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Our View: Native Lens a catalyst for young Indigenous filmmakers

There are moments when we know we’re witnessing something that changes what comes afterward. That was the feeling, sitting in the dark at the Durango Independent Film Festival on Saturday afternoon, watching the premiere of short films produced by nine Indigenous storytellers from the 2024 Native Lens Media Fellowship program.

This creative incubator resulted in 18- to 24-year-old filmmakers’ outpouring of cultural, artistic and political expressions. They wasted no time, backfilling experiences within Native histories intended to be erased.

The screened films marked a juncture, the beginning of an arc of more stories, more art, more ways in toward healing and understanding, especially after the release in October 2023 of the final report of “Federal Indian Schools in Colorado, 1880-1920.”

House Bill 22-1327 directed History Colorado to investigate the lived experiences of students at the former Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School in Hesperus, as well as to identify potential burial places of students who perished there.

Now, it seems Indigenous artists will take it from here, and contribute to the many narratives that wind and reach far back into family lineages, then return to the present moment.

Their perspectives deserve attention.

Our hope is that filmgoers will be inspired and care enough to seek out these histories, then consider next steps in measuring progress.

Some themes overlapped. Stories linked to this land in the name of westward expansion. Bloodshed still affecting families today. Extraction. Why and how people tried to disappear with drugs and alcohol, by suicide, by not talking about all that’s happening now.

Peace and honor in traditions were emphasized, including young people officiating as Southern Ute Tribe royalty.

There’s joy, too, in films added to the lineup. “Skatepark – A Place to Explore,” by Southern Ute filmmakers Elliott, DeWayne and Nathan Hendren of Ignacio, features all that skateboarding and a new park means to them. Filmed in summer 2023, the project grew out of support from the Southern Ute Tribe and Colorado Office of Film, Television and Media’s Film Exposure Program that trains high school students to write, produce, film and edit.

For irreverent fun, the “Peace Pipeline,” a gonzo reality hack stars comedians and activists Gitz Crazyboy and Tito Ybarra as the Indigenous Pipeline Council, a Native-owned pipeline company “granted the right” to run a pipeline carrying tar sands crude oil through sacred sites of wealthy, white residential Duluth, Minnesota – a golf course, a shopping district, backyards and even a cemetery.

It cleverly makes the point that oil companies have routinely built pipelines through Indigenous lands. The shock value alone is brilliant and outrageous in this time when it takes a lot to be outrageous.

According to a recent study by the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, Native Americans represent 1.6% of the population, and only 0.25% of onscreen speaking characters in films. Only 99 of 133 Native American roles in top movies in 16 years were played by Indigenous people. Representation remains as low behind the scenes.

Expect a lot to come from Native Lens, a collaborative effort by KSUT Tribal Media Center, Rocky Mountain Public Media and Vision Maker Media. Selected participants meet virtually for one month, then come together for one week in Durango to film, produce and edit short films.

In its two years, the rigorous program is turning out serious digital storytellers with a lot to say. Their reach will be far and undeniable, as they shift inaccuracies and bring representative Native Americans to the silver screen.

From here on out.