New Mexico's Native Women Tell Their Stories in 'A Thousand Voices'

A new documentary about the women of New Mexico's Tribes and Pueblos tells their story as never before.

A Thousand Voices gets it a thousand percent correct. Departing from the usual Hollywood, romanticized notion of Native life, the film lets Native voices tell their own narrative. The documentary film, narrated by Irene Bedard, written by Conroy Chino and Maura Dhu Studi, and co-produced by Pamela Pierce, Lisa Lucas and Matthew Martinez, recently screened during the Albuquerque Film and Music Experience. Pierce said that the idea for the film "came from Native American women. We had been screening Canes of Power, and it's a wonderful film, but it's a very male-driven film. At the screenings, the wives of some of the Governors came and asked, 'Where's our story? Why haven't you told our story?' And, I thought surely a story about Native American women, especially about women in New Mexico, had been told. But then I researched it—the typical film about Native American women portrays them from a place of deficit, from a place of weakness. The documentaries tell of their struggles, their poverty, domestic violence. They fail to capture that enduring strength, that vitality, that wisdom. When you have creation stories that begin with women, you continue from there. You realize that Native women have always had power. This isn't something new, or that was gained from some enlightenment of the '60s."

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The women featured in A Thousand Voices represent the Tribes of New Mexico, and weave their Tribal histories into the broader context of U.S. history—and Pierce and production company Silver Bullet try to stay out of their way. "We had been working with various Pueblos and Tribes since we started," Pierce said. "This is our 35th educational film project. We operate knowing we are guests. We're honored when people want to tell us their story. Our role is to be the most respectful instrument that allows other people to tell the stories that need to be told. And, these stories need to be told to educate people like me, people who didn't grow up with the beauty of the Tribal culture. It is the power of the women that was always there, not the weakness. That's why we told the story." 

Pamela Pierce and Lisa Lucas at AFME. Photo: Jason Morgan Edwards

To narrate the film, Pierce sought out Irene Bedard, arguably Indian country's best-known actress. "I think it's a very strong story, told by women about women, and our place in our culture," Bedard said. "Our strength and our ability to have very strong relationships to our children and grandchildren, and our Mother Earth. Basically, Pamela knows my work and had asked if I would participate as the narrator." Even though she is Inupiaq Yup’ik, from Alaska, Bedard can relate to the New Mexico Tribes' story. "I there's a comparison between all Tribes—all of us came from tribes," she said. "And we all had drum stories, songs, relationships to the Earth, relationships to our elders, relationships to the coming generations, traditions and stories, and languages that were our own. I think that makes up the Indigenous consciousness. But there are many variations. I do know that there are some Tribal relationships between the Alaskan Tribes and some of the other Tribes. The Athabascan and the Dine' have the same language base. So it's my understanding that there is a very direct relationship there."

Bedard took a moment to discuss Hollywood's issues with autenticity when telling Native stories—and indicated that the times may be changing. "I have a production company, Sleeping Lady Films Waking Giant Productions," she said. "Many of us who have been working in Hollywood have been talking about this for a long time. I think it's very awesome that these conversations are making a more public profile. It's my hope that we'll be able to move this conversation forward with a good dialogue and place for people to go to learn more about Native cultures. I worked with some Native American historians and consultants. Marcus Red Thunder (Longmire) is amazing as the Native consultant. And, there are a lot people like him in this industry. It is my hope that we can have a stronger presence, and I think these conversations will help."

A Thousand Voices was aired on PBS. It will be screened in July during the New Mexico Women in Film Fiesta. Bedard's most recent film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, showed at the most recent Sundance Film Festival and as part of the 2015 Quinzaine des Realisateurs (Directors' Fortnight) at Cannes.