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Filmmakers Neil Diamond and Catherine Bainbridge Diagnose the Times With Red Fever

New documentary uncovers hidden histories of Indigenous influence on the West and how they offer hope for the future.

by Maggie McPhee

Jeep Grand Cherokee. Black Hawk Helicopters. The Washington Redskins. Pretendiens. A new documentary calls this phenomenon ‘Red Fever’ — the far reaching and deep rooted influence of Indigenous cultures on the West. Filmmakers Catherine Bainbridge and Neil Diamond travel across North America and Europe exploring the better-known cases of appropriation in fashion and sports, like the prevalence of the Native American Headdress at music festivals or the Kansas City Chiefs and their notorious Tomahawk Chop.

But the pair delve deeper into less documented instances of influence, including how an Indigenous football team invented modern gameplay in the 1910s and the radical effect the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s democratic politics had in Europe during the Enlightenment period and on the Founding Fathers of the United States. What’s more, Red Fever outlines the philosophical contours of why certain derogatory and romanticised images of Indigenous Peoples endure while the truth remains buried.  

“There’s two reasons for the romanticization. One is the profound Indigenous influence. But the second is, of course, the desire to wipe out Native People.” Bainbridge tells RANGE. “It’s a two sided coin that’s at the root of why these images persist. Because if natives only exist in the past, then you don’t have to grapple with what was actually done to take the land. But also there’s an admiration that’s remembered and recognized by people.” 

Bainbridge and Diamond, who have been working together for over thirty years, last teamed up for their 2009 Peabody award and Gemini award winning feature documentary Reel Injun. That film features an encyclopaedic catalogue of Indigenous misrepresentation in American cinema, from the earliest days of the medium up until Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves. Its release coincided with a wave of Indigenous filmmakers getting behind the camera for the first time, to tell their own stories, and the pair believed the days of stereotypes lay behind them. Then came Twilight, Avatar, and Johnny Depp as Tanto in The Lone Ranger. 

“It just didn’t end. And I was like, why does this keep happening?” says Bainbridge. “Why are these images so persistent and so loved worldwide? Every culture everywhere knows these images. Why do they have such an attachment to them? And where do they come from?”

For Bainbridge, those questions drove her to make Red Fever. For Diamond, he saw an opportunity to share certain hidden histories he had been privy to since his youth, in particular the democratic and matriarchal society practised by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy for millenia. “Growing up this was the stuff I was reading about,” he tells RANGE. “There wasn’t much of it, there’s a lot more now.” 

Diamond appears as a subject in the film as he takes audiences on a personal, insightful, and humorous journey touring important sites and meeting experts across various fields. He develops a multi-pronged thesis on the interconnected ways First Nations Peoples have altered Western art and politics, and argues that once the dominant culture lets go of its problematic myths, Indigenous worldviews can help the world in the fight against rampant inequality and ecological collapse. 


Filmmaker Neil Diamond in Nunavut.


Part of the work will involve seeking out Indigenous novelists, musicians, artists and filmmakers. “Real stories about real people,” says Diamond, rattling off some of his favourite directors — Zacharius Kunuk, Alanis Obomsawin, Jeff Barnaby, Lisa Jackson, Tasha Hubbard, Elle-Màijà Tailfeathers, Zoe Hopkins, Jennifer Podemski, Shane Belcourt, Jules Arita Koostachin, Marie Clements and Michelle Derosier. “The stories are there. You just have to find them.” 

Over the last five years making Red Fever, Bainbridge and Diamond have done exactly that. Their research granted them a holistic view of our current moment, and all the threats facing planet earth. Their film presents hope. Solutions don’t have to be invented from scratch, many exist in the wisdom cultivated by Indigenous cultures over tens of thousands of years. 

One insight that struck Bainbridge is to care about the land you’re on, as opposed to the world at large. If you live on Mohawk land in Montreal, help steward the St. Lawrence River, if you’re in the Coast Salish territories, take responsibility for the Fraser River. That kind of change is more accessible than tackling abstract, global issues. 

“Circular thinking is how you have to think,” says Brainbridge, citing one of the film’s interviewees. “Europeans come with hierarchical thinking: I’m richer than you, I’m more powerful than you, I’m a man, you’re a woman, I have dominion over nature. That’s linear, hierarchical thinking, and circular thinking is another way. That sounds esoteric but that’s what you wanna do, be in relationship with everything around you. For me, it offers hope to have another way of thinking, another set of values, and a way to get out of the trap we’re in.” 

Red Fever is now screening in select theatres across Canada, visit redfeverfilm.com for more info