American Indians bringing ancient art of storytelling into modern age

Tucson, Arizona (ICC) 8-08

When you think of American Indians in motion pictures, your first thought is probably of a Western. Director John Ford filmed several classics (most starring John Wayne) from the 1930s through 60s in the area of Monument Valley where Navajo “actors” were plentiful and ready to assume the roles of disparate Native nations. One movie, Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn (starring Richard Widmark, not Wayne), features Navajo actors portraying Cheyenne. It must be amusing for Navajo speakers to watch this film and hear the “Cheyenne” speak their lines in Navajo.

Today American Indians from across the country are producing, writing, directing, and starring in their own motion pictures. Storytelling is a very ancient and integral part of tribal communication and so bringing it into the modern age, complete with high tech equipment, is a logical extension of that most significant Native art form.

The annual Native Eyes Film Showcase, established by Arizona State Museum in 2004 and subsequently offered in partnership with the UA’s Hanson Film Institute, celebrates the high-quality efforts of American Indians in the film industry with free public film screenings and student workshops in the fall. But this year, the fifth annual installment has expanded to include an intensive summer workshop for Tohono O’odham youth, ages 13-18.  


The six-day media workshop is an introduction to filmmaking for the youth of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Media literacy and practical media production experience will be emphasized. Focusing on visual storytelling, participants will learn the steps involved in executing a video project. They will also become familiar with the work of Indigenous media makers from around the globe and will discuss issues inherent in Indigenous film and video storytelling. “By the end of the workshop,” says Vick Westover of the UA’s Hanson Film Institute, “participants should see film and video production as an accessible means of cultural and personal expression.”

“As Native people, we are charged with the responsibility of instilling in our youth the validity of our ways in the modern world,” says filmmaker Nanobah Becker (Navajo). The Los Angeles resident is one of the two lead instructors of the summer workshop. “This can seem an insurmountable task when confronted with our marginalization in society and the absence of our values, images, and languages in the mainstream media. But thanks to improved economic conditions and modern technology, tribes are now empowered to create their own media.” Becker received a master’s degree in fine arts from Columbia University and has shown her films at numerous festivals. She has taught film production for American Indian high school students and was chosen to participate in the Native Forum Filmmaker’s Workshop at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

Annabel Wong (Salt River Pima), the second of the two lead instructors, adds, “Media making by tribal people is not a novelty nor is it just entertainment, it is an expression of tribal culture itself. By equipping our youth with the best, most competitive skills, tribes will have the tools they need to operate at their best in the changing world while instilling pride and self-reliance in their young people. Media making is not a privilege, it is a necessity.” Tucson-born Wong was educated at New York’s School of Visual Arts and presently resides in New York City. She has participated in photo exhibitions across the nation and has also taught video production at various workshops with the American Indian Film Institute’s Tribal Touring Program.

Comments from students, on their workshop applications, show enthusiasm for telling their own stories. Elijah Martinez stated he’s always wanted to know what goes on behind the camera. Denny Galvez wrote that this workshop would be his first step into the world of digital arts. In thinking about story ideas, Mathias Valenzuela stated, “There are many stories about life here on the reservation, but the main one would probably be concerning the border and the O’odham that live across it.” Other students listed stories that illustrate the uniqueness of the Tohono O’odham way of life including how they view the world, education, and even the women’s game of “toka.”


In order to study different approaches to the medium, students will view clips from several important and influential filmmakers. Shot selection, framing, sound, music, and performance among other considerations will be discussed. Participants will also see media from around the globe to investigate how indigenous artists are using modern technologies to document their experiences.

Participants will then shoot several short video exercises to understand and reinforce visual storytelling concepts. This will culminate in a short film produced by the entire group on a topic of the students’ choice. Using digital cameras and Final Cut software, the students will perform all the technical roles required – from idea development and camera operation to sound recording, editing, and acting.

The students’ group effort will be screened at least twice: July 12 at 6 pm in Sells and during the Native Eyes Film Showcase in Tucson, November 13-15. Times, theatre locations and the full list of films (not only by the students but also by established and award-winning filmmakers) will be announced on Arizona State Museum’s website. All screenings are free and open to the public.

In addition to Arizona State Museum and the UA Hanson Film Institute, sponsors of the workshop are the Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC), Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), the Himdag ki: Hekihu, Hemu, Im BI-Ha’ap (Tohono O’odham Cultural Center and Museum), and UA College of Public Health with support from UA Native American Student Affairs.


Begun in 2004, Native Eyes Film Showcase is an ever-expanding program established by Arizona State Museum and now co-produced with the University of Arizona’s Hanson Film Institute (a part of the UA College of Fine Arts), in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. Native Eyes celebrates the creative work of Native American directors, producers, writers, and actors by presenting their high quality work. When possible, guest filmmakers for Native Eyes speak to UA media arts students about their work and careers, and the program offers a media literacy component for Native youth. 

The Smithsonian Institution is looking to this pilot summer workshop project as a potential program to replicate nationally.

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