory are so beautiful, and in the North with Zacharias Kunuk. It so lifts the hearts of people who watch the film in theatres to see Neil’s magnificence in the dark room.” 

Diamond and Bainbridge have worked together since being young journalists in the 1990s, along with Chisasibi’s Ernest Webb, who is Bainbridge’s husband and one of Red Fever’s executive producers. After co-founding the Nation magazine with Will Nicholls, Bainbridge and Webb created Rezolution Pictures in 2000. 

As executive producer, Webb said he helped shape the film’s tone while supporting the directors’ vision. With Rezolution’s TV series Little Bird racking up numerous awards, he’s noticed broadcasters and mainstream audiences are becoming more open to Indigenous stories.

“Sometimes when you’re filming, you’ll know when you’ve got something special going,” Webb said about Little Bird. “Everybody put their heart and soul into it, and it reflects what you see on screen. Our future as a production company is looking bright.”

An enthusiastic screening to 600 high school students and their teachers has already demonstrated Red Fever’s potential as a learning tool. Future broadcasts on German and French television will show its European version with exclusive content about a German subculture that imitates Indigenous culture from centuries ago. 

Red Fever closes on an optimistic note, showing the successful return of salmon to British Columbian waters guided by Indigenous environmental stewardship. Along with the closing image of Cree fiddlers, inspired by contact with early Scottish settlers, the message conveyed is that being influenced by other cultures isn’t necessarily negative – indeed, the world clearly has much still to learn from Indigenous peoples.

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.