The European fascination with Native American ways forms the basis of “If Only I Were an Indian . . .” Filmmaker John Paskievich’s unique spin on the phenom is to take three authentic Canadian natives to a retreat in the former Czechoslovakia where Eastern Europeans dress up in Indian garb and live the simple ways of the land.
The feature documentary starts from a strong premise and is rife with startling contrasts between the real and facsimile Indians. But the picture goes over the same ground repeatedly, offering too many like examples to support its thesis. Some simple pruning would improve the flow and allow it to fit neatly into a television hour, where its true commercial strength lies.
The Cree and Ojibwa reps note early on the irony by which most young natives known little of their heritage while these foreigners have created an environment startlingly close to Indian peoples’ bygone cultures. Their biggest complaint is that the Europeans haven’t quite gotten the authentic Indian cadence in the music.
Paskievich traces the interest in native cultures to the works of German fiction writer Karl May (who never set foot in the West) and Canadian naturalist Ernest Thomas Seton. Cree Joseph Young has to admit he’s unfamiliar with the latter but anxious to read him when he gets home.
The Europeans get tiresome in their rationalizations for adopting the lifestyle. But there’s never a sense that they (or the visitors) are being demeaned by the filmmakers. Though a tad overstated, “If Only I Were an Indian . . .” is a fascinating cultural document laced with humor and insight.