The U.S. Constitution does not mention women, blacks, slaves or Natives when it describes who should be treated fairly and equally. But it also does not dismiss or exclude them specifically and often states, “All Persons”. But over time the politics of the new nation with its north-south and east-west issues made political debate eventual over who was included or excluded, and who had what kind of rights. The American system looked upon the voting franchise as sacred and solemn, even if dirty tricks were played throughout history. Women did not fully receive the right to vote (suffrage) until after WW1 when they had replaced men in the work force but many nations would wait until the WW2 era and even decades after. In some Middle East nations, women are still denied rights employed by women around the world.
The Seneca Falls Convention for Women’s Rights in 1848, was held in Iroquois territory where Native women traditionally held political, economic and social power. This obviously influenced the Women’s Suffrage Movement, since the organizers could draw on the history of this continent to show proof that the subordinate position of white women was “neither natural nor divinely inspired."
Native women are in and have always been on the front lines, defending the children, land, water, animals and plants, which are our traditional relatives and medicines, and all part of our economic and cultural freedoms. Sarah Winnemuca, Ada Deer, LaDonna Harris, Wilma Mankiller, Buffy Ste. Marie, Winona LaDuke, are modern day advocates who fought for their people. Social movements are being led by women, both elders and young. They will run across the country, organize protests, network on social media, and document all aspects of this empowerment. Faith Spotted Eagle, Ladonna Allard, Phyllis Young and Bobbi Jean Three Legs became spokeswomen for the Standing Rock Resistance, just like women wrote manifestos at Alcatraz and wo-manned the barricades at Wounded Knee and were equals at Oka and with the Zapatistas. Ingrid Washinawatok, Laheenae Gay and Anna Mae Aquash died for their activism. Last year, the world was shocked by the assassination of environmental indigenous activist Berta Caceres.
Right now there are young Native women advocates out on the front lines with their cameras and recorders, having been called to this work for various reasons, and doing all they can do to tell these stories. In Iroquois country we had wampum runners, who carried important messages between councils and communities. That has been the role of the Native Press in Indian country for almost two hundred years and it continues with these Native grassroots documentaries. They are timely, relevant, engaging and in demand.
Metis/Algonquin film director Michelle Latimer scored big with a documentary series on Indigenous resistance in North and South America. Her acclaimed and heartfelt series, “RISE” is on VICELAND.com and the eighth and last episode airs Friday, March 10 at 9 p.m. Latimer was approached by Eddie Moretti, one of the owners of VICE. He thought Latimer would have the best voice for this series. It was an excellent partnership. The host is Sarain Fox (Anishinaabe) and she connects with the Native and Indigenous Peoples portrayed and with the audience. Indian Country Media Network reviewed the series in early February after a rave premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. “VICELAND’S RISE is the best contemporary indigenous Television series I have ever seen and Michelle Latimer is one of the most talented filmmakers I have ever seen.” RISE is produced by VICE Studio Canada, in partnership with Rogers Media and APTN. With full support this team hit the ground running and you feel the exquisite cinematography, absorb the ancestral landscapes and hear the deep history of the Indigenous Resistance.
I also know of many young Native women film directors who work in their communities, constantly, and get asked to work on extra projects, educational, cultural, for the children, the elders, often for little to no pay, and of course need side jobs to pay for the projects they really want to be doing. Ramona Emerson is Dine’ and runs Reel Indian Pictures with husband Kelly Byars in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this is her story.
“We’ve worked on “The Mayors of Shiprock” for five years and even longer if you count the planning and applications. We were lucky to have early support from Visionmaker, which helped us to launch the project and to begin filming. But the further we moved into the project, the more I realized that getting funding to finish the film would be the most difficult.”
Four years of grant writing got nowhere as the small crew just kept filming. They would get feedback from funders but it seemed every time they wondered where the poverty was.
“Where was the conflict? Where is that story arc that we love to see in every documentary? I just wanted to make a film about these great youth in Shiprock and I didn’t feel it was necessary to dwell on alcohol abuse or lack of opportunity in order to tell this story. I refuse to make poverty porn. I make films that empower people. As a Dine woman filmmaker, I’m driving the narrative. And why do we need to change our stories – our narratives – in order to get the funding – funding that seems further and further out of reach?
“I taught myself how to edit, got some writing help, and learned how to do just about all of it myself – color, sound, transcripts, whatever – because it had to be done. That’s it. It had to be done. And no one felt stronger about this story then I did. You just have to realize that your story is important and believe in it. Then there’s the networking. Looking back, I’m glad that the direction of our film was left to us. We weren’t forced to compromise into some other narrative.”
Emerson is also grateful for the local support from New Mexico film and broadcast community as it was grassroots support that helped them get to the finish line. She is now filming the very last scenes. As with all independent filmmakers, a little help for post-production and distribution, get the word out, deliver it and then start working on the next project. Ramona Emerson is one of those dedicated young Native women filmmakers working daily in her community, she is featured in a previous ICMN article that demonstrated how Native women as artists, teachers and professionals pulled together to give young Native students a chance to excel. Just another day in the life.