Film Analysis | Film Reviews

Super Documentary

1 Apr , 1999  

Written by Julie Wolf | Posted by:

A review of the award-winning 'Super Chief'.

I saw the movie "Smoke Signals." I watch with sadness the nightly news images of despair that illustrate the "plight of the Native American," as seen on NBC. I knew a woman who grew up on a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina, and I heard stories about the "res." I thought I knew what Nick Kurzon’s "Super Chief" would be about.

I was wrong. I figured the documentary would focus on poverty, or maybe alcoholism or unemployment, just like the news media does. But Cambridge filmmaker Kurzon does not bandy about the term "Native American" and expect it to speak for itself, or, more accurately, to speak to a viewer’s preconceived notions. Against the backdrop of upcoming tribal elections, Kurzon takes a specific look at a specific tribe with very specific problems. "Super Chief" is the story of a sovereign nation at war with itself.

Minnesota’s White Earth Indian Reservation, like many other reservations, derives a majority of its revenue from a casino, designed to attract tourists and provide jobs for the community. Ideally so, anyway. White Earth’s Shooting Star does indeed draw tourists, but the jobs given to tribe members are mostly minimum wage and lack any job security. As for revenue, the bulk of the casino’s proceeds go to Gaming World, the casino contractor, and to tribal chairman Darrell "Chip" Wadena, the man who calls himself Super Chief.

So say Wadena’s opponents: Eugene "Bugger" McArthur and Lowell Bellanger, two of several tribe members running against Chip for office; and political activist (but non-candidate) Erma Vizenor, who could rightfully be called the soul of the film.

As prelude to the election, Kurzon details the alleged abuses of power by Wadena: bid rigging, embezzlement, and election fraud throughout his 20-year reign as White Earth’s tribal chief. Erma says Chip runs the tribe like a dictatorship, "taking cues from the Mafia." Indeed, with paid trips to Las Vegas, both Washingtons, Europe, and North Africa ("It’s a politician’s job," says Wadena. "Also turns into a politician’s life"), the gap between Wadena’s standard of living and the average White Earth member’s is shockingly apparent. While Chip beats his employees at lunchtime bingo and fiddles with his gold pinky ring, Bugger tells Erma of a casino employee who fought for more than a year for a promised raise. Finally, in what seemed like a small triumph over Wadena, she was awarded it the following year: a penny an hour, 80 cents a pay period.

All of Chip’s opponents speak of seeking justice, but in Lowell’s case, I couldn’t help but see him as seeking office first, then justice. A retired welder, Lowell appears more avuncular than political, with gems like, "There’s only two things I cannot weld–that’s wood and a broken heart." With the opposition divided among themselves, Erma writes Lowell, asking him to drop out of the race and support Bugger in order to present a united front against Chip, thereby increasing their chance of winning. In a scene that encapsulates a major theme of "Super Chief"– the conflict within the tribe and between its members–Kurzon’s camera captures Lowell’s darkening expression as he reads the letter, first silently and then aloud. His spoken response: "Stick it where the sun don’t shine."

Which just goes to show that good’s fight against evil is not always purely noble on the part of candidates, even outside the Beltway; politicians in White Earth have egos, too. Lowell never withdraws, but ultimately the fight takes precedence, both in White Earth and the film.

"Super Chief" is a story of political–and personal–corruption in a specific community. Viewers can’t simply plug in the names of different Indian nations and feel that now their knowledge of the plight of Native Americans in this country is complete. Kurzon’s documentary, both intelligent and intriguing, calls attention to injustices against Native Americans in general without being overwhelmed by those injustices; in other words, the specific story of White Earth is the primary one, but within that story there is room for the bigger picture, too.

So "Super Chief" is about people with egos and people with determination, and sometimes a bit of both. It’s about a nation governed by a constitution which its leaders sometimes neglect to follow. It’s about the tremendous gap between rich and poor within one community. It’s about social consciousness, and how sometimes the right person will, in Chip’s words, "ride away on a white horse." Sometimes. "Super Chief" is about politics as usual in the USA.

‘Super Chief’ was named Best Documentary in the 1999 New England Film & Video Festival. It will screen during the festival at Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA, at the end of April.


'Super Chief' was named Best Documentary in the 1999 New England Film & Video Festival. It will screen during the festival at Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA, at the end of April.