How Native filmmakers are restoring cinematic narratives

Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018 6:08 PM
Director Sydney Freeland turned to Kickstarter to complete the funding for her 2014 feature based on reservation life in her own New Mexico hometown.

You nervously down your beer at a Toronto bar, then race across the street to the theater where your film is having its international premiere. As you take your seat, it hits you: Your face, your very soul will be projected – and judged – by indigenous cineastes and filmmakers from around the world.

ImagineNATIVE – the world’s largest indigenous film festival – is underway, and it’s too late to back out now. You’re playing with the big kids – indigenous filmmakers from across the globe sharing, competing, networking and storytelling.

Indigenous film has taken a long time to reach mainstream audiences and still has a long way to go. “Smoke Signals,” the 1998 indie hit written and directed by an all-Native American crew, is widely regarded as the first film to cross over. But since then, few mainstream movies by, for and about indigenous people have appeared. Hollywood has largely ignored indigenous narratives.

Film festivals are often the only way to catch indigenous movies. Occasionally, they feature a big-budget, feature-length “indigenous” film – the kind with indigenous actors or themes for set dressing but a white protagonist. The Native American supporting actor generally exists for the white star to bounce ideas off, learn from and perhaps try to save (with mixed results).

Festivals with dedicated indigenous programming, like Durango’s and Santa Fe’s, are a better bet for First Nations cinephiles. But indigenous film festivals are the best: Toronto, New Zealand, Finland and Oklahoma for instance. They provide a place for filmmakers to showcase work and bring Native film scholars together.

Here, you’ll hear critiques of the quintessential American-settler fantasy, such as “Last of the Mohicans” and its nine American adaptations.

“Where the white man can become a better Indian than the Indian,” said film scholar Theo Van Alst, director of the Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State University.

The gold standard for racist cinematic portrayals of indigenous people remains John Ford’s 1939 Western “Stagecoach.” Van Alst believes its glowing support of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion was perhaps its most damaging effect. But “Stagecoach” dehumanized Native American people and helped establish cowboy-and-Indian stereotypes, as in what Van Alst calls the “Magic Bullet Theory.”

“White bullets invariably find their mark no matter what angle they are fired from, and they’re almost 100 percent fatal,” Van Alst said. “On the other hand, it takes (more Indian) shots to hit a white guy.”

The lack of indigenous films is largely because of a lack of funding. In June 2017, Canada formed the Indigenous Screen Office to support indigenous filmmakers. In the first year, development and production work began on 35 projects directed by indigenous people. In Norway, the International Sámi Film Institute supports the indigenous people of northern Europe. No such office exists in the United States.

So why do indigenous filmmakers persist? When the lights come up on your film and you take in that sea of smiling faces, you remember there is no better medium to work in, and no better audience to screen for. It’s just you and a few other people, sitting in a room, telling stories.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director based in Albuquerque. This analysis was first published on