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Video Poem Wins Navajo Filmmaker National Prize

Navajo filmmaker and photographer Pamela J. Peters can now add 'poet' to her list of art genres, having won Button Poetry's best video poem of 2016.
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When Navajo filmmaker and photographer Pamela J. Peters was asked to create a video of her poem “My Once Life,” she cast about for a novel way to recite it without merely reading it herself. Then she literally cast it—with a dozen Native women reading the lines—and it not only garnered thousands of views on YouTube but also won best video poem for 2016 from Button Poetry, a national organization, out of 1,000 entries.

“I wrote the poem over two years ago and shared it at many readings around Los Angeles,” Peters said in a statement. “However, I felt it needed to be share on a national level where people can understand a bit more about us as Native/tribal people. I created the idea of doing a video poem, but didn't want to just read it myself, so I asked some of my native female friends to help out, and they did!”

It started simply enough and snowballed, Peters told Indian Country Media Network.

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“I have a lot of friends who are poets, and they told me to start writing because of things I’ve shared,” said the filmmaker, who is not (yet) a published poet. “I was going through difficult times in my life, and I just started jotting down incidents that reminded me of my grandparents, family, things that were going on around the world. And I wrote that poem over a weekend and shared it with a friend of mine, and he said, ‘Oh my god, this is great.’ ”

Pamela J. Peters does a cameo in the video of her poem 'My Once Life.'

Pamela J. Peters does a cameo in the video of her poem 'My Once Life.'

From there she began sharing her words at poetry slam open mikes, and found “My Once Life” getting the most applause. That told her it needed even more exposure, she said. Given that her photography and filmmaking are devoted to, as she puts it, upending the colonized narrative, channeling that into poetry was a natural next step.

“I wrote it also because I wanted to bring attention to the continued impact of colonization of tribal people,” Peters said.

Having 12 women read lines that pertain to their own lives, and those of their matriarch ancestors, make the poem all the more powerful.

“I know a lot of people talk about missing and murdered indigenous women—I’ve had some of my girlfriends get killed,” she said. “The thing is, I also want to celebrate our lives. And we don’t show that much as Native women.”

Unlike the old Hollywood movies full of unnamed Indian characters, “all my participants have names,” Peters said. “They’re all from different tribes. They all have a story.”

It’s a way of melding those two sides of indigenous women’s existence, she said.

“It just shows that we’ve persevered,” Peters said. “Even through all these atrocities, we have survived.”