The Power of Storytelling: A Commitment to Native American Voices

A contributed piece by Bird Runningwater, Director of the Native American and Indigenous Program at The Sundance Institute. Mr. Runningwater serves on Comcast NBCUniversal’s external Joint Diversity Advisory Council.

Many people's perceptions of Native American history and culture are shaped by media portrayals, and too often those portrayals are created by individuals who do not understand our communities. Unless Native Americans play an active role in how we are depicted on television and movie screens, we risk letting others tell their version of our story.

Storytelling is power, and we have an incredible opportunity to empower Native American artists. At the Sundance Institute, we’ve supported three generations of Native filmmakers in their journey to find a voice, through the Native American and Indigenous Program. Mandated by our Founder Robert Redford, we’ve nurtured and supported Native filmmakers going back to a time when almost none existed.

Today, dozens of Native filmmakers, many whose careers we helped shape, have been responsible for meaningful and impactful depictions of Native American culture. This is how the learning is done, by people telling their story in their voice. Think about Chris Eyre, director of Smoke Signals, Skins, and Edge of America, and Ian Skorodin, whose films are featured in a special Native American Heritage Month collection on Comcast’s XFINITY On Demand platform. These filmmakers are breaking away from taboo depictions of Native Americans and introducing real characters that are relatable and complex.

Sterlin Harjo, a member of the Seminole Nation and a past Sundance fellow, is yet another powerful voice for Native Americans. Through his storytelling, he has been responsible for a number of accurate portrayals of Native Americans on screen. His feature film, Barking Water, tells the story of a dying man and his trip home with a former lover to see his family for the last time. Harjo’s depiction of their lives is not only an honest story about two Native Americans, but a story of love, forgiveness, and confronting one’s past. This is an American story.

Today, there are more Native filmmakers than ever before, and we hope to bring forward the fourth generation of Native filmmakers to solidify a continuum of artists whose voices can have an important impact on American Cinema and culture. Their work will have even more reach and meaning today, with the growing number of platforms viewers use to consume content anywhere, anytime.

There’s so much promise and power with this fourth generation of Native filmmakers, and one can hope that these rich and innovative stories and images will fill an important void, giving representation in American popular culture to America's first peoples. Our hope is that this will ultimately benefit relations between Tribal Nations and the United States, and deepen people’s understanding of what it means to be a Native American today.





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