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Native American dreams

Native peoples are gaining wider acceptance in Hollywood with the critical favorite 'Fast Runner' and PBS's new 'Skinwalkers.'

By Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 22, 2002



LOS ANGELES

When Hollywood decided to tell the story of Lewis and Clark back in 1955 ("The Far Horizons"), filmmakers put Donna Reed - the epitome of white American womanhood - in a black wig to play the teenage Indian guide, Sacajawea.

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Since then, movies such as "Thunderheart" and "Dances With Wolves" have made some progress, putting native American actors in to the cast. But overall, Hollywood films about native cultures have been told by whites, through the eyes of whites. Most have served only to underline the role that native Americans have played throughout the history of Hollywood in telling their own stories: virtually none.

Today, say native American artists, that is slowly beginning to change.

"There are certainly more opportunities today to begin the process of telling the native American story," says Hanay Geiogamah, director of the American Indian Studies program at UCLA. He points to several events, such as the Native American Film & Television Alliance Film Festival at the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles in December.

This Sunday, PBS airs "Skinwalkers," based on the novel by Tony Hillerman and directed by native American filmmaker Chris Eyre. Current films, such as "Skins" and "The Fast Runner," a critical favorite from Canada, the first movie by an Inuk, are written, directed, and acted entirely by native people.

In addition to their growing creative presence, native Americans are also getting involved in financial aspects of filmmaking. Several teams of filmmakers from Washington to Connecticut are taking films to local tribes for funding, says the professor, who is a member of the Kiowa tribe from Oklahoma, adding "that's not something anybody was doing even five years ago."

He traces the awakening to the appearance of a small, independent film, "Smoke Signals," in 1998. The film was written and directed by Mr. Eyre. It was a distinguished winner at the Sundance Film Festival, which has played a key role in helping to develop native American storytellers (see story, below), and was subsequently picked up by Miramax for wider distribution. It had a very modest box office, but garnered strong reviews. More important, its mainstream exposure went out like a beacon of inspiration to native American filmmakers around the country. "It got everybody stirred up," says Mr. Geiogamah.

Websites streaming homemade animation and short films have sprouted up on the Internet. Gregg Howard, a Texas-based native American storyteller, reports that he has seen a surge of interest in the oral storytelling traditions of native Americans. "More schools are asking for us," he says. He travels across the country to storytelling events and says he hears more requests for Indians to tell their own stories.

But anecdotes and inspiration are only half the equation, says Dallas-based filmmaker Steve Heape. Access and mainstream distribution are what will have an impact. He wants to correct what he sees as years of damage by the dominant entertainment industry. "I don't think Hollywood has ever done a good job of telling our stories on a commercial basis."

Mr. Heape and his partner, Chip Richie, have worked for five years to build a system of distribution for their films. They have built a company recognized as the 1999 American Indian Business of the Year by the American Indian Chamber of Commerce. The films are sold over the Internet, through the Smithsonian, and, in February, will appear in national TV syndication.

Eyre says that for native American storytellers to succeed in mainstream entertainment, audiences have to be willing to change. "People in middle America want to see Indians in their romantic way," he says. "They're not as interested in seeing Indians in 2002, if they're not Plains Indians with headdresses."

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