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You have to love films to work during the Oscar celebration

Pamela Peters sees what’s different with six years of observations

Pamela Peters, Navajo, wasn’t at the Academy Awards to kick up her heels and party with the famous. Instead she went through the high security check on Sunday so that she could work long hours backstage.

This was the Peters’s sixth year researching and captioning photos for the award show to use. (She preferred to not disclose the exact company she worked for.) As part of her job, she has to familiarize herself with all the nominees.

A photographer captured her on the red carpet in a red dress that she shared on her Facebook. She wore a navy blue dress last year.

“Everyone is really excited. You have to love film in order to be in this industry. That’s what I noticed when I encounter people there. We just talk about film and it’s wonderful. The atmosphere is really great. Everyone is happy and beautiful,” she said. “We have to look very formal. It’s like one of the highest honors that these amazing actors and filmmakers can achieve. It is wonderful, especially when awards are given to people who don’t expect it.”

Before, in between and after her duties, she did notice that the night was different.

One major difference was the award show didn’t have a host. (Kevin Hart removed himself as a host after receiving flak for comments he made about the LGBTQ community. He also dismissed complaints about the Cowboys and Indians party he hosted.)

“It was a little different this year because they didn’t have a host,” she said. There was a positive response from a lot of people because it made the process go a little faster.”

The show opened up with the rock band Queen with Adam Lambert as the lead singer followed by the hilarious trio Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. 

Peters also noticed the increased presence of Black filmmakers and actors including many cast members from “Crazy Rich Asians.” One of her friends even said how it was neat to see a well-known Asian actress in the Oscar tribute.

“I think they’re really trying. They’re trying to be inclusive with bringing a larger collective of audience, viewers to see the award show,” Peters said.

With that in mind, Peters rooted for Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” in the 11 nominations it received.

“I know that some people had strong opinions about it,” she said. “In the end it’s a personal story and personal narrative that he wrote. There’s no one who is really in tuned to the narrative or as compassionate in what he wanted to portray.”

“Roma” walked away with three Oscar wins out of the 11 nominations. The film, which focused on an Indigenous woman’s story who Yalitza Aparicio played, won for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography.

Aparicio, Mixtec and Triqui, was also a highlight of the night (and for the Indigenous Twitter world). The 25-year-old took her mother as her date to the 91st Academy Awards in Los Angeles. 

Even though she didn’t win best actress, much of social media (including Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo) talked about how her Indigenous Mexican presence is the representation Indigenous people need in Hollywood. 

Peters was happy to see Aparicio representing Indigenous women last night.

“The one thing I’m really happy about is someone that looks like me walking beautifully and elegantly and representing us as Native women,” she said over the phone from Los Angeles. “I think that’s so beautiful.”

The other time that has happened was when Radmilla Cody donned her traditional Navajo dress on the Grammy's red carpet in 2013. Peters said she cried and people asked why. She told them, “You don’t know the significance of that to us Navajos.”

Last year, Wes Studi made history by presenting an award at the Oscar ceremony as the first Native American presenter and he spoke Cherokee. The Cherokee Nation translated his words in a tweet. 

Another Oscar moment that gave Native peoples a nod was Spike Lee in his acceptance speech for Best Writing Adapted Screenplay of the “BlacKkKlansman”, which many say his Oscar win was long overdue.

“Before the world tonight, I give praise to our ancestors who have built this country into what it is today along with the genocide of its Native people. We all connect with our ancestors. We will have love and wisdom regained, we will regain our humanity. It will be a powerful moment. The 2020 presidential election is around the corner. Let’s all mobilize. Let’s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing! You know I had to get that in there.”

Lee has been heavily influential in the film industry, especially with his involvement at the Sundance Institute which houses the Indigenous film program.

Peters’s coworkers looked at her last night during his speech because they know she’s Native.

“I’m like yes. Sadly, it’s the only voice we get from our community. I commend him for that,” she said. “I’m glad he acknowledged us in the history of our existence but I’m saddened by the fact that we are not existing in that platform in the Academy Awards.”

Native people are sprinkled throughout award show history or other shows each year in some form or fashion.

“I think we get little representation every other year. I would like the momentum to continue and I would like for it to grow,” she said and hopes there will be another Native presenter at the Oscars.

She hopes people will see the work that Lee is putting in to get Native people acknowledgement but those people will need to listen, Peters said.

She recalled seeing Colombian director Ciro Guerra and Antonio Bolivar in 2015. Bolivar wore his traditional headdress to the Oscars that year.

Or the other time in 1985 when “Broken Rainbow” won an Oscar for Documentary Feature. Katherine Smith, Navajo, was featured in the film and later wore her blue velvet dress on the Oscar stage. Smith died in 2017. 

“I know people don’t want to listen. I think it’s that personal guilt and that white guilt they have,” Peters said. “They need to get over it and acknowledge us.”

For now the Jason Momoa in a salmon velvet suit (and not fulfilling Ashley Graham’s haka request), Yalitza Aparicio and her mother walking hand in hand, Sacheen Littlefeather declining Marlon Brando’s award, Bethany Yellowtail and Dorothy Grant’s designs presence at the award show in the past and the presence of Forrest Goodluck from “The Revenant” at a 2016 Oscars will continue to remind the rest of the world that Native people have so much more to add in the film industry. 

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