For National Native American Heritage Month, The @Orpheumtheater helped celebrate local Native American filmmakers and their heritage by hosting an Indigenous Film Festival.
NAU graduate Mariah Ashley works for the NAU Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals. She helped organize the Indigenous Film Festival Nov. 14, which featured the productions of several students and graduates.
The event featured varying films and shorts by indigenous people, including Keanu Jones, Chip Thomas, Christopher Nataanii Cegielski, Robert Fenske, Deidra Peaches and senior Tinia Witherspoon. While most of the films centered around the culture and struggles that many have faced, there were also videos that aimed to be charming and funny.
The event featured local artists and activists who had booths at the front of the venue. One artist was Jerilynn Yazzi, who owns ShiYoo Designs. All of her jewelry and silverwork is made by hand. She incorporates silver coins and juniper berries into her pieces. Yazzi said juniper berries are important to the Navajo people, because many of them believe the berries protect from negative energy.
“ShiYoo means ‘my jewelry, my necklace or my beads’ in Navajo,” Yazzi said. “My jewelry is more modern and contemporary. I put a modern spin on traditional jewelry.”
Another artist featured was Gregory Hill, who is a Hopi toymaker from the village of Kykotsmovi in Arizona. His clan is Bif-wungwa, which is the Tobacco Clan. Hill said he reimagined an age-old Hopi toy: the spinning top.
“I am transforming [the spinning top] into something that has more story to it, so one of my concepts is the importance of play,” Hill said. “As an artist, my goal is to bring to the world this sense of childlike wonder and joy that we sometimes lose as we grow older. I like to call it little kid magic.”
This festival celebrated many aspects of Native American culture, such as art, stories told through film and protecting native land. Ashley said indigenous people are on the front line dealing with the issues of climate change. At the event, there were many organizations representing the protection of native land.
Tó Nizhóní Ání, or Sacred Water Speaks, was there to represent the fight against large corporations. Jessica Keetso spoke on behalf of Sacred Water Speaks, an environmental grassroots organization. Keetso said they started in 2000 in response to Peabody Energy’s use of Navajo water as a means of transportation in a slurry line, a pipeline that moves coal. The company would crush up coal and put it through the slurry line, using the water to transport it to Mohave Generating Station. The company was shut down in 2005, but more problems persisted. Now the organization is in a transition stage and is offering people solutions for a better economic system.
Environmental justice was just one issue discussed during the event. Others were based around human faults and a lack of understanding. Witherspoon produced the film “Medicine and Obligations” about how cultural education is just as important to Native American students as college education and how it can be difficult to hold a place in both worlds. Witherspoon said the film explains that teachers and facilitators do not understand why students need to miss school or assignments for ceremonies and other traditional activities.
“This is something that is still immensely difficult for me. Currently, it is limiting to my education,” Witherspoon said. “A lack of access to your traditional or cultural knowledge when you’re attaining an institutional education from a western perspective kind of voids you, and only one area of knowledge is valued. But both are very fulfilling and needed.”
Witherspoon’s film along with many others showed new perspectives to those who were unaware of Native American culture. Ashley said it is very important to discuss issues that different tribes go through, but she also wanted this film festival to be different.
“It’s a lot of doom and gloom, but for this one, I really wanted to focus more on celebrating our heritage or just celebrating our life — our existence,” Ashley said. “So, that goes into humor, so I specifically picked a lot of films that were funny. That’s what indigenous people love to do is laugh. I wanted this to be more of a celebration.”
The Indigenous Film Festival was brought together by people from many different backgrounds and aimed to touch people’s lives in an impactful way.