What's the Native American Man Saying in "Meek's Cutoff"?

Slate's Culture Blog
April 18 2011 3:50 PM

What's the Native American Man Saying in "Meek's Cutoff"?

[Caution: spoilers ahead]

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In Kelly Reichardt's much-lauded new film Meek's Cutoff, set in 1845, a small band of pioneers get lost in barren, arid plains on their way to the Willamette Valley. Eventually, they grow disillusioned with their blustery guide, Stephen Meek (who is based on a historical figure who led a notoriously ill-fated wagon train). At one point, the settlers capture a Native American man and, despite the fact that they cannot understand his words, warily decide to let him lead them, hoping that he will take them to the water they so desperately need.

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In the film, the dialogue spoken by the Native American man (played by Rod Rondeaux and listed as "the Indian" in the credits and "the Cayuse" on the movie's website) isn't subtitled. So throughout the film, the pioneersand the viewerremain in the dark as to his motivations. When asked about the decision not to subtitle the Indian's dialogue, Reichardt told T Magazine, "I didn't want to give the audience any information that the immigrants didn't have." She wouldn't translate the lines for the interviewer, saying, "It's for you to read him in the other ways that we have to read people that are culturally different."

According to linguist Phillip Cash Cash, there are only about three people in the world who speak downriver Nez Perce, the language a Cayuse of the time would most likely have spoken. (According to Cash Cash, there are fewer than 30 living speakers of upriver Nez Perce, a mutually intelligible dialect.) Most moviegoers will indeed be every bit as confounded by the Indian's words as the settlers in the film are.

Curious to understand the character's dialogue, I tracked down Kristen Parr, the woman who, with her mentor Joan Burnside, translated the Cayuse character's lines from English into downriver Nez Perce. Parr is a language instructor with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (the Cayuse is one of those tribes). She told me that she recorded herself speaking the lines for actor Rondeaux to memorize phonetically.

I can't assert definitively that the lines that Parr shared with us are the lines that made it into the final filmneither Parr nor Rondeaux has seen it. And Rondeaux explained to me that he ultimately delivered some of his lines in Crow, one of his two native tongues (the other being Cheyenne; he learned English through the Head Start program). I reached out to Reichardt for comment, but she declined to help sort out a mystery she'd prefer to remain unsolved.

Judging by the portion of the script Parr shared with mewhich includes only the Cayuse's lines it seems that he might be willing to lead the group to water and not to their doom. In the script Parr translated, one of the Cayuse's early lines reads: "I know you, Boston. You've skinned all the beaver. You'll be skinned one day! You'll be skinned forever!" (It's unclear to me who exactly "Boston" is supposed to be, but the historical Stephen Meek was a fur trapper.*) In his next line, however, he says, "For red, I'll take you to water." That line seems to align with the moment in the film in which Paul Dano's settler asks the Cayuse to help them find water and offers him blankets in exchangeone of which is red with a dark stripe down the middle.

(In real life, Stephen Meek's beleaguered 1845 wagon train met a Native Americana member of the Warm Springs tribewho spoke a little English and showed them how to reach the Deschutes River. Solomon Tetherow, played in the film by Will Patton, wrote this in his diary:"An Indian came to us, pointed out the course to [The Dalles] to which he said it was 5 days journey, and so far from refusing to follow the advise of the Indian, at my request he was employed by Mr. Meek to pilot us to Crooked river, which he did for a blanket.")

Back to Meek's Cutoff. What does the Cayuse say when he's gesturing on the hilltop, just before the Tetherows' wagon collapses? Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) insists to the other settlers that he's telling them they're close, that they just need to get over the hill. But in the script we saw, he seems at that moment to be reciting a myth about a vision a Cayuse shaman had "long ago," which led to his tribe's discovery of horses. (Again, because the script Parr shared with us lacked stage directions and because she hasn't seen the film,we've had to match up the dialogue with the action as best we can.) The story does include these evocative lines, however:

At last, suffering from exhaustion and lack of water, the shaman collapsed in the shade of a tall cactus. When he awoke the words 'I have arrived,' were on his lips.

Much of the other dialogue we saw involves the Cayuse wondering aloud about the identity of his captors. This appears to be the speech he delivers early in his captivity, while the screen is filled with beautiful images of the nighttime sky:

What does the earth say? I don't know. What does the sky say? I don't know. Who are these people? I have no idea. This still might be just a dream. I'm not sure. If only my brother were here I would have someone to talk to. Brother moon, you're very quiet tonight. You're no help at all.

The Cayuse consistently refers to the settlers as "dream people" and doubts their reality:

Is it a dream? I don't think it's a dream. I don't know these people. But they've come to me and they've spoken to me. They've made me bleed. I am almost sure they exist. That means this isn't a dream. If this is a dream, what a dream.

The Cayuse's final bit of dialogue in the film, the prayer over the collapsed Mr. White, was not translated into downriver Nez Perce. In an email, Parr told me that "it is against our Tribal laws" to "record our death songs." (This may mean that it's in Crow, but Rondeaux declined to confirm which lines he spoke in which language without seeing the film first.)

Of course, the dialogue Parr shared doesn't "solve" the film's enigmatic endingwe still don't know whether the settlers will find water or survive their harrowing journey. The Cayuse doesn't say anything to suggest he's especially eager to help, or hinder, the settlers. Even if he did say something more definitive, there's no reason we should necessarily believe his wordswe hardly believe everything (or possibly anything) Stephen Meek says. But I do get the impression from reading these fragmented lines that Reichardt and her screenwriter, Jonathan Raymond, imagined the Cayuse as a figure who deserves our sympathy, and not the murderous, hostile savage Meek paints him as in the film.

Finally, the mystery of the Cayuse's dialogue may also have an impact beyond the world of the film: Cash Cash, the linguist, expressed hope that Meek's Cutoff might generate interest in the "very, very endangered" dialects of Nez Perce, which are likely to die off in the coming generation. If a definitive translation does emerge at some point, we may end up with more than simply a narrative gloss on a fascinating filmit could be a valuable artifact from a soon-to-be lost piece of history.

* Update , Apr. 19: Reader Ryan Beckwith writes in to tell us that Boston was a generic term for "American" or "white man" in Chinook Jargon, a pidgin trade language used in the Pacific Northwest. George Gibbs' 1863 Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon notes that the word derives "from the hailing-place of the first trading-ships to the Pacific."

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