PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Not far from the glitz and dazzle of the restaurants and upscale shops of Palm Canyon Drive, the seemingly small-scale Palm Springs Native American Film Festival and Cultural Weekend showcased the best and brightest talent in Indian country.
The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, along with other tribes and sponsors, were the backbone of the festival, which came to life at the Camelot Theatres March 14 – 19 and unveiled a fresh mix of riveting documentaries, short films and an art exhibition that featured the best in contemporary Native art. The reception after each film and question and answer session gave movie buffs the opportunity to rub elbows with filmmakers.
Proceeds from the festival go toward the new and improved Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in Palm Springs. This will bring the size of the existing museum from a humble 1,300-square-foot facility to a 90,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art cultural Mecca. The project is expected to break ground in October and be completed by the end of 2008.
The festival opened March 14 with the film “Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action,” which attracted about 95 people. Like last year, the premiere fell on a weeknight, but attendance was nearly double from last year,
said museum Director Michael Hammond.
“Every year it gets bigger and better; it’s just outstanding,” Hammond said. “I would like to see it grow but not loose the quality.”
“Homeland” underscored the determination of environmental activists from the Northern Cheyenne, Gwich’in, Eastern Navajo and Penobscot tribes fight to put an end to environmental catastrophes brought on by big and wealthy corporate factories and refineries.
Producer/Director Roberta Grossman said the film serves as a window to reality by uncovering ongoing environmental discrimination against indigenous peoples. “It was made with a lot of passion, and hopefully it will make people mad,” she said.
The next evening complimented the premiere night with another sobering documentary. “Aleut Story” revealed a pivotal account of the Aleut peoples’ struggles from the internment camps of World War II in southeast Alaska to their fight for human and civil rights in Washington, D.C.
On March 16, moviegoers were treated to a double bill, and found themselves mesmerized by the “Teachings of the Tree People: The Life of Bruce Miller,” which explored Miller’s determination to keep Native traditions alive in today’s world. And “Stolen Spirits of the Haida Gwaii” studied the Haida peoples’ determination to bring their stolen ancestors’ remains home.
As an activist in his own right, renowned poet, playwright, artist and novelist N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa, shared a few of his ancestors’ stories, wisdom and lighthearted humor at the March 17 dinner gala and art show premiere at the Palm Springs Convention Center.
“It’s been truly an honor to see the beautiful works of the artists,” he said.
Momaday touched on the importance of Native people continuing the struggle to keep traditions and languages alive in a modern world. “The crisis is identity, and it’s very real at this point … who am I, what am I, as an Indian person?
“I believe in the beauty and power of language,” he added.
On March 18, the picturesque documentary “Spirit Riders: Riding to Mend the Sacred Hoops” filmed the 1990 Lakota Sioux journey on horseback to Wounded Knee, S.D., to honor Chief Big Foot and his clan, who were massacred by troops on Dec. 28, 1890.
The film examined how this one event evolved into yearly peace and unity horseback rides and spiritual ceremonies in sacred places around the globe, now celebrated as World Peace Day during the summer solstice, June 21.
Additionally, “Spirit Riders” hemmed together the traditions, beliefs and pondered future of the Lakota people, and featured interviews with Oglala Sioux attorney and environmental and political activist Charlotte Black Elk, great-granddaughter of Nicholas Black Elk, and Ron His Horse is Thunder, Hunkpapa Sioux and president of Sitting Bull College.
Director/Producer James Kleinert told moviegoers that profits from the film go to benefit the Lakota reservations of Standing Rock, Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge.
“As a part of the Spirit Riders foundation, we’re going to set up a program to teach digital filmmaking to Lakota youth,” Kleinert said.
The weekend showcased the best in short films, including the 1910 silent short “Ramona,” starring Mary Pickford. Within 10 minutes, with no audio to aid viewers, Ramona fell in love with an Indian man, to the chagrin of her family, then ran away to elope with her “Alessandro” only to be greeted with prejudice, hardship and tragedy.
On closing night, Heather Rae’s provocative documentary, “Trudell,” brought to life Santee poet John Trudell’s activism during the 1970s with his rise to spokesman during the Native occupation of Alcatraz Island, followed by the American Indian Movement’s standoff at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It also interwove his personal tragedies, and interviews spotlighted the love and support of family and friends.
During the after-movie talk, the poet came to life as he shared his latest philosophies. He called living in today’s society “civilized insanity.”
“We lay our life on the line by living our lives with clarity and coherence,” he said. “People don’t think anymore. We are responsible for what we do.”
<b>On-the-road art show </b>
Based in Taos and Santa Fe, N.M., the Blue Rain Gallery took its eclectic collection on the road along with the artists. It was the gallery’s second time at the festival in three years. And this weekend, it made the Palm Springs Convention Center its temporary home.
Artist Tammy Garcia, Santa Clara Pueblo, is renowned for her intricate pottery, yet seven years ago she transitioned into bronze-finished sculptures. Many of her pieces exceed six feet in height. “I’ve always pushed the limit with the clay,” she said.
Garcia said she enjoys meeting admirers of her assorted sculptures, pottery and jewelry collections. “People really enjoy meeting the artist,” she said. “There is a real connection that clients have with me. I meet clients that know my mother and grandmother.”
A friend of Garcia’s, Wyandot potter Richard Zane Smith, started shaping red clay into extraordinary works of art about 15 years ago and is proud to say he is now a full-time artist. In select pieces, he attaches tree roots for a distinct look. At home in Oklahoma, he said that he has been working with Native children to revive the fading pottery tradition and language.
“I feel like our people can disappear into the mass culture,” he said.
Master glass blower Preston Singletary, Tlingit, demonstrated torch-formed art. Singletary’s pieces look as if they jumped out of a totem pole, each shape unique from the next, drawn from the inspiration of his ancestors. Whether it’s a diving raven or cherry glass baskets, the color and shapes of each piece illuminates in the sunlight. “I am always trying to incorporate nature with glass,” he said.
Also featured were the distinct works of Tony Abeyta, Al Qoeyawayma, Les Namingha, Jamie Okuma, Russell Sanchez, Duane Maktima, Jody Naranjo, Larry Vasquez, Bruce LaFountain, Mateo Romero, Joe Ben Jr. and Felix Vigil.
No date has been set for next year’s festival, but for more information, visit www.accmuseum.org.