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Indigenous Film and Arts Festival Spotlights Native Stories Online

Okpik’s Dream is one of the films at the Indigenous Film and Arts Festival.
Okpik’s Dream is one of the films at the Indigenous Film and Arts Festival.
Courtesy of Catbird Productions

Hollywood has long ignored the actual identities and stories of Indigenous people and instead pushed hurtful stereotypes, degrading Native communities from the Americas and beyond. To remedy that and give a platform to Indigenous filmmakers, in 2004 the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management, a law and policy organization, organized Denver's Indigenous Film and Arts Festival.

“The festival is a place where Indigenous people in Denver can celebrate their stories, where Indigenous youth can connect with role models and learn to appreciate the value of their stories and cultures, and where mainstream audiences can learn about indigenous cultures from people representing themselves in film and art, telling their stories from their point of view," explains festival director and founder Jeanne M. Rubin.

In previous years, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the University of Denver’s anthropology department and History Colorado have hosted the fest in person; this year, events will be virtual, with screenings, Q&As and discussions running from October 14 through January 13.

Although it's not the same as hosting face-to-face interactions, Rubin says going online has some perks.

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“The virtual programs let us bring in audience[s] from around the country and from around the world,” she points out. “It also makes it possible to include filmmakers and cultural experts who would otherwise not be able to join us. This year we have films that showcase American Indian, First Nations, Native Hawaiians, Maori and Sámi cultures.”

The festival opens on October 14, with a free Vimeo screening of the documentary Okpik's Dream (available through October 15), about a man who lost his leg in a shooting accident and went on to realize his dream of running a dog-sled team — a skill he hopes to pass on to younger people in his community. Included will be a conversation with Jacqueline Esai, who was raised in Nikolai, Alaska, and will talk about the local tradition of dog-mushing. 

He Hekenga Tuhura, which is available on October 21, honors the achievements of Sir Hector Busby, a New Zealand canoe builder, respected sailor and navigator. This film, which encourages future generations to honor the Te Rarawa traditions, marks Busby's final interview before he died in 2019, at the age of 86; it's produced by his nephew, New Zealand director Allan George.

This year's fest also includes the short film "Take," which screens November 18; made by director, dancer, activist and educator Victoria Hunt, it tells a story about the colonization and historical trauma of the Maori people. Hunt describes "Take" as "an experiment in cinematic storytelling using existing footage from my dance works combined with still photographs and newspaper stories from the archives."

Another worthwhile screening that day is "Kapaemahu," by Native Hawaiian director Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu. This animated short tells the tale of four mahu, or two-spirited people, who took their healing arts to Hawaii from Tahiti.

“I want the history of my homeland to be correct,” Wong-Kalu says in a statement. “The foreigner shall not teach me the history of my people. I will teach the foreigner.”

Still of Sir Hector Busby from He Hekenga Tuhura.EXPAND
Still of Sir Hector Busby from He Hekenga Tuhura.
Courtesy of Allan George

The festival is still working out the final details of a spring art exhibit based on this year’s theme, "places of memory," which will include work by Colorado Springs-based Paiute artist Gregg Deal and Oklahoma-based artist Brent Learned.

Learned, a member of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Native American Tribes of Oklahoma, creates impressionistic art reflecting on American Plains Indian heritage and culture.

“My tribe was in and around the Denver area for years,” Learned says. “I’m not going to pass up an opportunity to continue to share my work and tell those stories.”

As a hub of indigenous cultures, Denver is a perfect place for the festival, notes Rubin.

“Denver has a large Indigenous population that includes individuals from over a hundred Indian Nations as well as Native Hawaiians and other Polynesians,” she says. “The histories, stories and artwork from around the world resonate with Denver’s indigenous communities.”

The 17th Annual Indigenous Film and Arts Festival opens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, October 14, with Okpik's Dream, and runs through January 13. All events are free to the public, but you must RSVP for links to screenings and discussions. For a full schedule and more information, visit the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management's website.

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