Indigenous films transcend boundaries

Reseeing the Present, Rewriting the Past
Reseeing the Present, Rewriting the Past

For two particular U.S. populations, Native Americans and African Americans, the history of mainstream cinema has been one of erasure and misrepresentation. ...

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

The 2019 Sundance Film Festival continues to amplify stories of Indigenous filmmakers.

Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Film Program renames its program to the Indigenous Program in light of its 25th anniversary.

The program’s director Bird Runningwater announced the name change on Facebook and Twitter during the 11-day independent film festival. The festival started Jan. 24 and ends Feb. 3, and takes place in Park City, Utah.

“The program name change is both appropriate and timely, especially in light of our increasingly global Indigenous reach, which transcends borders,” said Runningwater.

The program focused on providing residency labs, fellowships, public programming and “a year-round continuum of creative, financial and tactical support” to Indigenous artists, according to the press release. The program also helps to connect Indigenous artists with storytelling opportunities that will allow them to tell their own stories, which is a way to “inspire self-determination.”

Author and University of Kansas professor Robert Warrior congratulated the organization and program for the name change on social media. He then posed a question to the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, “NAISA, is it time to become the Indigenous Studies Association?”

Shirley Sneve, executive director of Vision Maker Media, agreed with the institute’s decision because “Native is a term that a lot of people want to claim like I’m a native Nebraskan, in addition to being a Native American.”

“It seems natural to expand their reach and rename it. The word native is politically-loaded and Indigenous probably describes it a bit better,” she said, especially if the reach is beyond the United States. “As Indigenous people from around the world a lot of us have similarities and colonized pasts and I’ve definitely learned a great deal from my Indigenous filmmakers friends about generational trauma and resiliency.”

Runningwater’s statement alluded to self-determination, a term that is also tied to history and tribal sovereignty.

This move is the first step in rewriting narratives and having conversations about identity because society considered Native Americans as “monolithic but we’re wanting to challenge that and define ourselves,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, president of Echo Hawk Consulting. Her company partnered with the First Nations Development Institute on the “Reclaiming Native Truth” research. The report came out last summer.

The research focused on the current narrative of Native Americans, which included Natives in media, and provided data to guide changemakers on a path to change that narrative in America.

Which is why she’s happy Sundance Institute has this program for Indigenous filmmakers and fully supports the name change and Runningwater’s efforts and leadership.

“When we talk about invisibility misrepresentation and power of stereotypes, it’s not a PC thing. What our research finds it feel bias and discrimination and racism and there’s hard evidence,” she said. “There’s so much talent in terms of Native storytellers and filmmakers and Indigenous people but we don’t ever get… even though all these wonderful films are out there they’re not getting the attention and focus they should. We have to make sure there’s broader platforms. There are stories out there. The talent is there and we just have to invest in that.”


One thing Echo Hawk mentioned is the stories are there. However, no one takes an interest in it. But the “Reclaiming Native Truth” report shows that America is ready to hear the real histories and stories from Native people.

An example and success of giving a broader platform to Indigenous filmmakers is a production company picking up a film. Just like what happened at this year’s festival. (Just like what Vulture says streaming and distribution companies compete with one another to acquire these independent films and have the “deep pockets” to do so.)

Array, a distribution company founded by Ava DuVernay, picked up “MERATA: How Mum Decolonised the Screen.” DuVernay founded the company in 2010 and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Selma in 2014. She was the first black female director to be nominated.

"MERATA" filmmakers celebrating the news. (Facebook)

“MERATA” is a 95-minute film directed and written by Hepi Mita, Ngati Pikiao and Ngai te Rangi, the youngest son of Merata Mita. Merata Mita, Māori, was a the first female Indigenous filmmaker from New Zealand who broke barriers and died in 2010.

DuVernay’s company has not announced when, how or where the film will be released.

On the same day the film was bought, Sundance Institute announced the 2019 recipients of the Merata Mita Fellowship, a fellowship going into its fourth year. The two filmmakers receiving the fellowship are Ainsley Gardiner, Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pikiao and Te-Whānau-ā-Apanui, and Briar Grace-Smith, Ngā Puhi.

Another win for the Indigenous Program was the film “Fast Horse,” a short film directed by Alexandra Lazarowich, Cree. The film won the Special Jury Award for Directing.

While we’re talking about investing in Indigenous voices, I want to mention that Sundance was also the place where Taika Waititi, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui debuted four of his films. He was also “the first Indigenous person ever to be handed the reins of a superhero megamovie” which was “Thor: Ragnarok,” according to New York Times Magazine in 2017.

If that doesn’t say anything about investing in Indigenous voices, look at the currently Oscar-nominated actress Yalitza Aparicio, Mixtec and Triqui for her role in Alfonso Cuarón's “Roma.” She’s the first Indigenous person to be nominated for an Oscar. Ever.

As Sierra Teller Ornelas, Navajo, wrote in the Hollywood Reporter, “We have an abundance of great stories to tell. And even when we get to tell your stories, we make them so much better.”

More Indigenous films

Below are trailers of Indigenous films that screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. A total of eight Indigenous films appeared at the festival, but not all have trailers. (Hollywood Reporter reviewed "Words from a Bear," a documentary about N. Scott Momaday.)

Top End Wedding

Fainting Spells

Throat Singing in Kangirsuk

Birds in the Earth

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter - @jourdanbb. Email -

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

Europeans aren't even completely indigenous to Europe. ~34kya, the Vestonice group replaced the Oase people and marginalized the Goyet group. ~13kya, ancient siberians and caucasians came to Eastern Europe, causing a replacement of ~71%. 8kya, the Neolithic came and hunter-gatherers not in the north or east were displaced by incoming farmers. 7-4kya, Kurgan groups came from the east, displacing farmers and surviving hunter-gatherers. And recorded history has a lot of replacements.