SAN FRANCISCO – On Nov. 10, the 38th Annual American Indian Film Festival Awards Ceremony premiered at the San Francisco Jazz Center.
This year marked a change from the usual Palace of Fine Arts to this new, centrally located venue. The Jazz Center provided a state of the art theater on two levels plus a restaurant/bar that served a full dinner menu. The stage and theater design provided an intimate and warm relationship between the performers and audience.
Mike Smith (Dakota), festival director of the American Indian Film Institute welcomed those in attendance by reminding us of the important role the arts have always played in American Indian life; from storytelling, songs and dance, crafts and arts to now include media arts. Many of these arts were traditionally considered medicine. This was also the first year that the film festival was streamed live via the internet. There are plans going forward for the Awards to be broadcast on national television.
The Opening Prayer was offered by Lorraine Laiwa and Pomo singers from Northern California.
Actress Tonantzin Carmelo and actor Michael Spears were the Awards host. This year’s film festival included more feature length films than in any previous year. They were all stunning, and included “The Cherokee Word for Water,” directed by Charlie Soap; “Chasing Shakespeare,” directed by Norry Niven; “Bury My Heart with Tonawanda”, directed by Gary Sundown; “The Activist,” directed by Cyril Moron; “Moose River Crossing,” directed by Shirley Cheechoo; “Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope,” directed by George Lucas, and dubbed entirely in the Navajo language with no English subtitles; “The Lesser Blessed,” directed by Anita Doron; “Winter in the Blood,” directed by Alex and Andrew Smith and “Maina,” directed by Michael Poulette.
“Maina,” starring Roseanne Supernault won the award for Best Feature film. Roseanne Supernault also won an award for Best Actress for her role in this feature film. Chaske Spencer won Best Actor for his role in the feature film, “Winter in the Blood.” Actress Tantoo Cardinal won Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Maina” and Kiowa Gordon won Best Supporting Actor for his role in “The Lesser Blessed.” “Dancing on the Run,” directed by Cowboy Smith and featuring the music of Inez Jasper won the Best Music Video category.
“Standing on Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Tourists” directed by Toby McCloud won for Best Documentary Feature and is a tremendously important film. The film documents indigenous shamans of the Altai Republic in southern Siberia, and the Winnemem Wintu of Northern California, led by tribal Chief Caleen Sisk. These two diverse groups find common ground resisting government mega projects. The issues the Winnemem Wintu face are complex and center around federal recognition for the tribe, land and water rights, and protecting sacred sites.
“We have been battling PG&E and water bottling companies because our sacred springs (located on Mt. Shasta) have been dry now for two weeks. This is only the second time, in the entire history of our people that this has occurred. These artisan springs are being drained off. That coupled with the strange snow that contains siridite chemicals from the trails of jets, and poor rainfall in general has been disastrous. If this continues, our sacred springs will never be the same again. This isn’t a good sign at all”, remarked Tribal Chair Sisk.
The evening entertainment began with Swil Kanim playing his virtuoso violin, and his comedic storytelling, poetry and audience interaction. Vaugn Eaglebear, a Lakota/Colville comedian, had the audience laughing until tears flowed with his own brand of dead-pan, rez humor. Lines like, “My goal in life is to move to India and open a convenience store and sell cigarettes, gas…” or “I left my coat hanger in my car. Good thing I’ve got my car keys in my pocket. I left the kids in there too”, or “you know you’re poor when you use coffee filters for toilet paper, and toilet paper for coffee filters”. Cody Sunbear Blackbird (Eastern Band Cherokee/Dakota) flute player and the youngest recipient of the Flutist of the Year Award from the Native American Music Association graced us with his music. He played both the single cedar bird flute and a duet on the drone flute (double style) with Swil Kanim that was exquisite. The audience was also treated to “Twice As Good” the father and son blues duo and their band from the Elem Pomo Indian Colony in Northern Calif., as well as Inez Jasper, pop singer from Canada. “Scatter Their Own,” from Pine Ridge, South Dakota provided alternative Native rock music.
The very prestigious Eagle Spirit Award for excellence in film arts was awarded to Sacheen Littlefeather. This was the highlight of the evening.
“I’m better known for refusing awards than for receiving them,” said Littlefeather. “Even though refusing the Academy Award for Marlon Brando cut short my acting career, I was so lucky to participate and be a part of important Native American events during these past 40 plus years,” she continued.
Some of the events she has been part of include the occupation of Alcatraz Island, the 7 month sacred Indian run across Europe and behind the Iron Curtain, into the Soviet Union to protect Mother Earth and promote peace.
She was a founding member of the Red Earth Indian Theater Company in Seattle, Washington during the 1970s. This was the very first American Indian Theater Company in the United States. Littlefeather worked tirelessly to bring about change and awareness about the misuse of sports mascots. She was also one of the consultants to the San Francisco Ballet Company’s production of “Song for a Dead Warrior” based on the life of Richard Oaks.
“This ballet was performed worldwide and in the United States at the Kennedy Center. It was also featured on KQED’s Great Performances in Dance”, said Sacheen. “I am so very proud of the work I did with Mother Teresa in Aids and Hospice while she was here in San Francisco. From that experience, I became a founding board member of the American Indian Aids Institute, where I continued to work”, remembered Littlefeather.
For the past 25 years, She has pushed for the sainthood of Kateri Tekakiwitha by the Catholic Church. Her dreams came true recently when she traveled with 900 other Natives from the United States and Canada to the Vatican City.
“It was the first time in history that Mohawk was spoken in the Vatican. What a thrill”, recalled Littlefeather. Currently Sacheen Littlefeather is a member of the Marin Indian Alliance, a founding member of “breast friends for life”, a member of SAG (screen actors guild) and AFTRA. “I am so honored and grateful to be a part of the ever growing Bay Area Indian community, our powwows and to witness our growth and our growing pains. I have an acute appreciation for life and beauty and a belief in the stories told from our native point of view. We now have the right to tell our own stories, act in them, direct them, produce them, all of it”, said Littlefeather.
Nanette Bradley Deetz is of Dakota, Cherokee and German descent. She is a poet, writer, educator and sometimes musician whose poetry appears in several anthologies. The most current is “Turning a Train of Thought Upside Down,” published by Scarlett Tanager Press; “Turtle Island to Abya Yala, A Love Anthology of Art and Poetry by Native American and Latina Women,” Malinalli Press, and “Alameda Island Theme Poems, 2004,2005 & 2006.” She combines poetry and music in her band, Redbird Giving which performs at many Bay Area native and non-native venues. She is a correspondent for the Alameda Journal, Alameda Sun and Native News Online.
Updated: November 22 at 10:06 am