The 5th Pocahontas Reframed Film Festival was held November 19–21, 2021 at the Virginia Fine Arts Museum, offering live and virtual options. Continuing tradition, the festival showcased documentary and feature films, live performances, and panel discussions. As clarified by board members and emcees Assistant Pamunkey Chief Bradby Brown (Pamunkey) and Chief Lynette Allston (Nottoway), the festival raises awareness about language, cultures, and societies through films that highlight Native American perspectives, bringing together artists, actors, and directors who dialogue with the audience after screenings. Pocahontas Reframed raises “visibility around the need for more diversity in films” and elevates Native American perspectives.
A common theme running throughout the three days of live screenings was climate change and the environment, evident in films such as “Ophir,” written and directed by Alexandre Berman and Olivier Pollet, the Papua New Guinea film winner of the 2020 Grand Jury Prize at the FIFO International Film Festival; “One Word Sawalmen,” directed by Michael “Pom” Preston (Winnemem Wintu) and Natasha Deganello Giraudie; “Pamunkey River: Lifeblood of Our People,” directed by Kevin Krigsvold (Pamunkey) and Michael Bibbo; “Family,” directed by Rain and narrated by Crystle Lightning; “Tsenacommacah,” a short experimental film directed by Ethan Brown, Caleb Hendrickson, and Frederico Cuatlacuatl; “However Wide the Sky: Places of Power,” produced by Silver Bullet Productions and narrated by Tantoo Cardinal (Cree and Métis); “Standing Rock on Native Ground,” directed by Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie (Seminole/Muscogee/Navajo); “Conscience Point,” directed by Treva Wurmfeld and produced by Julianna Brannum (Comanche); “Lake of Betrayal,” directed by Paul Lamont and Scott Sackett; and “VIMS 75th Anniversary Video,” produced by the Virginia Institute for Marine Science.
In keeping with the national resurgence of land acknowledgment, it is fitting that two environmental-themed films concerned Virginia Tribes. “Pamunkey River: Lifeblood of Our People” featured scenes of the beautiful river located in Virginia’s tidewater area with Chief Robert Gray and other Tribal members discussing how the river is under pressure from invasive species and pollution. They highlighted the work that the members and scientists are doing to “bring the river and the fish population back to a healthy place.” The 12-minute short also stresses how the river connects the people to a place that has sustained generations for thousands of years. “Tsenacommacah,” another film about Tidewater, Virginia, is named after the Powhatan name for their territory, translated as “densely inhabited land.” It focuses on the spiritual symbology of Ahone, the Creator, whose origin is the rising sun, and Okee, the trickster of chaos.
Film posters for “Conscience Point,” “However Wide the Sky: Places of Power,” and “Ophir.
The Pacific Ocean is the setting for “Ophir” and its Indigenous population’s revolution for land, life, and culture and the necessity to create a new nation in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea because of coastal erosion. Their plight is considered by many as the biggest conflict of the Pacific since World War II.
Shifting back to the U.S. is “Conscience Point,” filmed on the Shinnecock Reservation where Tribal members have lived in harmony with the sea life of the Atlantic Ocean. Activist Rebecca Hill-Genia (Shinnecock) and her allies are protesting to protect their sacred burial grounds which were plowed to make room for mansions and the construction of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. Located within one of the wealthiest zip codes in the U.S., the recognized Shinnecock Tribe is constantly under siege by developers who want to privatize beaches which are home and sacred spaces to the Shinnecock.
Filmmaker and festival board member Shelley Niro (Mohawk) moderated the panel, “Desert and Sky: Rock and Ice,” which featured filmmakers Darlene Naponse (Anishinabe) and Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie discussing how the territories they grew up in and their experiences as Indigenous women affects their work. Tsinhnahjinnie screened diary videos, some featuring her father describing his childhood in a boarding school and its harsh punishments such as having his ankles chained while carrying heavy logs and being forced to dress in girls’ clothing. Playing the guitar, Andrew V. Tsinhnahjinnie (Diné), also known as Yazhi Bahe (1916–2000), reflected how his life that led him to become a curriculum developer for Native American schools and a legendary painter of Southwestern Indian life and ceremonies. Other excerpts from Tsinhnahjinnie’s filmography included “NTV,” a spoof on MTV, soap operas, and TV commercials, and a documentary about a 2018 San Francisco protest that culminated in the removal of an offensive statue of a downtrodden Indian man. Her Standing Rock Video focused on about 2,000 veterans of all races who came to Standing Rock to protect the Water Keepers activists and got snowed-in at a casino for three days. It documented the casino housekeepers, university students, and veterans as they were crowded together, forced to sleep in the halls and work together. Although the veterans showed up wanting to fight, Tsinhnahjinnie and others talked them down, reassuring them that “Your presence is all we need, not fighting.” Attributing the snowed-in experience to spiritual intervention, it ended with a forgiveness ceremony that involved the gifting of eagle feathers.
Listening to Andrew Tsinhnahjinnie play the guitar and sing while narrating his boarding school experiences in the afternoon video series was the perfect sequel to the Saturday morning viewing of “Home From School: The Children of Carlisle,” written, directed, and produced by Geoff O’Gara. Also shown on PBS, “Home From School” chronicles the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s activism and success in having the remains of three children who died at Carlisle Indian School returned to them and the subsequent return of remains to other Tribes. In all, 238 Native children were buried at Carlisle into the late 1920s. Forced boarding schools for Indigenous children in settler colonies like the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are described as cultural genocide by the filmmaker. Not all of the films were documentaries. “Intrepidus,” a horror fantasy directed by undergraduate student Alex Greenlee and produced by “On Native Ground,” was one of the five films nominated for the 21st Annual Student Heritage Awards presented by the American Society of Cinematographers. “Beans” by Tracey Deer (Mohawk) is a coming-of-age story of a young girl living through the 1990 Oka Crisis in Canada and how the charged political protest events radically changed her perspective on life. “A Winter Love,” written and directed by Rihanna Yazzie (Navajo), with cinematographer Ryan Eddleston and editor Farrah Drabu, revolves around the love affair between a female Navajo songwriter and a Lakota law student who is confused about his sexual orientation.
L-R: Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, Phoebe Farris, Shelley Niro. Photo courtesy of Phoebe Farris.
Performing artists at the opening night reception were the Adams Town Drummers, the Mattaponi Women’s Dancers, and the Nansemond Men’s Dancers, all Virginia Tribal members. Saturday evening, Dareen Thompson (Ojibwe/Tohono O’odham), flute player and music educator, performed some of his original compositions from his second album, “Between Earth and Sky.”
At the close of the festival, Karenne Wood (Monacan) (1960–2019) was honored with the establishment of the Karenne Wood Native Writer/Artist Residency Program, sponsored by the Humanities Research Center at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Known for her poetry and work in Virginia Tribal history, Wood was the director of the Virginia Indian Program at Virginia Humanities in Charlottesville. She also conducted research at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and served on the National Congress of American Indian Repatriation Commission. In 2015, Wood was named one of the Library of Virginia’s “Virginia Women in History.” Highly respected by colleagues and peers, the Pocahontas Reframed Film Festival was a fitting location to announce the establishment of the Native Artist/Writer Residency named in her honor.
--Phoebe Mills Farris, Ph.D. (Powhatan-Pamunkey) is a Purdue University Professor Emerita, photographer, and freelance art critic.