Native film curator receives invite to join 2019 class of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Kolby KickingWoman

N. Bird Runningwater will have ability to vote for Academy Award recipients

“And the Oscar goes to…”

Those five words may be most coveted by those working in the film industry. But who makes up the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the “world's preeminent movie related organization behind the Oscars?”

The Academy, as it is known, is made up of more than 8,000 men and women working in cinema who have “distinguished themselves by their contributions to theatrical motion pictures.”

N. Bird Runningwater, Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache, is one of the 842 artists who received an invite to join the 2019 class and will be eligible in voting for recipients of an oscar. The 2019 cohort include the likes of music superstars Adele and Lady Gaga, as well as Spider-Man actor Tom Holland.

Three well-recognized actresses in Indian Country also received invites in 2018.

According to a story in Deadline, “A total of 29 percent of the new class revealed Monday are people of color, marking an 8 percent increase in that statistic since 2015.” Additionally, 50 percent of the class are women.

Runningwater got the good news while he was back home on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico prepping for upcoming summer ceremonies with his family.

“I happened to check my email, which I’m trying not to do, but I saw a ‘Congratulations’ email from the Academy and I was like, ‘Oh wow!’ I completely forgot I was under consideration,” he said with a laugh.

In order to be considered for an invite, a candidate must be sponsored by two existing Academy members and then the candidates nominations are reviewed by branch committees. Ultimately, the Academy’s Board of Governors decide who receive invitations.

Runningwater is currently the director of Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program, based out of Los Angeles, California. He oversees the Native Filmmakers Lab, the Native Producers Fellowship, and the Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum.

According to a press release from the Institute, Runningwater has “identified, developed and gotten made and distributed 37 films written, directed and produced by Native American and Indigenous filmmakers. Under Runningwater’s tenure at Sundance Institute, 140 different Indigenous filmmakers have been identified and supported by the organization. More than 120 films, written, directed and produced by Indigenous filmmakers have been curated by Runningwater to premiere at Sundance Film Festival.”

Although he has had a hand in getting a large number of films to screen, Runningwater says he never intended or wanted to work in film but that it happened completely by accident. After graduating from the University of Oklahoma with degrees in journalism and Native American studies, he went on to get his Master of Public Affairs degree from the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

Upon graduating, he always figured he’d be involved in governance or policy, ideally in education. Yet his first job coming out of graduate school was working for the Ford Foundation and because of his media background, Runningwater was placed in the newly created Media, Arts and Culture Program.

“That was my introduction into media and film,” he said, “it was completely serendipitous.”

He continued to say he is looking forward to being a member of the Academy and continuing to bring Native perspectives into cinema.

“I think it’s an opportunity for us to participate and to advocate and to promote our own communities, cultures and peoples.” Runningwater said. “Right now is such a prime opportunity for us to really punch through and perforate a lot of those glass ceilings and to perforate those barriers that keep us invisible in our national culture.”

You can view all the invitees of the 2019 class here.

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Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email -