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Paiute and Wampanoag Stories to Screen at Wild & Scenic Festival

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On Friday, January 13, the 10th annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival will open in Nevada City, California, and over the course of the weekend more than 110 films will be shown at seven locations. ICTMN spoke with two filmmakers showing their work in the festival.

An Ill Wind

A film about the inundation of Moapa Paiutes with coal ash from a nearby power plant in Nevada, An Ill Wind will see its world premiere on the festival's opening night. Filmmaker Chris Jordan-Bloch describes his creation as “a short documentary about a band of Paiute Indians that lives next to a coal-fired power plant just outside of Las Vegas. At the power plant there is an impoundment of waste called coal ash. Maybe six to ten times a year, the winds blow just wrong so a huge sand storm of this toxic dust blows right at the reservation.”

Coal ash is laced with arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium and mercury, Jordan-Bloch says. “The plant, instead of trying to mitigate the problem, is trying to expand the open area where waste is dumped.”

During filming he found abnormally high incidences of numerous health issues. “It’s a 300-person tribe and more than 15 of them have thyroid disease, thirty or forty people on the reservation have asthma, and there’s a lot of cancer for a population that small. The people there are sick, and obviously this ill wind is contributing to the problem."

Ill Wind tries to shine a light on this story and hopefully draw some attention to this problem with the hope it can be stopped.”

Jordan-Bloch was working in newspapers when he started making short films for non-profits on a freelance basis. He now works for Earth Justice, an environmental public interest law firm for which he has made five films.

We Still Live Here

Another work showing at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, We Still Live Here tells the story of the Wampanoag Indians of southeastern Massachusetts who are reviving their language, which died out after 300 years of contact with the non-Indian world. “The Wampanoag are the people that we celebrate every year at Thanksgiving as the Indians who helped the pilgrims,” says filmmaker Anne Makepeace. “This is the first time a language with no speakers has been revived as a living language in a Native American community.”

Makepeace explains that the film tells the story of Wampanoag linguist Jessie Little Doe Baird, who is working with the whole community to bring back the language. Makepeace also looks into the tribe's history to learn why the language disappeared. "Pressures to give up culture, pressures to give up language, pressures to convert to Christianity—all those are a part of the film,” she says. We Still Live Here is a well-traveled and critically acclaimed film, having so far screened in 70 venues.

“I was first drawn to the story when I met Jessie Little Doe Baird," Makepeace recalls. "She’s a brilliant, earthy, funny, determined, passionate person. This all happened because she had a series of visions of people speaking to her in a language she couldn’t understand. She got a fellowship to work on the Wampanoag language at MIT. Her work was noticed and she was invited to become a graduate student in linguistics, without ever having a BA.”

As she was getting her advanced degree in linguistics at MIT, Baird was teaching the Wampanoag language. “I think there are now between sixty and eighty Wampanoag learning the language, with various levels of fluency,” Makepeace adds. Baird, a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Genius award, and her husband have raised their daughter, who is now seven, with Wampanoag as her first language.

"That little girl is the first native speaker of the language in a century," Makepeace says. "This film has a hero, being inspired by a vision, who goes into the underworld of academia to find knowledge and bring it back to the community."

Now in its tenth year, the Wild & Scenic Film Festival is a presentation of the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL), a group dedicated to preservation of the Wild & Scenic status of the nearby South Yuba River. The event has grown to become one of the biggest environmental film festivals in America. For the first time some of the festival’s films will be shown in nearby Grass Valley, expanding the size of the event. Some 4,000 attendees saw the festival’s films last year. After festival weekend, SYRCL will send the films on a road tour so that they may be screened across the country.

The festival has a tradition of welcoming notable special guests, among them Sir Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame, Peter Coyote, Daryl Hannah, and Julia Butterfly Hill whose sit-in on an old-growth redwood tree in northern California made world news. Two National Geographic Explorers, Zeb Hogan and Andy Maser, will be at this year's festival as special guests, as will Native American activist and poet John Trudell and award-winning journalist Amy Goodman.