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Presenting Native Voices Through Film

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Ever heard of Pearl Warren? Probably not. But a group of UW students is hoping to change that. They’ve spent the past nine months creating a documentary film about the American Indian Women’s Service League and Warren, its founder. 

The students began the project while enrolled in a UW course on documentary filmmaking, taught by Dan Hart, professor of American Indian studies. Hart is co-director of Native Voices, a new UW graduate program dedicated to Native American documentary production. 

Dax Thomas does the filming while Teresa Powers conducts an interview for a documentary film they and other students are creating.

Dax Thomas does the filming while Teresa Powers conducts an interview for a documentary film they and other students are creating. Media credit: Nancy Joseph

“Everyone in the world has made films about Indian people—except, by and large, Indian people,” says Hart. “Native voices and perspectives are rarely heard. All that information from outsiders has resulted in a lot of disinformation.” 

To address the problem, Hart began the Native Voices as an undergraduate program ten years ago at Montana State University. The program has produced films on everything from tribal histories to religion. The award-winning collection has been screened at the Sundance Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and other prestigious venues, and the films are used in thousands of universities and secondary schools around the world. 

So why move the Native Voices program to the UW? “We’re primarily interested in documentary work, and that seems best suited to a graduate school like the UW,” Hart explains. “Documentary projects are really akin to any other kind of major research project. They involve field research, archival work, library work, and research analysis. The only difference is that the research leads to a ‘filmed’ story rather than a book or article.” 

While gearing up for the graduate program, which will be offered jointly by the American Indian Studies Center and the School of Communications, Hart decided to offer a series of documentary filmmaking courses for undergraduates. The first course involved in-depth research to prepare compelling proposals for a film project. The second was a production course, to create a documentary based on one of the proposals. 

“Most students have very little experience formulating research projects and working independently,” says Hart. “What we were asking them to do was an entirely new experience—and they really threw themselves into it. I strongly believe that when research projects are linked in a real and very practical way to the world, students come alive.” 

Everyone in the world has made films about Indian people—except, by and large, Indian people. Native voices and perspectives are rarely heard. All that information from outsiders has resulted in a lot of disinformation.

Teresa Powers, a Lakota and a UW senior, was surprised at the intensity of the research experience. “The research part was very difficult,” she admits, “because the issues I care about are very emotional. I haven’t had many opportunities on campus to express myself and my people’s concerns. With this course, I had a chance to choose a topic and really get into it.”

Things got even more challenging the second quarter, when Powers was selected as director of the film. She figures she’s dedicated hundreds of hours to the project—and it’s not yet finished. “I feel like it’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s good responsibility,” she says. “It’s stressful, but in a good way. No one is forcing me to do it.” 

The subject the class chose for the film—the American Indian Women’s Service League— is primarily a story of women wanting to improve the image of the American Indian community. Pearl Warren and other founders of the League were instrumental in the development of local organizations for Native Americans, from the Seattle Indian Center to United Indians of All Tribes.

“The League began just after World War II, very organically, as a way to support urban Indian families in the city,” explains Hart. “Women would wait in front of the Greyhound station to greet Indian families getting off the bus and looking lost. They wanted the new arrivals to know that there were other Indian families here.” 

Powers likes the idea of a film that highlights the work of American Indian women. “I think Indian women are very powerful,” she says. “They’ve been the backbone of the tribes traditionally and now continue to take on that role. Yet nobody tells their story—their pain and their joys and successes. Nobody hears about all their accomplishments.” 

The film has involved numerous interviews with League volunteers and the families of the League’s founders. Powers admits that her heritage has opened doors. “The people we spoke with were really happy to see an American Indian crew,” she says. “They viewed us as more trustworthy.” Hart has found that connection to be crucial for many Native American productions. “Some can only be told by Native people, because they have access to the stories—stories they won’t share with outsiders due to distrust,” he says. 

Hart is quick to point out that not all students involved with the documentary are Native American. Half of the 14 undergraduates in the production course were non-Native. “The non-Indian students had little previous interaction with Native people in their lives,” says Hart. “Most came in because they wanted to learn about film. But through the intimate experience of film production, they developed relationships that have really changed their understanding of Native people and Native lives. The work ended up taking students in this direction of interaction and mutual growth.” 

Hart’s students also have learned patience. Their documentary, begun in January 2000, probably will not be finished before spring 2001. But they knew that going in. “Right at the beginning, I explained to them how media projects tend to go,” says Hart. “They don’t end neatly after two quarters.” Hart anticipates that the film will have its premiere screening at the UW Summer Arts Festival in July 2001.