Talia London (left), co-director of Canoe Pulling: A Lummi Way of Life, and Shelby Ray, youth mentor and advocate for OYBMedia
Photo courtesy of Maria Colòn
The National Museum of the American Indian’s 2009 Film + Video Festival celebrated its 30th anniversary last month with over 75 films and videos created by indigenous people from throughout the Western Hemisphere. There were the usual New York premieres of films that had already received successful screenings at higher profile festivals—Sundance recognized Sterlin Harjo’s Barking Water and Andrew MacLean’s Sikumi, On the Ice with awards and critical praise, and Jeff Barnaby’s The Colony premiered at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival in 2007. The most compelling work at this year’s festival, however, was produced by Native youth working with Outta Your Backpack Media (OYBMedia) and Longhouse Media, two nonprofit youth advocacy groups that teach media literacy and production skills in Native communities.
OYBMedia, based in Flagstaff, AZ, was founded in 2008 by Navajo activist and musician Klee Benally as a project of the nonprofit Indigenous Action Media. Organized as a collective, OYBMedia seeks to efficiently provide Native teens with access to independent media skills and resources by conducting workshops out of their Flagstaff office. Benally and other Native filmmakers utilize the inherent creative energy of youth to encourage community ownership of media: “I want to help the youth look at the role media plays in a community, and the immediate impact it has on that community,” says Benally. “What if they were sharing their own stories about their history, their culture and their community? This way, they become the media.”
Three OYBMedia-produced shorts were screened at this year’s NMAI Film + Video Festival: Save the Peaks: Sacred Sites March, Stick Mania, and Graffiti: Art or Vandalism? Ranging from documentary to fiction, the videos present a glimpse of issues that are central to Native youth in the Southwest. Save the Peaks: Sacred Sites March documents a march in Flagstaff against a proposed ski resort development on the San Francisco Peaks, a mountain range in Northern Arizona held sacred by over 13 Native American Nations. Stick Mania portrays an isolated Native youth who creates a stick figure friend that comes to life, and Graffiti: Art or Vandalism? poses an age-old question that has never been satisfactorily answered. Stick Mania stands out as particularly well crafted, given its nonexistent budget; it is essentially a music video with a plot and visual style reminiscent of early 1980s MTV. This is what makes the work produced by OYBMedia alumni so compelling: it demonstrates a sophisticated level of production on par with older, more established, and better funded filmmakers and video artists.
Outta Your Backpack Media
Graffiti: Art or Vandalism? (2008)
The Seattle-based Longhouse Media also conducts media skills workshops as well as offering their filmmaking expertise to tribes in Washington State through their Native Lens program. Their annual SuperFly Filmmaking Experience offers 50 youth 36 hours to make four short films, pairing them with established indigenous filmmakers and actors who guide them through the production and editing process. This year executive director Tracey Rector and founder Annie Silverstein accompanied SuperFly 2007 alumnae Sara and Talia London to New York City to premiere their seven-minute short Canoe Pulling: A Lummi Way of Life at the 2009 NMAI. The video by the two sisters, ages 17 and 19, respectively, employed local Lummi teens reflecting on canoeing as part of their unique cultural and community identity. The sparse and poetic feel of this mini-documentary, and its use of natural light and composition, points to a sophisticated visual awareness not often thought to be the province of teenagers raised on video games and crass, turn-of-the-century commercialism.
When asked why it was important for Native teens to develop media literacy skills and whether they hoped that the 2009 Film + Video Festival would be a springboard to greater access to the mainstream, OYBMedia alumni and current mentor Shelby Ray stated that accessing the mainstream, even through institutionalized sponsorship, is not the point. “It’s great to have had the opportunity to come to New York and meet these new people from all over,” says Ray, “but Outta Your Backpack Media is a community-based organization that is more concerned with youth empowerment and getting out the youth side of the story. I mean, if we don’t take control of our image, we will continue to be misrepresented.” Sara London concurred: “for some kids, media-making is a form of therapy or simply just to tell a story. But even that is a huge accomplishment for some of these kids who are really quiet and feel shut out by the outside communities around the reservation. So for them to even make a digital story and stand up to present it—even to their own community—that’s a huge deal.”
Both organizations are currently seeking applicants for their summer workshops. Applications and additional information can be found at their respective websites listed above.
Maria Colòn is a freelance writer and the editor of NAICA, a free online webzine focusing on global indigenous culture and arts.
Sara London and Lummi Cedar Project Crew
Canoe Pulling: A Lummi Way of Life (2008)