A New Generation of Indigenous Filmmakers Is Rising in the Pacific Northwest

“Not everyone’s the same. And so our stories and how we tell our stories are always specific to their community, cultural backgrounds, and ancestry.”

Malni: Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore (Courtesy of Sky Hopinka)

North American Natives, and depictions of them, have been on the big screen since the dawn of motion pictures. When Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894) earned history’s first motion picture copyright, viewers could pay a penny to see a clip of Lakota Indians reenacting the Ghost Dance or the Buffalo Dance in Edison kinetoscopic films.

Around the globe, Indigenous people have also been storytellers since before memory serves. Yet representations of North America’s Indigenous populations and stories on film have overwhelmingly originated outside Indian country.

This wasn’t always true. In Reel Injun (2009), a documentary about the portrayal of Native Americans in Hollywood, Ojibwe film critic Jesse Wente notes, “The portrayal of Native Americans on screen has changed dramatically since the silent era.”

Silent film historian David Kiehn corroborates this: “[There were] Native American people directing and acting in films and bringing their viewpoints....And they were being listened to. Everything was on the table.” In 1910, White Fawn’s Devotion, the earliest surviving film directed by a Native American (James Young Deer), was released. In 1920, a sizable all-Native American cast (300-plus Ojibwe and Kiowa) starred in the 1920 silent Western Daughter of Dawn.

Starting in the 1930s, much of that changed. Indigenous characters were increasingly replaced by white actors in redface. The audio for Indigenous languages was often just English run backward. North America’s stunning diversity of Indigenous Nations, Tribes, and individuals were reduced to mush on-screen.

In Reel Injun, costume designer Richard Lamotte acknowledges folks in Hollywood “Weren’t interested in explaining the tribes. They said, ‘Well, they’re Indians.’ So to keep things simple, every Indian becomes a Plains Indian, wearing the headdress, buckskin, and the headband.” Headbands aren’t even a historically Plains Indian trait but a strategy to secure actors’ wigs, Lamotte adds. For more of this history, check out Reel Injun for free on Tubi.

Woodrow Hunt (Klamath-Modoc, Cherokee), founder and owner of the Portland Indigenous production company Tule Films, notes the diversity of perspectives among today’s Indigenous filmmakers.

“Not everyone’s the same,” Hunt tells WW. “And so our stories and how we tell our stories are always specific to their community, cultural backgrounds, and ancestry.” Though warned off focusing on an only-Indigenous film production company, Hunt pursued his passion anyway and has continued to see professional success since.

With Indigenous filmmakers behind the camera, in writing rooms and on set, regional nuances (on the reservation and off) and the multiplicities of Indigenous identities naturally come to the fore. And when shaping their own stories, the lives and viewpoints of contemporary Indigenous people get told. This identity-affirming narrative sovereignty is a game-changer, cultivating perspectives that have been missing for so long from the representations of North American’s Indigenous people on screen and adding to cutting edge filmmaking at large.

Here are some Pacific Northwest Indigenous filmmakers (either from here or involved in the regional filmmaking industry) to know about:

1. Isaac Trimble (Lummi) and LaRonn Katchia (Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs)

Trimble (producer) and Katchia (director and cinematographer) have collaborated since 2013. In 2017, their short horror film Missing Indigenous won Best Film and Best Cinematography at Portland’s 48 Hour Film Project. The film is a fictional short representing the heart-wrenching reality of the epidemic of murdered or missing Native Americans.

Best quote: “In order to break the typical Hollywood stereotypes with Native Americans, a Native American must create these roles and opportunities for Native American actors/actresses.... We are more than just the period piece Native, and we are not simply a side character or backdrop. We have stories, too, and I’m here to help us present them. I want to see our stories told in multiple genres, including fiction and nonfiction,” he said. “We have been underrepresented in films for years, and it is time to change that.” (The Madras Pioneer, 2017)

2. Chris Eyre (Cheyenne, Arapaho)

Born in Portland and raised in Klamath Falls, Eyre is an iconic Indigenous filmmaker and early industry game-changer. His seminal debut film, Smoke Signals (1998), broke from traditional representations of American Indians on screen, capturing everyday life in contemporary Indian country and other stories typically left untold. More recently, Eyre hosted the four-part docuseries Growing Native Northwest: Coast Salish, which (from food to canoeing to language revitalization) centers on reclaiming traditional Indigenous knowledge in the Northwest.

Best quote: “Self-representation of Indians in cinema is one of the last cinematic frontiers left.... We are in an infancy of illustrating to the world who it is that we are. I’m interested in doing what non-Indian filmmakers can’t do, which is portray contemporary Indians.’” (New York Times, 2022)

3. Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk Nation, descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño people)

In 2022, Hopinka won a MacArthur genius grant. His work is often experimental, and notable for its incorporation of Indigenous languages, such as Chinuk Wawa of the Lower Columbia River Basin, often focusing on Native communities and their relationship to the natural world. His first feature-length film is Małni: Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore (2020), and he currently has two feature-length films in pre-production (shorter works can be found at www.skyhopinka.com/lore).

Best quote: When asked, “As a filmmaker who presents Indigenous culture from such a personal, respectful perspective, how can one counteract the more harmful examples from cinema’s past,” Hopinka reflected, “[J]ust having more space for more work by Indigenous people that are either commenting on that history or just totally ignoring it. A thing I have tried to avoid is feeling like I have to respond to the canon or respond to those histories. I don’t want my films to just be responses to white perceptions about who we are or what we do. I’m a fan of work that cuts that part out of the equation, but I also love the work that comments on it in a really direct and aggressive way” (Splittooth media interview, 2022).

4. Ryan Abrahamson (Spokane)

Abrahamson’s 2022 supernatural thriller, Strongest at the End of the World, was written entirely in Salish and filmed on the Spokane Reservation (in a 2022 Spokesman Review story, he said the joy of hearing Salish spoken drew tribal elders to rehearsals just to hear the words). He’s currently seeking funding to turn the project into a feature film.

Best quote: “We want to create films that have to do more with the cultural identity of being a Native American or American Indian (...) That means not just making films about their relationship with American pioneers, but also “African, English, French, Asian, Russian…all these in the Pacific Northwest. There’s a weird treasure trove of how many explorers came to this region.” (Northwest Public Broadcasting, 2022)

5. Raven Two Feathers (Cherokee, Seneca, Cayuga, Comanche)

Raven Two Feathers is a two-spirit, Emmy Award-winning creator based in Seattle. Their intergenerational project, Indigenous Genders, chronicles the lives of four Indigenous people across the United States, exploring the joys of existing beyond the gender binary. One of their most impactful personal projects to date was their 360-degree video A Drive to Top Surgery, in which the viewer rides along with them and their family to their momentous operation. It won the 2021 Emerging Digital and Interactive Award at the world’s largest Indigenous film and media arts festival, Toronto’s imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival.

Best quote: When asked, “If there was a young trans Two-Spirit person reading this, what would you tell them about expressing themselves through art?” Two Feathers responded: “I would say, similar to coming into your full self or realizing your full self, apply that same amount of go-get-them nature. Just go for it—go for it wholeheartedly….You might not realize the full potential that you have and will be bringing into this world and that it’s desperately needed.” (Xtra* interview, 2022)

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