Erika T. Wurth’s Buckskin Cocaine
Among what author Erika T. Wurth calls “Hollywood Indians,” buckskin is a dirty, if all too familiar, word, referring to the studio work in stereotypical roles (with costumes requiring war paint, feathers, and yes, buckskin) that many Native American actors are financially induced to take up. Among the small diaspora of film-industry Indians, it’s a necessary evil that allows them to network and finance a life in New York and Los Angeles. The vacillating mix of Indian ethnic solidarity, bloody infighting, and tribal self-loathing that makes up life among American Indian filmmakers and actors is the focus of Wurth’s new shortstory collection, Buckskin
Cocaine (Astrophil Press, University of South Dakota). And nowhere may anxiety over buckskin film work be more pernicious than the environs surrounding a Santa Fe film festival. Wurth reads from her book on Friday, Aug. 11, at Collected Works Bookstore.
George Bull, one of the recurring characters in the collection, fumes about his misunderstood life as a Native American filmmaker. Raised on a reservation, he believes his rez credentials make him superior to the other Native film talent, who largely grew up in middle-class suburbia. Fully in his element, at the after-party of a Santa Fe film festival, he lets out his hurt. “I waited until the drink cart came by, ordered as many Patróns as I could until they cut me off, then I fell asleep. The only thing I hated about the Film Festival was all the Indians. Hoka Hey this, Aho that, let’s burn sage this, this is sacred that. What a bunch of **** . These ***** ****** wouldn’t last two seconds at my parents’ house. And I doubt they spoke more than three words of their own language, just enough to pull off looking like a big, important traditional Indian in front of all the people with money . ... But they were treating me good, like I deserved.”
“It’s the least autobiographical thing I ever wrote,” said Wurth, who is of mixed Apache, Chickasaw, and Cherokee heritage. Which is not to say the stories are concocted entirely from her imagination. Having lived in Santa Fe and taught at the Institute for American Indian Arts in various stints over the past 10 years, the writer has more than a passing familiarity with the types who make up the Native American film industry. “I was very, very afraid it wouldn’t get published. Nobody in publishing likes work about middle-class Native American life.”
Wurth wrote the book quickly, during a 2014 sabbatical in Albuquerque. She is a professor of creative writing at Western Illinois University. Her previous books include the 2014 novel
Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, which follows the life of a pregnant American Indian teenager on the streets of Denver, as well as two poetry collections, Indian Trains and A Thousand Horses Out to Sea, which was published earlier this year.
The directors and actors who populate Buckskin Cocaine are not nice people, but personalities stretched to the limits by an industry that lionizes falsities and fetishizes imitation. Stylistically, the pissand-vinegar monologues of the book’s grizzled film veterans read like a Charles Bukowski novel. Its content is something of a cross between the Hollywood hangers-on of Nathanael West’s The
Day of The Locust and a Louise Erdrich novel, showcasing the endless and often unpretty search for a sense of family that many urban Native Americans find themselves in. Like other film-industry types, the characters live by their wits and projected selfimages. Potential friends and lovers are evaluated on the basis of their usefulness and often discarded when no longer necessary.
Candy Francois, a stunning actress who finds herself in New York City on the cusp of thirty, is trying to make sense of a party-filled past and a future that looks like little more than a flashlight jostling about in the dark. Her friends and associates are largely Native American veterans of the entertainment industry, as cosmopolitan as they are jaded. Yet their infighting is still set in the old mode of tribal rivalries. Candy must nod to reality and find a way to get herself cast in George Bull’s film, despite being repulsed by him.
“That’s the most humiliating part about it, that for years I brushed him [George Bull] away like he was an insect, like he was something I’d stepped on with one of my Louboutin heels. Also, I’m Ojibwe and Cree. I practically dwarf that **** . And he must have thought I was a moron. I found out pretty quickly that he only did Navajo films, cast Navajo actors. But he liked to find women like me, mixed woman, tall women, and indicate that he might cast them,” Candy says, before launching into a profanity-filled boast that she can use more men readily than Bull can use women. After she lands yet another magazine cover, her grandmother and mother write to her, complimenting her beauty and asking her when she will settle down. But the actress remains cool to the touch. “I thought the answer to that was never. Because getting older wasn’t real, it wasn’t something I every thought about, it didn’t even exist. I was in my early twenties, I was a model, I lived in New York.”
That’s not just an indictment of film life in the big city. For Wurth, the trap of the Indian film circuit lies in the desires of a neglected people who rarely see themselves represented in any relevant or truthful way in mainstream moving images. When an actor or director happens upon a popular film project that propels modern Native American life into the limelight, the resulting subcultural fame can be as devastating as it is exhilarating. “Directors are constantly hustling. They get one good film. People celebrate them and they become insane with this mini-type of power,” Wurth said.
Wurth knows Buckskin Cocaine brims with subject matter that is not easily classified or promoted on social media. “It’s a book that is so incredibly different. I don’t mean ‘better than.’ I just mean different. But I still want people to see the humanity of these actors.”