SWINOMISH, Wash. – The Coast Salish people have a saying: “When the tide is out, the table is set,” a reference to the rich resources of the Salish Sea.
Chester Cayou, a member of the Swinomish Senate, remembers in the 1920s and 1930s when the sea set the table on the shores of March Point, which juts into Fidalgo Bay.
“There was an abundance of duck, deer, horse clams, butter clams, razor clams. Now, because of the contamination and the pollution, it’s very difficult [to harvest those resources]. Everyone knows that.”
In the late 1800s, Samish and Swinomish people lost their homes on March Point to homesteaders; in fact, the boundaries of the Swinomish reservation were changed in 1873 by President Grant to allow for non-Native settlement of the point. Today, the point is the site of two refineries that process crude oil into diesel, gasoline, propane and other fuels for markets within Washington state.
A documentary, “March Point,” questions for the first time the legality of the reservation boundary adjustment and documents the refineries’ environmental impacts. The documentary will be aired on PBS’ “Independent Lens” Nov. 18.
The documentary has been acclaimed as “powerful and poetic.” But equally powerful is the fact that this film was made by three teenagers who were overcoming major obstacles in their lives: Nick Clark, 18, Grand Ronde/Swinomish; Cody Cayou, 18, Swinomish; and Travis Tom, 17, Swinomish/Lummi. All are seniors at La Conner High School.
At the time they took on the project through the Native Lens youth filmmaking program, they had been having trouble in school or had been involved in substance abuse after suffering big losses in their families. Their work on the documentary paralleled their journey from childhood to adulthood; in the process, they came to understand themselves, their culture and the environmental threat to their people.
Clark said Native Lens gave him purpose and direction. “I get to travel a lot – and I focus better on my school work.”
In fact, grades picked up for all three and they will graduate this year. They want to
pursue careers in filmmaking.
The first version of the documentary was titled “Slow Burn” and was expanded into the current longer version, which includes footage of the trio visiting congressional representatives in Washington, D.C., and trying to get the governor of Washington to respond to the issues they raise.
In the documentary, they take the camera to the beach to film pollution along the shoreline. They dig clams for contamination testing, talk to elders about environmental health, and interview Swinomish government leaders and a refinery manager.
With Swinomish General Manager Allan Olson, they review documents showing the original boundaries of the reservation as established by the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, and discuss the legality of President Grant’s revision of the boundary – a revision that could only be made by Congress, which approved
“‘March Point’ is a coming-of-age story about the journey three youths take as they learn about filmmaking and their culture,” said Tracy Rector, Seminole, co-founder of Native Lens and a co-producer of “March Point.” “It is also an environmental film that talks about the impact of two oil refineries on the reservation as well as treaty rights and the law.”
Sherman Alexie, the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene author, poet and screenwriter, called the documentary “a powerful and poetic environmental coming-of-age story. In defending their tribal lands, three young men find a mission, even a vision.”
The film is one of several that the trio has worked on with Native Lens. But this one has had the most impact on their lives. It’s been shown at film festivals across the country and at the National Museum of the American Indian, which offered Clark a summer internship. It won Best Documentary at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto, Oct. 15 – 19.
The imagineNATIVE judges said of “March Point”: “‘March Point’ wowed the jury with its innovation, and its sensitive and skillful presentation of personal and community issues. It captured the moving and transformative experience of the subjects as they moved from being young filmmakers into young leaders. The film ultimately allowed the audience intimate access to this process.”
Native Lens won a 2007 Seattle Mayor’s Arts Award. For their work with the program, Rector and co-founder Annie Silverstein received the American Red Cross Real Heroes Award. In addition, Rector received Antioch
University’s Horace Mann Award.
And the program, which started with financial support from the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, now receives additional support from the Lummi Indian Nation, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Skokomish Tribal Nation, Squaxin Island Tribe, Suquamish Tribe and the Tulalip Tribes, as well as National Geographic and NMAI.
While the group had fun – one “March Point” scene has the trio “blinged” out, fantasizing about Swinomish’s ownership of the oil refineries that are on its land – it was hard work, emotionally
Through the course of making their film, the young men learned more about their culture, and about environmental degradation and the taking of land and the impact on their people.
“It’s not easy to get up at 7 a.m. on weekends when most teen boys would be sleeping in, and dive into those issues,” Rector said. “It was a coming of age for them, intellectually and culturally.”
On TV: Tune in to PBS’s “Independent Lens” Nov. 18, 10 p.m. (check local listings). Online: www.pbs.org/independentlens/marchpoint/film.html.
Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at email@example.com.
‘Independent Lens’ producer hopes for similar works
Lois Vossen, producer of “Independent Lens” on PBS, talked with Indian Country Today about “March Point” and how she hopes the documentary will spur similar work by young Native filmmakers.
In its first season, “Independent Lens” won an Emmy Award for Best Documentary and was nominated for another; it was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Last season, Vossen won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Merit in Nonfiction Programming. “Independent Lens” is now in its fifth season.
Indian Country Today: How did “March Point” come to your attention?
Lois Vossen: Our colleagues at NAPT [Native American Public Television] sent us an early rough cut of “March Point” and we’ve been following the show for the past couple of years as it was being filmed and edited.
ICT: Why was “March Point” chosen for “Independent Lens”?
Vossen: We think “March Point” is a perfect fit for “Independent Lens” and our mission: It is a story about people we don’t usually see on television, a community whose story is too often not told or shared with the larger community. It was also very important that the program was made by Native American filmmakers, which gave it authenticity and, of course, they had full access to their lives and the lives of others in their community.
A third element that really spoke to us was the fact that the filmmakers were very young and had taken on this project. We were intrigued by the fact that they got into filmmaking a bit haphazardly but turned it into such a worthwhile endeavor. So it worked for “Independent Lens” on many levels.
The issues it explores are very timely and important: the environment, the work of Native Americans to build and sustain their communities despite the obstacles they face, and the role of one (or, in this case, three) individuals to make positive change. We are really pleased and proud to have it as part of the new 2008 – 09 season.
ICT: What is your impression of the three young filmmakers?
Vossen: Based on the film, my impression is that they are typical young men in most respects and they chose to use this opportunity to step out of their circumstances and challenge themselves by taking on a project that would intimidate many people. They also obviously have wonderful senses of humor and a growing respect and understanding of their culture. It was also impressive to see them reaching out to elders that might mentor them, like John Trudell.
ICT: Has “March Point” spurred any additional Native documentaries? Do you expect it to?
Vossen: We certainly hope that it will – especially among young Native American filmmakers. And we know the two producers, Annie [Silverstein] and Tracy [Rector], are committed to helping make that happen more in the future.
ICT: What does “Independent Lens” hope to accomplish through the airing of “March Point”?
Vossen: To bring awareness to the issues raised in the documentary, of course, and to show our viewers – especially our younger viewers – that change is possible through hard work and a commitment to a cause you believe in. It would also be great if the broadcast helps empower the people featured in the documentary to continue their work to bring about positive change and solutions and to continue their struggle with the corporations that have harmful policies.