Thinking about Sound: the Auditory and Tactile in “Kissed by Lightning”

American Quarterly’s latest issue considers the idea of sound in American Studies. A thick and groundbreaking issue, the contributors open up a previously marginalized arena of American Studies to make us all think and discourse on the nature of sound and its relevance to American culture. With the Native American Film & Performance Forum now underway with a showing of Shelley Niro’s Kissed by Lightning, I found myself considering the auditory features of the film. Below is an excerpt of my response to the film:

Shelley Niro’s Kissed By Lightning explores the relationship between the tactile and auditory. Three central themes provide the foundation for the tactile: Mavis cannot touch her dead husband Jesse, though he constitutes her memories throughout the film; her paintings represent the product of her hands –with texture, life, and color, her art can be touched; finally, there is Mavis’ physical-emotional relationship with Bug which stabilizes the narrative. But with each theme the viewer relies on music to weave the plot together as the film cuts between memories of Jesse, Hyenwatha, and the Mohawk peoples of the past. Mavis’ memories of Jesse would be diminished without the sharp sounds of the violin to link the two characters; indeed it is sound that evokes her feelings of sadness and grief. The paintings function in the same way: while beautiful and a clear illustration of Mavis’ skill, their ability to depict Mohawk myths/legends only develops because of the use of “traditional” Mohawk music (e.g. drums, chanting). In other words, memory –that is, the past –needs music to connect the stories; music serves as a clear reminder that ‘the past’ is not simply visual, as viewers imagine it, but also auditory –one can hear the past. In fact, it seems Mavis can only see the past and paint it because she hears it in her husband’s stories and music.

The encounter between Mavis, Bug, and the African American singers lends itself to examination. Although a multicultural gathering, it reveals a set of assumptions on the part of the singers: there were “real” or “authentic” Mohawk people, that the Mohawk are “all gone,” and that contemporary Mohawk peoples know “traditional” Mohawk music and are always in touch with their musical “roots.” Interestingly, Mavis and Bug do little to correct any of these conceptions, except to say that they are indeed Mohawk. Their acknowledgement of identity comes with a brief silence that seemingly allows the thoughts to simmer with the singers: indigenous peoples are not “all gone.” But again it is music that defines the moment. After asking to hear a “traditional” Mohawk song, Mavis sings “Where is my Home?” a song written by Niro herself. The song defies stereotypes of chanting and it does not require drums or even dancing. Furthermore, it counteracts an older stereotype that white people make music, Native people make noise. Instead of connecting viewers to the past, as the camera focuses solely on Mavis, it highlights the transitory nature of the film, specifically the geographical and emotional transitions between Bug and Mavis. Other transitions take place as well: Zeus increasingly becomes more like his father, developing as a musician; Mavis’ paintings begin as images on canvas to legitimated “art” as they are displayed in a gallery, and the relationship between Josephine and Mavis.

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As an aside, a huge thank you to all who showed up in support of our series of events. It bodes well for future events and, more generally, the future of indigenous discourse at UMF.

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