Enduring Indigenous Values and Finding New Ways to Tell Our Stories During This Time of Pandemic

Shaandiin Tome in rural New Mexico | Photo by Forrest Goodluck

By N. Bird Runningwater

N. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) is the director of Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program.

This year the world changed in a way that many of us would never have dreamed possible. The COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the planet and has left none of us untouched.

Our Indigenous nations, communities, and families have been impacted—some more than others—by this new and devastating illness. It has left many people around the world frightened, consumed by sadness, and filled with deep uncertainty for the future, as seen in Finding Hope in Lockdown, directed by Indigenous Program alumna Erin Lau (Native Hawaiian).

Adjusting to a New “Normal”

What has this meant for us at Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program? The Institute, like all other arts and cultural organizations around the U.S., has had to adapt to another way of working in the midst of a “new normal” that has emerged. For the foreseeable future, we are unable to travel and present at film festivals, host community screenings and public programs in Native communities across the U.S., and organize workshops and labs that have always been held face-to-face with our program fellows, creative advisors, and alumni.

Because our Indigenous Program family resides in places—some very remote—around the world, we have had to make adjustments in our daily work lives and navigate new and creative ways to fulfill the Indigenous Program’s commitment to supporting Indigenous filmmakers and giving them several platforms to tell their own stories, including the annual Sundance Film Festival, filmmaking labs, fellowships, and workshops.

Reflecting on What’s Most Important to Us as Indigenous Peoples

During this time of lockdown and sheltering in place, we also have had time to reflect on what’s most important in our lives. Throughout time, we have found strength in our Indigenous traditions and values. Today, we are again drawing upon the ways of our ancestors and the knowledge passed down to us through generations to keep ourselves and our relatives protected and healthy.

We are all connected to one another. There is great resiliency among our Indigenous nations and peoples. We stand together, take care of and support our relatives and communities, and do what we can to stay safe. These simple yet powerful values, imprinted on our DNA for centuries, have helped us confront and cope with unimaginable realities, illness, and many other hardships during the darkest of times. Even during this time of pandemic crisis we have been reminded to stand in solidarity with our Black relatives as the protests and national reckoning around racial justice have swelled. Our #IndigenousFilmCommunity stands with #BlackLivesMatter and joins in the fight against white supremacy.

Finding New Ways to Tell our Stories

Indigenous peoples have always been storytellers. During times of the greatest adversity, our ancestors continued to tell and pass down their stories to younger generations by whatever means they had—orally and later on paper. Today many of us communicate and share our stories in an ever-changing digital world. In the midst of present-day uncertainty, we continue to find inspiration and new ways to communicate with one another virtually and to tell our stories through a unique Indigenous lens.

So, despite many facets of our everyday lives being turned upside down during this time of pandemic, what emerges is a different kind of opportunity for creativity to emerge and flourish. Social media and other digital platforms are continually being shaped and utilized in new ways by artists and storytellers not only to connect with one another but also to get our stories out into the world.

Our daily routines have changed. Our lives have altered in ways that may never again be what they once were. The way we work individually and as part of a team has changed. But throughout history, Indigenous peoples always have had to adapt to changing times.

Encouraging and Empowering Indigenous Filmmakers

We are finding out there is immense creative energy and vibrancy in the midst of this pandemic. This is an extremely challenging time for our Indigenous Program family. That’s why it’s so important for us to devise new and safe ways for us to continue coming together, to learn from one another, and to share our work.

The Indigenous Program is committed to carving out safe and dynamic environments for creativity to flourish. We are constantly discovering new and exciting ways to encourage and empower Indigenous artists so they can continue the important work of making their films and telling their stories—and, in the process, find hope, fortitude, and healing during this time.

New Video Series Debuting Soon

Stay tuned. We’ll be collaborating with the IllumiNative #WarriorUp campaign in the coming weeks to kick off a video series spotlighting Sundance Institute–supported Indigenous filmmakers and what they’ve been doing and creating over the past few months during the COVID-19 crisis. #StayAwayTogether

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