If this 1989 comedy-drama had nothing else going for it (it had plenty, I kid you not), the presence of co-star Gary Farmer would have been enough. Powwow Highway, produced by—among others—George Harrison (yes, that George Harrison!), explores the frustrations—and sometimes great joys—of being a Native American on an isolated reservation in the High Plains of America. It is based on a novel by David Seals.
THE WAR PONY
Farmer, a Canadian actor from the Wolf Clan of the Cayuga nation, plays Philbert Bono, a huge, gentle fellow who lives on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. He seems to be on an unending spiritual quest. Quite a contrast from his long-time friend, Buddy Red Bow (A Martinez), an activist with a short fuse who is currently at war with developers who want to strip-mine Cheyenne land.
Deciding that he needs a “war pony” Philbert visits the town junkyard, where he barters for a 1964 rusted out, piece-of-crap Buick that can hardly start, much less run. He lands this prize, which he dubs “Protector,” for a few dollars, some weed, and a bottle of booze. Somehow, the car performs well for him—as he knew it would.
In order to cause Buddy some grief and get him away from the Rez while they deal with the tribal council, the developers arrange for Buddy’s sister, Bonnie, to be arrested on a phony charge in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her two young children, Jane and Sky Red Bow, are left to fend for themselves. Buddy is the only family member that Bonnie can call on for help.
THE SPIRIT QUEST
Having no car of his own, Buddy cajoles the simple Philbert into driving the nearly 900 miles to Santa Fe. Philbert, seeing this trip as a spirit quest, is happy to do so, though he makes a number of stops along the way to pray—and especially to eat—at some sacred Native American sites. He even detours to the Black Hills in South Dakota, where at one hallowed site he leaves a Hershey bar as an offering to the Ancient Ones, and an even greater side trip to Fort Robinson in Nebraska, site of a tragic massacre of the Northern Cheyenne. All of this drives Buddy up a wall, especially with his sister still under lock and key. But along the way he begins to understand what this means to Philbert, and he becomes more in touch with his heritage. And all this time, “Protector” carries them faithfully toward their destination without mishap.
They finally reach Santa Fe but are told that they cannot bail out Bonnie for a few more days, because of the Christmas holiday. This is unacceptable to Buddy and to Bonnie’s kids, the latter having taken to relying on the kindness of other Native Americans along the city’s renowned Plaza. It’s up to Philbert to save the day, and this sweet soul hatches a devious plan…
I’ll stop here. The hilarity—and some seriousness—that ensues should be enjoyed without any prior knowledge. Sadly, Powwow Highway did not perform well at the box office, though its reviews were mostly positive, and it was nominated for—and won—a number of awards at the Sundance Film Festival, the Native American Film Festival, and the Independent Spirit Awards. About Gary Farmer, critic Roger Ebert called his performance “…one of the most wholly convincing I’ve seen.” If you can get your hands on a copy, by all means check it out.