Imagining the Indian, a new documentary from filmmakers Aviva Kempner and Ben West, is subtitled The Fight Against Native American Mascoting. But that fight — to eradicate the use of appropriative Native American imagery as sports mascots — is just one part of the film, which also covers some five centuries of history and a hundred years of pop culture representation in 95 minutes.
West, who is Cheyenne, grew up in Washington, D.C. As a young sports fan, he found himself having to support a hometown football team whose mascot was a disparaging and deeming representation of his people. "And then I started seeing it in Saturday morning cartoons. Once that initial synapse fires, you then start seeing it all around you. And you're like, 'Wow, we really are being inundated by this false narrative of what it is to look Indian," he tells A.frame. "Everywhere we go, it's film, cartoons, Westerns, the covers of magazines, Pharrell Williams rocking a chicken feather headdress, the whole shebang."
Years ago, West met Kempner (the documentarian behind The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg) at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, and they initially collaborated on a screenplay about Navajo activist Larry Casuse. That eventually led to Imagining the Indian, which explores the roots of systemic racism against Native people and a history of offensive imagery that dates back to the earliest days of Hollywood, from The Lone Ranger to Bugs Bunny and Betty Boop.
The film serves as a look back at how far we've come — Washington's football team has since been renamed the Commanders — and how far we still have to go. As West says, "This film is not only a film, but a call to action."
A.frame: At what point did you begin talking about this documentary and the prospect of doing it together?
So, the origin story of this documentary is that two of our fellow producers, Kevin Blackistone and Sam Bardley, actually began forming the idea for this in 2014. Then, it was focused more distinctly on Suzan Shown Harjo, her work, and her activism. Suzan is what we in Native parlance call an 'auntie.' She is my Cheyenne auntie. At that point, it looked like the Washington football team might be changing its name. It didn't end up happening for several more years unfortunately, and they had trouble raising money. As we all know, films are great, but you need money to make them. So, it kind of went on the back burner. And then in 2018, Sam and Kevin approached Aviva, because Aviva is somewhat a legend in the DC area when it comes to doc filmmaking and said, "Any interest?" And Aviva said yes, and, "Hey, my friend Ben is Native himself and I'll do it if we can bring Ben in." Luckily, I didn't offend Kevin and Sam so we formed our current team.
You ultimately got your funding from a consortium of tribes. What was that process like, and what did it mean to have that backing from your community?
One of the goals was to have this film come out of Indian country. Full disclosure, my father and sister are both in this film — because they should be; not purely out of nepotism, I can promise you that. But I sat down with my father and the late, great Marshall McKay, to whom the film is dedicated, and said, "I would so love for this movie to come out of Indian country, because I think it's important for Native people to be allowed to tell their own stories." Because we haven't for so long. And Marshall, who is the former chairman of Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, said, "Well, let's take it to my tribe and see if they might like to partner." And they did. They gave us our seed money, and they stayed behind us and supported us not only financially but in myriad ways.
So, we're really proud that this movie really does truly come out of Indian country — not just financially. There was this feeling of collective energy, of collaborative energy among all sorts of people. Something I'm especially proud of is the way that my Native brothers and sisters came together and helped to make all of this possible.
The scope of this film is staggering. You have to cover, essentially, the history of this country, decades and decades and decades of pop culture and to today, because it is all ultimately tied together. What were your conversations like about the breadth of what this project would be and how you could pull that off?
When I first joined the team, I kind of challenged us to think a lot more broadly about what we're really talking about here. We got into the editing room and found that we really need to spend the first 20 to 25 minutes of this film getting everybody to a baseline understanding of what really happened to Native people on this continent. Because we discovered, not to my surprise, that there are a lot of people who aren't aware that there was a genocide here. Because it wasn't — and still isn't, in some cases — taught in school. We don't learn the accurate history of Native people. [We had to] get us to a place where we all understand the history so that we can then move on to how that history affects everything around us today — the way that Native people are represented and portrayed today, and why that is problematic. We had to make sure that we're all on the same page.
As much as the film is about mascots, it's also very much about the history of Hollywood, about the stereotypes that have been created and perpetuated and how damaging these representations are. Do you remember the first time you felt like you actually saw yourself accurately depicted on screen?
I think Smoke Signals is really where I, for the first time, saw and understood that, wow, this is a great movie. It portrays us in real ways. And it's made by Indians. Chris Eyre is a friend. Any group should be allowed to tell their own stories. That's how you gain authenticity. So, that's the first time I came away being like, wow, we made that and we made it the right way, and that's possible! We can do that! And it's funny, it's tragic, it's smart, and it's beautifully shot. It was the whole thing.
When did you first see it?
I might have gone to one of the premieres, actually. I also went to the Dances with Wolves premiere at the Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C. My father made sure that I saw it as soon as we possibly could, and I saw it with him. Which was awesome, for lack of a better word. My father and my uncle, Jim, and my late grandfather, that's the Cheyenne side of my family, they always made sure that my sister and I and our cousins knew who we were and where we came from. And had I not wanted to go see Smoke Signals — which was not the case, I was dying to — I would've been dragged to go see it, and it would've been explained to me why I was going to see Smoke Signals and why it was important.
Flash forward to now and to Reservation Dogs, that's more than 20 years. In what ways do you feel like Hollywood and pop culture at large has progressed in terms of positive representation? And where do you feel like we are still falling behind?
It's not a bookend — there was plenty going on before and there will be plenty after — but those are both versions of Native people telling their own stories. And I think the evolution is a good one. Knowing Chris and knowing his experience getting Smoke Signals made, it was tough, because there wasn't this preexisting idea that, yeah, Indian people can tell their own story in a way where they are involved, they're doing it. You don't need a studio exec giving you notes on a daily basis. My sense is that there are a lot less hurdles to jump over now. And it's because people spoke out. This applies to any sort of representative group out there, not just Native people: LGBTQ, African and Asian American. For so long, there was this system in place where Hollywood was appropriating people's stories. I hope that, in large part, we're past that. And by the way, that doesn't mean that only Indians can be involved in making a show about Indians. That's not what I mean. But we need...
A voice at the table.
Exactly. We need to be a voice in the room. And if it comes down to it, I think that voice or collective voices needs to have the authority to teach the rest of that room things if things need to be taught.
If we were to talk again in five years or 10 years, what would be your biggest hopes?
Well, I would hope that a couple other projects I've got on my plate will be out there. That's my selfish hope! [Laughs] No. I think the trajectory is good right now. There are so many people out there fighting for change and it's working. So, we wanted to make sure that the documentary wasn't just this purely negative indictment of what's gone on historically and what still goes on today, but let's highlight and shout out the people like Suzan who have been doing this for decades and inspired these kids who are challenging their local school district. And I think, generally, if Indians see that you want to do the right thing, we will gladly help you in any way that we can. I think Indians are proud people and we will take issue with misrepresentation if it's happening, but if we see that you want to do the right thing, then we're glad to help you. And that's happening.
After five years working on this project, it's finally being released. As you're taking it out to festivals and screening the film for people, what has the reception been like? Have there been any especially meaningful interactions?
Yeah, we were in Yakama Nation land to screen the film on the res, and we had an eighth grader who came out. This happened right around Indigenous People's Day, and she said, "My school doesn't recognize Indigenous People's Day, and why is that?" And we were like, "I don't know. But you have a voice." Apparently, on the drive home, this eighth grader could not stop talking about, "What do I have to do to change this?" And her mom said, "Well, it can be hard sometimes. You might have to go to the school board. You might have to go to the state. You might have to go to the Supreme Court." And this eighth grader said, "Fine. Then that's what I'll do." She came to the screening the next day and we heard this story, and it just makes you really proud to have worked so hard on something that mean something to especially a young person like that, and to help them along their way. To help them galvanize their own passion, if the film helps awaken that.