SEATTLE - Along about the mid 1980s, film producer and educator Dan Hart decided it was time for the stereotypical TV American Indian to ride off into the sunset - permanently.
Although non-Native, Hart had the temerity to believe the Indian voice was the only voice that mattered as far as Indian country was concerned. He set out to support the work of independent, tribal-based Native film and television producers as the best way to help change the stereotypes.
Appropriately enough he called his production company Native Voices.
But when he put out the call to the reservations and urban centers looking for professional Native filmmakers to write grants for and to work with, he came up with a short list, a very short list.
"As best we could decipher in the United States ... there were maybe six Native Americans working professionally in the media at that point, excluding news organizations," Hart says.
Equally disheartening, he said, was the fact there was only one major media training organization in the country with a Native focus, the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
To work with Native film makers, it looked as if maybe the best route was to help train them.
With this in mind, Hart turned to the Montana State University film school. One of the largest programs in the county, it was also the only undergraduate media program in a seven-state region. Hart approached the administration about starting a program with a Native focus.
By 1987 Native Voices was up and running. One of Hart's first co-workers was Luanna Ross, a sociology professor at the university. A member of the Salish-Kootenai Tribe of the Flathead Reservation in Montana, Ross had a real passion for film and had been teaching classes in the images of Natives in popular culture in cinema since 1981. Impressed, Hart said he placed her on the board of directors of Native Voices.
Then he married her.
For several years, while teaching and coaching Native and non-Native students on their own documentary projects, Hart produced and co-produced several films including "The Place of the Falling Waters," a 90-minute history of the people of the Flathead Reservation, and "Warrior Chiefs in a New Age," a portrait of the "last two great chiefs of the Crow," Plenty Coups and Medicine Crow, with Crow producer Dean Bearclaw.
"Transitions: Destruction of a mother tongue" told how the Blackfeet tribe almost lost its language. "Without Reservation," took a hard look at racism. With Warm Springs filmmaker Terry Macy, Hart co-produced the popular and controversial film "White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men," a 28-minute film about cultural appropriation and Native American spiritual traditions.
"We've screened it at Berkeley, on reservations and in every kind of setting you can imagine," says Ross who worked as a researcher on the film. "Last spring we were asked by a group of students to screen it in Bellingham at Western Washington University because there was a professor on campus who teaches a class on how to be a shaman.
"I continue to get hate mail from women in the community who were just vile and very angry and very upset at the film. When we screened it in Santa Cruz, people cried and wanted to know what they could do or couldn't do."
It is precisely this kind of educational and emotional impact that Hart is looking for.
Although he says it is tempting to produce feature-length films and hour-long documentaries for the broadcast market, for the most part he tries to keep his films around a half hour in length because it is easier to distribute them to schools.
"It's funny, when you compare broadcast versus the more focused, self-conscious form of people getting together in an educational setting or museum or community group and watching a film and talking about it, I would prefer the latter any day," he says.
Because film distributors tend to specialize in specific categories and so few distribute anything about Native topics, Hart and Ross soon discovered that if they wanted their films to get a wide audience, they had to promote them. Thus Native Voices got into the film distribution business. Somewhat to their chagrin, they found the costs of producing, advertising and distributing each film usually equaled their proceeds.
But Hart says he is not discouraged because Native Voices is a success in all the ways that matter. He estimates the nine films produced so far have been used in about 2,500 universities and high schools around the country. At the same time, the Native Voices media training program has graduated 20 students with degrees in communications. About 12, so far, have joined the ranks of professional independent film makers.
Now, in an effort to make the program even more effective, Hart and Ross have moved Native Voices from Montana State to the University of Washington in Seattle where it can operate primarily at the graduate level.
"We had always felt that this kind of work, documentary production, is better suited to graduate than an undergraduate program," he says. "These projects for students are akin to a major dissertation project. They involve months and months of research and pre-production data analysis in the creation of the story. That's at least a year-long commitment for some people and that's hard to do at the undergraduate level."
So far Native Voices has one senior undergraduate student and one graduate student. Hart says he anticipates at least three more students enrolling in the fall of 2001.
Teresa Powers, a senior who will graduate next spring with a fine arts degree in painting, took the program's documentary research class last year and is attending the production class. In the middle of shooting and editing an hour-long documentary on Seattle's American Indian Women's Service League, Powers says she has been so impressed with filmmaking she is going to apply to the graduate program.
"Painting is not something you can really count on," she says. "I feel a little bit more secure with films and documentary videos because I know that there is funding out there for it and there are a lot of opportunities and are a lot of issues that need to be addressed in Indian country."
Powers, a 42 year old Lakota, has already had instructors approach her to do presentations of her documentary for their classes. She says taking the time to learn and tell the in-depth story about the women of the Service League has taught her a lot about herself as a Native woman. She is also deeply appreciative of Hart and the Native Voices program.
"It's a great program" she says. "I feel so lucky to be here at the start."
As for Hart, he says he is pleased that by participating in the production work of researching, shooting, interviewing and editing a documentary, students get out into the real world and develop relationships with people "who represent real histories and real lives."
"I think the best education happens through that kind of activity," he says.