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Apache 8: Fighting Fire with Women

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The documentary Apache 8, which will be showing on April 3 at the Native American Film + Video Festival at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, tells of the women firefighters from the White Mountain Apache Tribe of Arizona. “You never knew what you were going to face,” says firefighter Katy Aday early in the film. “You were with a bunch of women that could handle anything.”

The crew was founded in the mid-1970s and became well known as one of the top wildlife fire fighting crews in the country. But it remained largely unknown outside the fire fighting community and the Fort Apache Reservation. When director Sande Zeig first learned of its existence, she knew immediately she wanted to document it. “I was in the Phoenix airport on my way home,” Zeig recalled, “and I walked through this group of women. They were all ages, their 20s through their 50s, all in yellow shirts. I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t know they were Native American. I asked and they said they were Apache firefighters, and I said—the words just fell out of my mouth, I said, ‘I want to make a film about you.’”

Zeig says the job of firefighter was one of the few available on the reservation. ���The fire safety department was looking for people to work, and these women wanted jobs,” she explained. “They didn’t want to be cooks. And they proved to be very responsible—maybe even more responsible than the male firefighters. They really excelled, and they fought fires all over the country.”

Apache 8 is also the story of Cheryl Bones, the no-nonsense crew founder who ran the team for more than 30 years. “In the army, they have sergeants; Cheryl was one of those high-ranking sergeants,” said one of the Apache 8 alumnae in a speech at a reunion. “she stated the order and we followed it to a T. Back then, if we had joined the army, we would have made it.”

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