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Vincent Schilling
Indian Country Today

After two decades of service to the Sundance Institute as the director of the Indigenous film program, N. Bird Runningwater announced that he is amicably parting ways with the organization and bidding a “fond farewell.”

Runningwater, Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache, reflected in his farewell tribute on the organization’s website on how he attempted to influence Sundance with his own cultural teachings and lauded the support provided to Indigenous filmmakers.

“During my 20 years at the Sundance Institute, I’ve tried to imbue my work with inflections of my own Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache cultures. I saw the work of supporting Indigenous artists as a ceremony of transitioning storytellers into their full potential, much like my Mescalero community does when we ritually sing our young women into womanhood and into our matriarchy,” wrote Runningwater. “I’ve always believed our artists needed a culturally grounded support model in order for their stories to become their strongest and to make the long journey to the screen. It seems to have worked, launching so many careers and creating a body of work that previously didn’t exist.”

(Related: A champion of Indigenous filmmaking)

He also reflected on his initial arrival at Sundance starting in 2021.

“When I arrived at the Institute in 2001, Sundance had already supported two generations of artists through the work of the first two Native Program staffers, Stephen Lewis and Heather Rae. They built a sturdy community supporting the early works of the founders of a Native American film movement. This investment built on the earlier work of our founder, Robert Redford, extending from when he personally supported Native filmmakers before he started the Institute. He also made sure to include Native filmmakers at the founding meetings of the Institute and in our first labs,” continued Runningwater.

He began his tenure as programmer for Sundance’s Native program in 2001 where he focused on film labs, film festivals and increasing inclusion for Native artists. “During those early years, this work was done often in the face of significant disinterest from the industry, but Sundance’s commitment remained steady,” wrote Runningwater.

His efforts in the early years included his curation of the eventual Oscar-nominated short film “Two Cars One Night” by the eventual Oscar-winning director Taika Waititi, Māori.

As Runningwater wrote, during his time at Sundance, 154 Indigenous filmmakers were mentored and supported with labs, grants and fellowships. More than 119 films have been written, directed and produced by Indigenous filmmakers, and over the past 10 years, “the Institute has welcomed artists representing close to 100 different Indigenous nations from around the world into its programs.”

Runningwater reflected on his early partnership with the late Merata Mita, the first Indigenous woman to solely direct a narrative feature, and honored the loss of other filmmakers Phil Lucas, Clint Star, Samantha Saunders, and the recent passing of the Navajo filmmaker Bennie Klain.

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He highlighted the importance of Native existence in press and films, citing IllumiNative’s research that nearly 80 percent of Americans are unaware of the existence of Native people today. He collaborated with Sundance’s CEO Keri Putnam to create an outreach and inclusion program.

“I’m proud to have helped build a fledgling program into a major force in the industry and around the world. The Indigenous Program is a safe haven for Indigenous artists to flourish …” he wrote.

He says one of his greatest accomplishments was for the institute’s efforts to “publicly acknowledge the ancestral keepers of the lands where we host our labs and Festival, the Ute Tribal Nation.”

“This acknowledgment has become a newfound tradition before every film screening and public event at our Festival,” he wrote.

Runningwater says in honor of the Mescalero Apache ceremonial song and opening statement in his announcement, “This home has come to an end; it’s time to move to the next home.”

“What’s next? I’ve decided it’s time to move to the next home,” Runningwater wrote.

Starting Oct. 4, Indigenous program staffer Adam Piron, Kiowa and Mohawk, will become the interim director of the Indigenous Program.

All of the programs he leads “will be in good hands,” Runningwater assured.

“I want to help ensure the moment our Indigenous artists are experiencing is a lasting one that will forever change our storytelling landscape and culture and secure a place for Indigenous voices on our screens across the country and around the world,” he said. 

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