Arts & Entertainment

The ICE-T Interview

MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY, New York City – Standing in the buffet line at the after-party for the New York premiere of HBO Films’ BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE, I realized that Ice-T was right behind me in line with his wife, Coco. I smiled and said, “Of all of the people here tonight, I would like to interview you, Ice-T, because I want to talk to someone who will tell me the truth about what they thought about the film.” He answered. “You know Ice-T is goin’ to tell you the truth!” Exactly.

If there was one person I believed I could count on not to give the usual “I loved it!” premiere post-party gushing review, he was the one. That’s why I took time out to visit with the man who pioneered gangster rap, who broke out of being “a thug” (as he described himself) to craft a life as a successful film and television actor without ever compromising his hard-core politics.

Ice-T has become recognized as a role model for youth everywhere, specifically the ones facing troubles who come from a tough life. He understands the struggles of his own people and has the compassionate heart of someone who can understand the struggles of others. He’s taken actor Adam Beach under his wing to “school him” in the ways of making the power play in Hollywood and dodging the proverbial bullets in the process. If you have any doubts, read on.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Tell me, what was your understanding, did you have any knowledge of the subject matter that was portrayed in the film before tonight?

ICE-T: Nah, I didn’t have any knowledge. I think the actual whole American history of Indians and stuff is really, really a blurred vision. For kids to grow up in America, you know, this isn’t in any history books and you gotta get a little bit as you can. You know, me, trying to be someone whose about rights and things like that, I mean I’ve done a little research, but nah. That’s why I came here tonight. I was like sittin’ in school. I was trying to suck up every little bit of information I could. The question I asked myself is, you know, due to the fact that I’m not Indian, is how close it felt to the reality from an Indian perspective. I don’t know, but it’s refreshing just to see something that kinda, you know, seems like it rings like the truth.

THE NATIVE VOICE: It has it’s difficult moments, but BURY MY HEART was the first time that we’ve ever seem a film anywhere even close to this level of potential worldwide exposure that uncovers the reservation realities, the beginnings of the reservation life. What did you think about the film?

ICE-T: Well to me it’s like, you know, it’s one of those things like when Black people saw “Roots” or “Mississippi Burning” or something like that where you see…it’s almost like you say “White people made this movie?” Its like, wow. But then the reality of the thing is all White people aren’t evil, you know? And there are some people that want the truth out there, you know? So I commend Dick Wolf (Executive Producer of BURY MY HEART, and creator of the Law & Order television franchise). I commend these producers and I always knew Dick Wolf was that kinda guy, I mean, even hiring someone like me to be on his shows. He always cuts against the grain, he does what he wants to do. So I respect that. You know, it’s really refreshing to see something like this. This movie needs to be in the education system, like put into the required viewing of all children.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Let me ask you this: are you aware of the fact that hip-hop and rap is the main culture for so many young people on the reservation? These days, that’s what the kids relate to, are attracted to, and they emulate everything about it – the culture, the attitudes, the body language, the clothes, everything. What do you think about that?

ICE-T: Well you know, hip hop is kind of – especially the music that I had to do with, gangster rap – was initially meant to shock, to say “You know, this is who I am” and it comes out the gate pretty aggressive. But after we got through the door, myself and NWA (Niggas With Attitude), the objective was “Now that we got your attention and we let you know that we crazy, we’re gonna try to guide the kids and teach them a little bit about it, like, this power.” And I think that the Native American kids just like that power and they like that rebellion. The problem right now in the hip hop community is a lot of the music is kinda like, it doesn’t have any direction, so to speak. It’s just like “Party, kick it, have fun, get high” which is kinda like the basis of rock and roll. But we miss that emotion, you know, like Public Enemy, we missed that focus where “Yeah, were gonna party and have good time but were still gonna Fight The Power” so to speak. I think that’s what people like KRS want and myself would like to see back in the music. Real good hip hop has a power of like, rebellion, in it. But it’s rebellion with a focus and that’s what we need.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Can you tie that back to what you saw in the film tonight? Now that you’ve seen a little more of the history, can you see why Indian kids would be attracted to rap, to hip hop?

ICE-T: The film is so deep you can’t even tie the hip hop to it, it’s just deep on a lot of levels.

THE NATIVE VOICE: The modern reality that the kids are dealing with, have come from this reality you saw in the film. They are a product of this history.

ICE-T: I jus’ think they go after anything that’s strong and they lookin’ at Black kids as going through something similar to them, so they kinda look at the ghettos in America as being another form of a reservation. And they see us fightin’ and they’re kinda connected to our battle, but you know, the Native American… If anybody’s got more beef with the United States than Black people it would be Native Americans. To me the heaviest line in the movie was at the end where Chief Red Could said, “The last thing we fear is your gun.” Which is like, “You are so diabolical that that’s the last thing we worry about.” And just looking at Adam Beach (playing Lakota Sioux doctor Charles Eastman) in that dilemma of trying to do so much right and being used as a pawn. And like, when he told his boys that “Yo, you know you’re Christian, you don’t believe in this,” (referring to the Ghost Dance) and the guy goes, “What do we believe in?” And Adam’s face is just like…confusion. In his head he’s doin’ everything right but to them “You’re the White man now.” And I think even the colder shot in the movie is when he had to go back and work for the Senator again (Senator Henry Dawes, architect of The Dawes Act, played by Aidan Quinn). And the Senator, by everything you see on this movie, portrays himself like he’s helping them (Eastman and Indian people at large).

THE NATIVE VOICE: And he really believed he was.

ICE-T: That’s the scary part of the movie! He really, really believed he was helping and it was weird, it was a weird warp. It’s like, “Was the devil really the devil?” And I think in true life, people really believe they’re helpin’, and they’re doing harm, and that’s a cold paradox.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Part of it was that when they took the Indians onto the reservations they became wards of the United States government…

ICE-T: I mean, KRS once said it best, you know: “There will never be justice on stolen land.” The problem with the United States as a whole is there’s so much corruption, there’s so much injustice, there’s so much murder, there’s so much like, deception. And then after this has all been done, let’s lay law over the top and ask for justice and peace. It’s like, let’s hide it and have justice. So now everybody is off balance. It’s kinda like, “Okay. Peace.” But we’re at war. It’s like, you know, its such a hypocritical playing field we’re on. Where is the truth? You know? Where is the truth? And it’s a cold game. It’s a real, real cold game. You know, I learned the streets as a hustler. It’s like they say, “The higher you go up the colder it gets.”

THE NATIVE VOICE: “The higher you go the colder it gets?”

ICE-T: Yeah. And that’s like climbing a mountain. And that’s how power is: the higher up you go, the colder it gets. So, you know. I got so much out of the film. I liked when the soldier sat in front of the Indian and tried to tell him, “Well, you mother f*****s was fightin’ before we got here so we’re just joining the fight. So we’re just like a new tribe, we’re just bigger than you…you guys was fightin’ first and we fought so now we’re in… So how were we wrong?” Interesting concept, you dig? You know? “We just kinda jumped into the fight, but everybody was fightin’.” Deep, man. It’s a deep movie and that’s what’s great about a really great film, it just feeds your head. It wasn’t so one sided that there wasn’t a question.. .you know? But the end result is, you’re sad. The end result is you’re sad. And it’s very rewarding to see something versus just a movie where your gonna laugh or you see a lot of explosions, a lot of action. History, when it’s done well, is great.

THE NATIVE VOICE: So what would you tell… I mean, so many kids look up to you and if you ever come out to the reservation you’ll see that a lot of times it is a ghetto on the’ prairie because of the government policies, because of the impoverishment, because of the lack of hope. Because of all those things, that’s what it is. We have government housing out there just like you have in the projects… it’s just that they build them wherever, in the middle of no where.

ICE-T: The problem with me goin’ on the reservation and really talkin’ is that I really, really am so unfamiliar. Truthfully, since I’ve been with Adam I’ve just been sucking up information from him. But I mean it’s really – to an average person, you know, Black kid, White kid – it might as well be outer space. Because we have no concept. We don’t know about the law…I’m asking him, “Well, what do you do? Do you have a jail? Do you do this?” I mean, I’m asking him and he’s like (gestures), “Whole ‘nother world.” And you know one thing I don’t comment on are things I don’t know about.

THE NATIVE VOICE: But you know about kids and you know about giving hope to kids, so what I’m trying to ask is, what can you give these kids? You know, we have record high suicide rates on the reservations right now.

ICE-T: You know what your kids need? They need somebody to win. You know? That’s why I know a lot of people bettin’ on my guy (Adam Beach). You know, when I first took him under my arm, I was like, “Dude, you’re important.” When I came outta the hood and should have been in Pelicans Bay, and I made it to NBC…? This is a big thing. It’s more than me being like a White actor that got a job, you know, it’s like, who cares? No one’s watching them. But the kids that watch me are like.. .they see if I can do it you know it can happen. Adam’s important, more than people know. And you know, I was like tellin’ him, I was just like, “Man, you gotta stand strong. You gotta stay out of this Hollywood drama. You can’t let ’em take you down. You talk about role model? Look at all the Black people who come out successful, semi-successful, like Shaq. He’s on the team but he don’t own the team, Oprah’s on TV but she don’t own the network, so let’s get it right. Yeah, but how many Native American people are famous?

THE NATIVE VOICE: How many Native American people are even on the team? They aren’t!

ICE-T: Right. So that makes him (Adam) so much more valuable. And I was just telling him, like, you know the main thing is you don’t slip and fall on none of this Hollywood bulls*** ‘cuz they love to make you look stupid. They love to make you f*** up. You got a big, big, big thing. So fortunately, he hooked up with me and I’m a rabble rouser. So I’m trying to school him, but the thing of it is, it’s like his fight is different. I can’t fight his fight. I can maybe give him some inspiration from the fight I fought, but I can’t fight it until I get more information. Actually he and I are working on a screen play, you know, so I have an idea for something to take this to the next level.

THE NATIVE VOICE: You think the world is ready for it, finally?

ICE-T: I think that it’s long overdue. I think that people from my community will really embrace this story. They need to know. I think everybody needs to know. I used to say that the schools in the United States need a course called “Humanity,” where you teach everybody why everyone is important, right? So you take a whole semester where you teach people what Mexican people have done that is great, not just Blacks. You gotta teach. That’s the only way people will respect each other.

You gotta teach everybody why everyone is important, like, “What is a Puerto Rican? Where did they come from? How did they get on that island?” People don’t know so they don’t respect it. So when you eliminate any education of pride, there will be no pride. So you know the kids, man, they just gotta believe.

I mean unfortunately, one guy said it in the movie, he said “White man controls the world.” That happens to be the truth, you know? And you know you’re gonna have to figure out how to insert yourself into this game to achieve what you need to help your people, you know? And that’s just a game, you know what I’m saying? So you can’t work outside. It’s like, even if you set up your own Native American studios, made your own movie, it still gotta get in the theatre! So somebody has to infiltrate the same way they infiltrated in the past. Re-infiltrate that way, and get what you want done. You gotta use the same tactics

THE NATIVE VOICE: It sound like you and Adam are on your way to doing that.

ICE-T: Well you know, I’m sitting with dude…and the beauty of Adam is he’s just very nice. He’s so overwhelmed by his own juice it’s almost like he’s the kind of guy that I’m like, “Dude, you don’t even know who the f*** you are! You’re the mother f*****g man, you know? You’re f*****g Tom Cruise, dude, you don’t even know! But you know, right now you got the power if you make the right move to really make some statements and change some sh**.” So, I’m on it, don’t worry about it. (laughs)

THE NATIVE VOICE: Thank you very much.


HBO Films’ “Bury My Heart” raises questions and kudos, gets official sanction” from NCAI

New York, NY – The red carpet was rolled out for Indian country at premiere screenings of HBO Films’ “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” in theaters across the country. From LA to New York, with several stops in between (most notably Rapid City, South Dakota), Native Americans were the honored guests of this new film. This happens every once in a while when major media decides to tell an Indian story and makes sincere attempts to “get it right.”

In recent years, we have seen big to-dos from Turner Network Television for “Into the West,” Disney Touchstone for “Hidalgo,” Showtime Television for “Edge of America,” and New Line Cinema for “The New World.” What is new this time around is that the National Congress of American Indians, the nation’s oldest and largest political lobbying organization for tribes in Washington, DC, took on the role of official consultants to the production and the subsequent educational materials that will be distributed nationwide to Indian and mainstream public schools.

In recent years, all Indian films line up their official “experts” to consult on the production. These folks act as cultural, historical, and even spiritual advisors to the project, and are also called upon to smooth feathers over controversial decisions over what can and can not be included. In some cases, they are used (literally) to justify certain, shall we say, “creative liberties” in the telling of the story. The painfully realistic sundance scene in “Into the West” immediately comes to mind. When things go right, the Indian advisors get thank yous from the production company, but are largely invisible to the movie-going public. When things go wrong, or there is controversy, however, these advisors take the heat. They are pointed to as the “permission givers” who had the authority to speak on behalf of the people being portrayed in the film. This role, therefore, can be a well-paying but thankless job. What starts out as an exciting opportunity to be a spokesperson to Hollywood turns out to be a painful lesson in being a token approval-stamper most often with little or no actual decision making power in the final cut.

The executive producer of TNT’s “Into the West” made a promise – after much controversy erupted from the first screenings – to “cut pieces of the sundance scene for the DVD version of the film.” I was personally assured at the Los Angeles premiere by Michael Wright, senior vice president of original programming for TNT, that this was in the works. When asked why the writer and TNT producers decided to portray a pierced sundancer even though it was clearly a problem for many Lakota people, the answer given by the TNT executive was that “It was important for the dramatic arc of the story.”

The way that this first episode is written, the sundance is integral to the storyline and dramatic climax. Russell Means, who had been an actor in the film and a consultant to the production, boycotted the “Into The West” premieres. He didn’t like TNT’s final choices regarding the portrayal of the sacred sundance ceremony, and found that he had little power to actually influence the final cut of the film. As it turns out, the scene was never altered for the DVD version, either.

To its credit, HBO’s ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” gets a significant amount of things right in the portrayal of the social and cultural history in it’s story. It is the first time that the largely untold tragedies of the reservation era have been told in a dramatic presentation with an international audience. The film depicts the creation of federal Indian policies and explains this part of history accurately. This is a huge deal. However, the film does take the usual artistic liberties that go along with trying to fit scholarly history into a dramatic format that is compelling and entertaining to mass audiences. As such, this film is not without its controversy.

The screenplay writer for “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” Daniel Giat, was either not listening to the negative reactions, or people did not express themselves to him, as he said, “We were just stunned by the emotion that and the gratitude that was expressed for telling this story (by Lakota Sioux who attended the Rapid City premiere), whether there are small inaccuracies here or there isn’t nearly as important to them as telling the greater truth of what their experience was…”. There are a few major points of history that have been changed for the purpose of creating a more dramatic storyline in “Bury My Heart.” Anyone who knows the history can see that putting Charles Eastman anywhere near the Massacre at Wounded Knee is fiction. He was at Standing Rock. Wounded Knee is in Pine Ridge. The two stories are not at all actually connected. The facts of Sitting Bull’s murder are changed. The list can go on.

The Massacre at Wounded Knee is portrayed in the film as follows: the Indians are armed to the teeth (which they were not), there are lots of young warriors at the encampment (it was mostly women, elders and children), and the massacre was started by an Indian shooting a soldier, which then becomes a cross fire of Indians and cavalry shooting each other. This last point is most significant, because the question of “Who fired the first shot?” is used to justify battles through the ages. And this detail is not lost on the writer of “Bury My Heart.” After the massacre, when Eastman is treating the wounded and dying (a fiction in itself), a U.S. Calvary man says to him, “We didn’t shoot first, I swear it!” How much damage is done by this simple shift in history? Many Indian people we surveyed did not have a problem with “Bury My Heart’s” historic portrayals. The problem is, most of them were not able to point out the fictionalizations, either. When told of the facts vs. fiction issue, most people were so moved by the film that they still thought the overwhelming good that the film will do to teach both Indian people and non-Indians overshadowed any historical inaccuracies.

However, at the New York City premiere, Elizabeth Weatherford, Film and Video Director for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, said she was “extremely disappointed,” stating, “Why couldn’t they have left the history alone?” Upon hearing of the plot line, several notable tribal leaders decided to skip out on the premieres in Rapid City, South Dakota and Washington, DC (at the NMAI). In traditional style, they used their silence, their absence, as a statement.

Ron His Horse is Thunder, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, did see the film. He said he was “angry” about HBO’s “mis-portrayal” of Lakota history and its leaders. When confronted about the criticism of the film, and specifically, the portrayal of the Massacre at Wounded Knee, NCAIs Communications Director Adam McMullin replied, “You know, there are several different accounts about what actually happened at Wounded Knee.” The film’s writer, Daniel Giat, delivered the same explanation on the red carpet in New York City, stating, “There are different accounts about what exactly happened at Wounded Knee…”. Responding to the question of why the film’s creators didn’t stick with the “facts,” writer Daniel Giat said, “One thing I did see on the reservation is there is a great deal of discord and disagreement over some of the historic detail.”

There is always more than one side to a story, including historical accounts, which is why a lobbying organization like NCAI exists to present the Indian perspective in Washington, DC in the first place. But, “Bury My Heart” is unique. This is the first dramatic feature film that has taken on the task of presenting the complicated and largely untold story of the Indian reservation era, and how the United States government federal policies regarding Indians and Indian country were formed. The film lays down a straight path that everyone can follow. It explains the historical events that laid the foundation of federal Indian policies today – from the land grab, the treaties, the Dawes Act, the founding of the reservation system, to the dismal failures of providing health care, education and general welfare.

As NCAI deals with the modern day manifestations of these policies, they are uniquely qualified to address these historic issues. According to Adam McMullin, NCAI has had honest discussions with HBO. When specifically asked to address the Wounded Knee Massacre facts for the film version that will be distributed to schools, he responded, “HBO said they are going to change the Wounded Knee scene for the educational materials.”

Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum is a work in progress

PARK CITY, Utah – Every year, the Sundance Film Festival is host to some of the most innovative and important films and creative media people in the world. And because of the personal interest of it’s founder, Robert Redford, Sundance is also host to a unique program called the ”Native Forum.” This Forum was created to support the development of Native filmmakers and their projects, and showcases select films each year during the Festival. Inclusion in the Sundance Film Festival can launch a career, and Indian people have a special entree through the stage door of the Native Forum.

The current Director of this program is N. Bird Runningwater. He serves as an official programmer for the Festival at large, but his niche role at Sundance is as a mentor to their Native filmmakers and a “shepherd” to their projects. Runningwater said, “Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum is a gathering of Indigenous filmmakers from around the world, offering opportunities to share their expertise and knowledge with each other and with the independent film community through workshops, panels, networking events and special screenings.”

In 2005, the status of the Native Forum at the Sundance Film Festival changed from that of its own separate showcase at the event to being an integrated part of the festival. This shift created new opportunities for the Native Forum, but it also shut some doors. Instead of having a specialty category for Native films only, the festival made the Forum part of the larger festival, thus making the Native filmmakers have to compete with everyone else for a coveted berth in the annual Sundance Film Festival.

This meant no more “special” category, but it also meant that those Native films that were accepted would be treated with the same high regard as all of the other films. “Special” and “separate” wasn’t working for the Native Forum, as the films were not always well-attended or covered by the press (and, if you know Sundance, you know that film screening tickets are generally very valuable and hard to obtain).

It was interesting to see how this all played out at the 2006 festival. What we found was that there were two very distinct and different levels of activity going on. First, and most visible, were the screenings of those films that successfully competed with all of the other thousands of entries from around the globe to win a coveted spot in the film festival schedule. Second was the significant activity going on beneath the scene visible to the general public.

There were very well attended panels, workshops, and gatherings at which valuable information and contacts were obtained, along the with usual networking and friendship-building. The Native Forum has shown that it is much more than a screening venue for indigenous work. It is even more significantly an incubator, a nurturing and supportive environment for those individual artists who are working to develop their craft and hone their film business skills.

It is in this second level that the Forum is showing the most success for the moment. There were four “Native” films that made it into the actual festival this year, two feature-length films and two short films. And, only one piece, a short film entitled “Gesture Down (I Don’t Sing)” by Cedar Sherbert (Kumeyaay), was from a tribe in the United States. His film is a personal adaptation of the poem “Gesture Down to Guatemala” by the late Native American writer James Welch.

The other short film, “Smudge,” was by Canadian First Nation filmmaker Gail Maurice (Metis). “Smudge” shows how a small group of Aboriginal women celebrate their rights to worship in the city, their way, by using drums, chants and smoldering sweet grass…which can draw unwanted attention in the city. The two feature length films brought into question the meaning of the “Native” Forum, as both projects were from overseas.

“No. 2” by Fiji Islander/British filmmaker Toa Fraser won the coveted Audience Award at Sundance, the same award Niki Caro’s “Whale Rider” won in 2003. This successful narrative has a universal appeal and illustrates the connections and familiarities that indigenous people often share. It follows the story of an elder who is trying to throw a party and gather her family around her as it was done in her lifetime.

The other, “The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros,” was by Auraeus Solito of the Phillipines. This gritty film follows the life of a 12-year old boy who lives as a young girl to replace the deceased mother. It is a dramatic film that examines hope in the context of a difficult life.

As Bird Runningwater has explained in the past, sometimes the limitations of the Native Forum at Sundance are directly related to the shortage of quality material coming out of Native America. As such, a good deal of the conversation during the Native Forum is about work that is “in the pipeline.” It is Sundance’s continuing commitment to artist development that has Runningwater, and the Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore, looking to the future of Native cinema.

Selected for this year’s Filmmakers Workshop were Native filmmakers Leslie Gee, Caddo/Delaware/Choctaw; Blackhorse Lowe, Navajo; Billy Luther, Navajo/Hopi/Laguna Pueblo; and Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, Inupiaq. The Filmmakers Workshop is made possible through a grant from the Ford Foundation’s New Works Initiative. Over the past 25 years, Native filmmakers Sherman Alexie, Chris Eyre, Sterlin Harjo, Zoe Hopkins, Blackhorse Lowe, Merata Mita, Alanis Obomsawin, Randy Redroad and Taika Waititi were among the 50 Native writers and directors showcased by the Sundance Institute and its film festival.

The Native filmmakers’ works were among 100 films selected by Sundance. [Sidebar] Tohono O’odham tribal member Mike Wilson speaks after a screening of “Crossing Arizona” at the Sundance Film Festival. Although the subject matter was relevant to Native America, this documentary film by Joseph Mathew was not a part of the Native Forum, which is reserved for indigenous filmmakers.

Wilson is holding crosses with the names of immigrants who have died while crossing the Mexico-Arizona border through his tribe’s lands. He is featered in this film that examines the debate over the humanity of current U.S. immigration laws. Photo by Lise Balk King

Exclusive Native Voice Interview with SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL Director Geoffrey Gilmore

The Native Voice granted exclusive interview with Sundance Film Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore to talk about the present realities and future possibilities for Native cinema and Sundance’s “Native Forum”

Geoffrey Gilmore is currently the Director of the Sundance Film Festival, held each January in Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah. Known as being the godfather of independent film, Sundance is also home to a unique project called “The Native Forum.” This forum seeks to support Native Filmmakers and showcase their work, and it is a favored part of the festival by Gilmore, who is thoughtful in his analysis of the current state of Native media. He engages in passionate conversation about the Sundance Festival, the Sundance Institute, and the current and future place of The Native Forum at Sundance and in the larger world of major media.

Frank J. King, III: When did you get involved with Native American filmmaking?

Geoffrey Gilmore: I was trying to do Native programming years ago while I was in college at UCLA. It was one of the first very visible programs. So I’ve had a long term interest in trying to see storytelling develop, particularly out of this community. It’s been a struggle.

Lise Balk King: Yes, it has. There are things that are shifting now in the attitudes of the tribes toward media development, out of an understanding of the need. It’s a reactionary thing, it’s coming out of the Abramoff scandal, it’s coming out of the movement to “Get Out The Native Vote.” It’s also about Native media gaining legitimacy and respect, which is necessary.

FJK: The whole tribal thing is like they are like, ten years behind. Which means that there is nobody to teach. Film especially. A lot of the tribes don’t trust the media to begin with, so we have to change that stereotype. To show what media can do for them, what films can do.

GG: I’ve had a lot of experience with different Native filmmakers and different people who are friends of mine over the years. One of the things that I experienced, particularly with the people who are political, was the amount of backstabbing that was going on inside the community. Where you’d have a guy who became a visible force immediately be almost countered by somebody who was trying to not quite tear him down, but not quite allow that whole thing to develop. It was almost these competing kind of energies going on, and that was upsetting to me at different points in time.

LBK: It’s the phenomena we call “fighting over scraps.” It’s what happens when you get people in an isolated community that is unnatural to them, and strange dynamics go on they are starving all of the time for attention, positive feedback, self esteem – all of the things that feed the heart and soul and mind – when something comes in, it becomes a free for all. It becomes very grabby and it’s not necessarily a supportive community.

FJK: There is a way to fix that. The tribes need to get involved.

LBK: There have to be enough resources available so that the bickering stops and everybody just gets back to work.

GG: I completely agree with that. One of the things that bothers me is that I think we do things, but I don’t think that we do enough. I always feel that there is much more that we could be doing. You are sometimes caught between these kinds of pulling agendas.

When I ran the Native program section of the Sundance Festival up until a couple of years ago, my concept of that was basically that it would allow us every year to have this section of Native cinema regardless of whether it was competing with other work…in terms of making it into the competitions. And I’m not suggesting that the work wasn’t good enough…but some of it wasn’t. Some of it was and some of it wasn’t. But you’d still have work there from year to year.

After doing that for a number of years, we made the decision a couple of years ago that, “Okay let’s see if something can just stand on its own. Let’s not put it into a so-called focus section, but let’s look at a way of seeing if it can just simply be integrated into the festival.” And it worked, a little bit. But this year I don’t think it worked at all.

This year, in particular, I feel like we really didn’t have a sufficient program. And so that bothers me. It bothers me because I feel like we must not be doing a good job here. I never believe that you can just simply say that “There’s no work out there.” You know, there’s always work out there. But if you’re always struggling to find work and trying to figure out what fits and how to push things in…? Sometimes it’s a really competitive festival. It’s a question from year-to-year of trying to help build toward that critical mass (of a body of quality work).

LBK: What would you like to see?. If the Sundance team – you , the programmers, Bob Redford – if you could paint this any way you wanted it, what would you envision the Native Forum to be and to do?

GG: I think the Native Forum is different things. What Bird Runningwater is doing this year is work that clearly has to do with getting people together, getting people to talk. I think that one of the problems has been that sense that the community is not integrated into the general Independent Film Community. You have the Independent Community and you have a whole lot of different people in that community that you need relationships with because this ia a relationships business. And, it’s always been a relationships business. And if you are not connected with it, you end up having to work just isolated and on your own all of the time.

Part of what I would hope is our agenda on an annual basis is to achieve some of that integration. That’s one of the reasons that we stopped the focus on a specialized programming section. It was the idea that, “No, it’s time to integrate, it’s time to make it part of the bigger picture.” And, again, I have faith that that it is going to work on different levels. Whether it’s Chris Eyre or Sherman Alexie, or different filmmakers, as in when Heather (Rae) was in competition last year with her film on John Trudell (Heather Rae, Cherokee, served as programmer of the Native Forum at Sundance, 1995 – 2001). There’s a whole range of different things you can do. But it’s still that you get bothered when you feel that any given year you feel that there is not enough of a representation. And I look at a lot of work.

FJK: What do you think is lacking in the Native community that is contributing to this void of good projects?

GG: I always feel that one of the major issues in any kind of independent production is a lack of skilled producers. The storytellers are there. The acting talent is there. The directing talent oftentimes is there, for different reasons. But the producers, the people that get the work onto the screen, you can’t find them. And that’s a talent that you need to develop with people. It’s true in every community, and it’s true generally across the board in the independent arena.

When Bird has brought different parties to our Producers Conference over the years, I have felt that was important, again as a way of making connections. You’ve got to be able to get in doors. You’ve got to be able to reach out and get financed or have ideas of where you can go for that. And you don’t want to be simply marginalized in the old, “Well lets go talk to the CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting), lets talk to Frank Blythe (Director, Native American Public Telecommunications) and that’s it and that’s the only person you get to talk to. It’s almost like that’s a purposeful marginalization. It’s almost like that’s the way they dealt with it. And for me that wasn’t sufficient, there are other things to do.

LBK: And the schools aren’t teaching it either, for the most part. Not the creative or technical media training, nor media literacy. The creation of media is still seen as a far away dream for most people living in isolated, economically dry communities.

GG: What about the tribes? Is the explosion of gaming revenues going to help with the film industries?

LBK: There is there mentality with some Native filmmakers when they go to these casino tribes for money that they say – I’m Native, I should get money from you to make my film. Again, this goes back to the need for skilled producers… you have to ask, “Where is your business plan, where is your full script, where is your resume that shows that you actually have what it takes to can take this thing to completion, or who are the people you have lined up to fill in and help you with the parts that you need?

GG: There is some feeling I have about the need to develop that infrastructure, that kind of development of smart people who are able to make the connections, with the storytellers.

I’m happy to say this for public consumption – there are a lot of filmmakers who are really flaky, that is who they are. That’s almost their nature. You need other people that are able to understand markets, distribution outlets, companies and business plans. These are real things. You can’t just always argue, “Oh, well, none of that’s important because this is just a work of passion.” No. It’s very significant. It’s as significant as anything else. You’ve got to be able to get into that world. Otherwise this whole thing becomes almost philanthropic. It’s almost like it’s some marginality thing.

Its again about critical mass. I look at acting talent, and it’s there…good looking acting talent that could be cast in a lot of different places. And you look at directors, it’s there. What do you always need? The same thing everybody else needs. Developed scripts (good scripts always need development), and good production partners or producers that are able to put things together.

LBK: Is it possible to bring together those non-Indian professional film, people who can facilitate the creation of Native projects – not as the usual “mentors,” but as partners?

GG: We’ve certainly talked about it. And maybe it’s time that we figure out ways in which that can be done.

LBK: This is a field that takes a lot of resources, projects take a lot of money to produce. The confidence in the filmmaker’s ability to produce has to be there for them to get funded. It’s like any other business where you are trying to find funding sources, investors, and put a project together.

GG: I don’t want to give money to someone who doesn’t know what they are doing on any level. I just don’t. You don’t want to watch money burn up, you want it to have an impact. So when neophytes come into the office, you try to figure out, “Do they really have a sense of how to make this work, or is there somebody that they are relying on who can do this?” And, again, usually the excuses and also the reality is that you want someone there who is able to deliver the project.

What bothers me about what little I know about Native production – and I probably know a lot more than a lot of people, but I certainly don’t know enough – is that there were power players that seemed to be comfortable in the niche that they were in, and things just stayed that way. Nothing moved to the next step. What Sundance is good at, and I give my colleagues credit for this, is the development of individual artists. That is what they are best at, developing Chris (Eyre) and developing Sherman (Alexie), and having different artists come into the program that Bird is working with .

What Sundance has not been got at is as an organizing force within the breadth of all of the communities. I think Heather (Rae) did that in different ways on more of a sporadic basis than what we are doing here. But Bird is very much is trying to do different efforts, particularly with other (indigenous) nations and that works. But that is a complicated thing, because some could argue that this is a diversion of resources and attention.

Being self-critical, I wish I could see more results. Results for me are being able to point to “that film, that film, and that film” in the market place, this connection, that actor moving to there, that crossover going on, this producer saying they want to see Native material. Well then, let’s find the Native screenwriters who can just give the material to the established producers. Because I don’t want to talk bull, I’ve been doing this for too many years. I don’t want to talk about starting from scratch every single time. I want to feel like, “Okay, good. We’ve got things going on.”

Bird is really good at helping develop individual artists, at doing outreach to a number of different people. There’s more still to do that I feel like isn’t being done. Maybe it’s not our province, maybe it is. I’m also nervous about our role in all of this. I don’t want to be the “big Sundance” sweeping in to kind of give all of the answers here. We don’t have all of the answers. We have some of the answers. But we don’t have all of the answers.

LBK: We’ve done a lot to promote the Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum. We give it coverage every year to say, “We think this is an important thing.” People are saying that we focus a lot on arts and entertainment. We focus on where we think the needs are. And we feel that there are critical needs in media and communications. And the reason that we have done the Sundance promotion is because we sense the possibilities. It’s not because we think it is one hundred perfect there…but imagine the possibilities. This is a huge opportunity for Native America. You guys are a big brand name. Everybody knows who Robert Redford is. Everybody knows who Sundance is. You guys are the Nike of the film world. So, there’s a certain amount of cache and respect that comes along with that.

The Sundance Native Forum can a motivator for people who are feeling trapped in their community, trapped by the limitations of resources and access to education, and having a vision of creating something, and going, “How the hell do I get from here to there?”

Sundance needs to decide if that’s even your agenda, if you want to go in and help to map out that road. If you do, that’s an amazing thing. If you don’t, that’s okay because maybe it’s not your job to fill in those blanks.

GG: I think the agenda has always been that we don’t see ourselves as the people who should be in that role of mapping out that big picture. We see ourselves as being in the role of helping to develop artists. I’ve always thought that what the festival does that is interesting is that it opens up that sense of the possible, that what you do is create opportunity and inspire.

If you’ve never seen a Native work before, or if you have the image of Native work being “one kind of a thing,” then you start to see, “Wait a second, these are really different kinds of movies, these are really different kinds of storytellers, these are really different ideas.” You don’t “niche” it all. It’s not all one box, Native storytelling doesn’t all come out of one box. Well, of coarse it doesn’t. So, you start to see a range of different things. And the inspirational qualities for me are the idea that the storytellers start to see that sense of the possible of, “Oh, that’s something I can do.”

Again, do I feel that our agenda is clear? You guys are probably right. I don’t think that our agenda is clear. And I feel that maybe that s something that we have to reexamine and think about again.

LBK: Sundance is inspiring because you can find so much here that is connected to who you are and what you do, even if it is not directly about you. The stories, the films are about crossing over assumed boundaries, about making connections that are more human and universal. On that end, I can see how Bird feels compelled to include other indigenous people in the Native Forum category.

“Crossing Arizona,” the film about border crossing issues, premiered here, and it just happens to be about an issue that is directly effecting the Tohono O’odham Nation. It was not part of the Native Forum because it is not-Native made. One of the main people in the film is a tribal member. This film was directly relevant to Native America.

GG:What would you like to see happen?

FJK: We have to give our young people a venue to learn how to use media to be storytellers, to learn how to shoot film, to bring their creative ideas to fruition.

I’ve had Native leaders ask me, “What does something like this cost?” And I answer, “Whatever the tribes are willing to put into it.”

Because we are not just investing in a film, we are investing in a cultural history. We are investing in the voices of our nations. We are investing in the preservation of our people. And we appreciate that Sundance is willing to be a part of this investment.

GG: I would love to strategize about how to get to that next move, about how to see where that next stage takes us.

…to be continued…


Sundance Film Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore (L) and Frank J. King, III, Publisher of The Native Voice (R) meet at the Festival in Park City, Utah, January 25, 2006 to discuss the Native Forum and the future of Native media.

Suzanne Blue Star Boy Leads Women to peace as newly appointed Director of V-DAY in Indian Country

TNV: The V-DAY Project is kind of shocking in this area of the country, in South Dakota. It is certainly breaking new ground here…

Suzanne Blue Star Boy: It’s important.

What I’ve had to do my whole life is not be afraid to stand up. I come from the Yankton Sioux Reservation. My father is from the Ihanktowan Dakota people and he was a tribal leader. But also what he did in the community was, he was a boxer. So part of what I grew up with was that fighting was a sport. We didn’t have fighting in our house. Boys didn’t hit girls. My father was someone who really stuck up for women. So, I didn’t know that other men didn’t do that except when I looked out my door as the reservation built the housing and all that. We were all put into a situation where we were too close to each other. You know that old saying “Familiarity breeds contempt”? That’s what happened on the reservation. We were too close to each other, physically. Combine that with people who don’t have jobs or they drink alcohol, or there’s frustration. And all of a sudden, there would be fighting. So I grew up in this community where the people I loved during the day, at night I didn’t like very much. They seemed dangerous to me.

TNV: Do you have any insights you’d like to share about how cluster housing affected the extended family system?

SBSB: When you grow up in an Indian community, you’re taught how we’re like, “Keepers of the Land.” And here we were in a HUD project, that was not about being keepers of the land in any way. It was about creating kind of a suburbia that didn’t really fit – not even in South Dakota. They took a city concept, and took it out to the reservation – I’m sure it was for economic reasons – and they created a different kind of slum. It was 1971. At the time it was brand new, and it looked fine. What happened to us, it was too close, too familiar, and they put strange combinations of people together. Anyone could move anywhere. So, people who had lived off the reservation moved back onto the reservation, and people who had lived on the reservation moved into those houses. And there was already strife. They ignored the tiospaye. They combined a bunch of different people together and conflict happened.

How we addressed the conflict was…my Dad was a boxer we set up a boxing ring in our backyard. We saw men hitting women, boys and girls fighting each other…So, we started a recreation program, and we just put gloves on everybody, and put them in for three 3-minute rounds and let them duke it out. I’m gonna tell you something that happened: all the gang fighting stopped. They’d wake us up in the middle of the night, drive their cars up to the boxing arena, and they’d say, “So and so was fighting. George, would you referee?” My Dad would get up, I’d time ’em, and they’d box. We’d have these boxing matches in the middle of the night. But it stopped the violence.

TNV: Why do you think it stopped the violence?

SBSB: Well, because no one really wanted to put on those gloves. No wanted to get in the ring. You have to be an athlete. My father was put in the South Dakota Hall of Fame for his contribution to Indian Country. He started the Silver Gloves in Mission. He trained Indian boys and (non-Indian kids) from all over South Dakota. He didn’t discriminate.

TNV: Do you know how to box?

SBSB: Hell yeah. You can’t have 5 brothers and not know how to box!

TNV: How did you come to work on domestic violence issues?

SBSB: I lived in Alaska for 20 years with the Tlinget and Haida people and one of the things that happened to me living in Alaska was that I had my own journey. The main turning point in my life was that I got clean and sober. In fact, on October 30th, my birthday, I will be 20 years sober. That’s so significant, but what happened was that all the things that I didn’t do I started to do in my life. I started to be a better person, I picked up the pipe again…a pipe was delivered to me when I was 16 years old and I wrapped it away and I knew I could never use it because I drank alcohol and did drugs. So when I got sober I took it out and I started following traditional thought and ways and I used it in all the best ways. We are like these spiritual creatures having this human experience. What happened to me was that things just started being put into place with me and I started my own business probably about 12 years ago and I ended up getting my masters degree in organizational development and management consulting. I train leaders how to lead in companies and corporations.

TNV: It’s needed on the rez.

SBSB: Exactly. I started working in the villages in Alaska. It was great and what happened to me was that my own self worth, well being, and leadership kind of just took off and I ended up leaving Alaska and going to Washington, DC. I didn’t know what I was going to do I thought that eventually that I would probably make films or that I would do something really creative. But at that time Oglala Nation called me, Karen Artichoker called me and asked me if I would help them with reauthorization of the Violence Against Women bill. I then became part of the larger women’s domestic violence and sexual assault group that looked at rewriting the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women act…I had never in my life thought I would be representing Indian Country.

TNV: How did you get hooked up with the V-Day project?

SBSB: Eve Ensler came to Washington, DC and a friend of mine arranged for me to meet her. I went the show [The Vagina Monologues] and I was totally shocked and…I loved it. I couldn’t wait to meet this women. We met at a restaurant and just kinda connected. Her heart was just so out there. We talked for hours…and that night she said to me, “I am going to do something with V-Day, with Vagina Monologues…I’m not sure what it’s going to be yet, but will you be on of my Warriors?” I go, “Yeah!” But then I said, “What does that mean?” and she said, “I have no idea, yet.” We stayed in contact. After talking for over two years, Eve said “Will you come to New York, because we’re going to do this V-Day in Madison Square Garden.” I couldn’t go, but I read about it and heard about it, it was an amazing event according to everyone who was there…It was the beginning of “V-DAY.”

I told Eve, “I know you’re all over the world, but you know something…you gotta help these women in Pine Ridge.”

TNV: But you knew about the violence problem in Alaska and you knew bout it in Yankton (Ihanktowan Dakota), too.

SBSB: I did.

TNV: So you understood this was an Indian Countrywide problem.

SBSB: Absolutely.

I knew that when I was living in Alaska, they had the highest rates of sexual assault in the U.S. …You can’t be Indian and not know what’s going on in the rest of the nation. But I said, “These are the women, this is the project I’m working on (in Pine Ridge), will you help them?” I wrote her a proposal and sent it to her, asking for her to consider our project as one of the three she was going to choose. She called me back and said “I didn’t read your project, but I’m picking yours…We trust you, so if you say we should do this project, we’ll do it,” eve Ensler has this way of being in the world that is so authentic, and she’s interested in doing real work with real people. She’s the person who has made this project possible. After she came to Pine Ridge, she looked at the statistics around the U.S. and decided to develop a larger project. I handed the project back to her at that point and she said “Forget it! You are going to be the warrior, you brought us this project to begin with and you are going to lead this larger Indian Country project.”

TNV: Let’s talk about what happened at the V-Day event in Rapid City last Spring…I was there. At the last minute everyone was afraid that not many people would show up, and the crowd kept growing until there was standing room only in a very large room. It was incredible.

SBSB: It was men and women, people from all walks of life, all colors, all ages. It was incredible. Everybody was there. We raised $50,000.

TNV: For a single event in Rapid City to raise $50,000 is unheard of…unless you’re the NRA…

SBSB: Yeah.

TNV: For something that’s about minorities and about women and about justice and about taking care…it’s unheard of around here.

SBSB: Well, Eve did something really interesting. She said, “Let’s get the right combination of people there.” So, she brought Jane Fonda, Tantoo Cardinal, and Ulali, and Dana Tiger from Oklahoma. She created a synergy by bringing the right people.

TNV: So, what’s the next step?

SBSB: I could have worked anywhere but it was Eve who said to me, “You know Indian Country, I don’t. So we want you to go out there and talk to people.” So, I’ve come to South Dakota and talked with people in Eagle Butte, Lower Brule, Yankton, Rosebud. All of them have agreed to do V-Day events in 2003 on their reservations. Their version of V-Day, whatever that is. They’re all in planning stages, talking about what they want to do. Because the United States is so big, we chose two regions to start with: South Dakota (because, we already started here and I’m from here), and Alaska, because it has the highest rate of sexual assault and domestic violence in the United States. In Alaska, we already have five villages that have agreed to do V-Days.

What we’re doing this year is asking everyone, “What would your community look like if there was no violence in it?” So instead of just being reactive to the situations, we’re asking people to be pro-active and asking them to imagine what their villages, their communities would look like.

TNV: Like visioning the future.

SBSB: It’s been really interesting. When I asked the women in South Dakota, “What would your communities look like with no violence?” They all sort of stopped, and said “We’ll, just like it used to be before, like when our grandparents were alive and people followed our language. It was a place where we all wanted to live.”

This is something we can say and do – we can begin to have the dialogue in our communities and ask our elders what it was like before violence was rampant. It’s reinventing our communities. This is Eve Enler’s idea. It comes from her love of peace, balance, and community. This project feels like a compelling voice that has come through us. It’s important not to be afraid. There are grass roots women leading the way all over the place. Women all over the world are joining together as a team to work against violence and re-invent our communities.

TNV: How do you believe that we can fix what’s broken?

SBSB: The problem is not just the Department of Justice. We have a systemic problem in Indian Country that started when we signed the treaties. But we can’t keep going back and blaming things on what happened back then. To solve the problems we have to start where we are now and look at how we can collaborate – but we all have to stop blaming each other. What I know about is the process of healing. We all need to be able to see the truth and to bottom out and get honest about what’s going on.

Part of the reason I am doing this work is…while I was in the middle of doing the V-Day stuff, my first cousin, who lives on the reservation, was murdered by a man. He beat her up with a telephone. I understand now that she had taken many beatings by this man and he finally ended up killing her. That was about a year and a half ago. This was really hard…she was my age, I grew up with her, I danced with her, she was a traditional women. She got caught up in that reservation life – drinking and partying and all that. She couldn’t get out and ended up dead. Man…it really broke my heart. My sister and I were like, “How can this happen, how can this be true? Here I was, working in domestic violence and sexual assault and here she is dead by this man. I was really angry but I knew that relationship was not an option. I needed to do something that would help other people. That’s why this has become such a plight for me. My cousin’s murder really motivated me to do this work. It’s no longer outside my family…it just makes me totally understand why I’m here doing this work. ‘Cause it’s real.

TNV: Thank you.

Reflections of a Plains Indian Artist: Oglala Lakota Don Montileaux on the Work of Art

Donald F. Montileaux (Oglala Sioux) is a seasoned veteran of the Art World, and is one of the best known and most popular artists in the Northern Plains region. His work is held in many private and public collections and is instantly recognizable to the initiated. Montileaux’s highly developed style is a harmonic balance between the historic reference and his contemporary perspective, often using cultural symbols for content and lively colors for effect. The one constant of his work is a vision of life in motion. Said Montileaux, “I learned from my teacher Oscar Howe that we as Indians have a natural sense of motion, of movement in ourselves, and it translates into our artwork.” Don is currently a mentor to The First People’s Fund project, which trains artists in the business (and survival) aspects of the Arts.

TNV: When did you first have an interest in Art?

Don Montileaux: My interest in art started when I was five years old. My dad and I used to draw Mickey Mouse all the time and my mother was a judge so that began my interest. It was my first introduction, really, because he was my first mentor. From that it just grew. The interest was always there, but I went to parochial schools so I never had any education in art until I went to 9th grade at North Middle School (in Rapid City, SD). This when I actually got some training in art, then high school years and the on to the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, NM. I started there in 1966 and on through to 1969, the golden years as they refer to them. During that time a lot of the other noted artists used to tell us that only 10% of us would become artists. I think we proved them wrong because I believe it was more like 40%.

TNV: When did you first start making it into a career, or building a livelihood from your art?

DM: I’ve always tried my wings as an artist throughout my career and my life. I used to work for United Sioux Tribes and tried there for awhile, but I don’t think my style was quite ready for the Market. So I went to work for the Sioux Indian Museum and from there I went to work for the Rapid City Civic Center. For 22 years I worked as a manager and really learned a lot about the discipline of the world, because there we had to wheel and deal and do a lot of events. So I learned how to keep track of expenses and all those things I needed to have for my business career, and about four years ago I became a full time artist.

TNV: I see a lot of your art in many places like IHS hospitals, tribal buildings, and one law firm uses your art in one of their ads. When did you start to sell your art work?

DM: Even though I was at the Civic Center I was always doing my artwork. I never really quit my art since I got out of school in Santa Fe, NM. I have actually been doing my work since 1966 and, in doing so, building a reputation; steadily working and creating a style that is very unique. People who see my horses know that it’s me, and I copied those horses off Herman Red Elk, who was my mentor and who was a hide painter from the Ft. Peck Reservation. Oscar Howe was another teacher of mine way back in 1964 and 1965, so I have to give those gentlemen credit for where I am today, too, because they are the ones that gave me a sense of belonging, of who I was as a Lakota person. I developed a good rapport, getting my name out in the Indian community, and I think being accepted in our Lakota world by our elders and our peers is really a lot greater achievement than to be recognized in New York City or some place like that. As an artist, I’m portraying a life style traditionally that was art, and when entities such as law firms, hospitals, casinos and such, solicit me to do murals they, are in a sense saying, “This is truly one of our own people doing this art,” and they accept it.

TNV: Have you ever struggled financially keeping your art career going? There’s the term “starving artist,” did it ever get to that point in your career?

DM: I have always been in my heart an artist, but in order to live I always had another job and I always entered art shows. I know how it feels to be hungry because sometimes you can’t afford to buy your material to do your art work. Truly, it’s your inner self that is really struggling because you can’t do something with your creativity, so then you’re hungry all the time to do your art. I had to go to another job and leave my artwork where my heart was, and then going into the non-Indian world to buy a home and get food for my family is important; above all, it always caused me to struggle internally. I guess I’ve always been a hungry artist but in these last four years I have been fulfilled in the sense that I could create. I wake up every morning and I know where I am going, happy to be there. There are a lot of times that I am a little scared about where my next ten or twenty dollars is coming from, but a painting comes through for me and it will generate a good feeling.

TNV: When The First People’s Fund started how did you get involved with it?

DM: It started three years ago. I was at the tribal arts show in Sioux Falls, and Jackie Sever and Paul Szabo — we’re all acquainted very well — started talking about this program, and it was so nice to have something like that happen. I think not only artists but people themselves, we all need to know how to keep track of our daily itinerary and project costs, know what shows we want to go to and things like that. I felt that I wanted to get into a program like that as a fellow, but I think with the business sense I learned working at the Civic Center I got a hold of Lori Pourier (the Executive Director of The First People’s Fund) and told her I was very interested. She was trying to get people with my background, people involved to be mentors; and so for two years now I have been in the program. I truly believe in the philosophy of this program. I think it is unique in that it’s training that’s needed for any person trying achieve something in this world.

TNV: Did Lori talk you into becoming a mentor?

DM: Yeah that was kinda a bad deal … hehe … but, yeah, she said I had more to give as a mentor (rather than being a Fellow in the program). And really, in the program itself you use your art as a vessel and we put the foundation in for you through the business sense. We don’t try to change your art, but we show you how to market it, make a business out of it, how to maintain all those costs and, at the end of the year, the real bonus is that you can apply through a bank at the Blackfeet Nation through the First People’s Fund.

TNV: So First People’s Fund teaches you how to understand the business aspect of selling your art?

DM: Yeah, which is the most important part of selling a product. We have a real hard time, I think, because people that sign up for First People’s think we’re going to try to show them how to improve their art, but that’s not it. We are going to show them how to understand the business sense of art. No colleges across Native America teach you how to maintain a business.

TNV: Have there been a lot of successful artists who’ve come out of the program?

DM: You can probably put numbers and stats to Tim Audiss’ success. He applied for and got the loan and started a gallery (in Rapid City), so all those things you can see physically and you can see on a piece of paper. But truly, there has been more success than that. Everybody that’s been through the program has achieved success because maybe all of them aren’t ready to do what Tim did, but I’ve witnessed them all become better business people, which is the ultimate goal of First People’s Fund. All the artists’ successes are equal, but measured in a different way.

TNV: What kind of advice can you give to the up and coming Native artists when they approach places that buy art?

DM: There are a lot of fine, fine artists on the reservations, some of them better than I am. They have a good skill but don’t market themselves well. That’s what I know how to do. They need to know how to retain a copyright on their art so they can reproduce them into print. That one image can do a lot for you, and that is what I try to tell all these young guys; how to market and keep all their records so they know where their money is going. And they know that if they want to buy a brush they need to buy a quality brush rather then a cheap brush. Cheap brushes take you a little ways where quality lasts a long time. I think our younger ones today are becoming a little bit stronger. I can see that because twenty years ago the Native youth were shy and coy. They didn’t have something, something was missing, and in these last couple of years I can see a real sense of pride. They really know who they are, and I really feel our younger people today have a stronger understanding of their culture and of who they really are. I respect that, but we do live in two worlds — our Lakota world, but we all have to exist in the non-Indian world, too, and we have to learn how work by their rules. And no matter how hard we try not to do it, it’s just a fact that we need to learn how to live in that competitive world.

TNV: Any last words of advice?

DM: I have a web site,, and this year I am the featured artist at Northern Plains Art show in Sioux Falls. And to add another eagle feather to myself, I just became a Grandpa at 1:26 p.m. today, a little girl, so my extended family is now even better.

TNV: Does that make you an elder now then?

DM: He he … I guess in spirit I will never be an elder, but in age, maybe.

An interview with BLACKFIRE, punks from the rez

Klee Benally

I’m very wary of award shows because most of them promote, obviously, competition. That sort of goes against what we’re about as a band, because we try to promote unity, and how to move forward together. The other part of it is that award ceremonies just seem to celebrate celebrities and not the art or the artists. We went last year (to the Native American Music Awards) to try to get a feel for it and check it out.

Jeneda Benally

What’s really great here at the NAMMYs is that people are really supportive of each other. We need to network with each other and help each other out as Native Artists.


Which one of you guys said, “We want to thank the U.S. Government for pissing us off so that we write these songs!”?


The moment is so surreal when you’re up there and all you want to do is thank everybody because it’s really an incredible honor for people to recognize what you do. So, it was like, “We could probably stand up here for days thanking people and keep repeating ourselves.”


Tell us about your recent decision to sign with Canyon Records.


It is really exciting because it’s a new avenue of music for them, and it’s great for us to have some help on the distribution end. It makes life a lot easier.

It’s interesting because I believe it’s the first time Canyon has ever signed a licensing deal with an artist. We’ve created our own record company called Tacoho Records because a lot of our friends in the music industry were being exploited by mainstream corporate record companies. So, we decided to start this because we have a message. It’s from our heart. We didn’t want any manipulation or exploitation of that and it’s been hard, because it’s a constant process. We have to constantly maintain and keep active with our “Momager”, (our Mom, Berta Benally, is our manager) and our father.


It’s like owning your own business.

Clayson Benally

Yes it is.


Canyon Records is the second-oldest independent record company in the US. We somewhat grew up with them, as our father, Jones Benally, was a Canyon recording artist.


So where do you guys go from here?


We just finished a two-month long tour and we are going to back on the road soon. We hit Europe this winter


We’ll be hitting South Africa, too. We’ve travelled throughout the US, North and South, East and West and throughout Europe for the past four years. We’ve done extensive tours.


What about Indian Country?


We’re planning a followup tour to the Canyon release to hit Indian Country.


When we travel it’s almost like guerrilla warfare – it’s guerrilla touring because we’re all independent and we do everything by word of mouth.


It was really a surprise to see that Joey Ramone (of The Ramones) worked with you on this new album “One Nation Under.”


Here we are, young kids. We just liked listening to the Ramones and growing up with their music and singing along with their songs. Then we were sitting in the studio watching the Godfather of Punk, Joey Ramone, sing on our songs. It was a great experience.


It was really an honor because we had listened to the Ramones for so long. When Joey Ramone offered to sing on our album, we couldn’t turn him down – we were so thrilled that he would want to be a part of our music.


How did you get to meet him?


I met him through CJ Ramone – the bass player for the Ramones.


This record was the last project that Joey Ramone recorded before he passed away last year. In the studio with him, he’d have his good days and bad days and we’d often have to reschedule. He was just an incredibly caring and giving individual. It was a real pleasure and special opportunity for us. It was great because he supported so much independent music – he’d always go out in New York and listen to independent bands and also lend his energy and support to other musicians


So he kinda sought you guys out in a way, too.


Yeah, he was just very supportive. I think it was a relationship that was meant to be.


About the current trend in the music scene: What do you think about the current popularity of “being Native” … of people out there doing “Native Music”?


I just remember when I was a kid, always having long hair … there was a time when it wasn’t cool to be Native and there was a lot of racism … there still is a lot of racism.

In Native culture there is no separation of art and life, it’s the same. Creative expression is a part of existence, it’s a beautiful way. It’s natural. You can’t just wake up and decide, “Okay, I’m gonna do `Native Artwork’ or I’m gonna do `Native Music’.” We try to break down stereotypes. We’re somewhat labeled as a Native punk rock band, so people come expecting feathers and Indian chants – which is a part of our culture but it’s only a small part; most people, that’s all they’ve really seen of Native culture. So, how can we be progressive yet traditional in our beliefs and carry that forward into the coming generations? That’s what we try to express with our music. Traditionally, our medicine people are called Haatachlii singers. Traditionally, our stories, our history, are carried out through the old songs. The prayers are incorporated into the songs. What we do with our music is to tell stories and speak of injustices, of political issues for people who don’t have a voice. We bring light to these issues so that there can be a healing for them. That’s how we incorporate the tools that we’ve been handed.

We were pretty well stripped of our traditional language. English has been forced upon us so that’s what language we sing in. We utilize it to the fullest potential way we can.


They’re all just tools. Music and being able to write all of this. They are tools for us to get our ideas across, to communicate with people, to create a platform that will hopefully inspire people to take action. If not globally, or nationally, then locally.


Where did your band start?


It started in our living room. (much laughter) My brothers and I just kinda picked up instruments. Luckily they were all different. (more laughter)


We are all family. Our father’s a traditional singer, a Haatachlii. He works in the Indian Health Service Clinic in Winslow, AZ. He’s a traditional healer working with doctors in a program that’s been very successful. And our mother is a folksinger and songwriter from the Greenwich Village scene in New York. So you have to understand we come from this: part of us has grown up with our father, singing all night at ceremonies, and the other part is our mother: she’s a folk singer/songwriter and music promoter … and we would fall asleep backstage. We’re very inspired through those experiences to express ourselves and our ideas. It happened naturally. Today we still do our traditional dances, we still participate in ceremonies. We travel with our father, the Jones Benally Family Dance Troupe, educating people about our culture. Sometimes even in the same show we’ll do our traditional dances, and then take a break and do our band. The message is the same. For our dances our father talks about unity and knowing who you are, knowing your culture, but also that we’re all related and that we have to respect each other. We talk about the history, the struggles that we face today and the need for healing. That’s connected to the same message we have in our [BLACKFIRE] music. We try to show people there’s no distinction between the two.


There’s no line between traditional and modern for us. It’s who we are. I feel that all my traditional values, everything that I’ve learned, everything about my culture makes up who I am. There’s no modern world, there’s no traditional world, it’s this ONE world. We are forced to live in this modern world but we can still hold on to our traditional ways and our culture because that’s what got us here, that’s what our ancestors thought about. They thought about US, they thought about insuring a future for us, so today, we need to think about this as well to insure a culture for our children’s children, and so on.


…If that answers how we started our band…

Clayson Benally

There is no beginning, there is no ending … (hahaha)


Fortune cookie wisdom…


I got this fortune today … (he takes a tiny piece of crumpled paper out of his shirt pocket)

“The hard times will begin to fade, joy will take their place.” Fortune cookies are very beautiful.


There was this cartoon I saw. This guy was at a Chinese restaurant, with his emptied plate in front of him. He broke open his cookie, he read his fortune and it said “That wasn’t chicken.” (laughs and groans all around)


I had one which said “You will have bad luck until spring.” Fortunately I got at the end of winter…

Fortune cookies are incredible. Chinese immigrants came to this country seeking a better life and found a reality in which they were pressured into assimilation – that we’ve all seen being Native American. These immigrants put their wishes onto these little pieces of paper and they give them to you in a cookie. That’s a beautiful thing. It is an example of how cultures meld and evolve.


It’s important to have an open mind and be respectful. That’s the best way to overcome boundaries and borders.


It’s so important to us to educate people. That’s why we feel so passionately about our music, it’s hopefully educating people and bringing about awareness.