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Their AIM Is True: Native American Filmmakers Look to Define a New Era

By Beige Adams

Forty years ago, an ebullient civil rights movement brought the plight of many marginalized Americans to the frontier of a slumbering national consciousness. Soon, Native Americans, who had been invisible in the media save through Hollywood's racist allegories, would finally begin to see and hear themselves in their own image.

In 1976, Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT; became the first Minority Consortia organization (the other four being National Black Programming Consortium, Latino Public Broadcasting, Center for Asian American Media and Pacific Islanders in Communications) to receive a Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant. In the decades since, NAPT has served as a springboard for a Native media production--from the proliferation of more than 30 Native radio stations, to public television, documentary and fiction films, and the promising realm of new media.

But two years before NAPT, a young filmmaker named Sandra Osawa had begun production on The Native American Series. Airing in 1975, the 10-part NBC series was the first to be produced, acted, written and researched by Native Americans in the US. "Thirty years ago, there weren't that many of us," says Osawa, a Makah tribal member from Washington state. "In the very beginning, when Indians first decided to write books, there was a great seriousness, and that's the way we began. Because if we failed, that meant it would set everything back a few decades. Everyone approached it with fervor and the feeling that we can't fail."

Now, on the 30th anniversary of the Native American Film and Video Festival, filmmakers have a lot to celebrate. Production is up, and there appear to be more opportunities than ever for young filmmakers. The new generation will benefit from a solid infrastructure built by their predecessors, who challenged binding stereotypes and moved steadfastly through a world that often refused to see them.

But challenges remain, and Native Americans are still marginalized by a system of representation in which they have a relatively small power share. The handful of filmmakers that began the movement have not increased proportionally to the progression of their skill and legacy. Yet, with a history of artistry and activism rooted in documentary, Native filmmakers continue to redefine their present moment by drawing on both the narratives of their past and the visions they have of a different future.

"The roots of Native American filmmaking definitely lie in documentary, mostly due to early support from the PBS system and Minority Consortia agencies like NAPT," offers N. Bird Runningwater, associate director of Native American and Indigenous Initiatives at the Sundance Institute. "And also at the time, Native filmmaking was really driven by issues, and the documentary form really served that. Many filmmakers might have had the intention of working in fiction film when they started, but the model was very different compared to what you do for PBS"--the dominant venue for the last several decades.

Like most of the first Native American filmmakers, Osawa is a documentarist who has done her share for PBS. Over the last few decades, her work has focused on contemporary social justice themes like treaty rights, joining a broader canon of work by both Native and non-Native filmmakers that sought to advocate on behalf of Native people or provide alternatives to their mainstream representations--from Osawa's early television work, to the Acadamy Award-winning Broken Rainbow (1985) and this year's We Shall Remain, an ambitious multi-media series from PBS that gives a long view of "how Native peoples valiantly resisted expulsion from their lands and fought the extinction of their culture."

But Osawa also broke ground by illuminating the rich stories of Native American artists, giving dimension and texture to their collective legacy. These include films about jazz musician Jim Pepper (Pepper's Pow Wow, 1996), stand-up comic Charlie Hill (On and Off the Res with Charlie Hill, 1999) and ballet dancer Maria Tallchief (Maria Tallchief , 2007). In the latter, Osawa attributes the lyricism and grace of the dancer's extraordinary public art to her Oklahoma Osage roots, allowing the striking aesthetics of mid-century theatrical ballet to bring this obscured American legend to light.

Initially surprised that Tallchief was so overlooked, Osawa knew that the story of a strong, modern and successful Indian woman would be less acceptable than romanticized stories of victimization and loss that are mythologized in American media. Other films, like Heather Rae's Trudell (2005), about the life of the iconic activist/musician/poet John Trudell, and Julianna Brannum's forthcoming biopic LaDonna Harris: Indian 101, about the activist/politician, similarly challenge dominant myths with nuanced portrayals of dynamic human beings.

These films speak to an overall absence of Native American imagery in the mainstream media, which Runningwater, himself of the Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache tribes, suggests has helped account for such a strong documentary tradition among Native filmmakers, who have responded by highlighting a realism of Native life.

But lately, there is a reported shift toward narrative film. Julianna Brannum, a documentary producer of Comanche lineage, notes that within the "handful" of Native Americans she sees working in film altogether, "a lot are now leaning towards narrative; even those who started out with short documentaries are getting interested in narrative."

This might be attributable to expanding opportunities, but some also point to a possible exhaustion of the tragic realism that documentary can institutionalize. "I think people now are getting a little bit tired of hearing the same stories that are all very tragic," says Brannum, whose credits include the final installment in We Shall Remain, Wounded Knee (Dir.: Stanley Nelson), a powerful look at the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the 1973 occupation at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota that draws on an abundance of rare archival material and captivating interviews.

"We have a very tragic legacy that reverberates to this day," continues Brannum. "We're still dealing with the effects of the boarding schools our parents and grandparents went through, as well as drug and alcohol problems. But we also have a lot of really great cultural stories to continue to tell--a lot of great things happening that people have no idea about."

For Osawa, the pathos was a vein to avoid in documentary from the very beginning. "We tried to consciously veer away from that type of thing because it was so overdone by non-Indian filmmakers," she maintains. "It's still being done by Indian filmmakers because its sells. It's very popular, and far easier to get something on primetime PBS," recounting how her attempts to tell modern stories about Native American artists couldn't compete with this pervasive narrative of loss. "I would pitch an Indian humor idea, and people--the gatekeepers, the funders--could not get it," she recalls. "The concept was so foreign. It took 10 years just to try to get the concept across. We, of all minorities, are frozen in time, so when you advance the storyline beyond 1492, you have a bit of a push."

Ten years ago, the feature film Smoke Signals broke ground by becoming the first "crossover" hit, bringing a snapshot of contemporary Native American life--and humor--to the mainstream. Its relatively successful commercial run illuminated the possibilities for aspiring feature filmmakers. "More than anything, it was independent film at its height and the first movie produced by Indians with the Miramax machine behind it," says the film's director, Chris Eyre, who recently directed the first three installations of We Shall Remain (After the Mayflower, Tecumseh's Vision and Trail of Tears), which all rely on dramatic re-creation to bring shadowed chapters of history to life.

But while some observers had hoped the phenomenon would ignite--perhaps in the way that the Latin crossover blew up the US music industry a decade ago--Eyre doesn't believe in the "idea that there's gonna be one movie that will be commercial and tell our story."

"I think there's a lot more diversity happening," says Runningwater, "but there are still very strong trends to always highlight the plight of Native people, which we'll always face until some kind of consistent and coherent Native American imagery makes an appearance in popular culture."

That imagery is a growing mosaic, and the filmmakers who have fought hard to build it might now stand to benefit from a more general proliferation in the industry. Overall submissions at Sundance are up, with most material being shot digitally. And, according to Runningwater, "With Native numbers, I feel there's a lot more production happening, especially with the younger people. They're more inclined to just go shoot and edit and submit, as opposed to people who are more formally entrenched in the industry."

Submissions to Sundance's Native program doubled from 2003 to 2004, while at the Native American Film and Video Festival in New York this year, Native-produced work accounted for more than 90 percent of submissions--a far cry from 15 percent in 1979.

In 2008, the Sundance Institute extended documentary outreach for the first time to its Native American and Indigenous Initiative, with support from the Institute's Documentary Fund. And while Sundance works with both documentary and narrative filmmakers, Runningwater says that he's seeing the most growth, "in terms of script development," in the latter.

Although encouraged by the positive trends, Osawa feels there is something in the tone of today's filmmakers, something that breaks with the zeitgeist of her generation--and the deadly seriousness that pushed her forward. "I think there's a disconnect now that has to do with the entertainment factor," she notes. "Not that documentaries can't be entertaining, but I think I sense a little more willingness to please either the funders or the stories that are more acceptable."

With a two-fold objective of both connecting Native people to each other and their cultural roots through community media as well as reaching out to a non-Native audience, filmmakers are faced with navigating the constraints and excesses of commercialism. "A little bit of a softness," is what Osawa senses, maybe having to do with filmmakers' ties to their own communities. "Perhaps those ties have lessened," she wonders, cautioning that "If you do what's known as an Indian film, and you don't know what you're talking about, it shows on screen."

But Osawa admits that it's often not the filmmakers' fault: "They're separated from their tribe, urbanized. But there is something happening at the funding, distribution and festival end, in terms of what people seem to be looking for--something they think will be very commercial."

Starting in the 1960s, Osawa was one of many influential professionals to come out of summer workshops held by American Indian leaders. It was there, she says, that she began to realize she could reach beyond the narrow education she'd been given, while maintaining a strong sense of where she came from. While the system for young filmmakers might be more advanced and accessible, Osawa thinks it can't substitute for such cultural foundations. These days, she says, "Many Indian filmmakers don't have that sense of looking at two worlds. They don't have those opportunities; they've swallowed the whole system, and it reflects in our films. To have a strong story, you have to have some grasp of your own community; you have to have lived it, breathed it; it has to be culture-based."

Brannum, meanwhile, sees an incredible process happening among Native youth, which she indicates should be evaluated on its own terms. "I get really frustrated when I hear some of our elders talking about how our youth today aren't doing anything," says Brannum. "I heard a lot from the AIM generation when working on Wounded Knee. We're not trying to mimic what they did in the 1960s and '70s; we're doing something new. We're using film, art, poetry, music; we're doing it in a more creative way. You don't have to be militant to create change."

She cites the documentary March Point, a project by three Native teenagers (Nick Clark, Cody Cayou and Travis Tom, in collaboration with director Annie Silverstein and producer Tracy Rector), who were offered the chance to make a film as an alternative to juvenile corrections, as a good example of innovative practices centered around relevant issues--in this case, the environment, and the very act of the young filmmakers being "involved and not absent."

Where the AIM generation succeeded in creating a pan-Native ethos and activism that helped root much of the early progress in media, today's generation, while perhaps less connected to traditional tribal structures or their revival, is evidently bringing its own kind of fervor.

Is the mission that defined the first generation disappearing, giving way to commercialization and weak convictions? Or is this a catalytic, metabolic chapter in the history of Native filmmaking that will help define a new integrity and independence?

After decades of fighting for a tiny share of opportunity and recognition in the industry, Runningwater indicates it might be time for a new paradigm. "I think that so much of our efforts as a community have really been focused on trying to penetrate that world, trying to persuade that industry to include us," says Runningwater. "And I wonder if maybe we as Indian people need to be thinking about creating our own systems to serve our own communities; it's a really big order to force a big system to serve our people."

He points to a promising trend in documentary, in which filmmakers "are really telling very specific stories about their own communities," typified by films like Billy Luther's Miss Navajo, a chronicle of a very different kind of beauty pageant, in which the preservation and confluence of culture and language are the highest objectives.

Miss Navajo was ultimately in the service of Luther's own community, says Runningwater, who notes that when the filmmaker took it home to screen for a Navajo audience, he finally got the reaction he was looking for: The audience cheered for the subject at the end, when she finally found the confidence that had eluded her throughout the film to speak in her own voice--and in the language of her ancestors.

"That form of storytelling is so culturally specific," says Runningwater. "His work can really expand the idea of what documentary is, what its purpose is."


Beige Luciano-Adams is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, where she covers art, culture, politics and business for a variety of publications. She is also the editor of