If you don’t know much about the U.S-Dakota War of 1862, Obijwe and Dakota language revitalization, or the development of the neighborhood known as “Indian Country” along Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, you would probably have been in good company with the incoming class of the Summer Media Institute.
The 15 young people, Minneapolis residents aged 16 to 21, were all Native Americans who had received placement through the summer jobs program of STEP-UP Achieve. But most had little connection to the events and influences that formed their own cultural background, at least until this past July, when they walked into a room reserved for the Summer Media Institute at the Regis Center for Art, University of Minnesota. They were ready to become part of a youth-focused filmmaking project that’s been producing public-service announcements and documentaries for the past five summers.
The name means ‘bald eagle’
The Institute is run by MIGIZI Communications, Inc., a Minneapolis-based nonprofit focused on ensuring success, well-being, and justice for the American Indian community. Founded in 1977, the organization’s name means “bald eagle” in the Ojibwe language. Staffers say that the bird represents communication as well as guardianship and high standards.
“We were originally founded to train American Indian journalists to tell their stories from their own perspectives,” says Graham Hartley, director of programs at MIGIZI, adding, “We’ve returned to some of those roots in our media production now. We hope to give students an opportunity to examine their own family histories and cultural connections. The goal is to help them build a solid sense of self-identity by succeeding at something — filmmaking — that is pretty challenging.”
Minneapolis’ Native American hot spot
Hartley says there is a reason such opportunities are especially prevalent here. “Minneapolis has a significant geographic concentration of American Indians in its demographic makeup. Places like Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle all have a greater number of American Indians who live within the boundaries of their cities, but we have a concentration in Phillips, Powderhorn, and the Little Earth of United Tribes housing complex. There are so many programming and service opportunities between Chicago Avenue and 32nd and from Franklin Avenue to Lake Street. That’s the hot spot for American Indian families.”
The Institute, which completed post-production in mid-August, gave participants a chance to research, write, and produce documentaries on topics relevant to their own communities. While the students became increasingly well-versed on issues such as treaty violations against the Dakota in the 1850s, they also learned the basics of documentary filmmaking: researching, operating a camera, lighting, shooting b-roll footage, setting up and conducting interviews, and editing with Final Cut Pro 7 in an on-site editing suite.
And while the topics were established before the students started, the young people often had a significant influence on the final outcome. One example was the piece, entitled Past Present Future, about the formation of Minneapolis’ American Indian community in the Phillips neighborhood.
“It was intended as a historical research piece, but the students working on the film changed the focus,” says John Gwinn, Project Coordinator for MIGIZI’s Native Youth Futures Program. “They really wanted to tell the story of the institutions that exist today and how they were created.” The students began a modern-day exploration of community fixtures such as the Indian Health Board, Nawayee Center School, Little Earth housing and the Upper Midwest American Indian Center.
“Through their research and interviews, the students were able to see how and why these institutions came into being, and how neighbors had worked together to create organizations and agencies in order to serve the needs of the American Indian community,” Gwynn says.
“Our film turned out exactly the way I planned it to come out,” says Annarita Deere, 21, who directed the Phillips neighborhood piece. “I learned a lot. It was exciting to set up interviews with the director of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a Minneapolis city council member, and lots of other important people.” Deere, a member of the Muskogee Creek tribe, says that she has expanded her knowledge about her city and the neighborhood in the course of the production. “If it wasn’t for the Native Americans who came back and settled there, the area wouldn’t be what it is today,” she says.
‘How did you do that?’
“They have such a short time to become filmmakers, but I’m always amazed at work they produce, and how quickly they catch on. Every summer there are those moments when I ask, ‘How did you do that?’” says Gabriel Siert, an Institute coordinator and local filmmaker who recently graduated from the MCTC Cinema Production program. Siert, who is a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton-Dakota and Grand Traverse-Ottawa tribes, adds, “I feel that American Indian people have to regain our voices, and now is the time to do that. These youth need ways to tell their own stories.”
According to Siert, many participants started the summer without much interest in their documentary subjects, but as they completed research and delved deeper in their assigned topics, they often made some very personal connections. “The group that was researching on the ‘Indian Country’ neighborhood got a lead on a woman who had been very influential in its development. One of the girls said, ‘Hey, that’s my grandma,’ and got a chance to interview her own grandmother for their piece,” Siert says.
“It’s a whirlwind of an eight-week session,” says Elizabeth Day, media instructor, who is a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Still, she says that even in the short amount of time available, “I see a lot of confidence come out of the kids. One girl was kind of shy, but she was the one who was willing to climb up the big ladder and adjust the lights for a shoot. Everyone applauded her,” says Day. “Just a simple success makes a difference.”
Gwynn echoes her views on the Institute’s ultimate measure of success, saying, “This program is a good way for these young people to engage with important parts of their own heritage. That’s really our success, when students feel proud and have satisfaction with what they learn and accomplish.”
Now that the last bit of footage has been edited, and the result of all their work is ready for viewing, many of the students are already thinking back on what they’ve learned. “I will miss it — it was kind of fun making movies,” says Deere. “I like directing, I guess because I like taking charge,” she adds. “I know what I want.”
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.