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Indigenous women in film and video: three generations of storytellers and an interview with emerging filmmaker Sally Kewayosh.

The history of Native Americans and film has been primarily explored through the representation of American Indians and First Nations Canadians in mainstream cinema (Bataille, 1985, 1999; Friedman, 1991; Baird, 1996; Tan, Fujioka and Lucht, 1997; Kilpatrick, 1999; Aleiss, 2005; and Marubbio, 2006). Consequently films about Native people have attracted more attention than films by Native people. As a result, Native media does not primarily operate within the entertainment media (commodity) market. This is, in part, due to the fact that First Cinema is the location of objectionable historical stereotyping, where Pocahontas is animated to look like an Asian pin up girl, and the 'half-breed' Metis character allows for the casting of Val Kilmer or Keanu Reeves to attract box office dollars. Additionally Native-created media do not have a track record of drawing a 'viable' economic target market, as the work is thought to be too culturally specific for mainstream, entertainment media. Thus, there has not been 'blockbuster' commercial success, defined by box office receipts, distribution and DVD sales. This reality illustrates the historical, structural apartheid of Native media.

Yet, despite the relatively small amount of Native produced mainstream (commercial) cinema, especially in the U.S., its presence in the independent media realm serves as a testament to the cultural resilience of the First People. These storytellers persist in portraying issues relevant to Indigenous people--such as sovereignty, language retention, reservation life, the effects of residential schools, Aboriginal youth, art and culture (for instance dance, music, two dimensional art) and women's roles in Aboriginal nations / bands / tribes. Film has become the new storyteller within these nations, which centralize the oral tradition and cultural memory as a vital part of their communication worldview. The diverse works in circulation illustrate their commitment to self-representation, and thus provide important North American cultural, social and historical documentation.

This is a very important time in Indigenous cinema--festivals are flourishing, more Native youth are taking part in media training (such as the Tribal Touring Program), emerging filmmakers are graduating from film schools and there is increasing scholarship on Indigenous cinema on the global scale.


The 1970s was the decade of the Indigenous cinema/media emergence. Fueled by the Civil Rights and equality social movements, such as the Red Power Movement, new Indigenous writers, producers and directors entered cinema and television production to represent themselves. In the 1970s Indigenous people entered cinema and television production, to represent themselves. Increased activism and the rise of independent cinema during this decade led to a corresponding surge in institutional training, production and distribution programs for Indigenous media makers (Weatherford and Seubert, 1988). The National Film Board of Canada's Challenge for Change series, and the formation of the Inuit Broadcasting Company Inukshuk Project (IBC) in Canada, along with the establishment of the Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium (Now NAPT--Native American Public Television) resulted in more opportunities for production funding and distribution for and about Indigenous people.

Parallel to the rise of Indigenous media production was the emergence of Indigenous film exhibition venues. Two important festivals were also founded in this era: the American Indian Film Festival (San Francisco, 1975) and The Native American Film and Video Festival in New York in 1979. Both continue to program diverse works by Indigenous people from around the globe, and offer opportunities for emerging filmmakers to screen their work. Over 50 different nations (tribes) were programmed at the 2006 Native American Film + Video Festival in New York, from countries throughout the Americas (Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mexico and the U.S.) along with artists from Australia, Denmark and Sweden. According to Elizabeth Weatherford, Founding Director of the festival,
 This festival presents a good opportunity
 to reflect on how much has happened
 in our dynamic field. We're engaged
 with many talented filmmakers and the
 unique perspectives they bring to their
 work ... With the growing number of
 Native film festivals and special screening
 series--currently 40--festivals are
 now serving as a kind of indigenous
 cinematheque chain, and diverse audiences
 are seeing the work of more
 and more Native artists (2006 festival

In addition to the film festivals, such as the long running Smithsonian (National Museum of the American Indian, NMAI) and American Indian Film Festivals, television broadcasting has grown as a viable communication venue since the 1990s. There has been increasing interest in supporting Native produced work in the U.S., Canada and Mexico as indicated by the establishment of the National Film Board of Canada's Studio I (Indigenous studio) and the independent Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN). (1) In the United States, National Geographic launched the All Roads Film Project to support Native media production and touring, and PBS offers regular broadcasts under the title Indian Country Diaries. The founding of Aboriginal People's Television Network (APTN) in 1999 was a significant milestone for Indigenous people, primarily in Canada. Starting as a cable network, it programs content by, for and about Aboriginal people(s). APTN has added web content to its cable television broadcasting. And most recently, IsumaTV--an interactive, Internet video portal was started in 2008 by Igloolik Isuma Productions. Inuit and Indigenous multimedia are featured on the website, in multiple languages. (2)

The study of women in filmmaking in the United States and Canada had its genesis parallel to the Feminist / Women's Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. While women (mainly white, middle-upper class) across North America were rallying for economic parity or reproductive rights, there was also a growing concern to explain and reverse the stereotypical images of women in advertising, cinema and television. Thus, Studio D was formed by the National Film Board of Canada in 1974, and became a prolific space for cinema production by, for, and about women. It lasted until 1996, when the studio was closed and the NFB reorganized by region and cinema mode (animation, documentary, etc.). In the now almost 40year history of women's and feminist media studies, a rich legacy of varied productions and educational media, and scholarly literature has emerged. Many recent collections on feminist media and Indigenous cinema, such as Gendering the Nation: Canadian Woman's Voices (1999) and Transference, Tradition, Technology: Native New Media Exploring Visual and Digital Culture (2005) now include discussion on and by Indigenous filmmakers. (3) These along with scholarship the explores native produced media will join the important work of such scholars as Leuthold, Singer, Roth, Lewis, Raheja, Evans, Wilson and Stewart, and Wood. (4)

The films being made by Indigenous women not only serve in the cultural and social remembering in their own communities, they are also ambassadors to mainstream media audiences, correcting the media misrepresentation and invisibility of Native people. Their cultural work can be situated historically into three generations of Native and First Nations women in cinema and television production. In the following pages I highlight a number of key figures in these three generations. This is by no means a complete list of the media producers who work across various media: television, radio, web, multimedia installation etc.

The first generation can be traced the late 1960s, when Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki) was hired at the National Film Board of Canada. Her 1971 release Christmas at Moose Factory marked the first time an Indigenous woman directed a major film. She has since gone on to produce over 30 films in her forty-year career at the NFB on indigenous issues, land rights, cultural practices and identity. While not focusing exclusively on women subjects, Obomsawin's films traverse numerous concerns in Indian country. In addition to the recent feature Waban-Aki: People from Where the Sun Rises (2006), she is perhaps most well known for the series of films about the 1990 Oka uprising, where a small number of Mohawks occupied traditional lands (in Oka, Quebec), which were set to be destroyed in order to expand a local golf course: Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), which has received critical, institutional and audience praise; My Name is Kahentiiosta (1995), a film about a young Kahnawake Mohawk woman who was arrested after the 78-day armed standoff; Spudwrench--Kahnawake Man (1997), profiling Randy Horne, a high-steel worker from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake; and Rocks at Whiskey Trench (2000). (5)

In the United States, the American Film Institute (AFI) created the Community Film Workshop Council in the early 1970s. According to Beverly Singer (Tewa/Dine), the council "started filmmaking workshops in thirty-five communities with the intent to engage inner-city and rural youth in producing media in their communities" (34). No women attended the first workshop held in Sante Fe in 1971, however such trainings led to the development of apprenticeship programs and television workshops. Harriet Skye (Standing Rock Sioux), Ava Hamilton (Arapaho), Gloria Bird (Spokane), Joy Harjo (Mvskoke/Muscogee Creek), and Beverly Singer were early attendees. (6) In addition, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) "issued a mandate requiring local television stations to offer broadcast time to undeserved populations such as Native American tribes," and stations participated by developing public affairs programming (35). Harriet Skye was the host, director and producer of one such public program: Indian Country Today, broadcast on KFYR-TV in North Dakota.

Sandra Johnson Sunrising Osawa (Makah) started her career around the same time, producing a ten-part series The Native American Series (1975) for NBC-TV in Los Angeles. She also made the 28-minute I Know Who I Am (1979) for KSTW-TV in Seattle, Washington. This short film, shot on the Makah, Puyallup and Nisqually reservations of the Pacific Northwest, explores family history, the passing on of tradition and cultural values important to the tribes of the Pacific Coast, as well as the loss of Native American identity. Upstream Productions was founded (with Yasu Osawa), and In the Heart of Big Country was produced for the Learning Channel in 1988. In her thirty-year career, Sandra Osawa has produced documentaries for PBS, television specials, for example The Eighth Fire exploring treaty rights, plus over 50 videos for museums, tribes and organizations (Upstream). Her independent works Lighting the Seventh Fire (1995), Going Back (1995) and Pepper's Powwow (1996) have received international acclaim. Her recent work includes On and Off the Res with Charlie Hill (2000) and Maria Tall Chief (2007).

Osawa is also from the first generation of Indigenous women admitted into university cinema programs. She studied at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) cinema graduate school (which first accepted 'minority' students in the 1970s). Entry into graduate school cinema programs paralleled the increasing opportunities for production training and apprenticeship and signifies a shift to a new generation of Indigenous women filmmakers.

The second generation, those who began screening their work nationally and internationally in the 1980s and 1990s, brought diverse stories about Indigenous life, culture, politics, artists and land rights to cinema and television audiences in the U.S., Canada, and Hawai'i. They include: Arlene Bowman (Navajo), Diane Reyna (Taos/Pueblo), Melanie Printup Hope (Tuscarora), Carol Cornsilk (Cherokee), Lena Carr (Navaho), Loretta Todd (Metis/Cree), Carol Geddes (Tlingit), Shirley Niro (Mohawk), Annie Frazier Henry (Blackfoot/Sioux/French), Tantoo Cardinal (Metis), Shirley Cheechoo (Cree), Dorothy Christian (Splat'sin / Secwepemc), Tuti Baker (Hawai'ian), and Mona Smith (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota).

Smith has focused on health, wellness, history and Native identity as it is linked to the sense of place or original Indigenous lands. She produced work for the Minnesota American Indian AIDS Taskforce and National Indian AIDS Media Consortium. The 1980s and 1990s were important decades for HIV/AIDS media, communicating safe sex education, concepts of sexuality and identity, and the spiritual context of HIV, as seen in the 1989 video Her Giveaway: A Spiritual Journey with AIDS, about Carole LaFavor's experience living with the virus. In 1996, Mona founded Allies Media Art to produce her independent work. Recognizing the many ways her video, installation and web-based art / communication have contributed to communities, Mona has received "Community Artist of the Year" from the National Museum of American Indian, a Minnesota State Arts Board Community Cultural Partnership Grant, the Institute for Community Cultural Development Fellowship and several awards from the National Council on Family Relations. Her productions evolved from single-channel video to interactive--recently exhibiting in installation (Cloudy Waters: Dakota Reflections on the River, 2005 and City Indians, 2007) and website formats (Bdote Memory Map). Smith feels that this interactivity better represents the Dakota way of communication, which is more of a dialogue within the community, than one 'teller' being responsible for the community's stories. (7)

Women whose work has been recently recognized on the film festival circuit, television and webcasts in the 2000s are those I identify as emerging filmmakers of the third generation. Nanobah Becker (Navaho), Elizabeth Day (Ojibwe), Georgina Lightening (Cree), Anna Kaela Kelly (Hawai'ian), Tracy Deer (Mohawk), Reaghan Tarbell (Mohawk), and Sally Kewayosh (Ojibwe/ Cree, Walpole Island First Nation) are filmmakers whose work in documentary and fiction is being screened internationally and winning awards.

Georgina Lightening's Older Than America (2008), one of the few feature films produced by an Indigenous woman, premiered at the prestigious South by Southwest Festival, and went on to win three Best Feature awards. The film explores the dark, abusive history of Indian Boarding Schools, which shaped generations of Indigenous children in the U.S. and Canada. She founded Tribal Alliance Productions, and has appeared in casts of Dreamkeeper (2003), The West Wing and Walker: Texas Ranger.

Anna Kaela Kelly's documentary Noho Hewa: The Wrongful Occupation of Hawai'i, offers a contemporary look at Hawaiian people, politics and resistance in the face of their systematic erasure under U.S. laws, the tourism economy, militarism, and real estate speculation. It is a raw, unscripted story that makes critical links between seemingly unrelated industries, and is told from the perspective of Hawaiians ( Kelly is also a journalist who reports on The Pacifica Network's Free Speech Radio News and National Public Radio. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Indian Country Today and on Democracy Now.

Tracey Deer writes and directs films that focus on her Kahnawake community and within other Indigenous territories. She worked with CanWest Broadcasting

in Montreal and Rezolution Pictures, and then formed Mohawk Princess Productions to produce her independent work. Deer has won numerous awards for her documentary work, including her debut independent film Mohawk Girls, which follows three young women as they transition from high school into young adulthood, and explores the challenges of growing up Kanienkeha:ka. Club Native (2008) reveals the power of blood quantum and how it influences Aboriginal identity in Native communities and requirements for tribal membership. Her recent project, Kanien'Keha:Ka/Living the Language with Paul Rickard (Cree) for Mushkeg Media, profiles a language immersion program in the Mohawk community of Akwesasne.

Reaghan Tarbell, also from the Kahnawake, produced Little Caughnawaga: To Brooklyn and Back in 2008, which won Best Documentary at the Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival. She was also selected to participate in Tribeca All Access, a program of the Tribeca Film Institute, which provides opportunity for independent filmmakers to meet with industry executives. Tarbell works at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in the Film and Video Department.

In addition to making films, many of these women direct festivals, teach media courses and participate in community organizing. Danis Goulet (Metis) for example, is a filmmaker and Artistic Director of imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto. Helen Haig-Brown (Tsilhqot'in) is an awarding winning videomaker, and works with youth in media training programs. Even though these women are identified as emerging filmmakers, many of them are also conducting education and collaboration in their communities with youth. Laura Miliken (Ojibwe), founded Big Soul Productions in Toronto (1999) with Jennifer Podemski (Saulteaux). Milliken's company focuses on Aboriginal productions, and has won various awards for its television productions and youth media/storytelling training programs. Big Soul produced the television series Moccasin Flats and a feature film based on the series Moccasin Flats: Redemption (2007). The TV series was nominated for the Gemini Award and has been running for several seasons on Canadian television. Thus, the roles assumed by many Indigenous women filmmakers are not only meaningful within particular communities, their work also fosters continuity, creativity and collaboration across generations.

In conclusion, the opportunities for Indigenous media fueled by national and private institutional initiatives in the 1970s have resulted in a flourishing of Native media that is manifested in the work of three generations of Native and First Nations women. From Tlingit territory in Yukon (Carol Geddes) to Hollywood (Valerie Redhorse, Cherokee) to Barrow, Alaska (Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson, Inupiaq), the work of three generations extends its reach across North America. While public funding focus has shifted in the last forty years, the Internet has also opened up opportunities for public exhibition of Indigenous work. With Web 2.0 technology, creative content can be uploaded and shared across global (computer) screens., (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network), (Native American Public Telecommunications, NAPT) and / video (Native American Entertainment Network) provide access to videos, training and producing resources. The National Film Board of Canada ( features online exhibition, interactive links, educational resources and production funding. Enrollment in university and community college degree programs, creative and technical training, developments in technology and a web-connected pan-Indigenous cinema movement have all contributed to the growing presence and success of Native and First Nations women filmmakers. Film festivals continue to be important places to screen work and meet fellow media artists and producers.


Sally Kewayosh (Ojibwe/Cree, Walpole Island First Nation) is an emerging filmmaker, part of the third generation of Indigenous women filmmakers. I met Sally Kewayosh, a graduate student in cinema, at the 2007 Native American Film + Video Festival in New York. She grew up in London, Ontario, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Before moving to New York to study film and television at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Kewayosh worked with Kern Murch Productions, assisting with video production education at WiijiNimbawiyaang Elementary School at Chippewas of the Thames First Nation. Kewayosh received a bachelor's degree in Film Studies from the University of Western Ontario. She has been in New York City since 2004, and is currently in post-production on Cousins, a narrative short that she directed. As a film graduate student she is also producing Who, (dir. John Reilly) and Hymn, (dir. Jarrah Gurrie).

Kewayosh's first festival video was Smoke Break (2005), which was screened at several festivals in the U.S. and Canada including the NMAI Native Film + Video Festival, ImagineNATIVE in Toronto and at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Sante Fe, New Mexico as part of the "Emerging Filmmakers" program. The film is a humorous, yet bittersweet portrayal of the "Native" as an object of tourism. It a short film without dialogue that tells the story of a Native American man dressed in traditional regalia who tries to take a simple smoke break outdoors in an urban environment. He soon becomes the object of attention for tourists, who pester him by snapping photographs, even posing next to him as if her were an historical marker. There is no privacy on the New York City streets if you are dressed like a "real" Native.

The following interview underscores some of the themes and issues relevant to Kewayosh's work, and to an emerging third generation of Indigenous filmmakers: to tell stories with Native people and not to perpetuate stereotypes of the past. Kewayosh does not want her work limited to Native audiences, and identifies a number of contemporary directors as role models including Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson. She shared that her work receives different reception from Native and non-Native audiences, noticing that "Native people laugh where I want them to ... they seem to 'get it.'" This reflection emphasizes that identity, worldview and culture are woven into artistic expression, as discussed by some of the scholars mentioned in this essay. I began the interview asking Sally where she grew up. The reason I always start interviews with "tell me about the place or places where you come from ... what do you call home?" is to understand how people locate themselves in the world. The sense of "home" and "place" have been important themes among the women I have interviewed.

SK: I'm from Walpole Island or as we call it Bkejwanong Territory ("where the waters divide") and it's a group of islands in Lake St. Clair [which connects Lake Huron and Lake Erie in the Great Lakes region]. And it's a lot of marshland and fields, we have a really diverse eco-system like Carolinian forests--oak savannahs, tail-grass prairies, rare plants and so I feel privileged to have at least partly grown up there. It just smells really great.

JM: Walpole Island is a really different place than Bay Ridge, Brooklyn where you live. Do you feel displaced?

SK: I guess I felt displaced because I was coming from Canada as well; it was a good month and a half before I felt comfortable here. I just felt that there was an endless learning curve. Then we started our production period and I didn't realize that I was homesick for nature or for any kind of quietness until we went to Poughkeepsie for the first film shoot and we were shooting outside in this open field and they had some of the same plants that they do on my reservation, just the smell of them. So at lunch I would go sit by myself in this open field and just smell the autumn. The autumn air. So I didn't know I had any kind of connection like any kind of visceral connection with nature until that point. I make a point of either sitting in a park or when I go home I really appreciate the quietness--like I won't drive with the radio on because it is the sound of the city that gets to be kind of overwhelming sometimes.

JM: Do you sense any difference between Canada and the U.S. in terms of the recognition of Native or First Nations people?

SK: Definitely in Canada I feel that it is a kind of recognized minority--we seem to be louder, like the government seems to recognize Native issues a little bit more or it's talked about more--not enough--but more than it is here. And I guess when I moved here people still said Indian and people still said Native American and in Canada we say First Nation or Aboriginal or something like that. So that was a little strange to me. And some of my classmates said they didn't think that Native people still existed.

JM: You're kidding?

SK: I'm not kidding--and I was shocked at that because I don't think that anybody in Canada has the guts to say something like that if they believed it. In Canada there are Friendship Centers in cities so that's a big thing that I notice that was different. Like if you're away from home, away from your community, you can go to Friendship Centers and meet some people. It's just more accessible to find other Native people in cities in Canada. I grew up in London, Ontario mainly, because my dad worked there and my mom later worked there as well, but there was a really active Friendship Center there, we were 20 minutes away from three Reserves and just two hours away from our own so it didn't really feel like the city. And even in Toronto there are several First Nations community groups.

In New York there is the American Indian Community House. They have a theatre group and they showcase cinema, like the films of the students at NYU that are Native. I think there's been five of us now so far. So they had a showcase for us last year and they're open to people dropping in. But it's just the one facility. And then the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian also has functions. New York in general is just really spread out you can't just have people over to watch TV even so it's kind of like--organizing any kind of gathering is like organizing a gathering, you know.

JM: Being a filmmaker is being a storyteller. Did your grow up around a lot of stories or storytellers? And do you remember any of those stories?

SK: Constantly, but I wouldn't imagine they were traditional stories by any means. My mom and I had this conversation last week because I tend to repeat stories a lot. I know I've told the person the story but I just want to tell it again. Normally I want to hear stories more than once and some of my friends here have been saying "oh, you already told me that" and I say I know that but I want to tell you one more time. And then I realized that I've heard the same stories hundreds of times. Like whenever the aunties and uncles get together they tell the same stories from their childhood. They get the same laughs--people put in their same two cents here there and I think that's probably from a tradition of storytelling. I guess we just repeat ourselves. And I don't know if I'm ever done telling it. It's the same stupid story about my sister and I from when we were three and four or something. And when I think of it, I want to tell someone. And generally in the family or with friends back home they want to hear it. Then they tell me the same story over and over again. It's nice.

JM: Every time a story is told, over and over again, it just becomes so much more a part of the fabric of who we are, doesn't it?

SK: When you hear that person's name it recalls that story. And then eventually I can tell the stories my aunts and uncles have been telling me over and over again. I don't get tired of them, they're funny and it's them.

JM: How did you find your way to storytelling on film?

SK: I don't recall--I'm teaching this high school production program right now and these kids are 17 and they're really intense about filmmaking and their life plan and I'm so impressed with them. I would not have gotten into that program at all at 17 because I didn't know what I wanted to do at that point. All I knew is that I liked working with my hands. I like painting, carving, and visual art. So when I went to University that's what I went for. One of our projects in first year visual arts was a video project and that really sparked my interest. You can really get a lot of stuff across here and you can make people laugh or say something. At the same time, I was taking the introductory film theory class and I just took it because I like watching movies. I thought a whole class where we just watch movies, that sounds really fun, not realizing it was actually pretty hard. We had to do research and write essays just like in English classes. With those two classes coupled it got me really excited about possibly making films. It never occurred to me before then that I could direct films. It didn't seem like a possibility for some reason. I enjoyed researching films and writing about them and learning about why people really respond to some films and not others. How do you get a message across if you want to? So then after undergraduate I took a year off and thought well I should get my Masters. And I applied to a bunch of film schools actually, and to NYU on a whim and I got in. So that was intense because I didn't really think about moving to New York because I didn't think I would get in.

JM: Is it a challenging program of study?

SK: Yes, very challenging--they just want us to start running, hit the ground running. It's four or six weeks of classes and then a four-week intensive shooting period right away. "Where's your script" right away. They're really helpful but they really demand a lot of the students and the first year is the hardest. You have to produce three films and meet these new people, figure out who you can work with, edit them, and try to get your stories across. Everything's so new and I didn't have any real film experience before coming to NYU.

JM: Tell me about your film Smoke Break, that showed at the Smithsonian Native American Film + Video Festival. How did you come up with the concept?

SK: The assignment we were given for our first project was black and white film, exterior locations, no dialogue, go! So and I'm really pragmatic and I thought okay, I don't know how to cast so I'm going to maybe write something with one character because I don't know if I can cast more than that. I'd really like to have something with Native people in it. I wanted it to be a signature piece for my first film at school. I wanted basically to introduce myself to the faculty. And I had like this really weird idea about this time warp and it's too complicated. How am I going to do that? So I scrapped my first idea and then I was talking to some friends at home and they had just finished the Powwow circuit and one was complaining about tourists. When she was taking her lunch break from dancing--sandwich in mouth, sweating, looks gross, she's in her lawn chair, her jingle dress is pulled up or whatever--and people are taking her picture. It's so annoying, she was complaining and thinking just wait until I'm done eating and we'll gladly stand next to you and get a picture. She said, for some reason they just always come when you're on break. I thought that was pretty funny--I thought well what if that was in the city? This guy could be working. It would be cool to have a dancer, or maybe there was some kind of exhibit at a museum and he just taking his break between shows and he gets barraged by tourists--and just devises some kind of revenge on them. I didn't want it to be violent, but just kind of tongue in cheek. I think it worked. I liked it.

JM: What kind of response did you receive at the festivals?

SK: I think it's been in eight festivals now. My roommate is Reaghan Tarbell (Mohawk) and she works at the Smithsonian in the Film and Video Department and she really liked it. So she said submit it. And I didn't know about that process. How do you submit to festivals? It just seemed daunting so I wasn't going to do it. So she said "give it to me, fill out this form and we'll put it in for judging for the committee and see if they want it," and they did. From there other festivals kept asking for it and she sent it around on her own. So if I didn't have her for a roommate I don't know what would have happened. Every Native festival that it's been in, like ImagineNATIVE, Smithsonian, one in Santa Fe and one in Ottawa, Red Eye--great reviews. They laugh, people get it. It hasn't been in any non-Native festivals but my classmates liked it. It seemed to be one of the favorites at our marathon screening. I might be biased, but I heard laughs, so. Some people don't get why he's wearing that outfit in the city. But the Native audiences seem to suspend their disbelief a little bit more.

JM: What do you think of this idea of different audiences, different reception or understanding of the film?

SK: I don't think I can speak for other Native filmmakers and I haven't studied up on it enough recently to really give an educated opinion. When I'm making a film, if I'm making a comedy, for instance, I would like everyone, the whole audience, not just the Native people to laugh at some point. I'd like to craft where they laugh. But I also think there will be some inside jokes that only other Native people might get, you know? This would be especially true if I have a Native cast or some dialogue or different situations. Different audiences might get those jokes more than the others, but I'd like everyone to have an enjoyable experience watching it. I found that with Smoke Signals (Chris Eyre, 1989) when my family watched it, we laughed really hard during that opening sequence with that guy in the van and the car driving backwards. Everyone's known that person who had that car and the weather report and everything. And then I watched it with some non-Native friends and they laughed at different parts. With that opening sequence, they just thought it was setting up the community--like they didn't really get the joke as much as my family did.

JM: Do you feel you need to tell certain kinds of stories because of where you came from?

SK: I really don't. The only responsibility I feel is not to perpetuate stereotypes, not to perpetuate negative feelings. Hollywood cinema has really laid that foundation for many years. That's my only concern. It's not a concern it's just something that's just in the back of my mind. And if I'm going to address a stereotype, how am I going to do that in a way that isn't offensive, or in a way that maybe dispels the stereotype, or to poke fun at it, to make it less than it actually is? I'm currently writing my thesis script for NYU and I really wanted to make a Native film. I wanted to make a film set on a reservation. I had complete writer's block. I couldn't think of anything, I was coming at it backwards. I was thinking of the result and not how to start it. So once I scrapped that, I thought because I am a Native woman, it's going to be a Native film. I would like to cast Native people, but if I don't, it's still a Native film. I'm going to cast the people who are the characters. So I scrapped that whole notion and just started thinking what story I want to tell. I want there to be some humor in it, I want it to be touching. I want it to say something. What do I want it to say? And then when I thought in those terms, not being responsible to whomever, then it started to come. So if I want it to be set on a reservation, I'll just make it on a reservation. But it's the story and the characters who really matter. Their surroundings can be really interchangeable, that's just something that's true to myself. I just can't write anything from the other way in.

JM: Are there filmmakers that you admire?

SK: I love Wes Anderson films--they're so quirky and funny, and he uses a lot of wides [wide shots], and traditionally people would use a lot of close-ups. And his stories are kind of absurd, but really heartfelt. I don't make things like that, but I enjoy them so much. I really like Sofia Coppola's feature The Virgin Suicides (1999). That really spoke to me for some reason. Smoke Signals by Chris Eyre for forging a path. And he was the first Native person at NYU as well. It's tough I really feel I was almost spoiled with my film studies undergraduate degree. I've seen so many movies, that I can't match directors to films any more.

JM: As a woman, do you tell stories differently?

SK: I think so. I come at that from a production standpoint, having been on eight sets last year (2006). I feel I really direct a lot differently from the boys in my class. I don't know it just seems with the girls, it was just more of an intimate, personal kind of exchange with the actors. This is not to say the men didn't get close to their actors, or tell them what they wanted. For me it was like visiting with the actors. They're there to do a job, but I want to know where they are every day, where they are emotionally. So at lunchtime I just catch up. Before a shoot, my rehearsals were essentially just visiting. I wanted to rehearse the script but I just didn't, I ended up visiting too much. I wanted to know who that person is and on some levels, I can figure out what I can ask them to do. I don't know if that's right. That's just how it always ends up.

JM: Can you share an example?

SK: This last story I did, "Cooper" (2007), is kind of sad and I would feel really bad asking somebody to go into this kind of emotional tailspin and not know if they were going to be okay. Especially if they're good--like when they're crying and sad, they're really crying and sad. It's a person, and I don't want to just say, "go over there and cry" while I roll this camera and then okay, next shot. It seems weird to just ask so much of someone and not even take the time to get to know them, at least a little bit, as a person.

JM: There's been a long tradition of Indigenous filmmakers in documentary. Do you see yourself doing any kind of documentary?

SK: I'd like to do some documentary work at some stage. I have different ideas rolling around in my brain all the time, stories I'd like to tell. But it's a different way of filmmaking than I'm used to. I don't think I'm done with writing, and having that control over crafting a story, or how I want it to be presented. I did one documentary in school and I think it was okay, but I didn't really feel it the way I do a narrative. I definitely think at some point I will be doing documentaries as well.

JM: Where do you think you see yourself going from here--your professional career?

SK: I'd like to direct--I would like to be able to write films and direct them. That's the ultimate dream. I hope that I will be working in the film industry in some regard whether it's editing or working in the G & E Department, it's like whatever. I like being on-set; I like being a part of that process whether it's my film or someone else's. So hopefully that will continue. The ideal would be to, oh wow, you really made a great film, let's show it at this exclusive festival, let's distribute it. Hem's scads of money to make a feature. That'd be great. I'll sign up for that. Whether or not that happens is not

up to me, but I'll try for it.

JM: What's the importance of Native-themed festivals?

SK: I think it's important to have a forum for Native filmmakers to show a variety of different works. One thing I really appreciated about the festival at the Smithsonian was just the wide variety of films that were in that festival. There was animation, there was stuff done on really inexpensive video cameras, film cameras, 35 mm. The spectrum of work there was really incredible. I'm not sure if all of those films would have been given a fair shake at say, I don't know much about festivals, but at another festival. Because a lot of the subject matter was really specific to Native people and Native issues. And because the audience was predominately Native, there were definitely non-Native people there as well, but it really felt like a community event. People were there to support each other, people were there for networking, and it was a really great atmosphere. I didn't make it to the ImagineNATIVE festival. I was in the middle of production period so I couldn't go but I felt like I missed out. So I've only been to the one festival where my film was shown. The community aspect was really there. My actor came, and he had his camcorder and he was videotaping my question and answer period after my film showed. It was really sweet. As if my uncle was there waving at me from the back of the room. And the questions! People noticed stuff about your movie that you had no idea was there, and yes I guess that could be said about it. I was really thinking deeply about that moment when I was filming it.

JM: And what about the Native Film + Video Festival at the Smithsonian and their networking efforts?

SK: They definitely had resources available for us. What I really liked was just touching base with all the other filmmakers, especially in New York City for a Native as well. Because a lot of the time, you feel really isolated. I'm lucky one of my classmates is also a Native American woman so we kind of have a club of two in our class, you know. She comes to the festivals and stuff with me all the time. And meeting Nanobah (Becker) from Columbia University and Andrew McClean is now in his sixth year at NYU was good. Just being able to visit with those people and ask what their experiences were was important to me. People really open up at those events, and other events as well to share their experience and help others who are coming up behind them. I think it's a really great networking opportunity.

JM: Anything else that you want to share?

SK: Well, I love Spanish cinema. Pedro Almodovar. I wish I could be more free with the camera because I remember being in the editing room after everyone came back with their footage. We started editing everything and were kind of jealous of how other people's stuff looked. Everyone's hand-held and there were these really slick camera maneuvers and really unique and quirky ideas. And mine are really simple, two-character ideas. I didn't want my camera to move and I still stand by my decision. It just looked so different from everyone else's and I just felt like an old person. Everybody had these hip, really fun, exciting films to edit and mine stars two senior citizens. It just felt like a really old movie. I felt like the babysitter in the group or something. Don't get me wrong; I really liked my film when it was all finished. That initial viewing of everyone's footage and mine was an interesting experience for me. I don't think in terms of a lot of camera movement or cutting loose. I'm just really structured. I storyboard everything, do a shot list. I am uber-organized before the shoot because I'm really cheap and don't want to spend too much money on film.

JM: Do you feel the U.S. or Canada support's it's filmmakers better? Grant and funding wise I mean.

SK: Obviously, I think Canada supports its filmmakers at least a little bit better than the United States, especially the NFB and Canada Arts Councils There's places where you can go to get support, and they're well-known places for support to get your stories out there. I don't yet know of many places here in the United States where people can just apply freely to fund their projects. The National Aboriginal Art and Achievement Foundation has been helping me every year since I've been here. (9) And my Reservation post-secondary dollars help as well. But the NAAF has been really great in supporting me in this whole filmmaking endeavor. I don't know what I would have done without that support.

Works Cited

Aleiss, Angela. Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005. Print.

Armatage, Kay, Kass Banning, Brenda Longfellow and Janine Marchessault, Eds. Gendering the Nation: Canadian Women's Cinema. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1999. Print.

Baird, Robert. "Going Indian: Discovery, Adoption, and Renaming toward a 'True American,' from Deerslayer to Dances with Wolves." Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture. Ed. S. Elizabeth Bird. Boulder: Westview P, 1996. 195-209. Print.

Bataille, Gretchen and Charles L.P. Silet. Images of American Indians on Film: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1985. Print.

--. "Jay Silverheels, Iron Eyes Cody, and Chief Dan George: Native Americans and the Imagined West." Voices of Color: Reports from the Front Lines of Resistance by Radicals of Color. Eds. Yolanda Alaniz and Nellie Wong. Seattle: Red Letter P, 1999. Print.

Evans, Michael. Isuma: Inuit Video Art. Montreal: McGill-Queen's U. P., 2008. Print.

Friedman, Lester. Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema. Champaign Urbana: U of Illinois P. 1991. Print.

Kewayosh, Sally, dir. Smoke Break, 2005. Video.

Kilpatrick, Jean. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 1999. Print.

Leuthold, Stephen. Indigenous Aesthetics: Native Art, Media, and Identity. Austin: U of Texas P, 1998. Print.

Lewis, Randolph. Alanis Obomsawin: The Vision of a Native Filmmaker. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2008. Print.

Marubbio, Elise. Killing the Indian Maiden: Images of Native American Women in Film. Louisville: U of Kentucky P, 2006. Print.

National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation. Web. February 24, 2010.

National Film Board of Canada. Web. February 24, 2010.

Native Networks. Sally Kewayosh Biography. Web. February 26, 2010.

New York University. Tisch School of the Arts. Web. object/gradfilm_thesis.html. Web. February 23, 2010.

Raheja, Michelle. "Reading Nanook's Smile: Visual Sovereignty, Indigenous Revisions of Ethnography, and Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)." American Quarterly. 59.4 (December 2007): 1159-1185. Print.

Roth, Lorna. Something New In the Air: The Story of First People's Television Broadcasting in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen's U. P., 2005.

Singer, Beverly. Wiping the War Paint off the Lens: Native American Film and Video. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001.

Tan, Alexis, Yuki Fujioka and Nancy Lucht. "Native American Stereotypes, TV Portrayals and Personal Contact." Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly. 74.2 (1997): 265-284. Print.

Todd, Loretta. "Polemics, Philosophies and a Story: Aboriginal Aesthetics in the Media of this Land" in Transference, Tradition, Technology: Native New Media Exploring Visual and Digital Culture. Eds. Dana Claxton, Melanie A. Townsend and Steven Loft. Walter Phillips Gallery, Indigenous Media Arts Group. Banff [AB]: Banff Centre Press, 2005: 105-106. Print.

Upstream Productions. Web. May 2, 2010.

Weatherford, Elizabeth. Native American film +video Festival Program. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. 2006. Print.

Weatherford, Elizabeth and Emelia Seubert. Native Americans on Film and Video, Volume II. Museum of the American Indian, 1988.

Wilson, Pamela and Michelle Stewart, Eds. Global Indigenous Media: cultures, poetics and politics. Durham [NC]: Duke U.P., 2008. Print.

Wood, Houston. Native Features: Indigenous Films from Around the World. New York: Continuum, 2008.


(1) See Lorna Roth's Something New In the Air: The Story of First People's Television Broadcasting in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen's U. P., 2005, for an excellent discussion of the establishment of APTN.

(2) Michael Robert Evans traces the history of Inuit Broadcasting, Inuit video, Igloolik Productions and the launch of the IsumaTV website ( in Isuma: Inuit Video Art. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2008.

(3) Loretta Todd, "Polemics, Philosophies and a Story: Aboriginal Aesthetics in the Media of this Land" in Transference, Tradition, Technology: Native New Media Exploring Visual and Digital Culture. Eds. Dana Claxton, Melanie A. Townsend, and Steven Loft. Walter Phillips Gallery, Indigenous Media Arts Group. Banff [AB]: Banff Centre Press, 2005: 105-106. In this discussion Todd cites Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1990), 127.

(4) Indigenous Aesthetics: Native Art, Media and Identity (Leuthold, 1998) was one of the first works to explore Native media, and did so within the context of worldview, asserting that aesthetics, identity and worldview are interconnected. Lewis' Alanis Obomsawin: The Vision of a Native Filmmaker (2006) focuses on an early pioneer in Indigenous cinema, Raheja's article "Reading Nanook's Smile: Visual Sovereignty, Indigenous Revisions of Ethnography, and Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)," uses Zacharias Kunuk's film to address audience response and visual representation. Wood (2008) catalogues and discusses some of the more widely exhibited Indigenous feature films of North America, Oceania, Australia and the Arctic. Wilson and Stewart's eclectic collection of essays addresses such issues as new technology and Indigenous worldview, identity, poetics and politics, and cultural preservation.

(5) A complete list of Obomsawin's films are located on the National Film Board of Canada website:

(6) Some of their work includes Skye (The Right to Be, 1993), Hamilton (Everything Has a Spirit, 1992), Harjo (Eagle Song, 2002; A Thousand Roads, 2005; Reality Show. Joy Harjo's Video Diary, 2009). For additional Indigenous media see Native Networks (www. American Public Television ( and National Film Board of Canada ( Singer's book, Wiping the War Paint off the Lens (2001), provides a rich history of the emergence of Native filmmakers during a time of significant community, policy (FCC) and social change in the United States. She has also produced He Ww Un Poh: Recovery in Native America (1993), A Video Book (1994), and Hozho of Native Women (1997).

(7) Interview with Mona Smith. Minnespolis, MN. November 2008.

(8) The National Film Board of Canada supports Indigenous work. In 1991, The Aboriginal Studio One opened its facilities in Edmonton, Alberta. Not accessible to many Indigenous persons geographically, the bricks and mortar studio became the Aboriginal Filmmaking Program (AFP) in 1996, and in 2005 the First Stories program was launched. This program trained First Nations youth in filmmaking. In a 1972 letter from George Stoney, executive producer of Challenge for Change, one of the NFB's more notable documentary initiatives, he wrote "there was a strong feeling among the filmmakers at the NFB that the Board had been making too many films "about" the Indian, all from the white man's viewpoint. What would be the difference if Indians started making films themselves?" ( aboriginal-voice-national-filmboard-/).

(9) The National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation (NAAF), a non-profit Canadian organization provides resources to Aboriginal peoples, especially youth. Since 1985, the Foundation has awarded more than $32-million in scholarships to more than 8,400 First Nations, Inuit and Metis students nationwide. NAAF's key initiatives include The National Aboriginal Achievement Awards (NAAA). "Taking Pulse" joins NAAF with industry to present career options through a series of short documentaries and supporting curriculum materials with the aim of recruiting First Nations, Inuit & Metis youth. Blueprint for the future (BFF) is a series of one-day career fairs that motivate and inspire First Nations, Inuit and Metis high school students and provide resources and information on career opportunities. Over 30,000 students have attended these youth oriented events (
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Author:Machiorlatti, Jennifer A.
Publication:Post Script
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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