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Rights + Justice

‘You’re Not the Indian I Had in Mind’

It’s what I hear all the time from film crews interviewing me. Here’s what I wish they knew beforehand.

Jess Housty 11 Aug

Jess Housty is a Heiltsuk community organizer and writer. This column first appeared on her personal blog.

It’s August. I recently wrapped up shoots and interviews with the ninth film crew to visit this season. Don’t get me wrong – I live in a stunning place, I’m blessed to do work that interests the wider world, and there is a value in telling the stories that make this place powerful. But so far, every film crew has been mostly white, mostly men, and they’ve all come crashing into my reality in such problematic ways that I feel compelled to throw down some pointers for y’all.

Disclaimer: I do not speak for all Indigenous peoples. This is not an official memo in my political or non-profit capacities. This is a series of questions and requests from a storyteller who is tired of how these scenarios play out. But there is room for hope and change.

1. Are you centring Indigenous voices and perspectives?

Indigenous voices are marginalized in society as a whole, and they are also often marginalized within film projects where they occur alongside white voices. For example, a film with an Indigenous focus might be narrated by a white person – which gives the audience a red story through a white lens. If the issue being discussed is multi-faceted, Indigenous views are often insubstantial or tokenized. And even if the primary story is about Indigenous work, many films still bring in “expert” white voices that give the appearance of “legitimizing” Indigenous viewpoints.

Interrogate your own motives about whether and how you include white voices and perspectives in your film. Consider the amount of space Indigenous voices take up on the national or global stage. Consider how much space they take up in the film industry. Recognize that in both instances, the answer is “They are wildly underrepresented.” And then consider centring and amplifying them in your work to help correct the imbalance and honour the power of Indigenous voices – in and of themselves.

2. Do you expect Indigenous people to stage their culture for you?

I can’t speak for all Indigenous people. We are incredibly diverse and also autonomous. But I can tell you very clearly that it is offensive to me when film crews ask me to play-act my culture to add to their story. Without exception, when I have been asked to stage “traditional activities,” the result is glaringly inauthentic. The counter-argument from film crews is usually “But this is what the audience expects to see!” If that’s the case, wow! You, my friend, are in a position to challenge and shift your audience’s expectations by creatively capturing something real. And that is an exciting opportunity that I hope you appreciate and work hard to maximize.

We know you need good visuals. We know you need to shoot b-roll and have your bases covered before you leave the field. Trust me, for most of us, you’re not our first film crew. But come at your work with respect for the boundaries we communicate around cultural activities and protocols. If we tell you that something is not possible or appropriate, do not push. And know that your behaviour in this regard can help to build a relationship of trust that just might get you an invitation to witness and document something truly authentic and special.

3. Have you done your homework?

There is a principle of social justice education that is so important to reiterate: Do not expect free education or emotional labour from marginalized people.

If you need to get up to speed on the colonial history of this country, on the Potlatch Ban, residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and all the other traumas that are a backdrop to Indigenous lives – do it before you come. Even if you think the story you want to tell has nothing to do with those things. As Indigenous people, we are the products of our personal and collective histories. You cannot understand who we are without trying to understand our lived experiences. We are (sadly, and without our consent) the victims and products of a long colonial legacy, and many of us are actively working to fight the ongoing colonization of our peoples. That reality cannot be absent from your storytelling even if it is not explicit in your film.

Reconciliation is everyone’s responsibility. Beginning to educate yourself is a key first step. The resources are out there and the journey will be shared with many who are on the same path. But do not expect us, as Indigenous people, to perform the service of educating you; we’re too busy surviving.

4. Are you clear on ownership and intellectual property?

The system of values and permissions around ownership and transmission of knowledge may not be the same for me as it is for you. Every song, dance, story, name, and ceremony has an owner in my system of law. There is no centralized authority to give permissions. You have to seek them from each of the individual holders of that intellectual property and live with their decisions, which are often based heavily on the level of trust they have in you. You cannot assume your interviewee will do the legwork of getting the permissions for you; you need to own that task yourself and ask for guidance where you need it. Our protocols around intellectual property are sacred.

Sometimes a film crew will ask me for “background music.” They’ll insist they want to use a children’s paddle song in their film when the film is about bears, because they like the way the paddle song sounds more than the bear song. The incongruity matters, to us if not to you, and that is reason enough to amend your approach. Or sometimes interviewers will ask me to recount portions of our oral history, and act like I’m being obtuse when I say I can’t do that without permission of the owners of those stories. There are many potential stumbling blocks of this nature for crews who do not take the time to understand how knowledge is organized and transmitted in the community they’re visiting.

This is a good place to remind people that Western systems of knowledge, thought, laws, and values are typically not the dominant systems for our peoples. Take the time to learn our systems and our protocols, and then respect them – from the outset.

5. Have you thought critically about compensation and benefits?

What is the tangible benefit to the Indigenous people whose time you are taking? It doesn’t have to be financial, but you should have a clear answer. If you don’t, please ask yourself why you expect them to participate. “For the cause” or “to raise awareness” is not an answer. Trickle-down benefits are not enough. Indigenous people don’t owe you anything.

We have big goals of our own and we are doing hard work for our communities. Often, the work we are doing is beneficial to non-Indigenous communities too. At a bare minimum, hold yourself to the standard that participating in your project should not cost Indigenous people anything. Better yet, challenge yourself to develop a project that is clearly beneficial to Indigenous people and their goals. Develop a relationship that is equal and reciprocal.

Getting down to the finer details, here is a fact: When film crews come into my community, I am often asked to spend my time doing work that looks a lot like writing, producing, and directing, or assisting with logistics like arranging interviews, transportation, and permissions. And I’m expected to do it for free.

Do not expect Indigenous people to do things for free that you would pay a white person to do. Do not expect Indigenous people to do things for free that, in another context, would be paid work for a member of your crew. If you’re going to ask that of us, be up front, have an excellent rationale, get our informed consent, and give us credit where it’s due.

To reiterate a point from section 3, don’t expect marginalized people to do free labour.

6. Are you building capacity or just extracting resources?

It is important to understand that filmmaking can be understood as an extractive industry. The resource you are extracting – stories, knowledge, images – is intangible, but no less precious than the fish, raw logs, precious metals, and other resources that other industries remove. You are coming into our homelands with the intent of taking something away, and fashioning it into something that benefits you. It is only natural that we would exercise the same prudence and scrutiny when it comes to your project that we exercise with proposals from logging companies or sports fishing operations.

The same principles apply to you that apply to a mining company. You should seek free, prior, and informed consent. The burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that adverse impacts of your project will be mitigated or avoided. The rights and autonomy of the Indigenous communities and individuals you engage should be respected without exception. And you should not derive your profits on the backs of people who are focused on survival.

When you’ve challenged yourself to fully think those things through, ask yourself what you’re leaving behind. We’ve already talked about the importance of being able to clearly demonstrate the benefits for Indigenous people of participating in your project. We’ve already talked about the importance of compensating Indigenous people for their labour if they are taking on work that a white person would be paid to do. So what’s next? Ask yourself whether you can actually leave a positive legacy behind.

Can you spend an extra few days in the community teaching kids to make videos? Can you volunteer a little time to film interviews with elders for the local cultural centre? Can you make yourself available to capture footage and stills for a side project that is solely for the community’s benefit? If you can, be at least as generous with what you leave behind as your Indigenous interviewees are generous with their time and energy. Build capacity. Build relationships.

7. How do you feel about leaving final approvals or ownership of footage with us?

This is a point most film crews balk at. But look at it from our perspective. Unless we have a relationship with you, why would we trust you to tell our stories? What sets you apart from Edward S. Curtis? Why should we be comfortable with our stories and images and words being an asset you benefit from?

There is a long legacy of white people – be they writers, filmmakers, anthropologists, etc. – coming into communities, extracting knowledge and stories, and then interpreting them and deriving benefits from them. Often this has happened with no accountability back to the communities and Indigenous contributors. And often those communities and individuals have not been asked to provide informed consent to the spin that’s been put on what they’ve shared. It’s not enough to ask us to buy into the premise; from our perspective, I hope you can see why it’s important for us to protect ourselves by also asking to approve the resulting product.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Indigenous communities and individuals have been tokenized and harshly exploited by many industries, including the film industry. Know that you’re coming in on the heels of contemporary colleagues or historical industry “pioneers” who broke our trust. You may not feel it’s yours to repair, but the situation you’re walking into is a reality you need to confront – and without blaming Indigenous communities and individuals for our skepticism and the cautions we exercise as a result of our lived experience.

Have these conversations about approvals and ownership at the outset of your project. As I said in section 6, it may be that you can gesture your respect by offering opportunities that dovetail with your work, like running workshops or sharing raw footage to be re-purposed for solely Indigenous goals. Or maybe the level of trust and the anticipated benefits of the project will be enough to make the conversation a simple one – that’s up to the communities and individuals you approach. But do right by your Indigenous collaborators by ensuring that consent and ownership are discussed at the outset, not at the end when the pressure is on to complete your film.

8. Are you playing up stereotypes or open to authenticity?

The pan-Indigenous myth is cheap and tacky. We are not monolithic. We are distinct and diverse, both across and within our Nations and communities. Our cultures are dynamic and evolving, and that does not invalidate them. Our Indigenous languages, values, spirituality, ceremonies, and identities may have more in common with one another than they do with their Western parallels – but that does not mean Indigenous people can be generalized or conglomerated to simplify your narrative.

I often hear a sentiment from film crews that I will sum up with a phrase borrowed from Thomas King: “You’re not the Indian I had in mind.”

If you’re looking for an Indian maiden with earthy skin and long black braids, gazing at her reflection in still water while woodland creatures nestle against the curves of her buckskin dress – keep looking. It’s not me.

I know filmmaking is a visual medium and it’s hard to challenge your assumptions that our appearance should communicate our identity. But every time someone makes a film about bears, and insists that they need to depict our Indigenous field technicians wearing ceremonial garb – I choke on my coffee. And this sort of thing happens more often than you’d think. We don’t wear button blankets and ermine skin headpieces when we collect samples from our grizzly bear hair snags to send away for genetic analysis. To link it back to section 2, don’t ask us to play-act. Work with what’s in front of you to tell an authentic story, even if it’s not an easy story to visually capture.

You have an opportunity, in challenging yourself to be authentic and creative, to also challenge the assumptions of your audience and shift their attitudes toward Indigenous people. That’s an opportunity worth taking.

Make it feasible

Do you think all of this sounds unfeasible? Then adjust your timelines, your fundraising goals, and anything else you need to adjust to make it feasible. Do you think you shouldn’t have to think about these things? Then take a big step back, do some heavy reading on white privilege, and read this piece again. If you still don’t get it and you’re called out on your ignorance by Indigenous communities and individuals, have the self-awareness to mark those moments as opportunities to further educate yourself.

Reconciliation isn’t about federal apologies or one-time marches in the street. It’s about re-evaluating how you carry yourself in the world in relation to Indigenous peoples. There’s a great deal of learning (and unlearning) to do and I hope you intuit how important and transformative the journey can be.

This is shared with a good heart and high hopes of meaningful, respectful collaborations in the future.  [Tyee]

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