Skip to main content

Sundance Institute brings films to Native audiences

  • Author:
  • Updated:

ONAMIA, Minn. - When Andrew Okpeaha MacLean took his film ''Sikumi (On the Ice)'' to Barrow, Alaska, the Inupiaq writer-director experienced an anticipation and trepidation he didn't feel when the work earned a Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

After all, this was a home audience.

''They know and recognize the area and the actors in it,'' MacLean said. ''Most of the audience recognizes the language in a way that the outside audience doesn't ... which also made it a little more high-stakes for me. It made me nervous. ... If we mess up on some words, our elders will be able to tell us.''

He need not have worried; the film, though seen only on a DVD version, was warmly received.

Thanks to the Sundance Institute and its Native American and Indigenous Initiative, MacLean and writer-director Sterlin Harjo, Seminole/Creek, recently got to show their work on a big screen to audiences not from their homes, but definitely with parallel experiences and appreciation of their storytelling art.

''Sikumi'' and Harjo's feature film, ''Four Sheets to the Wind,'' were shown at the Grand Makwa Cinema in Onamia on the reservation of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. ''Four Sheets'' was developed through Sundance Institute's Filmmakers Lab.

Showing these films on reservations is part of a goal for N. Bird Runningwater, Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache and the associate director of Sundance's Native Initiative program.

''It's really important for the Native program to have a presence back on Native land,'' Runningwater said. ''We [the Sundance initiative] don't have a very strong profile within Indian country.''

There's another reason why Runningwater appreciated the chance to bring these films to the Mille Lacs people. He hopes that among the audience in the packed theaters were future participants for the Sundance program.

''I'm always scouting for artists and scouting for projects,'' he said. ''There's a hunger for films made by Native people about Native people. ... It's an issue of presenting a story from a certain point of view.''

The showing early in July in Onamia was the first of its kind on a big screen on a reservation for the Sundance Institute. The program came together because as a student board member of the National Indian Education Association, Runningwater met Melanie Benjamin, now chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band. He renewed contact with her and the availability of venue made for a great showing.

''This is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the Indian arts, while motivating our own aspiring Anishinaabe filmmakers,'' said Benjamin in a release announcing the event.

Cultivating emerging Native talent - which doesn't always mean young filmmakers, Runningwater added - has been part of the Sundance Institute mandate for more than 25 years from its founder, actor/producer/director Robert Redford. In recent years, that search has broadened to include indigenous filmmakers from around the world.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

''We're pretty much a global program,'' said Runningwater, who worked for the Ford Foundation before joining Sundance.

The Sundance Native Initiative can help filmmakers, from writing to music composition to directing. A connection with Sundance, either through its ongoing programs or the annual film festival, can open doors.

''It's really helpful for building industry relationships because of the respect that Sundance has,'' said Heather Rae, a Cherokee filmmaker who once headed the Native Initiative for Sundance. ''Sundance is very webbed into the independent film community at large. By affiliation, there are some really valuable opportunities.''

Rae knows this well. She produced ''Frozen River,'' which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and has been picked up for distribution by Sony Classics. Rae is helping Sony to expand its usual showing locales to include cities with significant Indian populations like Rapid City, S.D., Spokane, Wash., and Milwaukee, Wis., because the film has a major Mohawk character.

Often films made by American Indian producers, directors or writers aren't distributed in Indian communities, the filmmakers agree. And even if the exact conditions are not the same, some underlying threads connection all Native communities.

''There's definitely common ground,'' said MacLean, who found that to be true with the Ojibwe audience reaction to his Inupiaq-based story in ''Sikumi.''

''There are similarities in the experiences and the values, of character and of personality.''

Native filmmakers also feel the weight of often being one of the first in their communities to tell, on film, their own stories - traditional, documentary or simply new fiction.

''We are not ambassadors for our culture,'' MacLean cautioned, ''because that could be daunting and artistically smothering, but at the same time it is true there is this level of responsibility and freedom that we are searching for.''

Both MacLean and Rae said that filmmakers need to pursue stories that sometimes will relate to their traditional cultures; but, it isn't necessary. Rae's next producing project, for example, is a coming-of-age story that involves unicorns.

MacLean, who created plays in Alaska as a way to learn his traditional language, believes that film may be the way to bring back what it once almost extinguished.

''Film and television were a big reason why indigenous languages have been declining,'' he said. ''This is a way to counteract that. We, as Native people, need to get our voices heard.''

To find out more about or to apply for the Sundance Institute's Native American and Indigenous Initiative, visit and click on ''About the Institute.''