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Chuck Jaffee: Heads up on more films at Wild & Scenic

Chuck Jaffee
A scene from "The Good Mind," one of more than 100 to screen later this month at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival.
Submitted photo |

[Editor’s Note: This is the third of a four-week series of Prospector and Spotlight reviews leading up to the 15th Wild & Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City and Grass Valley, Jan. 12-16.]


The documentary “The Good Mind” helps us know something about a proud people – the Haudenosaunee. They seem to have an exemplary attitude. Wow, Haudenosaunee seems too hard a name to read and say. How about Iroquois? That’s how the French, back in the 1700s, referred to a peace-loving confederacy of The Six Nations — Indian tribes west of Schenectady, New York. (That’s about as far as US settlements reached in 1794.)

Flash forward a couple hundred years or so and what’s left of the Onondaga Nation, for instance, occupies about 12 square miles compared with about 4000 square miles previously. The Onondaga don’t want it given back. Mostly they want some say in the stewardship of their ancestral land – in the stewardship of everybody’s Mother Nature. OK, they wouldn’t mind a well-expressed apology or two for broken treaties and awful transgressions.

Six Nations activists have been about as vocal and organized as anyone in the long fight against fracking in New York (banned in 2015). They speak up for Onondaga Lake, one of the most polluted industrial waste dumps in the US. (Not much commitment to improvement there.) Meanwhile, the Onondaga school teaches Indian culture and language as well as the standard public school curriculum.

There’s a long-standing joke about “The Indian Problem”: The problem is that there are still Indians. Without learning more from Indian wisdom, the problem may end up being a dearth of all humans. See “The Good Mind” and appreciate little-taught history and history unfolding.

Editor’s Note: The following is distilled from a conversation with Gwendolen Cates, director of the film, “The Good Mind.”

Chuck Jaffee: What’s “The Good Mind”?

Gwendolen Cates: [It’s their] great law of peace from when the peacemaker came a thousand years ago [to the Haudenosaunee people]. It’s a wonderful model, but it takes work.

CJ: Did you know the concept of “The Good Mind” before you started this film?

GC: That’s why I made the film, after learning about the Haudenosaunee and the Onondaga. I have a long history in Indian country since I was a child. It had a great influence on my worldview. I have such respect for native people, their patience and perseverance, what they’ve gone through for so long. I first met the Onondaga in 2000 when I was working on my book, “Indian Country.” [In 2013] they asked me to do things [related to] the 400-year anniversary of a Dutch treaty, which was a foundation of all subsequent treaties.

CJ: President George Washington signed a treaty of perpetual peace and friendship, including respect for lands that could never be taken away. But he was also known to the Haudenosaunee as “The Town Destroyer.”

GC: The Canandaigua treaty happened when the US republic was in its fragile infancy. If tribes of the Haudenosaunee took the side of the British, the United States might have lost. It was very self-serving. The US never respected treaties though it’s the supreme law of the land.

CJ: Do the Haudenosaunee people feel things are getting better or do they think just keep fighting the fight because it needs to be fought?

GC: Over time, people have gotten stronger. There’s optimism in that regard. It’s been so long just literally trying to survive.


The familiar touches throughout the documentary “Drokpa” help emphasize how foreign life seems on the expansive Tibetan plain. Life is difficult for nomadic indigenous families, for these herders of yak and sheep.

A mom says to her kid — who’s probably hiding rather than just tucked under his blanket — “Time to get up. I’m begging you.” A woman refers to getting married at 16 and having two kids quick, the dad leaving, and the mom remarrying. A grandpa fumbles with rubber banding a toddler’s hair. Not incidentally, the women claim to do more work than the men, not the least of which is preparing all the food from scratch. (They even make the clay stove from scratch.) Seeing the men sitting around playing some checkers-like game probably isn’t meant as proof.

Motor bikes next to horses and solar panels next to huge tents with television hint at modernization. Desertification drifts over lakes that dry out. Grasslands shrink. Sand accumulates. Migration to population centers and resettlement projects looms over tradition.

Dung…. Yak and sheep and horses produce lots of dung. There’s some motorized help but mostly women fill and haul baskets of dung. It’s fuel for cooking and heating. The nomads also spread dung on sandy areas hoping to reclaim or at least slow changes to the landscape.

A film such as “Drokpa” does more than assure a cinematic style in documentary coverage. It helps us smooth our perspective on the far corners of an essentially spherical planet.


Check out a noteworthy example of a modern citizen. The documentary “Fractured Land” journeys with Caleb Behn. Weighing his own background, gifts and opportunities, Caleb knows that lawyers get to present to judges and other arbiters of change.

Injustices resonate through Caleb’s upbringing and his ongoing dedication. Caleb swears as he becomes a lawyer “not to pervert the law to favor or prejudice anyone; to conduct himself truly and with integrity to the rule of law and the rights of all persons.”

And yet, to play in the circus, he has heard, sometimes you must put on the clown suit. He wears a proper suit and tie. He also wears a mohawk hairdo. There are special communication opportunities where he chooses to display his tattoos and piercings.

Caleb has been gaining some celebrity in Canada. His gentle manner helps make a good impression alongside his imposing physical look. Embedding himself in the details and unglamorous grunt work of legal battles competes with the demands on him as a communicator and a frontline activist. All this competes with a hankering to build a life on the edge of the wilderness and close to family and ancestral homeland.

Caleb’s home ground has long been fractured by extractive industries. Supposedly, such can only be done in consultation with the affected First Nations. Supposedly, devastating expansions are good for Canada.

It’s probably more interesting to see where Caleb will be ten years down the road, but it’s substantially interesting to see where he’s come from and where he is now.

Chuck Jaffee of Grass Valley likes to plug people into the spirit of independent filmmakers. Find his other articles for The Union at http://www.startlets.com.


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