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Film festival showcases best of American Indian media

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SAN FRANCISCO ? The American Indian Film Institute held its 26th annual festival here early this month. Though only a few hundred miles north of Hollywood, it may as well have taken place on another planet.

"I just think that this is a great showcase," said Lindsay Wagner, the former Bionic Woman and a presenter, before the show.

Some of the tried and true actor and artist stereotypes were evident. An over-long awards ceremony Nov. 10, rife with self-indulgent, rambling speeches, sent half the audience into the rainy night well before Randy Redroad received a Best Picture Award for his latest effort, "The Doe Boy."

Redroad cleaned up that night and walked away with the best director honors, beating out Kate Montgomery's "Christmas in the Clouds."

In all "The Doe Boy," a coming of age film of cultural discovery set in the Oklahoma Cherokee country, earned five awards including Best Actor, which went to newcomer James Duval.

"The Doe Boy" is a story of cultural discovery and in his acceptance speech Duval pointed out that the film was a cultural discovery for himself as well. The film made him reconnect to his Creek grandfather who died before he was born.

In his acceptance speech, Redroad thanked his "Cherokee mother and Irish father," and seemed a bit nervous having so many awards bestowed.

"This is just a big honor, I don't know what to say except I'll be making more films," Redroad said after the ceremony.

The other main awards went to Jeri Arredondo, for best actress in "The Doe Boy" while Sam Vlahos won Best Supporting Actor for "Christmas in the

Clouds." Jade Herrera completed the near sweep for "The Doe Boy" as Best Supporting Actress.

The award for Best Documentary Feature went to the John Goheen-directed film "Lady Warriors" about the Tuba City, Ariz., high school girls cross country team.

A Pete Red Sky-directed piece titled "The Vision," won Best Live Short Subject. It captures the ultimate clash of cultures between American Indians and a Jesuit priest.

"It just feels super cool to win this award. I was just telling a good friend that I wasn't going to get it (the award), but I guess I was wrong," Red Sky said after the ceremony.

The Best Documentary Short award was given to Bernie Whitebear for "A Modern Warrior" and Robert Mirabel's fusion of modern and traditional music and dance snagged a Best Music Video Award.

The Best Public Service video award went to "Rez Robics," directed by Pamela Belgarde and Gary Rhine. It starred comedian Drew LaCapa and Elaine Miles, formerly of CBS Television's acclaimed series "Northern Exposure."

Miles returned to the stage to receive an Eagle Spirit Award, a special award given to American Indian innovators in the visual media.

"I was shocked as hell," Miles said. "I thought that I was all done for the evening, but then they told me to stay for the Eagle Spirit Award. This was my first time at the festival and this was neat."

Carla Robinson, an American Indian anchor with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. also received an Eagle Spirit Award for pioneering work in television journalism.

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In between the awards there was some first-rate entertainment. Comedian Don Burnstick made the audience simultaneously laugh hysterically and squirm nervously with his edgy brand of American Indian humor.

"You know you_re a Redskin when you're putting stuff on layaway at the dollar store," Burnstick said during his routine.

The Yup'ik singers known as Pamyua took the stage before intermission and treated the audience to funked up versions of traditional Yup'ik and Greenlander songs.

"It's just fun to perform at a festival like this. You can write down that I'm just one happy dude," Pamyua singer Steve Blanchette said.

After receiving laudatory comments for Rez Robics, LaCapa took the stage with his "300 pounds of love" and delighted the audience with a routine in which he took off his pants to reveal a print-patterned wrestler's outfit.

The awards ceremony featured a lengthy tribute to the American Indian Film Institute's founder and director Michael Smith, who announced publication of a new book on the festival

"This festival is bringing forth the best in Indian film and I'm happy to be here as part of it," Smith said.

Despite some adopted Hollywood traditions, the festival was an overall earthy celebration of American Indians coming of age in the film industry. Gone are other older, more sinister stereotypes of the old Hollywood, one where Rock Hudson could portray an Indian chief whose dialogue seldom included more than the words "how" and "wampum."

In its place is a vibrant, post-smoke signals world of American Indian cinema, where the greatest crime is that American Indian characters are not portrayed as thoughtful and complex. When the festival staged its first set of screenings and award ceremonies 26 years ago, the idea was to advance American Indian voices and faces in cinema.

The success of Indian actors in the last quarter century began to strip away the anonymity that once enshrouded Indian Hollywood. Replacing once obscure actors, who were recognizable only to the Indian community, there are several nationally recognized faces darting here and there during the festivities.

The instances of self-indulgence were almost forgivable as the awards show, all in all, was a pageant to display the best in modern American Indian cinema and entertainment. There were many opinions on the current state of Hollywood and Indians in Hollywood.

The evening's co-hosts were Michael Horse and National Congress of the American Indian President Sue Masten. Though he has been in numerous television shows, Horse is perhaps best known for his role as Deputy Tommy "Hawk" Hill on the classic cult television series "Twin Peaks" created by avant-garde filmmaker David Lynch. Horse doesn't mind being associated with that role.

"Man, 'Twin Peaks' ruined me for television. I mean, how can you top a show like that. I look at most TV today and see that it's crap. I've been fortunate to know good people who write quality scripts," Horse said.

Before the show, Horse told Indian Country Today he realized early on that an actor can only be as good as a script. He said he feels mainstream Hollywood has yet to allow Indians to play roles accessible to modern children, such as successful professional people.

Floyd Red Crow Westerman knows the difficulty American Indians have in getting good parts in Hollywood. A veteran actor for three decades, Westerman appeared in numerous films and television spots and is an elder statesman of sorts for young American Indian actors.

Though Westerman arguably has had one of the best careers in the media over the years, he is not ready to quit. He is working with several Indian casinos to develop an American Indian television show on cable.

Westerman said awards shows such as the festival are important because they are a way for different American Indian artists to meet and celebrate how far they have come and ponder the amount of work that lies ahead.

"I've supported this festival for many years and now I think that it's moved to another level. It's another step toward the completion of the work that I've done over the years."