Skip to main content

Native Lens program introduces youth to media careers

SWINOMISH, Wash. -- Swinomish elders vividly remember the fish and clams
once yielded by the shores of March's Point.

Today, those shores are blighted by muck from the peninsula's three oil
refineries. Beer cans, tires and trash are more likely to be found than
clams. Above, in the path of bald eagles and migratory birds, exhaust
billows from refinery smokestacks.

This land was supposed to be part of the Swinomish Indian Reservation, but
delays in ratification of the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 allowed
non-Native settlement of the peninsula and, within 100 years, development
of the area's first oil refinery.

"Slow Burn," a documentary by three Swinomish teens, explores the question
of ownership of the peninsula -- an issue being raised by Swinomish leaders
-- and the environmental impacts of the refineries.

The teens -- Cody Cayou, 15; Nick Clark, 16; and Travis Tom, 15 -- produced
the documentary as part of the Native Lens program, which teaches
media-making skills to young American Indians. The documentary received a
standing ovation from a full house at the Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon
during a Feb. 11 screening.

"We have so many talented kids out there. A lot of people don't realize the
talent that is just crying to come out," said actress Elaine Miles,
Cayuse/Nez Perce, who has 10 screen credits to her name, including "Smoke
Signals" and "Northern Exposure."

"You should all be happy and proud of your kids."

Miles encouraged Native Lens Artistic Director Annie Silverstein to submit
the documentary to the Seattle and American Indian film festivals.

"They opened a can of worms that needs to be answered," Miles said later.

Native Lens is a program of Longhouse Media, a Seattle-based organization
that teaches filmmaking skills as a form of storytelling to American Indian
youth. Native Lens draws from traditional and modern forms of artistic
expression, storytelling, teaching and inquiry.

"Our vision is to inspire youth to express their own stories and new
thoughts as well as challenge assumptions about Native American culture,"
Silverstein said.

In a statement on Longhouse Media's Web site, actor Adam Beach ("Smoke
Signals," "Wind Talkers") spoke of the importance of young Native people
having a voice.

"The world needs to see us in the way we see ourselves. Our youth are the
future," Beach said. "Finally, we are taking control of our voice and the
images of who we are as Native people by teaching them the skills to create
our own media. Longhouse Media and Native Lens are important for this

Silverstein said Native Lens was born out of a discussion in 2003.
Directors of 911 Media Arts Center, the predecessor of Longhouse Media,
were talking about the importance of media as a way for young people to
express themselves, and that Native youths' stories hadn't been told,
Silverstein said. Longhouse Media approached funding sources, including
tribal governments, for support and Native Lens started in 2004.

Funding for "Slow Burn" came from the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Supporters of other films
included First Nations Canoe Productions, the Suquamish Tribe and the
Tulalip Tribes.

Other teen-produced films shown Feb. 11 included a public service
announcement about lead poisoning; "Bone Games," in which a young woman
reminisces about childhood and her grandparents; "Rez Life," about the
choices a boy must make when becoming a man; a Claymation film in which
Columbus visits the future and becomes repentant when he sees the
destruction that will follow in his wake; and a film about the Suquamish
Canoe Family Song and Dance Group's preparations to perform at the opening
of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Besides Cayou, Clark and Tom, others participating in the program were
David Aleck, 15, Swinomish; Lenora Bagley, 13, Suquamish; Anna Cladoosby,
14, Swinomish/Tulalip; Frankie Dunn, 14, Cherokee; Chelsea Jones, 13,
Suquamish; and Calina Lawrence, 13, Suquamish.

The teens learned to do thorough work but still have fun. For example, in
"Slow Burn," Cayou, Clark and Tom interviewed a refinery manager, filmed a
mucky beach, explored old documents and wrote a letter to the governor. But
in the "bling bling" scene, the trio don flashy jewelry and strike poses
outside a gas station to emphasize the wealth that the refineries have
acquired on the spit.

"The 'bling bling' scene was real fun," Clark said.

Some of the teens said Native Lens has opened their eyes to media as a
possible career.

"Over the past few months, I've been thinking about what to do after school
and college," Cayou said. "I've been thinking about acting and filmmaking."

Based on Native Lens' success in Washington state, Longhouse Media wants to
see it grow into a national program, executive director Tracy Rector said.

In May, Native Lens brought 40 young people from five tribes together in
Minnesota for two days of digital filmmaking and presentations by
well-known Native artists and actors. A group of young participants planned
and filmed "Letter to Red Lake," a personal response to the March 21, 2005
shooting on the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota.

Silverstein said Native Lens participants and Longhouse Media co-founders
plan to meet with the community, present the video and collaborate with Red
Lake youth on an educational media project about young people, violence and

At the end of the Feb. 11 screening in Mount Vernon, an audience member
asked Silverstein about the program's future here: Who will teach others
these skills when Silverstein is gone?

She looked at the nine teens on stage with her and said, "I think our
teachers are right here."

For more information about Longhouse Media and Native Lens, visit

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash.
Contact him at