Native Youth Media

By Elizabeth Weatherford, Cindy Benitez, and Fatima Mahdi
Film & Video Center, NMAI–NY
July 2013

We set the bar very high for the youth in our program because we believe in their ability to be amazing—not just adequate—but truly inspirational and innovative!
Tracey Rector, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Longhouse Media

For Native youth, media making can be many things: a form of self-expression, a method of empowerment, an education in leadership and teamwork, a way of learning about and preserving their own culture, a way of connecting with their communities and their elders, and a skill that can lead to a satisfying career in the media industries. Native youth media adds a new voice to the debate on Native issues, what the organization In Progress of St. Paul, Minnesota, calls “diversifying dialogue.” Many also see filmmaking as a compelling activity that can provide alternatives for at-risk youth. Organizations that support Native youth media makers exist to answer all these needs and to train the next generation of Native filmmakers, storytellers, and educators. A word about terminology: “youth” media is seen as coming from young people in an age range of about 12 to 22, who are usually in the early stages of learning productions skills. As their skills and commitment strengthen, they are increasingly seen as “emerging” filmmakers, a term that reflects their own determination to pursue filmmaking as a profession.

Media Training

In the ten years that I have been doing this work, it still amazes me the breadth and diversity of the storytelling that comes from the youth that we work with here in the Pacific Northwest. What is really interesting in fact is that we are in a time when the youth are effectively combining their love of their tribal heritage in a very sophisticated way with media and pop culture.
—Tracey Rector, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Longhouse Media

Since the 1990s, substantial projects to get cameras into the hands of Native community members have been instigated, most often by experienced media makers. There have been precedents, including an interesting film research project in the late 1960s with young Navajo in a reservation community. In the 1970s, with increased focus on independent film, some Native media makers taught themselves how to use a camera. Others learned about photography and low-format film in independent schools. Many of the first generation of independent Native media makers trained in classes offered by an anthropologists’ film school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Initially, when video was still a young medium, media training was taken up by a few Native artists and radio professionals, and by those aspiring to be professionals. In some countries, support systems that encouraged economic and social development for tribal peoples began to assist organizations, such as Video nas Aldeias in Brazil, to train emerging indigenous adult filmmakers. Some organizations recognized the significance of establishing community-based projects to extend media production training even further.

The current focus on Native youth training has developed as a way to address concerns about young people and to address the rapid changes in format as the technical means move from film to video, and from analog to digital, to the point where videos can be produced with electronic recording devices like cell phones. The premise of the 1960s Navajo project was that few participants in the workshop had seen films or television, and that the introduction of cameras would be a first for them. This has continued to be true in many rural areas of the Americas, where Indian communities are often “off the grid.” Training rural Indian youth in production skills is intended to help young people feel like they are “on the grid” and to encourage them to express their own particular realities and interests. Organizations such as Wapikoni Mobile working in northern Quebec and the Yoochel Kaaj: Cine Video Cultura’s Turix Collective in Mexico’s Yucatan have been working with community people—youth and sometimes young adults—for almost a decade.

Media training organizations in Indian Country throughout the Americas are often highly local or regional, and exist where political or social leadership has a vision of what youth media can mean to the community. The Native youth media organizations listed in the Resources section accompanying this article were founded by, and are still run by, dynamic individuals strongly focused on helping youth to express themselves and perhaps to channel the outlooks and interests of their communities. They offer experienced mentors, often themselves Native, and teach a wide range of topics, including camera work, sound recording, script writing, film editing, and in some places, acting or animation, or using digital tools such as iPads. Many youth media organizations give workshops throughout the year, for example The Reel to Real in Vancouver, B.C.; Outta Your Backpack in Flagstaff, Arizona; and In Progress in St. Paul, Minnesota. Local schools may partner with these organizations to bring workshops into the classroom. Some schools, such as Service to All Relations (STAR) School, a largely Navajo school near Flagstaff, Arizona, have made the media arts a permanent part of their curriculum. Independent media organizations, such as the Native journalism organization Migizi in St. Paul, or the independent film organization North West Film Center’s Native Truth Film Project in Portland, Oregon, also provide opportunities for youth to develop their voice, on issues of importance.

Native youth media organizations often take workshops directly to Native communities. Frequently combining the workshops with touring film programs, these organizations encourage youth to learn about producing media and encourage community audiences to see Native-made films and discuss what media can mean and offer. Longhouse Media’s Native Lens program gives workshops in reservation communities in the Pacific Northwest. The American Indian Film Institute’s Tribal Touring Program partners with host reservations in northern California and Washington State, offering training and community screenings of the works produced and of selections from the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco. imagineNATIVE’s Northern Ontario Film + Video Tour gives workshops in filmmaking, sometimes using cell phones and webcams. In Progress has built programs around youth media for specific communities in Minnesota, focusing on Ojibwe communities such as Leech Lake, but also including such groups as Hmong (an indigenous community that immigrated to the Twin Cities area following the Vietnam War). Both Wapikoni Mobile in Quebec and Weengushk Film Institute in Ontario specialize in reaching northern Native communities with their production workshops.

Film festivals may organize youth workshops as part of their program. Some of these focus on production workshops and screen the resulting works as part of the festival. The Seattle International Film Festival hosts Longhouse Media’s SuperFly Filmmaking Experience, an intensive thirty-six-hour filmmaking workshop that brings together Native and non-Native youth and is located each year on a nearby Native reservation. The Youth FX Program at the Cowichan International Aboriginal Film Festival in Duncan, B.C., is a two-day workshop taught by actors, directors, editors, and sound mixers. Native CHAT Film Festival in Minnesota specifically invites youth to create films on health and prevention issues. During the Dreamspeakers Film Festival in Edmonton, Alberta, the young participants work with filmmakers to produce short films, which are shown as a festival program on Youth Day. For three years the Winnepeg Aboriginal Film Festival has organized “Our Stories, Our Identities,” a project that uses filmmaking to connect youth with tribal elders.

Other workshops expose youth filmmakers to the range of opportunities available to them in the media professions. As part of its four most recent festivals, the NMAI’s Native American Film + Video Festival in New York has brought together participants from Native youth media organizations in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. for a two-day New Generations Workshop that includes production studio tours, social networking, meeting with college reps, and open conversations with the field’s top filmmakers.

Screening Native Youth Media

To make calculated education and career choices, Indian youth need to realize their options [in] writing, editing, directing, scripting, acting, camera, lighting, sound and promoting. Tribal Touring Program’s mandate is to increase our workforce visibility in film, broadcast media, journalism, public relations, and marketing. National broadcast media and most Indian tribes have these career options now—placement and support of our Indian media professionals can only be "win win" for all-parties.
—Michael Smith, Founder and Director, American Indian Film Institute

Native youth media organizations and programs give youth the opportunity to see their work on the screen and share it—with other young filmmakers, with their home communities, and with interested audiences. Many Native American film festivals screen youth media, either submitted in advance or produced at the time of the festival, as part of the main festival program. One of the most popular sections of the NMAI’s Native American Film + Video Festival is “Next Generations,” a program of selected works from the same youth who have been invited to the festival’s workshop. The American Indian Film Festival screens works from that year’s Tribal Touring Program. The Seattle International Film Festival shows Longhouse Media’s SuperFly productions. Future Voices of New Mexico screens the works made by its students at film festivals and schools in Santa Fe. All of these and many other training organizations submit workshop films to national and international film festivals.

Some festivals, for example Skabmagovat in the Sami region of Finland, invite indigenous youth to curate the youth programming. Some festivals that exclusively screen films directed and produced by youth, such as the Reel 2 Real Festival, encourage Native youth to submit their work. For the NMAI’s Native Cinema Showcase in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and, recently, for the Tribeca Film Institute in New York, ANDKids World Film Festival in Notre Dame, Indiana, and REDCAT International Children’s Film Festival in Los Angeles, the NMAI's Film & Video Center has curated programs for youth, using youth media.

Online platforms are being embraced by Native youth media organizations. Works produced by Wapikoni Mobile, Yoochel Kaaj, and others are available on these organizations’ websites. Future Voices runs annual and monthly online video contests for student work, screening the winners at a special awards show in Santa Fe. Outta Your Backpack, In Progress, Longhouse, and Wapikoni all have their own YouTube channels, as increasingly do many individual young filmmakers.

Media Literacy

We have been around now long enough to witness a full cycle occur, where youth we worked with at age fourteen are now graduating from college and are the leaders and mentors of the next generation. They are fully equipped with a new media literacy that enables them to bridge their indigenous consciousness with a contemporary approach to advocacy and civic engagement.
—Tracey Rector, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Longhouse Media

One way of empowering young media makers is to introduce them to the practice of discussing the ideas and issues in film, and in Native film in particular. Whenever a specific festival has an associated youth program, admission passes and special behind-the-scenes meeting with the filmmakers may be provided to young participants, who then become part of the festival’s big discussions. Tours that bring media to Native communities, such as the AIFI Tribal Touring Program, provide a wider knowledge of Native film. Filmmakers who offer production training to youth help facilitate discussions about film among all ages. Native media tours often include dedicated screenings for young people in the community, in part to help them acquire the tools for film criticism and media literacy.

Models for learning film criticism have been developed by diverse media organizations that serve youth of all backgrounds. The public television series P.O.V., by American Documentary, Inc., and the Tribeca Film Institute’s Youth Program have created initiatives that encourage youth to lead discussions about films with their peers. The Reel to Real organization offers both a youth film festival (Reel 2 Real) and workshops in film criticism outside the festival. Other festivals, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the Hawai`i International Film Festival, offer year-round youth workshops and screenings of festival films for youth audiences, and indigenous youth are among the participants.

As media organizations know, learning media production is often an effective way to learn critical skills for viewing media. Several educational organizations, such as New York State’s Department of Education and the Educational Video Center in New York City, have posted helpful online guides for media teachers.

The Future of Native Youth Media

Those that I taught ten years ago have become media educators themselves. There is so much beauty in that. It is transformative when a young person is taught by someone who shares in their dreams and understands their history. I see the admiration in the eyes of these young makers as their stories are facilitated by a new generation of filmmakers. There are still many battles to be fought. Funding for Native youth media programs has almost disappeared due to difficult economic times.… It is difficult to watch, to see young talented voices buried in the weight of institutional neglect. And yet, here we are―Native artists dedicating themselves to teaching the next generation, young people making and sharing their stories on their own terms, communities embracing these young makers and supporting them in their fight for visual sovereignty. Young Native producers still struggle to be heard, but the tools are now theirs.
—Kristine Sorensen, Executive Director, In Progress

The face of Native youth media is always changing. New organizations appear, inspired by the good work of an organization in another part of the country, or the world, or powered by the vision of individuals. Two new organizations just getting off the ground are the Adam Beach Film Institute in Winnipeg and a new project for Houma youth in Louisiana. At the same time, old organizations are extending their reach to new locations and developing new interests, initiatives, and partnerships. In Progress, for example, generally focuses on Minnesota, but in 2010 their project “Stories of Strength & Resiliency” involved Native schools across the U.S. Canada’s Wapikoni Mobile is now active in Bolivia, Chile, and Peru.

New technology is making the creation of video easier―the prices of computers are falling, film editing and animation software are more readily available and easier to use, as are electronic recording devices such as cell phones, iPads, and webcams. The Internet has made it possible for young filmmakers to share their videos with a world audience and to join ongoing conversations on Native topics.

Youth filmmakers also grow up and become the next generation of youth media evangelists and mentors. The current crop of mentors at Outta Your Backpack and at Native Lens honed their media skills as students in their organization’s youth workshops. As the experience of Native youth making media deepens, and the distribution of their work through venues like festivals and such flexible spheres as YouTube increases, we look forward to what this next wave of great Native filmmakers will bring.