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.”

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