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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

A star-studded lineup of Indigenous celebrities turned out for a special event honoring Native film at the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. 

Among those attending the private ceremony were Academy Award-winning musician Buffy Sainte-Marie, actors Wes Studi and Tantoo Cardinal, musician Robbie Robertson and academy trustee Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York.

The event was held Nov. 6 during the opening week of Native American Heritage Month to showcase the museum’s commitment to Indigenous film artists, officials said.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that hands out the Oscars, opened a stunning, seven-story, 300,000-square-foot museum on Sept. 30 that draws on the history and magic of filmmaking.

Cinema has a long history in the Los Angeles area, built on the premise of making movies and turning people into movie stars. It’s built on Tongva land, though Indigenous actors and filmmakers didn’t begin to get the respect or recognition they deserved until the 1970s.

The new Academy Museum seeks to offer celebratory, critical, and personal perspectives on the disciplines and impact of movie-making, past and present.

The special ceremony was preceded by two days of film screenings featuring Indigenous films from the past 40 years, including The Fast Runner (2001), Christmas at Moose Factory (1971), and Walking is Medicine (2017).

The event honored award-winning Indigenous artists.

Sainte-Marie, Cree, became the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar, when in 1983 she won for her song, “Up Where We Belong,” from the film An Officer and a Gentleman.

Studi, Cherokee, was awarded an Honorary Oscar for his decades of outstanding work in mainstream (Hostiles) and indie films (Ronnie Bo Dean).

Cardinal, Cree and Métis, was honored for her work in Dances with Wolves and other films since the 1970s.

And Robertson, a songwriter and musician of Mohawk and Cayuga descent, was recognized for his work that includes composing soundtracks for multiple Oscar-winning films by director Martin Scorcese — Raging Bull, Casino, The Departed. He is now working on the soundtrack and score for the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon, based on the Osage murders in the 1920s.

The evening was kicked off with a blessing from Tongva spiritual leader Jimi Castillo. Other notable Native celebrities attending the event were Crystal Williams, Rudy Ortega, Stevie Salas and Tishmall Turner.

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Tongva spiritual leader Jimi Castillo kicked off a special event on Nov. 6, 2021, honoring Indigenous actors, filmmakers and writers at the newly opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, California. (Photo courtesy of The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures)

On display in the museum are the clip of Sainte-Marie winning her Oscar, clips from the Scorcese movies with Robertson’s film scores, performer Cher’s wild Mohawk outfit that she wore to present an Oscar in 1988 - the year before she won an Academy Award, and a looping clip of Sacheen Littlefeather’s rejection of Marlon Brando’s Oscar in 1973 over his protests of how Natives had been treated in film and in real life. Her speech was met with boos and cheers.

Bill Kramer, director and president of the Academy Museum, said in a statement that the museum wants to tell stories of the industry.

“We are living in changing and ever-evolving times, and now more than ever we need to come together to share our stories, learn from one another, and bond over being entertained and delighted,” Kramer said. “This is what movies do, and we are thrilled to be opening such a dynamic, diverse and welcoming institution devoted to this beloved art form.”

Jacqueline Stewart, chief artistic and programming officer of the Academy Museum, said officials want to engage visitors in conversations about the history of films and the impact that cinema can have.

“We hope visitors will learn more about films they know and love, make new cinematic discoveries, and feel inspired to share their own stories,” Stewart said in a statement.

A walk-through of the multi-storied building is a movie-lovers dream. Rotating galleries have displays focused on sets and props from the Wizard of Oz, and costumes from the silent era of the 1920s to contemporary outfits from recent hit movies. The shark from Jaws, named Bruce, hangs in the atrium.

The roof has a grand view of downtown Los Angeles and the Hollywood Hills. A 2.600-square-foot gift shop sells everything from miniature Oscar statues to T-shirts and other memorabilia. A café on the lower level called Fanny’s, named after Fanny Brice, serves up coffee and sandwiches.

One of the most popular museum activities is The Oscars Experience in the East West Bank Gallery, an immersive simulation that allows visitors to step virtually onto the stage of the Dolby Theatre to accept an Academy Award.

You tell them your name, step onto a film stage and pick up a real Oscar (it weighs about 8 pounds and is solid bronze, plated in 24K gold) and give your acceptance speech while they film it. A few minutes later they email you a professional-looking, edited video with the Academy logo announcing you as a winner. I bet it will fool your friends.

The museum will be presenting a roster of screenings — including Oscar Sundays and Family Matinees — in the 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater and the 288-seat Ted Mann Theater on the property.

The museum is on the same block as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, filled with some of the best art in the world, and the La Brea Tar Pits, a prehistoric oddity of a real tar pit surrounded by a natural history museum and a park with excavation sites.

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