LAFF Society


Nurturing Native American Filmmakers

By N. Bird Runningwater


Director of Sundance Institute Native American and Indigenious Program Bird Runningwater, at left, Navajo filmmaker Sydney Freeland, president and founder of Sundance Institute Robert Redford, Native American filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, and New Zealand film director Taika Waititi, attend a Sundance event at MOMA in New York City. Photo by Jemal Countess.

I was in my second year of working for the Ford Foundation as Program Associate in the newly created Media, Arts and Culture Program in 1998. I had the great pleasure of working for Program Officers Jon Funabiki and John Phillip Santos on the Foundation’s media work on Diversity in Journalism and with the Media Fund, funding production of documentaries and radio content. 
In early January, Santos came into my office, plopped a letter on my desk and told me, “You have to go to Sundance Film Festival. None of us can go.” 
The tattered letter had been circulated through interoffice mail and everyone, including EMAC vice president Alison Bernstein, acting MAC director and program officer Christine Vincent and Santos couldn’t attend because of scheduling conflicts. “Lucky me! I get to hang out in the snow,” I thought to myself, not feeling too eager to go from freezing cold New York City to icy cold, wintry Utah. 
When I arrived in the mountains of Park City at the Sundance Film Festival, I immediately connected with the then-director of the Sundance Institute’s Native American Program, Heather Rae, who was responsible for carrying out the institute’s commitment to support Native filmmakers. I was completely unaware of the history of this long-standing commitment to Native artists, but I immediately went deeper into this world and learned some little-known history.
When Smoke Signals world-premiered that year, it was the first dramatic feature film written, directed and produced by Native Americans. It was a definitive highlight in Native history and an historic moment for American cinema. The film’s script, screenwriter and director were nurtured by Sundance Institute and more than likely would not have been made had it not been for that support. 
Since moving images were captured on film in the early twentieth century, Native people had been represented in its imagery but rarely had the creative control to write and direct. A commitment mandated at the founding of Sundance Institute by its president and founder, Robert Redford, in 1981 changed all that.
In the early years of his work as a television actor, Redford had been asked to audition to play a Native character on TV. Appalled by this request, he went on a personal quest to find Native actors that broadened to trying to locate Native filmmakers. Through his early environmental work and his acquisition of land in Utah to create a preserve of pristine lands, Redford had built deep, lasting relationships with different Indian tribes. Through his networks he put out calls for filmmakers to come to workshops to learn about writing and directing. Sometimes no one showed up, and at times others showed up and took the instruction and returned to their communities to implement what they had learned. 
One lesson Redford recalls learning during this mentoring of Native filmmakers was when they told him, “Don’t tell us how to make films your way, teach us so we can make films the way we want to.” Redford eventually took this method of nurturing filmmakers and supporting artistic voice on film and formally established the Sundance Institute in 1981 to serve American film artists. Native filmmakers participated in founding the Institute and the very first Filmmakers Lab hosted, among them, Larry LittleBird, of the Laguna/Santo Domingo Pueblos, and Chris SpottedEagle of the Houmas Nation.
Since then, Institute staffers have conducted outreach and tried to find Native filmmakers to participate in its larger programs and Film Festival, which was acquired in 1984, with varying levels of success. There was never a steady stream of artists coming through the doors of Sundance Institute. Finally, in 1992 around the Quincentenary celebrations marking Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas, the Institute created a showcase of Native films at Sundance Film Festival to counter the narrative of America as unoccupied lands that were “discovered”. In doing so they hired the first Native staffer to curate the programming of the first Native Cinema showcase, Stephen Lewis, a Gila River Pima/Maricopa. 
After Lewis left the Institute, Heather Rae, a producer and filmmaker steeped in the Native documentary world, was hired to head a newly created Native Program to lead Festival programming and look for ways to bring Native filmmakers into Sundance Labs. 
The founders of the Native American film movement and the first generation of filmmakers whose works Sundance Film Festival began to screen included such filmmakers as Phil Lucas (Choctaw), George Burdeau (Blackfeet), Sandy Osawa (Makah) and others from Canada, including Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki), who had their films screened and presented to audiences in the newly created “Native Forum” category at Sundance Film Festival. Conducting steady outreach, Rae was able to identify many artists who aspired to write and direct dramatic feature films, something that had not yet occurred. Among the first whose literary work was translated for the screen and produced was author Greg Sarris (Coastal Miwok), whose feature Grand Avenue, which he wrote and workshopped at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, was eventually produced and aired by HBO in 1996. 
Sarris led the second generation of Native filmmakers supported by the Institute, among them Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho), Sherman Alexie (Coeur d’Alene/Spokane), Randy Redroad (Cherokee) and Canadian filmmaker Shirley Cheechoo (Cree). All successfully wrote and directed feature films after intensive support from the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program Labs.
I had left Ford in 1998 and, in 2001, as I was departing my second job in philanthropy heading the Fund of the Four Directions in New York City, was asked to join Sundance Institute to help reshape the Native Program and expand its work to create a larger impact. In doing so, several changes were made to deepen outreach, create Fellowships that supported early development of projects, and retire the Native Forum category after 10 years of presenting Native films so they could be presented in the general competition and other categories across the Festival. 
Thankfully, in my first years of this work the Ford Foundation came on board as a primary funder through Arts and Culture program officers Roberta Uno and Betsy Theobold Richards (Cherokee), and Media program officer Orlando Bagwell.
A third generation that was emerging not only in the United States but also in other countries presented a new challenge, as they worked mostly in isolation. A large step was taken specifically to internationalize the program and create connections among indigenous filmmakers working in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of whom had varied degrees of success creating films and having them shown in the international marketplace.
Some of the first ideas to merge international communities with Sundance’s Native Program came from my participation at an International Indigenous Women’s gathering in Aotearoa-New Zealand in 2001. There, long-lasting relationships were built with powerful women filmmakers such as Merata Mita (Ngati Pikiao/Ngai te Rangi) from New Zealand, Rachel Perkins (Arrernte Nation) from Australia and Alanis Obomsawin. 
I was deemed an “honorary woman” so I could participate, to this day one of the highest honors bestowed on me. I was the only man attending and listened attentively as we sat in the marae, the traditional gathering house of the Maori people. We watched vhs copies of women directors’ films on a small portable tv and discussed the commonalities and differences of these film cultures from around the world. As someone who descends from matrilineal and matriarchal tribes, it seemed so natural to me for this to be the birthing place of Sundance Institute’s work to support Native and Indigenous filmmakers on a global scale.
This third generation of filmmakers supported by Sundance, whom I’ve had the pleasure of identifying and supporting as they have endeavored to write and direct their first feature films, includes Sterlin Harjo (Creek/Seminole Nations), Taika Waititi (Te Whanau a Apanui), Andrew MacLean (Inupiaq), Rachel Perkins (Arrernte Nation), Warwick Thornton (Kaytej Nation), Sydney Freeland (Navajo), Aurora Guerrero (Xicana) and Billy Luther (Navajo).
In 2012, we began to ask, “Who is the fourth generation? And how are we going to find them?” This generation is very different from previous ones as the media landscape has shifted dramatically since the founding years of Sundance. No longer are films being made on celluloid and seen only in theaters. An entire digital shift had occurred and young Native people have grown up with digital technology and are consuming their content on the internet and various platforms. 
Through a refocusing of outreach and by targeting short-film production, the fourth generation includes devoted modern cineastes alongside purists preferring to shoot on film. But whatever their preference, their stories are still culturally specific, transcending audiences through the power and uniqueness of their narratives, often sitting outside the frame of traditional categorization. Among those in this fourth generation are Shaandiin Tome (Navajo), Lyle Corbine, Jr. (Bad Lake Band of Lake Superior Chippewa), Christopher Kahunahana (Kanaka Maoli), Ciara Lacy (Kanaka Maoli), Sky Hopinka (Hochunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseno), Adam and Zack Khalil (Sault Ste. Marie Band of Ojibway) and Razelle Benally (Navajo/Oglala Lakota). 
Among trends in the Native Program at Sundance, women make up more than half the Native Program’s fellowship recipients for early stage development. And half the Indigenous films presented at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival were written, directed or produced by Indigenous women. Steady Indigenous film production happens especially in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where the state supports agencies for film and regularly funds production. 
There also is significant growth in Latin America, especially Peru, Colombia and Mexico, and in the Nordic countries within the Arctic Circle among the Sami People.
The US lags because of our lack of public support for the arts, but with Sundance as the primary supporter of Native films in this country, the regular development of projects and presentation at our Festival remains steady. 
Last year, as the Standing Rock occupation in North Dakota perforated the national news cycle, Native Americans were visible for once within American popular culture and there has been a ripple effect that Sundance’s Native Program is witnessing. More and more Native-themed projects are in development, while others seek Native talent to participate as writers, directors and producers. Hopefully this window will last longer than the last window, which happened in the early 1990s following the Dances With Wolves popularity moment. The most important trend in this current window is that, at first glance, the stories are more contemporary and not pigeon-holed into the historic nineteenth century stereotypes that have dominated representations of Native people in film and television. 
After more than 40 years of personal investment in the development of the Native film community by Robert Redford, and 37 years of institutional investment by the Sundance Institute, Native Cinema has made significant strides. In endeavoring to simultaneously deconstruct historical misrepresentations in cinema while creating fresh new stories and imagery of the Indigenous experience, four generations of Native filmmakers continue to hold steady to a dream of more authentic representation in media and within the larger fabric of society. 
My tenure at Sundance over the past 18 years has been a pleasure as I’ve witnessed the growth and maturation of a community I began to engage when I started my career in media at the Ford Foundation 22 years ago. 
While much more work remains to fight for inclusion and representation, many of us in this community move onward with a mantra that first appeared as dialogue in that milestone of a film back in 1998, Smoke Signals: “It’s a good day to be Indigenous!”
More information on Native films and filmmakers is available at



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