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American Indian Film Festival celebrates a quarter of a century

SAN FRANCISCO - "Leading the Herd for 25 years," was proudly embossed across this year's programs for the annual American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.

Originally founded in 1975, the festival, and its sister organization, The American Indian Film Institute, serve as modern icons in the world of Indian cinema.

The vision of festival founder/director Mike Smith was "promoting positive images and building self-esteem in our young people by putting together a program of films that would reinforce pride and break down some of the stereotypes." And for more than a quarter of a century, it has never failed to live up to that commitment.

Opening up the Nov. 9-18 festivities was a photographic montage representing 25 years in films - a journey that exuded pride, nostalgia and accomplishment.

To celebrate this year's milestone, three posthumous tributes were given to, as Smith said, "three men who galvanized and inspired Indian country for many decades, and who still continue to serve their people." Will Sampson, Chief Dan George and Bernie Whitebear were honored for their "humor, heart and humility".

Michael and Sandra Horse were the hosts for the opening evening, introducing presenters and keeping things on track while audiences were treated to comic relief and music. Charlie Hill performed and newcomer Cree comedian Don Burnstick from Winnipeg, Canada, brought tears of laughter from the audience with his "Indian" rendition of "You Might Be A Redskin if ... ."

Most notable howls came with lines: "If your wife is a better fighter than you, then you might be a Redskin" or "If you point with your lips, you might just be a Redskin."

Musical guests ranged from country western singer Lori Church, to the famed a cappella group Ulali, and rock/bluesman Derek Miller, to the inspiring force of folksinger Floyd Red Crow Westerman who sang of "history, language, spirit, humor, a celebration and the optimism of the future - roads leading to home."

Smith's call for "a time to remember" resonated throughout the night as the audience reflected on 25 years in film, and enthusiastically anticipated another quarter of a century of visual portraits from Native America.