The Native American Film + Video Festival

By Elizabeth Weatherford, Founder and Head, Film & Video Center, NMAI–NY
September 2013

In 1979 the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation (MAI) in New York proposed that I produce a film series to accompany an exhibition in Lower Manhattan. This “series” quickly turned into a summer-long screening event that became the first Native American Film + Video Festival (NAFVF). Focused on indigenous issues and Native American film, the NAFVF has been recognized as an important showcase for the creative energy of Native filmmakers and their explorations of diverse indigenous community achievements and concerns. The Festival was presented fifteen times before it went on hiatus following its extensive presentation in 2011. The first Festival’s success led to the creation of the MAI’s and, later, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s (NMAI’s) Film & Video Center (FVC) and of a published reference catalog that was drawn from Festival programming, Native Americans on Film and Video, Vol. I (1981) and Vol. II (1988). The work of Festival organization and information services, coupled with providing services to the field of Native American media itself, has continued throughout the Festival’s thirty-five years. These earliest activities received generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, and in later years also from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Ford Foundation, and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

In the early years, the only festivals and other screenings produced by the Film and Video Center were done offsite in partnership with other organizations, because the Heye Foundation’s location had no screening room. Even after 1995 when most Festival programs were screened in NMAI’s current location, some Festival programs were screened at partnering sites. NAFVF programs have been screened at the Anthology Film Archives, Donnell Media Library, Museum of Broadcasting (now the Paley Museum), American Museum of Natural History, The Kitchen, Millennium Film Workshop, African Diaspora Film Festival and American Indian Community House.

Between festivals, the FVC was invited to develop showcases for other locations and other festivals. The earliest invitation came from the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Film Archives to screen works from Arctic and subarctic America in Helsinki. Other guest programs included a selection of Native American video for an avant-garde video arts festival in Rome and an extensive selection of documentaries screened by the “Festival dei Popoli” in Florence. The most recent presentations included programming in Native youth media for a variety of festivals in 2012–13, and work with the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum for its “Native FilmFest” in Palm Springs. In addition, the FVC has generated autonomous thematic festivals separate from its flagship event, including several Pacifika Showcases and Arctic Showcases focusing on indigenous film in diverse regions. In 1990, the FVC produced the first Amazon film festival in the world, with curatorial support from film scholar Catherine Benamou, who then conducted a major investigation for the FVC into indigenous production in all countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. This launched the FVC’s significant commitment to developing its Latin American Program, representing the important role that media plays in the lives of indigenous peoples throughout the hemisphere.

The NAFVF expanded over the years, from thirty films in 1979 to a hundred films, representing every region of the Americas and Hawai‘i, in 2011. For thirty-five years, the Festivals brought to New York filmmakers from more than 300 tribal nations and communities to introduce and discuss their works. The NAFVF consistently highlighted new developments in the field of Native media. In 1979, the Festival included video—a new technology at that time. In the 1980s, the NAFVF focused on topics including Canada’s Aboriginal Communications Societies, which had recently been launched in the provinces by Canadian legislation; SKC-TV on the Salish-Kootenai reservation as a unique example of a possible future with reservation television stations; and Canada’s APTN/Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, the first indigenous television channel. In the 1990s, attention turned to tribal and national Native radio, including a week of live broadcasts at the Museum of Broadcasting, and to online projects, including an examination of the “digital divide.”

After the MAI became the National Museum of the American Indian and moved to the old U.S. Custom House in 1994, the Festival greatly expanded, utilizing the museum’s own spaces for multiple screening rooms, meeting places for filmmakers, room for media study, and radio and internet stations for the public to view recent projects.

The growth of the Festival also reflected the FVC’s outreach efforts, and the increasing number of films of all genres being produced by Native Americans. A new process for selecting works was put into place that remained one of the Festival’s strongest features. Hundreds of works were submitted each year for consideration. All of these were previewed and Festival selections made by a team consisting of invited selectors from the U.S., Canada, and Latin America―Native cultural activists, scholars, and filmmakers―and FVC staff. The strength of the programming was directly related to this demanding process, in which long discussions were held throughout the months of previewing as well as an intensive week together for finalizing the selections.

The selectors (and special Festival honorees) were as follows:

  • In 2011, Ana Rosa Duarte (Yucatec Maya), Terry Jones (Seneca), Helen Haig-Brown (Tsilhqot’in), and Nancy Marie Mithlo (Chiricahua Apache). Lifetime Achievement: Gary Farmer (Cayuga)
  • In 2009, Nanobah Becker (Navajo), Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho), Fred Rickard (Cree), and Zezinho Yube (Hunikui)
  • In 2006, Carol Kalafatic (Quechua/Spanish/Croatian), Nora Naranjo-Morse (Tewa/Santa Clara Pueblo), Laura Milliken (Ojibwe), and Mariano Estrada Aguilar(Tzeltal)
  • In 2003, Marcelina Cárdenas (Quechua), Randy Redroad (Cherokee), Paul M. Rickard (Cree), and Mary Sando-Emhoolah (Warm Springs/Wasco/Aleut)
  • In 2000, Peggy Berryhill (Muscogee Creek), G. Peter Jemison (Seneca), Crisanto Manzano Avella (Zapotec), and Beverly Singer (Tewa/Navajo)
  • In 1997, Paul Apodaca (Navajo/Mexican), Juanita Espinosa (Dakota/Ojibwe), Alberto Muenala (Kichwa), and Shelley Niro (Mohawk). Lifetime Achievement Award: Frank Blythe (Cherokee and Sisseton Sioux)
  • In 1995, the first year of guest selectors, the team was composed of Native filmmakers, artists, and graduate students, all then living in New York City―Dean Curtis Bear Claw (Crow), Marta Carlson (Yurok), Alex Ewen (Purepecha), Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho), Carol Kalafatic (Quechua/Spanish/Croatian), Fabian Muenala (Kichwa), Randy Redroad (Cherokee), Harriett Skye (Standing Rock Sioux), and Deron Twohatchet (Kiowa).

By the late 1990s, with support from the Ford Foundation, the Festival expanded to include a two-day, behind-the-scenes Native Networks workshop for the filmmakers participating in the festival’s screenings. The workshops were planned to introduce the community of Native American mediamakers, who were widely dispersed geographically but had many common concerns. They encouraged discussion of issues facing mediamakers, new technologies, and resources in the field, and were conducted with simultaneous interpretation in English and Spanish and, as needed, individual interpretation in Portuguese, French, and Quechua. Professional development was also key, with up to eighty organizations interested in funding, distribution, festival programming, youth media support, workshops, and filmmaker fellowships present to talk with the filmmakers.

Beginning in 2000, a New Generations workshop was included as part of the Native Networks initiative, bringing about five youth media groups and their mentors from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico gathered at each Festival to meet each other, and to meet Native filmmaking professionals, college recruiters, and other young people. The young filmmakers also presented their work to the public in the Next Generations section of the Festival program.

In 1999, the success of this information exchange led the Ford Foundation to fund the FVC to produce an informational website on Native film, also called Native Networks, the content of which was later incorporated into this site.NMAI website you are currently viewing. Since then, the FVC has continued to update its catalog of works, focusing on productions screened by the NMAI in its festivals, showcases, and other public programs.

To reach audiences outside of New York, the FVC developed various ways to assist other locations in screening works initially seen in the Festivals. It organized U.S. film and video tours, starting with “Native America Now: A Festival of Films” in 1984 and “Video Native America” in 1990. In 1998, organized with the indigenous media collaborative in Oaxaca that would become Ojo de Agua Comunicación, “Video America Indígena” brought Native works and filmmakers from the U.S. to indigenous communities in Mexico. With the support of the Smithsonian’s Latino Initiative, three U.S. tours brought Latin American indigenous media organizations, each prominently featured in previous Festivals, to show their works at tribal cultural centers, independent film festivals, and universities across the country. In 2002, “Eye of the Condor” screened works with filmmakers from the Bolivian national indigenous media organizations CEFREC and CAIB. In 2003, “Video Mexico Indígena,” the reciprocal tour to the one in 1998, brought mediamakers from Oaxaca and Michoacán to the U.S. In 2008, “Vídeo Amazônia Indígena: A View from the Villages” toured members of the Brazilian indigenous media organization Video nas Aldeais/Video in the Villages to New York and Washington, D.C. To establish a showcase in addition to the NMAI’s sites on the East Coast, in 2000 I partnered with Jason Silverman, director of the Center for Contemporary Arts Cinematheque, to organize an annual “Native Cinema Showcase” (NCS) in Santa Fe during SWAIA’s Indian Market, adding a focus on Native creativity in film to the other arts on display. NCS continues as a collaboration between the NMAI and SWAIA.

After 1990, the FVC also began to prepare for a full-fledged film and media department at the NMAI’s Washington, D.C., location, initially as a guest programmer for the “Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital," and eventually supporting shared programs with the NMAI’s film and media staff in D.C. In 2005, the FVC produced the world’s first extensive festival of indigenous feature films, “First Nations | First Features: A Festival of World Indigenous Cinema,” in partnership with the Museum of Modern Art and New York University, which screened at multiple locations in New York and Washington.

The accumulated knowledge from the past thirty-five years continues to inform the FVC’s film and media programming, especially the programming of regional film showcases, and in serving the field of Native media. Interest in providing public information and access to the works presented at the NAFVF created a strong commitment to information services, headed by Millie Seubert, the Festival’s co-director and co-author of the early film catalogs. Copies of the works received for Festival preview were generously given by the filmmakers to the museum to form a media study collection, expanded over the years by other donations and purchases for programs. A database to record the works, and the first computer on which to work, were made possible in 1990 by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

In more recent years, the NMAI has developed a custom database, Indigenous Media Online, to house its extensive databank of information about Native films. This database now feeds the new Film & Media Catalog, which includes entries on the hundreds of films shown at the Festivals and other screening programs since 1995, and offers profiles of filmmakers, festival selectors, and other key people in Native film and media.

Over the years, the FVC’s staff has created the festivals, showcases and film tours, and daily on-site screenings, and shared the information gleaned in producing them and in running a full-time media arts center. Many thanks for their fine contributions to assistant curator Millie Seubert and to Latin American Program coordinators Amalia Cordova, Carol Kalafatic, Erica Wortham, and Catherine Benamou; Festival managers and program coordinators Reaghan Tarbell, Michelle Svenson, and Cynthia Benitez; Native Networks website coordinator, Wendy Allen; Indigenous Media Online database coordinators Wendy Allen, Fatima Mahdi, Carole Lazio, and Kate Pourshariati; program assistants Lindsey Cordero, Nicholas Barber, Rebekah Mejorado, Nico Daswani, Margaret Sagan, and Ruth Goler; digital production specialist Aaron Kutnick; management support assistants Joseph Redd and Gaby Markey; and many others who worked with the Film & Video Center to make the FVC’s endeavors such great successes.

The Native American Film + Video Festival is currently on hiatus. Information from past Festivals, including program, film, and selector information, is available on the Native American Film + Video Festival page.