Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program Kicks off its 20th Anniversary

The Red Spirit Singers from the Ute Tribal Nation. Photo by Jemal Countess.

Sundance Institute

During the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the Sundance Institute’s Native American & Indigenous Program kicked off its 20th Anniversary year with a special reading event featuring seven distinguished Indigenous Alumni from the NativeLab, the Feature Film Program’s Labs, and the Sundance Film Festival. The Alumni gave individual readings of material that inspired them to pursue filmmaking and a life in the arts. In sharing his work, one NativeLab alumni was surprised at how his reading conjured up an emotional reaction.

Filmmaker Sterlin Harjo said, “The readings hit me on an emotional level that I hadn’t expected. I was seeing dear friends of mine speak about their inspiration. People that I’ve grown up with in the Sundance Institute family, people that have faced the same struggles as me, and people that broke through the barriers and made beautiful, inspiring work. Chris Eyre, someone who helped break the doors down, topped the night off with touching words of encouragement to all of us. It was truly beautiful and unexpected. Though, I should’ve expected it because everyone that spoke that night is, in their own right,  the best indigenous storytellers of today.”

Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam opened the evening recognizing that Sundance Institute has supported Native American and Indigenous filmmakers for more than 20 years, and that rooted in a long tradition of storytelling, Native filmmaking enriches American cinema and furthers cultural diversity. She then introduced Program Director Bird Runningwater who thanked the original peoples of the land we were standing on — the Ute and Paiute Tribal Nations. The Red Spirit Singers from the Ute Tribal Nation sang a song to welcome us and to start the evening.

Runningwater relayed the history of the Native Program, which was first formally staffed with a Native employee in 1993 to program the Festival’s first Native Forum section, which was held in 1994. This first staffer, Stephen Lewis (Gila River Community), was present at the event. Lewis was educated at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and now serves as the Lt. Governor of the Gila River Community. Runningwater also acknowledged Heather Rae, who was also present. In 1994, Rae was the first staffer brought in to lead outreach, screenwriting workshops, and programming of the Native Forum.  

Today the program works across the U.S. and globally in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and other countries, and has supported more than 300 Indigenous artists through grants, labs, mentorships and the platform of the Sundance Film Festival. Runningwater then thanked the Program’s  funders — Time Warner Foundation, Surdna Foundation, Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, NBCUniversal, Princess Grace Foundation-USA and CBS. Without their support this work would not be possible.

The Alumni readings followed with a rich and eclectic array of material. 

Filmmaker Sydney Freeland thought the wide array of work made for a lively event.

“It was really great to hear what material had inspired everyone. It’s was everything from Sherman Alexie to The Golden Girls. It was a very entertaining evening.”

And Filmmaker Billy Luther also felt the event was impactful: “Not a dry eye in the house. It was better than CATS.”

After the readings Runningwater acknowledged those Alumni who had passed on and who had led the way for so many of our current generations of filmmakers:

  • Phil Lucas – Choctaw Nation
  • Clint Star – Cree/Metís
  • Merata Mita – Ngati Pikiao/Ngai te Rangi
  • Dr. Darrell Robes Kipp – Blackfeet Nation

Runningwater then acknowledged the three generations of Indigenous filmmakers that have been supported by the Sundance Institute, while acknowledging that there is a question mark around who the fourth generation will be. With that he introduced the current participants of the NativeLab Fellowship and the Native Producers Fellowship, emphasizing that Sundance is supporting the next generation of filmmakers who will make a mark. Before closing, the Gila River Lt. Governor gave remarks and presented a shell necklace to honor Runningwater, commemorating the 20-year history of the Native Program. The evening concluded with the Red Spirit Singers singing a song that wished “strength” upon the Alumni present and all those involved with Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program. 

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