LAWTON, Okla.– As a 20-year-old masseuse from Apache, Okla., Clarissa Archilta is used to working with her hands. But when a friend asked her to apply for a special project that aids amateur Native American filmmakers in producing their own short film, Archilta wasn’t sure she wanted to do it because although she had helped her friend a little with filming, she’s never created a whole movie before. Her friend kept prodding her, though, because he knew she had a good story to tell. About a year and a half ago, Archilta and her sister saw Bigfoot, the huge ape-like creature that has been legend in Oklahoma.
“When me and my sister were coming home from my aunt’s funeral…I decided to go on the
back roads hoping that we could talk because we were both upset about the funeral. I was
joking around that we should get our camera phones out because we might see Bigfoot. Then
there it was on the side of the road as we got closer,” Archilta said. “It saw us and then it took
two steps across the road and it was gone.”
The experience has compelled Archilta to share her story often, although she knows she has
her disbelievers. And now Archilta is putting her story on film with the help of the long-running
history series on PBS, American Experience. The unique project is part of the debut of
American Experience’s newest mini-series, We Shall Remain, an exploration of 300 years of
Native American history in America slated to air in April.
The first workshop for the film project called ReelNative was held in Phoenix in 2007 and Native
people of all ages with little or no filmmaking experience began on a two-week crash course of
film production. Participants in the first workshop shot their footage with cell phones, representing the technology available today.
Since then, ReelNative participants have been given mini-DV cameras because of the higher
technical quality. But whether cell phones or cameras were used, the stories themselves were
unaffected. According to ReelNative organizers, it was the Native perspective—the voice of real
Native people living in present day America—that was sought.
“By asking people to share their experiences, we were opening up a creative opportunity for a
population that is underrepresented in American media,” said Sharon Grimberg, We Shall
Remain executive producer. “I hope that these participants’ voices, and the stories we are telling
on other platforms, will come together to create a mosaic of the Native American experience.”
At ReelNative workshops, which also have been held on the East
Coast and recently at Comanche College in Lawton, Okla., participants are taught the basics of filming and interviewing, and
then are set on their own to do their stories. The result has been films about childhood memories, personal struggles with identity
or concerns about their future of their tribe or diminishing culture.
Other participants have shared their tribe’s creation stories or chronicled history, such as the first Native American to graduate
“It was hard to tell the world something I keep so close to my heart, while wondering if people will understand what the film is really trying to share and teach,” said Rebecca Nelson of the Salt River Pima Tribe, one of the first workshop participants whose film, A Freeway Christmas, tells of Nelson’s desire to have a Christmas for her younger brother
as she had as a little girl when her family had more money. “But then I remembered the reason I agreed to participate in the first place—I knew my story needed to be told. It needed to be told
the way it should be told, directly from me.”
Tvli Jacob (Choctaw), an experienced filmmaker who led the workshops on the
East Coast and at Comanche College, said he hopes that ReelNative will entice
workshop participants to continue telling their own stories or compel other
Natives to get in the business.
“It’s about giving Natives a voice where they don’t have one,” Jacob said. “There
is very little representation of Native people in filmmaking and this is a way to
empower them.” Clarrisa Archilta (Apache) agrees. While she isn’t going to change her career anytime soon, she is glad she’s getting this chance to learn about the industry and tell her story. Tales of Bigfoot are large part of Native American Oklahoma history. Some tribes believe that Bigfoot protects cemeteries. Other tribes believe they are like medicine men and turn into trees.
“I know that some people aren’t going to believe it and I’m OK with that,” Archilta said. “…But
some people think all Indians do is drink and powwow, and, really, you have all these Indian
artists or musicians or doctors or massage therapists like me. It’s better to get these films out
there to show people that we’re not just drunks or savages, and that we’re interesting and
normal just like them.”
Films from the ReelNative project are available to view now on the We Shall Remain website
and will be shown nationwide when the series premieres on PBS on April 13. For more
information about the series, go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/weshallremain.
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