Native American Heritage Month: The Power and Importance of Film

November is Native American Heritage Month and, for some, the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday has become an important opportunity to expand the canon, the stories, regarding Native Americans that are told, heard, shared and celebrated at this time. 

Storytelling has been a part of human cultures since they began. In modern times, films are a prominent method of storytelling. Learning about different religions can feel challenging or, even, overwhelming. During Native American Heritage Month I wanted to highlight the power and importance of film, especially of films told from indigenous perspectives BY indigenous filmmaking. Film can be a powerful learning tools and a resource for enhancing understanding and building empathy. As such, we’re highlighting some powerful short films, many of which come with free educational resources as well.

Native American Heritage Month: The Power and Importance of Film | Multicultural Kid Blogs

Documentary Short Films with Educational Resources for Native American Heritage Month (or Anytime)

Bounty

Bounty is a short film that reveals the hidden story of the Phips Proclamation, one of many scalp-bounty proclamations used to exterminate Native people in order to take their land in the area of the United States now known as New England. In the film, Penobscot parents and children resist cultural and historical erasure by reading and reacting to the government-issued Phips Proclamation’s call for colonial settlers to hunt, scalp, and murder Penobscot people. A free teaching guide is available for this short film: https://www.bountyfilm.org/bounty-teachers-guide-introduction. (Bounty is 9 minutes, so it is easy for parents and/or educators to preview first and it is a length that is conducive to educational and communal learning experiences).  

Yes, the subject matter of Bounty is heavy and individuals involved with The Upstander Project who spoke to me about the film relayed that they’ve noticed youth engage in powerful discussions regarding the film. It includes discussions not only about the history portrayed in the film itself, but also about when and how we learn about injustices of the past. Some students, who are not Native American, question sharing this history with children. Yet, this history is not optional for Native American children. It is part of their cultural heritage, part of their family and community’s shared stories. It is important to consider the urge to “protect” children from the injustices of the past, especially if a parenting or educational goal is fostering empathy and upstander culture among our youth. 

First Light

First Light is a short film that documents the U.S. governmental practices of removing Native American children from their families, communities, tribes, and nations. It traces this practice from the 1800s to today and tells the story of an unprecedented experiment in truth-telling and healing for Wabanaki people and child welfare workers in Maine.

In 2015 the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that Native people in Maine continue to be targets of “cultural genocide.” The commission is the topic of Upstander Project’s Emmy® award-winning documentary film, Dawnland, which aired on Independent Lens in 2018. Various free learning resources are available for First Light: https://upstanderproject.org/learn/guides-and-resources/first-light. (First Light is 13 minutes in length, so it is also conducive to previewing and educational and communal learning settings). You can learn more about Dawnland through this piece I wrote for Video Librarian and through the Upstander Project.

Explore The Reciprocity Project

The Reciprocity Project is a US-based production that works alongside Indigenous storytellers and communities worldwide. The team behind the project includes people with diverse Indigenous and non-Indigenous identities and life experiences. The Reciprocity Project views diversity as a source of strength as it seeks to inspire and educate audiences. 

The short films that are part of The Reciprocity Project are made primarily by Native American filmmakers. Many of the films center the experience of Indigenous children. Significantly as well, these films focus on the here and now reinforcing that Native Americans are part of our communities. Too often, especially in mainstream media, Native Americans are presented as communities and individuals from the past. Portrayals can lead some youth to believe that these communities and nations are no longer a thriving part of the American landscape, but they are. 

The Reciprocity Project also features photography and podcasts. 

A central element of both The Reciprocity Project and the Upstander Project is to celebrate Indigenous communities in the present while also working to counter silencing regarding the injustices of the past.

These tools and resources can be used during Native American Heritage Month, of course, but hopefully, all year to increase understanding about Indigenous communities and history and to bolster the ability of our own children, students, and youth communities to become active upstanders themselves. 

More Resources for Native American Heritage Month

For book-related resources, please check out American Indians in Children’s Literature and this post from Multicultural Kid Blogs.

Honoring Native American Heritage Month with Kids

Appreciating Native American Music

Native Owned Businesses Your Family Will Love

Native American Activism, 1960s to the Present

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Jennifer Fischer

Jennifer Fischer is a writer, mediamaker, and teaching artist whose work has been featured by NBCLatino, ABC, Univision, Fusion, NBCBLK, etc. Her film “THE wHOLE” premiered at Amnesty International’s 50th Anniversary Human Rights Conference. Recent publications include pieces in Ms. Magazine, Last Girls Club, Literary Mama, Oranges Journal, Barzakh Magazine and Under Her Eye from Black Spot Books. An essay of hers appears in What is a Criminal? Answers from Inside the U.S. Justice System, an anthology from Routledge, published Jan. 2023.
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