The Native Vote and The New Empowerment

The Native Vote experience is a fairly new, post-modern phenomenon. And while it does reflect a certain growing savvy and sophistication in Indian country, it also belies a much deeper and more profound collective loss. It is the loss of an inward-focused insulated and vibrant traditional culture, fed by the land and the sun and the seasons, wholly self-contained and not wanting for western material society. Yes, this loss began with the Indian Wars, and it has been cumulative and historic.

But the changes have also been sudden, with the loss of culture, language and the practice of traditions in these past two decades. We have witnessed and experienced the shift from a thriving “reservation culture.” with many touchstones of the older, pre-reservation lifestyles and cultural values still intact, to a newer, post-modern way of reservation life. Most of the elders who remembered the early reservation days are gone now. And with them left the simpler times and a comparatively quiet and constant existence.

Media growth and the Internet have brought desperately needed emotional and mental freedoms. They have connected formerly isolated people, surrounded by racist border towns, to the greater world collective experience. They have facilitated the breaking down of old-school redneck strangleholds, and the suffocating feeling that racism is inevitable.

However, the interest in greater society has had its sacrificial lambs. As the elders go, so go the fluent speakers and the old practices. In their place, however, a new form of Native culture is emerging – a youth-based, pop culture version encompassing hip hop empowerment. It includes the pseudo-glamour of gangster lifestyle, the power of easy violence and the flash of media savvy.

It is a strange and bi-polar merging. This new Native wave includes the most modern virtual realities, as the new generation fully embraces media, the Internet and new technologies – while also reaching back and bending down to grab handfuls of Earth and owning their own land-based traditions.

The newest form of empowerment includes it all. Unlike the older generations who have rejected the abilities to have and embrace both realities, the new heartbeat of Indian country finds life in both, necessarily needing them to solidify their new-found foot hold in the global technology-based community, while striving to maintain some critical sense of who they are against this backdrop of a new world experience.

It’s been done before, especially in Indian country, as generations have had to figure out how to negotiate their changing world and survive, but this time is significant in its difference. This generation seeks to empower itself with political grit outside it’s own tribes, it’s own communities, by learning the tools to push the wheels of power to the places they want to go.

Instead of being constantly reactionary, this is about planning, picking up the new weapons of a cyber age and playing a calculated game to take back their power.

The Native Note is one example of this new efficiency. Where past generations rejected participation in the political systems of the greater society because it was “selling out” to the “Feds,” the younger generations are gaining an understanding that participation is a way to make their collective voices heard by those people who do make decisions affecting their lives and the health of their communities, their tribes.

In a perfect and perhaps future reality, Indian people will be truly sovereign, independent, in spirit and reality from the United States government. But in the mean time, exercising the right to choose someone to lead – and casting that vote – is one way to step firmly in the soft earth and walk toward that empowered Native reality.

The Native Voice: Bits of Blog from the Obama Campaign Trail

obamatravelingpress  1891Saturday, May 17, 2008

This morning started early, with bright, warm sunshine in Portland, Oregon. Sunday morning is no time to relax if you are on the campaign trail with Barack Obama. The bus headed out of town, over the river and into the suburbs, accompanied all the way by the ever-present police escort. Being “on the campaign” means being swept by secret Service every morning, and being inside the motorcade on the road all day.

A short trip on the interstate and then winding through roads, thick trees on either side. The campaign trail is definitely off the main highways, into the smaller towns and county fairs of the countryside. Yesterday was an ice cream stop, in the small town near Rosedale, as a treat to locals and traveling staff. The press crammed into this small store, sandwiched behind the the counter to get the angle, to tell the story. Michelle and Barack Obama enter the store, and act casual, greeting the people gathered on the sidewalk as they come in, then shaking hands all around inside the store. A studied casualness, ordering ice cream, tasting flavors, playing with a friend’s baby, paying at the cash register even though the owner says its on the house. Barack says, “I insist,” and pulls out his wallet to pay for ice cream he’s ordered for his wife, friends and staff in the room.

The traveling press can not help but be aware of the star magnitude of Barack. A lot of discussion and analysis goes on about the details the people who wait in line in the wee hours of the morning to get a seat at the rally, the personality and presentation of Obama, the boring repetition of the events “Yeah it was a good speech, that one is always good,” and endless comparison between the candidates and campaigns. Many of the traveling press have been on both the Hillary and the Barack road shows, and some have even worked on the McCain campaign trail. These people live with the campaigns day in and day out. They get to know the candidates in a way that is unusual – they are in close proximity every day on the trail – on the plane, at the events…. but they are kept enough at a distance to keep their cool, their journalistic resolve of neutrality. And then, some of them don’t. Whispers are made, one to the other, “I know as a journalist I am supposed to be impartial, but… wow.” One writer, a bureau chief for a major metropolitan newspaper, insists that it is all the same to him. He doesn’t “believe the hype” and is certain that the public is being duped, stating, “Hope is the opiate of the masses.” On the other end of the spectrum, a reporter for a major cable news station states confidentially that “Barack is the REAL DEAL man,” and he tears up about the life-shifting experience this campaign has been for him.

We arrived at the Iris Festival of Kaizer in the afternoon. Billed as a “county fair,” this festival was carnival rides and food stands nestled on pavement between a Best Western hotel one one side and a bank on the corner. Unusually hot for Oregon in May, the temperature crept over 90 degrees as everyone waited for Obama to “finish a conference call.” Obama emerged from the big black bus and started to work the line, shaking hands and smiling. One woman on the line broke down sobbing as Barack greeted her. Shaking visibly, she placed her hand over her mouth. He offers to take a photo with her, and she and her friends surround the senator, all smiling, wiping their eyes. This is a familiar scene here on the campaign trail. Shrieking fans, women (and men) breaking down in tears. And it is not limited to the young and the hip. The crowds are mixed with people of all ages. Yesterday an elderly white woman in a wheel chair looked up at Obama with sparkling eyes and he spent several minutes with her. Exactly what they talked about we couldn’t hear, but it made for a good photo opportunity. Michelle was right behind him, and also leaned in to greet the woman as her family snapped photos and said, “That’s my grandma!”

The difficult thing was trying to get even one shot off. Outside, working a crowd, with moveable structures of all shapes and sizes, this stop presented a security nightmare. It therefore also provided a challenge to the press trying to get photographs. Surrounded by protection, pressing fans, secret service and personal body guards, it became very difficult to find a space in the narrow aisles to get any real work done. I ended up walking next to Michelle Obama at one point, and she extended her hand to introduce herself, we exchanged a few words and then were swept up in the flow of people moving quickly to the next greeting point.

Later in the day, we headed back to Portland and got time to relax and enjoy the evening.

Sunday, May 18, Portland and Pendleton, Oregon

It’s back on the bus, but the destination wasn’t far.. .just down the road to the waterfront, where a surprise record crowd of over 80,000 awaited us. People as far as the eye could see. The air prickled with energy as Obama took to the stage and the crowd roared to life. Deafening. I spotted a group of Native people in the crowd, and after Obama left the stage, the press photographers used the stage as a vantage point. I pointed at the group as they were holding hand drums aloft as a message in a sea of people. They waved and yelled and made “O for Obama” signs with their hands.

This crowd surpassed all records set in the 2008 presidential campaign cycle, and was more than double the size of the largest Obama rally to date. Faces of all ages, and a spectrum of races and ethnicities were represented in the record-breaking crowd.

Once we got back on the busses, we headed to the airport to board the Obama plane once again, moving from urban Portland to the more isolated area of Pendleton. A quick “wheels up” and soon we were descending through the clouds to see beautiful green and multicolored rolling hills as we came in for a landing and another campaign stop.

This was a high school gymnasium “Town Hall” meeting, and Obama gave a shout out to the Umatilla Tribe of Umpqua Indians as part of his welcoming introduction. His speech mentioned Native Americans as part of “all Americans,” and he continued his message of unity and hope for the country at large.

Interesting thing is, I interviewed a few Native people in the crowd, and they did not stress any Indian affairs issues as their primary concerns. They are concerned with the same issues as the average American. The answer to my question of “What is the most important issue for you?” was “The war in Iraq.” The second answer was, “The economy.” These people are feeling a part of the larger society and a young Umatilla man even said, “This is not about Native America, it is about America, as one.” And then he started listing other ethnic groups as “Being in it together, as one.” Whether this message is coming from the internet, the Obama campaign…or is just a new relationship that the Native youth have with the larger world because of the increased media and technological access to a global community is yet to be seen. But it was interesting, to be sure. When I asked their grandmother her most important issue, she answered that she was “Concerned with the youth, that they get focused on something, on anything.”

Maybe it is this spoken message by Obama that is changing the relational understanding that the Native youth are having with the rest of the world. This is a new phenomenon. Past elections have seen native people either not participating, or saying “What is this person going to do for me, for my issues, for my community?” Maybe it is a regional difference, but this definitely reflects a shift in the issues Indian people care about.

Obama stated in his speech here, “There’s been a tragic relationship between the US government and tribes around this country. It is important that we have a government that respects the government-to-government relationships with tribes…. So many Native American children are not getting what they need in order to succeed. We need to be a better partner…. The BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) is an example of one the bureaucracies that needs to get out of Washington… ”

Monday, May 19, Billings and Crow Agency, Montana

The day on the campaign trail started off with a trip to a high school in Billings, Montana where Sen. Barack Obama gave a speech focusing on national and foreign policy. Afterwards, he held a town hall-style meeting and took questions from the crowd. Obama called on a young Native man, who asked what he would do to help “Indian Country and the tribes” with a host of different issues.

Obama spoke for over three minutes on a variety of issues, including honoring treaties, respecting tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship, and fixing the Indian health system. He also expressed his support for a bill to create a National Native American Heritage Day, slated to be the day after Thanksgiving. The goals of the initiative include working with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to develop and distribute Native curriculum to public schools nationwide.

Next on the schedule was a trip to Crow Agency, on the Crow Reservation, where representatives from seven Montana tribes and other visiting tribal leaders gathered for an outdoor rally at the Apsaalooke Veterans Park near the Little Bighorn Battlefield. The Crow Game, Fish and Parks Department estimated the total attendance to be over 4,000 people, including tribal members and others from surrounding communities.

Obama was introduced by Robert Old Horn and the Black Eagle family, who had held an adoption ceremony for the candidate, giving him the family name “Obama Black Eagle,” and a Crow name that translates to “One who helps all the people across the land.”

Crow Tribe Chairman Carl Venne introduced Obama, presenting him with gifts for his “wives and daughters.” “I only actually have one wife,” Obama joked. “I can come home with more family, but not with more wives.” The crowd laughed and a few people shouted out, “We love you, Obama!”

After thanking the tribe for the gifts, Obama reflected on the historic wrongs inflicted on Indian Country by the United States. He stated that he would insist that the federal government would honor treaty obligations, uphold the sovereign relationship, fix the inefficient Bureau of Indian Affairs, fully fund the Indian Health Service and investigate and fix the broken trust fund. Obama said he would not treat tribes as a singular entity, noting that “One size, one fix does not fit all” when it comes to tribal issues.

He ended his speech with a promise to return to Crow country and a recognition of the responsibility that came along with his adoption into the tribe. “I am a member of the family now,” he said.

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.”

Abortion Debate Editorial. Religion: The Source of the Conflict (published Oct. 2006)


Op-Ed and photos by Lise King

The anti-abortion cause is about a very well-funded and well-organized group of people who believe that their religious values are the correct ones, that anyone who does not agree with them are misguided and lost souls, and that it is their God-sworn duty to protect us from ourselves (sounding familiar?). I went to the rally in Rapid City in opposition to HB 1215, which is where I asked the Pro-lifers about their views on HB 1215, and their personal values.

I went as a journalist, and I made a supreme effort to hear both sides of the debate objectively. What I found was a debate divided clearly between the “pro-rights of the individual” versus the individual’s interpretation of the “word of God.” Religion, and the ages-old argument over whose interpretation is the correct one, is at the center of this very contentious debate. As I approached the rally on foot (parking close was impossible), I found myself becoming very emotional. I was surprised at the numbers of people who crowded the sidewalks, the noise, and the energy being expressed by those people who turned out in opposition to the Bill. Strong expression that is not of an evangelical nature is rarely seen in this Republican cow town. I was so proud of those men and women who came out to exercise their freedom of speech and expression in an environment that tends to punish those who would dare to contradict the our right-wing Christian majority in Western South Dakota.

After taking the prerequisite photos and notes, I turned my attention to the other side of the street where a group had gathered to oppose the opposition. They were dominated by Catholic church signs and children in strollers, and a gaggle of teenagers shouting at passing cars about Jesus and babies. They cheered and jumped, smiling wide, like they were at a football game as people honked at them. They waved American flags, they held cute pictures and had small children holding signs for the passing traffic to read. I was surprised by my own adrenaline rush in response to this scene.

As a journalist, I have found that I am human and will emotionally react to situations, but it is my job to acknowledge my reactions and still objectively represent both sides of an issue. So, I went bravely into the crowd across the street and began to ask questions. I approached one woman who was quieter than the rest, standing behind the shouting line at the edge of the curb. She held a sign that said, “Re: Abortion After Rape: Don’t Follow One Act of Violence With Another Act of Violence.” I asked her to explain. She said, “I don’t think the bill went far enough. If a baby is conceived, that is God’s will, no matter what….If a woman is raped or incested, or is going to die because of carrying a baby, then that is God’s will, too.” She made it clear that her Christian faith guided her to know that this is God’s Truth. I pointed out that there were plenty of Christians on the other side of the street, to which she responded, “Those aren’t real Christians. They are lost. They are wrong. They don’t know the Lord like I know the Lord.”

Then I went to the screaming bunch at the front of the pack. One young man held a sign that said, “We Vote Pro-Life.” I asked him if he was old enough to vote. He said, “No, but I will be some day.” He was fifteen. It turned out that the young group, many of them in uniform, were from the local St. Thomas More Catholic High School. Several of them expressed that it was cool that they got to skip classes to be out there on the street. They all were very interested in telling me their opinions about abortion. Many of the boys were quick to point out that the sin was sex and that they were virgins. The girls, as a group, were less vocal about their personal affairs. Twice, our conversation was interrupted by adult men who wanted to engage me in debate. I was simply asking questions, I explained, not debating any issues. I told one man that I was “not interested in arguing with him. “But I am interested in arguing with you,” he responded aggressively. At that point I looked around to make sure that my husband was close by.

When I got back to The Native Voice office, I called the Principal at St. Thomas More High School. He said that the school was not affiliated with the event, but that more than thirty kids had been checked out of school that day by their parents to be at the rally. I asked him if he believed it appropriate for fourteen, fifteen and sixteen year old students to be participating in an event that was, at the core, about sexual issues. He responded by saying, “In the Catholic Church, we teach them young, and we teach them often.” And therein lies the core of the matter.

The “Pro-Life” protesters were expressing a religious belief. I asked many of them how they explained the large numbers of Christians who were protesting HB 1215, and pointed out that President Bush himself expressed his concern about an anti-abortion bill that would not allow for his “three exceptions” of rape, incest and the life of the mother being threatened. The answer was clear and consistent: those are not “true” Christians who “know the Lord.” Two people said that the difference is one of being Protestant versus being Catholic. One person countered them, saying, “Oh, don’t go there.”

If that is, in fact, the core value split (this is not to leave out the non-Christians, but the majority of Americans identify themselves as Christian, and in even ihgher numbers in South Dakota), there may be no reconciling the two sides. After all, Protestants are so-named because they were “protesting” the Catholic Church. As the French say, “Plus ce qui change, plus c’est la meme chose.” The more that changes, the more that remains the same. As a publisher, it is very interesting to me that it was the advent of the printing press that historically went hand-in-hand with the rise of Protestantism. Before that time, for the most part the only Christian Europeans who could read were the wealthy aristocracy and members of the Catholic Church. Books, including the Bible, were made and written by hand. They were extremely expensive. Thus, the clergy “interpreted” God’s word for the masses, since only they could read and interpret and therefore teach the word of God. This proved useful in many ways.

Once the printing press made books affordable and more available to the people, people learned to read. And once they began reading scripture for themselves, they began asserting their own interpretations. This did not go over well with the Catholic Church, which at the time was selling indulgences to European royalty (these were pieces of paper that “indulged” the sins of the aristocracy, and forgave their sins, for a hefty price). Having the power to use one’s own mind to seek out the meaning of God and scripture rather than simply being told what to believe and being a servant to the decree of the church is a principle difference between Protestant and Catholic. Much blood has been shed over this debate. Let’s not carry that tradition forward into darkened rooms where women will resort to extreme measures to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

When John F. Kennedy was running for President of the United States, there was concern over his being the first Catholic President. There was speculation that he would always be beholden to the word of the Pope first, not the will of the People. Kennedy was progressive in terms of the Catholic Church, and a Pope-centered presidency was not the legacy that he left.

One must wonder where the Catholic South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds’ views on abortion are formed. One must hope that he will remember that our Founding Fathers were wise in their musings on the necessary separation of Church and State. It is not to say that we are not to expect our leaders to have their lives guided by their spiritual or religious beliefs, but that they must be thoughtful, balanced and measured in their application of leadership – and that they must respect and defend the spiritual and religious diversity of the people they are supposed to represent. Catholic or not, Christian or not, “believers”…or not.

In the end, the issue isn’t even about whether or not you believe in abortion. It is about whether or not you believe in the right of government to legislate and regulate such personal matters based upon specific religious beliefs.

[Sidebar] Girls from St. Thomas More Catholic High School in Rapid City take a break from classes to rally against the HB 1215 protesters. [Sidebar] This protester’s belief: “If a baby is conceived, that is God’s will….If a woman is raped or incested, or is going to die because of carrying a baby, then that is God’s will, too.”

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. http://www.sundance.org [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