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Smoke Signals

The director on what happens when Native American tradition collides with urban gang culture.


The title of Jack Riccobono’s new documentary, The Seventh Fire, refers to a Native American prophecy that foretold the coming of Europeans and a westward migration of Northeastern tribes. The film itself (now available on iTunes and Amazon) explores the more recent transposition of urban gang culture onto Native American reservations. Among the Ojibwe community of northern Minnesota, Riccobono found a remarkable guide into that world: Rob Brown, a Native gang leader whose charisma and clear-eyed outlook clashes with an extensive rap sheet and a dearth of better options.

In its portrait of Brown and his surroundings, The Seventh Fire travels from basement meth sessions to the reedy lakes where his law-abiding neighbors catch leeches for bait. Brown himself is physically imposing, quietly eloquent, and a product of no fewer than thirty-nine foster families. As he prepares to return to prison for the fifth time, Brown examines his life with sharpened focus. Will his daughter grow up without him? Can he reconnect with Ojibwe culture? Meanwhile, the film finds a secondary character in Kevin Fineday, a drug-dealing protégé of Brown’s who has spent time in juvenile detention centers. As his eighteenth birthday approaches, Fineday debates whether to risk the incarceration cycle Brown knows all too well, or seek an uncertain exit from it.

With nearly all of its scenes set in jail or on the White Earth Indian Reservation, The Seventh Fire is in some ways a tale of two prisons. But while its portrait of hard-knocks reservation life is unsparing, the film is also infused with hope and lyricism. Riccobono and Brown’s collaboration is in a different league from those dutiful docs that romanticize, proselytize, or otherwise condescend in their treatment of Native American life today. Without foregrounding an agenda, The Seventh Fire starts a conversation about the inadequacies of the criminal justice system, while looking squarely at the enormous disadvantages under which North America’s first inhabitants still struggle. And it has serious artistic chops, premiering at the Berlin Film Festival and earning an endorsement from Terrence Malick.

“The two original sins of America are the genocide of Native Americans and slavery, but they do not have equal awareness in the American consciousness,” Riccobono says. He talked to Guernica about his choice to skip historical primers and get straight to stories of today, and about the reality of coaxing those stories onto the screen.

Darrell Hartman for Guernica

Guernica: What brought you to Minnesota, and to this story?

Jack Riccobono: An organization called Slow Food commissioned me to make a five-minute short film about wild rice. For the Ojibwe tribe, it’s a sacred food. That’s according to the Seven Fires prophecy, which foretold an era of cultural destruction and is said to have led to a massive migration—from the Northeast to the lakes region of the Upper Midwest—before the coming of the white man. An organization on the White Earth Reservation told me I could film on their land, so I went on my own with a camera. That was about nine years ago.

About two years after I finished the short, I was talking with a producer friend who’d read about this phenomenon of gang culture migrating from prisons and inner cities out to remote Native communities. We started researching the topic but found very little on it. So I went back to the reservation for a research trip.

That’s one of the things the film pushes against: what it means to say someone’s a “gang leader” or a “criminal,” a “repeat offender,” an “inmate,” an “ex-con.” All these terms can strip away a person’s humanity.

White Earth is the largest reservation in Minnesota. But because of government policies, most of the land on the reservation is owned by white farmers. The tribe controls less than ten percent of the landmass. There have been many efforts by logging interests to gain control. But the politics, the influence of Christian missionaries . . . to try to give a tutorial on all that would be a reduction of the history. It would not do it justice. I wanted to root the story in the reality of now.

Guernica: In both the film and the companion book you published, White Earth Stories, we really feel a tension between two contrasting versions of Rob’s life. One is his story as he sees it, and expresses it in his writing; the other is his criminal record, this sort of institutional biography.

Jack Riccobono: That’s one of the things the film pushes against: what it means to say someone’s a “gang leader” or a “criminal,” a “repeat offender,” an “inmate,” an “ex-con.” All these terms can strip away a person’s humanity. We wanted make it more difficult to dismiss someone like Rob or Kevin out of hand.

You see the sequence where Rob is going back to prison for the fifth time in his life and there’s a female correctional officer who’s sort of guiding him through the process—and there’s this intimacy between them. They’ve kind of grown up together; Rob has seen this woman over the course of fifteen years. It’s a very complicated, disturbing relationship.

Rob talks about how he’s at his most clearheaded when he’s behind bars. The drugs drain out of his system and he sees himself. I think he would recognize that within prison there was a certain structure to his life that didn’t exist on the outside.

Guernica: What are some of the differences between these gangs in the rural Midwest and inner-city gangs?

Jack Riccobono: We associate gangs with cities, and the village of Pine Point [where most of the film takes place] is sort of the equivalent of an urban housing project, with pockets of intense gang activity and poverty and drugs and violence. But it’s surrounded by rolling Midwestern farmland, forests, and lakes.

Urban gangs tend to be more connected to turf and particular neighborhoods. Native gangs are unusual in that they’re spread across hundreds of miles. So there are jurisdictional issues for law enforcement: people involved in an incident can drive to another reservation, and without information-sharing between tribal and local police, they are kind of off the radar.

The reality is that a lot of these communities are losing a lot of their elders. Who is filling that space? And with what knowledge?

Guernica: Kevin gets a wolf tattoo on his eighteenth birthday, which ties back to his father’s comment that their family was part of the Ojibwe wolf clan. But Rob seems to keep his tribal identity separate from his gang identity.

Jack Riccobono: Rob’s grandfather taught him a reverence for Ojibwe beliefs and customs, and that has stuck with him—as opposed to a lot of the younger gang members, who were recruited with these ideas of their cultural past and what it means to be a man, but sort of bastardized and repackaged so as to make gang activity okay. These are representations that an elder would obviously have a lot of problems with. I mean, a “warrior” would never sell drugs to his pregnant neighbor.

Guernica: That’s something I was wondering while I watched the film. Where are the elders?

Jack Riccobono: The film is about a certain part of the White Earth community; it’s not a definitive portrayal of the reservation. There are elders trying to work on these issues, but we didn’t encounter anyone trying to reach Rob and Kevin. But, yes, the reality is that a lot of these communities are losing a lot of their elders. Who is filling that space? And with what knowledge?

The La Plazita Institute in Albuquerque is the only Native-founded, Native-run organization we came across that’s really focused on reconnecting troubled gang kids with their culture. That speaks to the depth of the problem.

Guernica: Rob makes the striking point that the most powerful “traditions” at this point are actually gambling and drinking. I’d never heard it put that way.

Jack Riccobono: Rob observed that tradition is simply something that is done regularly and passed down. He’s very clear-eyed about the situation in his community. It’s chilling, but for him it’s also a motivator, because he does have a deeper connection to Ojibwe culture. You see it coming back to him at the end of the film, that power and that pride. You can see that he has this gift to be a leader and a communicator, even though it’s been directed in a negative way for a lot of his life. Maybe there’s still time for him to go in a different direction.

Guernica: In the film, Rob reads some of his poetry for the camera. What was his experience with writing before you met him?

Jack Riccobono: Rob didn’t really write until he first went to prison. When he went back to prison during filming, I asked him to keep a journal. He’d rip out pages and send them to me every couple weeks: poems, observations, character sketches for a novel inspired by his childhood that he was working on already. He’d never really had creative peers before, so I think he found it exciting. Encouraging Rob to write was also a way of encouraging him to reflect on his situation, and when we returned to interview him, we had him read some of his poems for the film. So it was not some selfless act; it was part of directing the film and finding a story. The story does not make itself.

I don’t come from the school of thought that we’re invisible.

Guernica: Some documentary filmmakers might disagree.

Jack Riccobono: I don’t come from the school of thought that we’re invisible. Werner Herzog’s work is definitely an influence, and he is not a fan of vérité. He’s very much in favor of being active, of pushing the action in different ways. As filmmakers, we’re not flies on the wall. You have to put some things in play.

Film is a construction. We have to embrace that and try to communicate a higher truth. That more people now are aware of the filmmaking process, of how things are put together, is a good thing, because it allows filmmakers more freedom to play with expectations—and get a more nuanced reaction from audiences.

Guernica: Rob got out of prison a year ago. What’s happened with him since then?

Jack Riccobono: He came to New Mexico for the film’s North American premiere. And he visited that non-profit La Plazita and talked to some of the Native kids there. He’s also been doing outreach events on reservations and at colleges, and a recovery center in California called Wavelengths hired him to be their Native American representative; they are training him to be a treatment counselor. He’s looking at different organizations and finding solutions he can bring back home.

If you think about the two original sins of America, it’s the genocide of Native Americans and slavery. But those two sins are not treated with equal weight.

Guernica: Apart from the film’s personal impact on Rob, do you hope it might have a broader social or political impact?

Jack Riccobono: We had the opportunity to show the film at the White House in March—President Obama has shown an interest in Native affairs, and he’s also been very active in criminal justice reform. He’s the third sitting president to visit a Native American reservation and the first to visit a federal prison. After that screening we held a discussion that included Bill Keller of the Marshall Project. He committed to putting some writers on the beat and to bring more Native American stories out. It was cool to have him acknowledge, essentially, that the mainstream media thinks of these communities as flyover country.

There are less than two million Native Americans in the country, so demographically it’s a small group. But I think a lot of Americans have a deep discomfort—a willful ignorance, perhaps—about this history. If you think about the two original sins of America, it’s the genocide of Native Americans and slavery. But those two sins are not treated with equal weight. We’ve seen more mainstream narrative films recently that deal with slavery, but Native American affairs are still largely under the radar

Native children were being sent off to Christian-run boarding schools until the 1950s and 60s. Up in northern Minnesota, there are still lots of fights around hunting and fishing rights. Most of the white population living on and around the reservation is descended from settlers. So, really, the history is not that ancient. There’s a national football team called the Redskins—in the nation’s capital! I don’t think the symbolism of that can be ignored.


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One comment for Smoke Signals

  1. Comment by Marco @d10sk0ur01 on October 11, 2016 at 9:27 pm

    Hey guys, y’all many thanks for this inspiring story and sharing some ideas and development of the project and of the documentary before on and after the making. Now that Obama leaves office, the “legacy of the younger in charge” will be all on the shoulders of Troudeau. Cause i can t see other new faces around.

    Anyway I think Rob is going to make it, we are all goin to make it together or not we are a big family and we will be more diverse, stronger we will be more human and better humans in the near future thanks to experiences like this and stories like Rob one.
    I wish there were more stories about these treasures of diversity.

    People in the world and in my country want to know and we all have to learn so much from Native indians and who they are today.

    Take carre

    Terrence Malick rocks (btw)

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