Rochester Native American Film Festival


Documentaries address Native issues

ROCHESTER, N.Y. - ''An Evening of Short Documentaries'' promoted a series of long conversations between local filmmaker Torry Mendoza, Mescalero Apache, and audience members at St. John Fisher College March 28. The event was part of the Rochester Native American Film Festival and featured a screening of five documentaries, including ''Plastic Warriors'' by Amy Tall Chief, ''The Border Crossed Us'' by Rachael J. Nez, and ''White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men'' by Terry Macy and Don Hart.

Dana Nichols, an assistant English professor at SJFC, introduced the films before introducing Mendoza. Mendoza screened his documentaries, ''Onenhohgwa (Corn Soup)'' and ''Reservations,'' then hosted the discussion that followed.

''These films highlight the struggles of Natives,'' said Nichols, noting that several of the films ''speak with humor and righteous anger.''

''White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men'' addresses the commercialization of Native traditions in non-Native society. The film was edited to present the interviews in a conversational nature. For example, Natives and non-Natives discussed the idea of receiving a Native name. A non-Native's answer was immediately followed by a Native's answer. Although the two were filmed separately, it looked like they were speaking directly to each other. This method highlighted the differences in beliefs in a humorous manner.

''''They don't know we have the reasons we have names,'' Charlie Hill said in the film, noting that non-Natives tend to choose names like ''Rolling Hill'' and ''Swift Deer.''

The documentary then cut to a non-Native woman explaining how she got her Native name.

''And this voice said ... 'You are Wind Feather,''' she said.

The next shot was of Hill, laughing. ''Why don't they pick up a name like 'Bloody Guts'?'' he asked.

The second film, ''The Border Crossed Us,'' addresses the difficulty the Tohono O'odham have crossing the border between the U.S. and Mexico and being recognized as U.S. citizens. Although the Tohono O'odham were once able to cross freely between the two countries, they lost that ability as the Border Patrol tightened security to reduce the influx of illegal immigrants.

''Why is there now a line in the dirt?'' Jose Cazanes asked, summarizing the frustration Natives are experiencing. The documentary mentioned that although Native groups have appealed to Congress to push forward a bill to make all Tohono O'odham citizens of the United States, the proposals have always been rejected.

But Native stereotypes are not being rejected; instead, they are continuing to be spread throughout non-Native culture. This was the main focus of ''Plastic Warriors.''

The documentary featured clips of stereotypes within Native society, including school mascots and Hollywood's portrayal of Natives.

''It's a battle,'' Irwin Weesley said. ''Those are like stabs - quick stabs of misinformation.''

But Mendoza, president of Native American Indigenous Cinema and Arts, strives to have the opposite effect - showcasing education in his documentaries.

His first film, ''Onenhohgwa (Corn Soup),'' shows the intricate process it takes to make onenhohgwa and cuts back and forth from making the soup to everyday family life. He said the limited audio forces viewers to really take in what is happening.

Mendoza's second film, ''Reservations,'' relies heavily on first-person narration - in fact, he is the narrator.

''It's more of an experimental documentary,'' he said of the five-minute film, which highlights a negative experience he had with a college professor regarding Native stereotypes.

After the viewing, Mendoza and the audience of approximately 50 people began to discuss the improper use of Native images and traditions.

''As far as the mascots go, can we turn it around and sue them?'' an audience member asked. ''You know, hit them where it hurts.''

''Well, they are characters,'' Mendoza replied, explaining that the images were not being used illegally.

Audience members also felt strongly about non-Natives giving themselves Native names, as showcased in ''Plastic Warriors.''

''I don't feel honored,'' exclaimed an audience member in the back row, as several others nodded in agreement.

Mendoza mentioned that his documentaries are not in the same realm as the three shown before his. He prefers to focus on cultural components, such as preservation issues.

''I'm not about being objective - it's time to be subjective,'' he said.

For more information on Mendoza, visit