How Stories Give Life to Knowledge and Culture: Two Decades of imagineNATIVE

October 12, 2022 Nia Tero Season 2 Episode 11
How Stories Give Life to Knowledge and Culture: Two Decades of imagineNATIVE
Show Notes Transcript

When was the first time you saw yourself represented on a big or small screen? Hollywood representations of Indigenous peoples have been rare and often harmful, and that’s why Indigenous filmmakers are working to dismantle decades upon decades of negative stereotypes. In this episode, hear how Indigenous narrative sovereignty – telling our own stories – is connected to Indigenous land sovereignty – having a say in how the lands we are connected to are cared for. Also, find out how imagineNATIVE is supporting Indigenous filmmakers, improving representation on-screen and off, and honoring sacred duties to land. We talk with Cynthia Lickers-Sage (Mohawk Nation) about founding imagineNATIVE over 20 years ago, Naomi Johnson (Mohawk Nation) and Jamie-Lee Reardon (Ojibwe/Irish) about the work they do today, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (Kainai First Nation / Sámi) about what it’s like to be a filmmaker supported by the organization, and Melanie Hadley (Pine Creek First Nation) about how she uplifts Indigenous creators in her role as a studio executive.  

Producer: Julie Keck. Story Editor: Stina Hamlin. Host: Jessica Ramirez. 

Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.

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Seedcast Season 2 Episode 11 
How Stories Give Life to Knowledge and Culture: Two Decades of imagineNATIVE
October 12, 2022

[00:00:00] Jamie-Lee Reardon: I'm almost crying, I'm like trying to eat my tears! That's what I tell myself when they come up, I’m like, [inaudible] tears. The changes that are being made actively by the Indigenous creatives in the film and television industry, spend decades in the making. Now, this is a dream that is obtainable.

[theme music softly plays in the background]

[00:00:22] Jessica Ramirez: Hi, I'm Jessica Ramirez, your host of Seedcast, and that was Jamie-Lee Reardon talking about the impact of Reservation Dogs, and other Indigenous-made TV shows and films, that not only center Indigenous characters on screen; but are created, produced, directed, and written by Indigenous, people too. Today on Seedcast, we're taking a look at how storytelling is a powerful tool in which Indigenous people carry out their sacred duties to land. And how the Indigenous film festival imagineNATIVE, where Jamie-Lee works, is providing an essential space for Native storytellers to find each other and their audiences. 

Theme song by Mia Kami: We are standing, hear our calling, we are rooted to the ground we’re here to stay. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can't tear us down, we’re here to stay…

[00:01:27] Jessica: Do you remember the first movie or TV show that had a character that looked or sounded like you? For myself, I can't say that I know of a character that exactly represented me or my life experience fully. I mean, maybe the Selena movie—she's Mexican, and I'm Mexican too. But at the same time, I can't dance or sing at all. But I know I've seen parts of me in several characters over the years. And thank goodness for the diversity of shows that exist today, which not only include cultural representation but also include people of different sizes, gender expressions, and abilities. 

We asked Naomi Johnson the same question about seeing herself in film. Naomi is the current executive director of the film festival, imagineNATIVE. 

[00:02:18] Naomi Johnson: The first time I ever saw an Indigenous person in film was Tia Smith, and she's from my community at Six Nations. 

[00:02:24] Jessica: Naomi's talking about the 1991 Canadian horror film, Clearcut. It starred Oneida actor Graham Green. Many people know him from his role in Dances with Wolves, which came out the year before. But young Naomi's eyes were on Tia Smith, who was about her same age and from her Native community. 

[00:02:45] Naomi: The way they shot it, it looked like she was crawling out of like a hill or a mound of dirt, and her hair was wild looking. And I think they were trying to make it like you couldn't tell what era she was in and it would look like a historical kind of storytelling. But she got to the top of this hill and then she, like, had a cigarette [laughs] and then there was like, construction equipment behind her. So it was clearly, it was like breaking that person's mental conception of like, this Indigenous young girl figure in film. Other than that, I did not see myself in film. Ever.

Indigenous people, we all know how they are represented in film. Usually white guys in black wigs, with bad tans, that were playing the Indigenous people. So I did not relate to Hollywood films and like the ones that I grew up with are all the ones anyone else grew up with. So I'm really excited to be a part of an organization that is still yet counteracting that. Like we're in the early days here, folks. Like we've got decades and decades upon decades of really bad representation to dismantle.

And the people that need to be doing it are Indigenous people. We are the captains of our own stories. We're gonna tell them the best. We just are. We're gonna understand the nuances and intricacies of why we have these stories, and why characters act the way. So that's—I strongly feel that.

[00:04:16] Jessica: When we get more films by Indigenous creators, there are more opportunities to correct misrepresentations of the past. But there's even more to it than that. 

[00:04:27] Jamie: An Indigenous story is a story told by an Indigenous person. It doesn't have to be something that is including, you know, buckskin and hide and feathers to make it an Indigenous story. 

[00:04:16] Jessica: That's Jamie-Lee again. 

[00:04:27] Jamie: [Introduces themselves in Ojibwe] 

My name is Jamie-Lee Reardon. I am Irish and Ojibwe. I'm from Foleyet, which is on the traditional territory of Flying Post First Nations, which I am a member of. I was raised on my traditional territory and lucky to, you know, get to experience the land and the waterways up here. I'm Two Spirit, so I use all pronouns. 

[00:05:07] Jessica: At imagineNATIVE, Jamie-Lee runs the institute programs that help Indigenous creatives own their craft. 

[00:05:14] Jamie: It doesn't have to include Wendigo, or historical teaching from your nation. It just has to be a story that you told that you feel strongly about and that you have passion behind, because that's what this industry takes, right? You have to have that passion and that drive. Are you Indigenous? Have you made a story? It's an Indigenous story. 

[00:05:30] Jessica: We asked Jamie-Lee the same question we asked Naomi. When did you first see yourself represented on screen? 

[00:05:37] Jamie: Rhymes for Young Ghouls, by Jeff Barnaby. 

[00:05:41] Jessica: In this film, Jamie-Lee saw a tomboy played by Devery Jacobs, a Mohawk actor and writer currently starring in and writing on Reservation Dogs.

[00:05:51] Jamie: Devery was in the Features Lab—she's one of the Features Lab writers for her script, High Steel.

[00:05:58] Jessica: In imagineNATIVE’s Features Lab, Indigenous screenwriters are supported by Indigenous story editors who help them take their movie idea from concept to script. 

[00:06:09] Jamie: To see what an amazing writer she is through that feature script, and then to see that she's on, you know, the writing team for Reservation Dogs now; it's so exciting! Definitely an artist that I've always admired throughout their career. I'm very proud to see all the success that has come her way, and she's worked so hard for it. She's been in the industry for a long time, and definitely deserves all the accolades that come her way. I mean, I'm—as soon as I watched her episode for Reservation Dogs, I was like literally by myself in my apartment, like looking at my computer, be like, “Somebody get her an Emmy, like give Devery her Emmy right now! That was so good!” Yeah, she's amazing. Creative, writer, actor; everything. Yeah. We love Devery at imagineNATIVE.

[music plays in the background]

[00:07:13] Jessica: The film and television we watch contributes to the people we become, and for storytellers, the work we create. This is really powerful. Sámi and Blackfoot filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers was born in Sápmi, which is the land of her father, and the traditional land of the Sámi people across parts of Northern Europe and Russia. There, they spend many months in complete darkness, making the act and skill of storytelling incredibly important. As a small child, Elle-Máijá got to see her Sámi Heritage on stages and TV, and it left quite an impression on her. 

[00:07:58] Elle-Máijá: There's a theater company, a Sámi  theater company called Beaivváš Sámi Theater, and they do most of their plays in the Sámi language and so I saw—I just distinctly remember seeing my first play, it was a Beaivváš play. And from then on, like, basically from the age of like three years old, I was just making up skits in the living room and forcing my parents in the neighbors and our—my friends' parents to watch. So I guess I've been kind of like, writing and directing and acting for most of my life.

[00:08:36] Jessica: When Elle-Máijá was five, her family moved to Canada. Watching how Native people were represented on screen there was completely different.

[00:08:45] Elle-Máijá: On the other side of the ocean—my other heritage, my other people—I didn't really see anything beyond, you know, the typical films like Dances with Wolves that are, you know, made by settlers, written and directed by settlers; which are really just like fantasies of who Indigenous people are. 

[00:09:07] Jessica: The desire to see her whole self on screen fueled Elle-Máijá's desire to create her own work. Elle-Máijá’s first short film actually screened at imagineNATIVE. 

[00:09:18] Elle-Máijá: I was just so overwhelmed by not only the scope and scale and power of the films programmed that year; also just the community. It was incredible. It was like I was witnessing kind of like a dream. Being there, I felt like, okay, if I just, like, if I just keep doing this, if I just keep working towards this, I can someday be a filmmaker, like actually earn a living and do this for the rest of my life. And so, yeah, imagineNATIVE had—it has had—a huge impact on me.

[00:09:59] Jessica: Elle-Máijá eventually co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in her first feature film, The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open. I love this movie. It won awards and can be seen on Netflix. Melanie Hadley is a big fan of Elle-Máijá's work. She's the head of Warner Brothers Discovery Canada. Melanie says every win for an Indigenous filmmaker like Elle-Máijá makes her job easier.

[00:10:26] Melanie Hadley: And what I love about Elle-Máijá, and so many female—and specifically Indigenous women—in the industry right now is this unapologetic, like really badass intensity. But at the same time, just a really incredible, like, professionalism. Their drive and that like, super strong Indigeneity isn't alienating. And I just find that to be so modern and I find it to be so exciting because I think when people think of that strong Indigenous spirit, they think of these really dark misrepresentations and I'm like, no, no, no, you can be strong in your Indigeneity and still like, get shit done and be a good collaborator.

[00:11:24] Jessica: Melanie's thoughts here matter. She's both Indigenous, and an industry insider. 

[00:11:28] Melanie: I'm a member of Pine Creek First Nation. I'm Ojibwe. I'm Bear Clan, and my spirit name is Mashkawizii giniw ikwe, which means Strong Eagle Woman in Ojibwe. 

[00:11:39] Jessica: Melanie shared that her goal is to support all marginalized creators, and when an Indigenous filmmaker like Elle-Máijá or Devery Jacobs wins awards, gets distributed, or directs a TV show, it helps everybody.

[00:11:53] Melanie: The success of storytellers helps me a lot of the time. When those little tiny pathways to success beyond the structure that we’re in occur, people like me, industry folks, are like, ”Incredible! There is a circuit there now, and I am going to utilize that circuit until it blows.” Luckily, we're not there yet.

[00:12:16] Jessica: imagineNATIVE has been supporting Indigenous storytellers for almost 25 years. They put on an incredible film festival every year in October, screening and celebrating films by and about Indigenous peoples from around the globe. Part of their goal is to create a greater understanding of Indigenous peoples and cultures, which is extremely important.

Even though movies like Dances with Wolves are where so many Indigenous peoples first saw themselves; it also lacked history, authenticity, and accuracy. In turn, those kinds of things create harm for Indigenous peoples. Righting those wrongs is exactly why Cynthia Lickers-Sage created imagineNATIVE. 

Cynthia is Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River. She co-founded imagineNATIVE while she was still in college. She said it took a lot of people—old friends and new ones—to get it off the ground. 

[00:13:17] Cynthia Lickers-Sage: Don't forget, we're still dead center in the time of fluff and feathers when it came to Indigenous ideologies and imagery. So there weren't a lot of options, even on TV, to see Indigenous people. We were on—I still remember seeing reruns of the spaghetti westerns. So this was kind of like the mentality, and I was like, well no, it's time that we start telling stories from the First People's point of view, not the first person point of view. So if I'm given this opportunity and starting to make these entry points, I look back and say like, “Okay, what do we need to move forward and what is missing within our community?”

[00:13:54] Jessica: Cynthia was creating a record of Indigenous films from around the world. She was watching hundreds of movies at this time. The richness of the films really excited her. She realized that these films deserved a platform to be seen, so she decided to create a film festival for people to watch what she was watching. And as you might expect, it wasn't easy. 

[00:14:19] Cynthia: Yeah, it's kind of funny ‘cause I lovingly say, at the beginnings of imagineNATIVE there were all the isms: racism, sexism, ageism; and ageism being one of the ones that was kind of, I guess, more unique to this particular moment in time. And I'd be going to these events and people would be like asking for, “Hi, can I, do you know where Cynthia Lickers is?” And I'm like, “Right in front of you.” And they're like, “Oh, you're so young!” And I was like, “Yeah.” But it was at that point where I didn't know what I didn't know. So I didn't put any limitations on what were possibilities too, which is part naivety but part luck, I guess. 

[00:15:02] Jessica: Even as Cynthia hit milestones, like securing funding and building her team, she knew that imagineNATIVE wasn't going to be just another film festival.

[00:14:19] Cynthia: Right out the gate, we wanted to start something that wasn't transactional, it was more visceral. Even our first imagineNATIVE, there was some Māori artists who started their introductions with a haka, so this was welcoming to the land—that call and response kind of opportunity. This is that visceral relationship and connection to protocol; connection to all things Indigenous.

And again, we're talking around the world to try and ensure that we have an opportunity to hear all types of voices too. If you go to some of the places that are festivals, which have their place too, that are more transactional, that part tends to be overlooked; and it's straight to how many bums in the seats can we get and how much can we charge for a ticket? And that was like, okay. We're okay if we have 10 people in an audience, just as long as those 10 people walk away with a new understanding and a new entry point for this particular artist to have the next time, because it's all word of mouth. 

[00:16:14] Jessica: Cynthia's decision to center filmmakers made a difference.

[00:16:17] Cynthia: Like I remember way, way back when talking to Taika Waititi…

[00:16:23] Jessica: You might know Taika Waititi as the Māori New Zealander known for co-creating Reservation Dogs. He also directed one of this year's biggest summer blockbusters, Thor: Love and Thunder. He also has an Oscar. But before all of that, imagineNATIVE showed some of his earliest work. 

[00:16:43] Cynthia: When we first brought him out to the festival, and I thought he was the funniest person I'd ever met. And now, he’s at a particular level where mainstream recognizes his name. ‘Cause when I was saying Taika, people would be like, “Tiaka, how do you pronounce it?” I was like, “Taika Waititi, Taika Waititi”. And doing that kind of even just kind of grassroots lift me up.

Over the years he's become someone who has been really a champion for imagineNATIVE; and using his influence now to help Indigenous artists, which is something that resonates truly within the Indigenous cultures because it's always about the next generations. It's not about “What can I get for me?” It's about “What can we get for we?” 

[00:17:30] Jessica: This idea of lifting each other up and holding the door open for those who come behind you reflects the Indigenous values imagineNATIVE is based on, which are carried through by the imagineNATIVE team today. It's a lot of work, and Jamie-Lee shared how they find the drive to do what they do.

[00:17:49] Jamie-Lee: Being able to come to work and do the work that I do in each day, I get to see like a payoff for, in a positive way. I get to see people have opportunities in their career that, you know, that imagineNATIVE has been able to line up for them; or introduce them to people that help boost them up to the next level. Or, just watch filmmakers that have come through the festival with their films achieve success on their own, and they become really, like, strong powerhouses in the industry.

[music plays during the break]

[00:18:41] Jessica: We talk a lot with our guests on Seedcast about Indigenous identity and connection to land; how we tend to it, cultivate food and medicines from it, and advocate for it. This same interconnectedness between the Earth and all of us is also true for the stories we share. Indigenous narrative sovereignty—having control over the telling of our own stories—is a part of Indigenous land sovereignty. Having a say in how the lands we are connected to are cared for. 

Jamie-Lee puts it this way:

[00:19:16] Jamie-Lee: Indigenous narrative sovereignty is a process of taking back what was stolen from us, and is closely tied to Indigenous land sovereignty and water sovereignty and food sovereignty, which are all important steps in coming back to ourselves in various different ways. And, I mean, that means different things for different people, definitely. But I think it's reclaiming the power to tell our stories, whether from an individual perspective, a community perspective, or from the perspective of our Nations. 

Liisa Holmberg from the International Sámi Film Institute had said it best once, when someone was introducing a story about “in the middle of nowhere”. She paused and corrected that it's not the middle of nowhere for the people that live there. And a lot of the times, especially people that are in urban settings or living in very heavily populated areas see a mass of land like Northern Ontario—for example, the boreal forest—and think that that's the middle of nowhere; when there are hundreds of communities and First Nations that are residing there and that are living there, and that it's their land.

So there is like, a very big disconnection. Not with filmmakers, but I think with like, society in general, in understanding the difference of who's actually on that land and then attached to the resources that are being extracted from that land. I know personally, I see the landscape has changed drastically. Where I'm from, in the past 10 years with the herbicide spraying and having the chemicals have negatively affected the land here. The forestry companies are trying to wipe out the birch and pines to have conifer farms because that's where the money is at that they're currently looking for. So you know, birch and poplar, that's traditionally, like, those are medicines, like those are—that's something that's connected to our land, connected to the teachings that we receive, like connect; like, you can't make a birch bark canoe without birch trees. So seeing them being wiped out in massive clear cuts and sprays is very, very disheartening.

Yeah, I think that just being able to vocalize and being able to have that narrative sovereignty to say that “We are here. We're here, we live here, we still have, like, we still use these resources. We still harvest here…” is something that we didn't have a platform for before. So being able to just let people know, like I, in my lifetime, I've interacted with people that thought that Indigenous people didn't exist anymore, that the genocide had been successful. And that's wild cuz there's like millions of Indigenous people around the world. It's just super wild to me that that narrative has actually sunk in with people. So being able to take back the control of what we are, how we're being seen, who's the people telling these stories is really, really important.

[00:22:00] Jessica: Our team at Seedcast is a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous creators, and we believe it's important for everyone to be doing this work in order to build the world that we all wanna live in. We ask Jamie-Lee for their thoughts on respectful collaborations. 

[00:22:18] Jamie-Lee: It's a great tool for relationship building. I think both inside this industry, and outside of this industry. When you see people creating and collaborating together in good ways, it is building bridges between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous communities; and it's often a really great way to portray us in our truth. 

[00:22:38] Jessica: Indigenous stories deserve strong collaborations, and collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are best when they're intentional, and conversations about power are explicit. 

[00:22:51] Jamie-Lee: I think that it's key to have Indigenous people on at the very beginning of the story creation in order to kind of keep that narrative sovereignty intact throughout the story, not an afterthought for adding on an Indigenous person to a project. That's when I think it's a real big highlight as to the intentions and the way that that production moves around their decision making. Having that allowance to be able to give the final check mark of approval for an Indigenous creative on a project that is focused on Indigenous characters, or has Indigenous characters in it or even topics that strongly affect Indigenous people; a lot of times things could be misunderstood—and not always in a malicious or kind of destructive sort of way. It could just be a misunderstanding of a perspective that is being portrayed in a way that isn't attached to the truth to that story. So being able to give a final go around at it, I think is a really important thing. 

[00:23:50] Jessica: Seeing and hearing film and TV created by Indigenous peoples is important for all of us. Whether you're searching for reflections of yourself, hoping to learn about the people who live around you, or looking for ways to heal the planet, we're so lucky to have places like imagineNATIVE Film Festival to support the stories of Indigenous filmmakers of today.

[theme music begins]

[00:24:23] Jessica: Thanks for listening. And special thanks to our guests Jamie-Lee Reardon, Naomi Johnson, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Melanie Hadley, and Cynthia Lickers-Sage. You can learn more about imagineNATIVE at

Seedcast is a project of Nia Tero, a Seattle-based foundation. Our teams are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and we share a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship for all vital ecosystems. That means Nia Tero provides support to Indigenous peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. We do this because their practices are our best guides for making earth livable for humans, and all other species, for generations to come. Here on Seedcast, our guests represent themselves, and their views may not reflect those of Nia Tero. We are dedicated to honoring our guests, their honest perspectives, and lived experiences. \

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This episode was produced by Julie Keck. Editing and sound mix by Stina Hamlin. Our executive producer is Tracy Rector. Our senior producer is Jenny Asarnow. Our producer is Felipe Contreras. Our artist and residence is Lofanitani Aisea. Our fact checker is Romin Lee Johnson. Our social media is done by Nancy Kelsey. Our transcripts by Sharon Arnold. The theme song is by Mia Kami. I'm your host, Jessica Ramirez, and we look forward to sharing more stories like this with you all very soon.

Theme song “Rooted” by Mia Kami: Like the wind we still move, like the waves we rise high, like the sun we never die. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay…