Wednesday, November 21, 2012

TIGER EYES: Judy Blume's book and its film adaptation

Recently in Native news sources, I read that Tatanka Means (his father was Russell Means, activist and actor who recently passed away), is in Tiger Eyes, a film adaptation of Judy Blume's Tiger Eyes. Here's the trailer:

Being tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo and having grown up there means that I immediately recognized the setting. This scene is shot at Bandelier. In the clip, "Wolf" tells "Tiger" that Tewa people, his ancestors, lived in the caves 800 years ago. Now, he goes on, that part of his family lives in a pueblo 30 miles away.

My first thought was "did I read Tiger Eyes" when I was in high school?

I got a copy of the book and started reading. I saw that it was published in 1981. I graduated from Pojoaque High School in 1977, so I doubt that I'd read it until now.

As I read Blume's coming-of-age novel, I remembered the places she describes. Nambe Pueblo is about 25 miles from Los Alamos. My dad worked at Los Alamos National Lab as an electrical engineer. He won international engineering awards for cameras he designed and built at the lab. As a family, we went up there a lot... to the library, to the movie theater. There were barbecues at homes of my dad's colleagues, too. I got to know some of those scientists and their kids. Due to its history as the place where Robert J. Oppenheimer oversaw the development of atomic weapons and the site of a national laboratory, it is an unusual place.

After reading Tiger Eyes, I did a bit of research.

I learned that in 1976, Judy Blume moved to Los Alamos and lived there for a few years. That explains why she was able to write, with great accuracy, about Los Alamos. The main character is a teen-aged girl named Davey. Her family relocates to Los Alamos after her father's death. They live with her aunt and uncle. Davey finds them to be oppressive. They are always worried about her getting hurt. They insist, for example, that she wear a helmet when riding her bike. Through Davey, Blume puts forward an interesting analysis of what drives that fear (hint: atomic weapons).

Given the focus of American Indians in Children's Literature, I'll turn now to Wolf (I gotta say, though, that "Wolf" doesn't ring true as the sort of name Pueblo men are given), the Native character in Blume's book.

On page 47 of my copy (I'm reading the new paperback with the actress on the cover), Davey is hiking near some cliff dwellings. She meets a guy who is:
about nineteen or twenty, wearing faded cutoffs, hiking books with wool socks sticking out over the tops and no shirt. He has a knapsack on his back. He is maybe 5'9", with suntanned skin and dark hair.
His eyes are dark brown. When she asks him his name, he tells her to call him Wolf. She asks if that is his first or last name, and he says "either." The dialog in the video about his ancestors being Pueblo does not appear in the novel. As they part ways in the book, Wolf asks Davey what her name is, and she says Tiger. Later on in the story, he will call her Tiger Eyes.

His name, we learn later, is Martin Ortiz. His father, Willie Ortiz, is one of the patients Davey cares for as a candy striper at the hospital. His dad "speaks in a lyrical New Mexican accent" (p. 106). Though I read carefully, I don't remember Wolf/Martin ever speaking about his mother. My guess---given the dialog in the video---is that his mother is Pueblo, and that his Pueblo name is Wolf. They spend time together in the canyon. He tells her stories about the Anasazi and gives her a book titled The First Americans. 

I'm curious about how the relationship between Wolf/Martin and Tiger/Davey will be shown in the film. He's definitely a key figure in her emotional healing, but they don't have a romantic relationship. She definitely has a crush on him, and imagines being with him and living in the caves and raising a family. That's a bit hokey.

I want to dig in a bit more to the racial relationships of the 60s and 70s in Los Alamos. The white people (her friend Jane, and her aunt Bitsy), both of whom are White, are afraid of the Spanish people. When Davey goes to Santa Fe with Jan and her family to do Christmas shopping, there's this scene on page 149-150:
As we are walking up Palace Avenue, a group of boys comes toward us. Jane clutches my arm.
"What is it?" I ask. She is trembling.
"They're Spanish," she whispers.
"Don't look at them. Look away. Look across the street."
"Jane..." I say and start to laugh.
"Do you know how high the rape statistics are in this town? she whispers.
"No," I tell her."
"Nobody's going to rape you in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of town."
"Don't be so sure."
The boys pass us.
"You see," Jane says, "Didn't I tell you?"
"Didn't you hear them?"
"Hear them what?"
"Make those sounds."
"No," I say. "I didn't hear anything. I don't think they even noticed us."
"They're all like that," Jane says anyway. They're all out to rape Anglo girls."
"Jane, that is one of the craziest things I've ever heard!" We stop walking and face each other.
"You're new around here," she says. "You don't understand."
I think of Wolf and inside my head I say No, you're the one who doesn't understand.
When they get back to their car, someone has written on the hood in magic marker "Los Alamos sucks" (p. 152). A few pages later, Wolf/Martin gives Tiger/Davey a ride home from the hospital. When Davey goes inside, her aunt wants to know who he is:
"His name is Martin Ortiz," I say, walking toward the stairs.
"Ortiz?" Bitsy repeats, following me.
"Does he go to the high school?"
"Not anymore."
"He's a dropout?"
"I didn't say that."
"Well, why don't you just tell me about him, Davey... instead of playing Twenty Questions."
"You're the one playing Twenty Questions, not me," I say.
Bitsy takes a deep breath. "Is he Spanish?"
"I guess."
"You guess?"
"I never asked him."
"Where is he from, Espanola?"
"No, he's from here. He's from Los Alamos."
"He is?"
"Yes. He works at the Lab."
"What does he do there.... maintenance?"
I almost laugh. I almost laugh and say, Yes, he picks up the garbage, just to see her reaction. But I don't. I am very polite. I say, "His father is a patient at the Medical Center. He goes to Cal Tech, but he's taking the semester off."
"Well," Bitsy says, her voice full of relief. "Why didn't you say so in the first place?"
Growing up in Pojoaque, I was keenly aware of the drug trade that was taking over Espanola. Violence was such that my dad worried about us anytime we drove through Espanola to visit our cousins at Ohkay Owengeh (then called San Juan). Los Alamos--then and now, too, I think---is very White. There was definitely a class divide at the lab, with scientists being primarily White and maintenance and tech people being Spanish or Pueblo. My dad worked for several years alongside other Spanish and Pueblo people at the lab who worked on diversity initiatives and advocacy for Spanish or Pueblo people who were being treated unfairly. I'm going to talk to friends from my teen years and see what they remember about racial dynamics, and, I'm going to talk to a close friend from high school who teaches now at Los Alamos.

More on that later.

For now, I'm wondering about the decision to use that particular segment of the film for the trailer. It seems that someone (PR people?) may be wishing to capitalize on the success of the Twilight films by showcasing another Native actor. In this case, that actor is Tatanka Means (shown in photo on right). If that is the case, I am on board. Wolf/Martin is a realistic Native guy. I know Native guys like him. They're real. They're human---not werewolves as in Meyer's stories---and we need to see a lot more realistic depictions of Native people.

I hope that the guy we see in the film is as real as the one we come to know when reading Tiger Eyes. I do wish we knew more about his Pueblo identity, but if Blume stayed away from that due to lack of knowledge and a desire not to mess up, kudos to her.

Note: In the photo, Means is holding his Best Supporting Actor award, from the 2012 American Indian Film Festival.