Memorial Service for American Indian Film Institute Founder Michael L. Smith

Michael L. Smith at 42nd Annual American Indian Film Festival

Published March 23, 2018

In Memoriam: Michael L. Smith – August 29, 1951- February 14, 2018

Photographs by Nanette Bradley Deetz

OAKLAND –  On March 9, 2018 the San Francisco Bay Area American Indian community gathered together for a memorial service honoring the life and legacy of Michael L. Smith who passed on to his next life on Feb. 14, 2018. He was 66 years old.  The memorial was held at Merritt College in Oakland, and organized by the Spencer family. Mike Smith was the Founder and Director of the American Indian Film Festival and the American Indian Film Institute. His film festival became the oldest and most prominent showcase in the world for Native American talent.

M.C. Michael Horse

The heart and core of his long running film organization was to change racist stereotypes of the American Indian in media and help all our tribes transition from oral to visual storytelling. Central to this vision was his work to train youth through AIFI’s Tribal Touring Program, teaching reservation youth how film and produce their own stories.

For 42 years the American Indian Film Festival has been the first to present feature length films, documentaries, music videos as well as an Awards Ceremony honoring directors, producers, actors, actresses, musicians involved in Native American media. The annual Awards Ceremony provides a stage to show  talent in music, comedy, and storytelling from traditional indigenous performers to contemporary styles popular with today’s urban and reservation communities.

Richard Trudell providing the obituary reading

Mike Smith received his B.A. in American History from the University of Washington, Seattle. While still a student he worked for the United Indians of All Tribes as a peer counselor, working with over 1,000 Indian families. He provided cultural activities by locating American Indians who could teach drum making, singing, dancing, and storytelling. It was in Seattle that he first met Chief Dan George, and Will Sampson (“One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest”) and who both became his early inspiration. Mike Smith never lost his vision and dream, no matter how hard he struggled, to bring an authentic Native American presence into contemporary media.

After moving to California, Michael Smith met and married Lucinda (Cindy) Spencer of the Navajo and Laguna-Pueblo tribe. This marriage gave them a daughter, Mytia, who graduated from San Francisco State University in Journalism. In August of 2011 Mytia married Sebastian Zavala (Quechua) of Peru, and in 2016 Mayeux Red Eagle Zavala was born. Michael Smith loved his family very much, and cherished Mayeux.

Linda Lilly, (Spencer family) offering words of love and support

Noted actor and artist Michael Horse (Yaqui) served as master of ceremonies at the memorial service. Horse emceed for many years at the annual film festival, and credited Mike Smith with his success. The opening prayer was offered by Ron Spencer. The Obituary Reading was given by Richard Trudell, and the pianist was Valentino Spencer. An Honor song was offered by All Nations Drum Group. A beautiful video montage of Mike Smith’s life was presented as part of the Memorial Service.  Linda Lilly, the oldest member of the Spencer family, remembered Michael Smith as a devoted and loving husband, a good father who was always involved in his daughter’s life, and a loving and proud grand father to Mayeux Zavala. Director Jack Kohler (Yurok) gave thanks to Smith for his help in creating a space for a documentary he premiered at the film festival. Janeen Antoine who sat on the Film Festival Board to choose films for several years remembered Smith as someone who believed that authentic films by and about Native Americans would surpass anything main stream media produced. The many tributes to Michael Smith acknowledged how much he loved his family, and the tremendous legacy and opportunities he created.

Janeen Antoine offering a tribute in honor of Mike Smith

Michael Smith’s final wish was to come home and be buried next to his mother at the Red Eagle Cemetery in Fort Kipp, Montana.

Michael L. Smith is preceded in death by his parents, older sister Jennifer (Smith) Kingswan, aunt Joyce (Red Eagle) Tootoosis, uncle Jack Tootoosis, uncle Oliver Red Eagle, uncle Milton Red Eagle, maternal grandparents Lloyd and Jennie (Smith) Red Eagle, aunts Rita Belgarde, Catherine Blount, Alice Buck Elk, Cara Blount, and uncle Phillip Red Eagle.

He is survived by his wife Lucinda (Cindy) Spencer, daughter Mytia (Sebastian) Zavala, grand daughter Mayeux all of Oakland, CA, sisters Faye Smith of Grand Ronde, OR, Nancy (Jan) Burgess of Tacoma, WA, and four brothers: Gerald (Chief) Woodrow, Quentin and Marty all of Seattle, WA, aunts Reba Ogle of Poplar, MT and Gloria (Bob) Garcia of San Jose, CA, nieces Lisa Smith of New York, Rita Kingswan of WI, Gail and Tessa Grant of WA, Sarah Burgess of OR, Olivia Burgess of WA.

Nanette Bradley Deetz is Dakota (Crow Creek, S.D.) and Cherokee. She as a B.A. & M.A. from UCLA in Theater/Dance and has appeared in numerous plays and in the original film version of “Carrie” and in “1941” with the late John Belushi.

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