Editors’ Note: Levi Rickert, publisher and editor of Native News Online, is featured in this documentary film.
Sometimes a high school class and a teacher can have a profound and lasting effect on a student’s outlook on life and historical understanding of his/her country. I had one such exceptionally formative course in eleventh grade called, The American Dream. It depicted the true reality of the Native American experience since colonization. And by the end of the semester, as a non-Native student, I was left feeling shocked, saddened and angry about my new knowledge as well as desirous of some type of social change, which I had no idea how to personally engage in.
In this class, I realized how I knew almost nothing about American Indian history, heritage, culture, let alone their contemporary lives. I came to understand how poorly formed my childhood and teenage images were of Native Americans due in part to how Hollywood movies had shaped the stereotypes and discriminatory beliefs I unwittingly held.
It turned out that this high school class planted a seed deep within me, which decades later, germinated, grew and inspired me to produce/direct a one hour documentary entitled, “Our Fires Still Burn: The Native American Experience.” So, as a filmmaker, I finally found a way to depict and express what I had begun to learn and feel about Native Americans experience as a sixteen-year-old student in a small Catholic high school in suburban Michigan.
“Our Fires Still Burn” depicts the personal stories of Native American role models from all walks of life, including a successful businessman, journalist, artist, social worker and youth advocate as well as tribal and spiritual leaders. The interviewees share how they are learning to walk between two worlds, uniquely face social challenges such as alcohol abuse and educational barriers within their communities, reclaim their American Indian heritage, creatively utilize ancestral teachings in their daily lives and begin to heal from a long, long history of traumatic experiences and upheavals, such as the Indian Boarding School era.
What I have learned about Native Americans experiences from creating this documentary is immense. What comes to mind foremost is that American history is fraught, even more deeply than I previously understood in that high school class, with the systematic destruction of a people. The tragic history of Native Americans is our “American Holocaust.”
On the other hand, I have been deeply inspired by the fact that amidst the debris of suffering and historical trauma, American Indians today are expressing their incredible resilience as well as living their commitment to reclaim their cultural heritage and preserve their unique identities as Native peoples. The emotional and physical healing that can be seen taking place in Indian communities today will benefit the next Seven Generations of Natives and non-Natives.
“Our Fires Still Burn” aired nationally on PBS in November during National Native American Heritage month. A DVD of this documentary can be purchased on our web site at www.OurFiresStillBurn.com.
Audrey Geyer is a film maker, who owns and operates Visions, based in metropolitan Detroit, Michigan. She served as producer and director of “Our Fires Still Burns: The Native American Experience.”