Recently, BBC World Service broadcasted a very special profile on Native American News by speaking with key local members on the history of their media representation.
Host Peter Bowes interviews and hears from the founders of Northwest Indian News (NWIN), the first network television news program operated and initiated by Native Americans. It covered topics ranging from whaling rituals to canoe journeys, and helped demolish negative tribal stereotypes by representing their authentic lifestyle.
We sat down with independent filmmaker, BBC interviewee, and Filmworks Innovation Lab funding recipient Tracy Rector to discuss the history of the Native American role in media production and their representation today.
Washington Filmworks: The BBC piece gave an excellent brief history of Northwest Indian News (NWIN) and Native Americans’ role in the evolution of media. What are some of your favorite landmarks or strides that have been made in Native American representation in Washington State’s film industry?
Tracy Rector: Here in the Pacific Northwest we have a number of amazing media and film contributors that are known nationally and internationally, but not necessarily by the local non-Native population of the Puget Sound region. The first person that comes to mind is Phil Lucas (Choctaw) who was an American filmmaker who wrote, produced, directed, edited, and acted in more than 100 films, documentaries, and television programs. In addition, Lucas acted in and served as a technical advisor on cultural content for Northern Exposure, MacGyver, and for national broadcast multi-series PBS programs. He also taught film at Bellevue Community College for the last eight years of his life where he established the vibrant American Indian Film Festival in 2003. While this well known Issaquah filmmaker was one of the first American Indians to find national acclaim behind the camera, he wasn’t interested in just shattering stereotypes. Phil Lucas showed Native people as they really were — their struggles and successes in a country that is still coming to grips with its history.
Another amazing treasure in this region is the film couple Sandy (Makah) and Yasu Osawa. Sandy Osawa broke media barriers in the 1970s by launching the first ten-part national television series to be entirely produced, acted, and written by Native Americans. The work of this couple continues to stand apart by combining old values with new stories, while challenging more popular images of Native Americans. Seventeen of Osawa’s documentaries have been broadcast on both PBS and commercial television stations. Osawa was the first Native American filmmaker to produce a one-hour documentary for network television, called The Eighth Fire, which aired on NBC stations in 1992.
And finally, our region is being represented by her work in the academic world as colleges including UC Berkeley, University of Arizona, and Harvard University use her films in the classroom.
WF: What challenges and opportunities exist for Native Americans in media today?
TR: In terms of challenges and opportunities for Native American and Indigenous Media, I feel that at the very foundation there are many amazing stories and storytellers out there and people with incredible life experiences that are unique and varied. I think in many ways their stories are more diverse than what most Americans have been exposed to in a lifetime. These stories and the rich oral history in Native culture mean that there is a great pool of original material. Another, sometimes controversial factor, is that about a quarter of the tribes have been able to have successful gaming businesses and they have often times invested a lot of money back into building up resources in their communities. This means tribes like the Suquamish, Tulalip, Muckleshoot and Snoqualmie have been incredibly supportive of Native-made media. That said, I wish that there were more programs, support, and access to equipment for Indigenous media makers not just from a few tribal nations but from non-Native sources such as the US government or foundations. We need more equity in accessing these tools for skill building. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are fantastic examples of countries that have invested a lot of money into their artists, and specifically in their indigenous communities, and the results are incredible. Some of the best work is coming out of these countries because there is conscious support and programming to train filmmakers. There is the recognition that there is a wealth of ideas within these communities and their creatives. I’ve been working with the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) for the past ten years to produce a training program for youth called SuperFly. It has been fantastic collaborative experience. This year we are introducing a new project called 4th World. We want this new training program to be intergenerational and especially focused on supporting underrepresented indigenous filmmakers such as women and LGBTQ persons.
WF: What organizations exist to help Native Americans tell their stories?
TR: For Native youth, media making can be many things: a form of self-expression, a method of empowerment, an education in leadership and teamwork, a way of learning about and preserving their own culture, a way of connecting with their communities and their elders, and a skill that can lead to a satisfying career in the media industries. Native youth media adds a new voice to the debate on Native issues, what some call “diversifying dialogue.” Many also see filmmaking as a compelling activity that can provide alternatives for at-risk youth. Organizations that support Native youth media makers exist to answer all these needs and to train the next generation of Native filmmakers, storytellers, and educators. Including our organization, Longhouse Media, others are In Progress, Outta Your Backpack, Wapikoni Mobile, Migizi, Reel to Reel, and In Progress. Finally, “youth” media is seen as coming from young people in an age range of about 12 to 24, who are usually in the early stages of learning productions skills. As their skills and commitment strengthen, they are increasingly seen as “emerging” filmmakers, a term that reflects their own determination to pursue filmmaking as a profession. For something exciting for 2015, in partnership with the SIFF and the Sundance Film Institute, we are launching a new training program for this emerging and early stage adult filmmakers which will connect them to industry professionals and one another via a cohort model. I’m especially interested in skill building for indigenous women and LGBTQ filmmakers. It’s amazing that we have such a supportive film community here in Seattle that will nurture a national program like this to take off!
WF: What Native American media-makers inspire your work, and why?
TR: There are many Native American filmmakers who inspire my work. My top ten, in no particular order, are Marcella Ernst, Rose Stiffarm, Deidra Peaches, Lisa Jackson, Heather Rae, Alanis Obomsawin, Nanobah Becker, Danis Goulet, Sandy Osawa, and Sydney Freeland – all fantastic female filmmakers!
WF: What advice do you give Native American talents interested in pursuing a career in media? What do you see as the future of media for the next generation?
TR: From what I’ve seen and experienced over the years, it is most important to jump in and learn. Show up. Do as much as possible to be surrounded by filmmakers and others interested in and creating media. Live it and breathe it. Also, I have come to realize that some formal education is really key. In Canada, they have an amazing indigenous film industry, and it’s because there is much more public support for the arts but there are also many more programs for training and skill building for First Nations filmmakers. Also, media making is best as a team effort. Collaborate, try out new ideas, feel the terror of trying something completely new, play a lot and be open to new creative inspirations. But most of all, learn to work with others and hone in on a skill that you are really passionate about. And if any training opportunities present themselves, take them!
Tracy Rector – Tracy Rector is the Executive Director and Co-founder of Longhouse Media and an independent filmmaker. After having worked with over 2,500 youth, since January of 2005, Longhouse Media has seen the artistic and community growth of many young native filmmakers. Tracy is a Sundance Institute Lab Fellow, is the recipient of the Horace Mann Award for her work in utilizing media for social justice, and is currently an Arts Commissioner for the City of Seattle.