Earlier this month, Virginia hosted a Native American film festival called Pocahontas Reframed. Sandy Hausman reports on the movies, the filmmakers and why organizers thought Richmond the perfect place for such an event.
At the opening night party, held in a gallery of Virginia’s Museum of Fine Arts, more than a hundred people sipped cocktails and ate finger food as a troupe of drummers and dancers entertained. Among the guests were chiefs from 6 of the 11 recognized tribes in Virginia. Also on hand, Native Americans who had worked in the film industry like Sheldon Wolfchild, who lives on the Lower Sioux Reservation in Minnesota.
“My background is in art," he explains. "I have four years of art school, so I took my portfolio to my first job interview at Disney Studios in Burbank, and I got hired.”
He began by working on sets, but would eventually find a place in front of the camera, appearing in Dances with Wolves, LA Law, Star Trek and America’s favorite kid show. “Myself, my ex-wife and our son were the first Indian family on Sesame Street.”
As it turns out, Native Americans were prominent in Hollywood from its earliest days, with more than 200 silent films about Indians – some featuring native actors, writers and directors.
That doesn’t surprise Neil Diamond, a native from northern Quebec who thinks Indian culture leads, naturally, to making movies. He was a magazine photographer when someone invited him to direct a film. He had no experience doing that but immediately agreed. "So I kind of learned on the job," he recalls, "but I’d always watched films, and I’d have these shots in my head already, because I grew up in a story-telling family. My parents were both storytellers, so I already had these images in my head.”
His entry in Pocahontas Reframed, a documentary called Reel Injun – about native Americans in Hollywood.
Film audio: "White people playing native roles? I love it, because it's funny. Dances with Wolves was a box office hit. It picked up several Oscars including best picture. It's a story about a white guy, and Indians are the T&A."
Wolfchild also offered a documentary : The Doctrine of Discovery.
Film narration: "In the simplest terms, the doctrine of discovery is the idea under international law that when a European Christian country was the first European to discover new lands, they had a legal right to that area."
Also on the bill, a Smithsonian production about the festival’s eponymous native woman.
Film narration: “Inside the fort walls, in this English world, Pocahontas – the Powhatan woman – is remade. Baptizing Pocahontas was the first step in converting the Powhatan nation. She is baptized Rebecca.”
There was a film about the role on native American women in their tribes, a number of feature films and a documentary about native contributions to the blues.
Various musicians: “There was a song came on the radio – a guitar instrumental, and it changed everything! Rumble! Hey, Rumble! Rumble had the power to help me say, “I’m going to be a musicians.’ And then I found out he was an Indian.”
The variety of high quality native films was no surprise to festival director Brad Brown, and he thinks it’s perfectly logical that a Native American film festival be held here in Virginia.
“This is where, in 1607, everything started with the English coming here and my tribe is the Pamunkey tribe, and Pocahontas and Powhatan were Pamunkey," he says. "This is where it all started!”
And there are still about 30,000 native people in this state, although Brown concedes they keep a low profile. "Ten years ago I was living in California, and my wife and I decided that we were going to move to Virginia, so I called my boss and said we were going to move to the Pamunkey Indian Reservation. His wife grew up in Williamsburg and went to William and Mary, and so he told her, and I heard her say, 'There are no Indian reservations in Virginia,' and he said, 'Are you sure?' and I said, 'Yeah, I'm sure!' because I'd been coming to the reservation since I was a kid to visit my grandfather, and he said, 'How long has it been there?' and I said, "It was founded in 1646, but our tribe has been there for at least 12,000 years,' and he said, 'Oh!""
Also helping to organize the festival was Peter Kirkpatrick, a professor at VCU and director of the French film festival there. “As an American I’m so disappointed in the lack of Native American films on our screens in the United States," he says. "Now as a professor who teaches Native American films I have to make choices. There are so many good films that I'm really limited to the 13 weeks of class.”
The owner of the Byrd Theater donated that space for a weekend of native films, and the state of Virginia provided financial support, but it was the turnout that convinced Brad Brown that there would be more festivals in the years to come. “We thought, boy if we could get 400-500 people that would be great," he says. "As of this morning, there were over 1,400!”
The festival also featured live performances by native musicians, artists and comedians.