Growing up in the Seneca–Cayuga Nation, filmmaker Erica Tremblay found constant inspiration in the storytellers of her community. "I've always been inspired by their ability to get people to lean in," she says. "When I was in junior high, I convinced my mom to get me a VHS recorder, and I would make little films with the neighborhood kids. But it wasn't until I was in my 20s that I really even understood that women could direct films."
"Since then, I have been pursuing that dream of telling meaningful Native stories that hopefully evoke the lean in," Tremblay adds.
To call her first narrative feature — Fancy Dance, which Tremblay also co-wrote and produced — a passion project would be an understatement. "In an effort to really follow my dream of filmmaking, I quit my job and moved to a reservation in Canada, where I studied my Indigenous language, Cayuga, for eight hours during the day and I wrote at night. There are less than 20 first-language speakers left, and as I studied, I was inspired to imagine a world where young people speak the language fluently."
Fancy Dance follows a Native American hustler, Jax (Lily Gladstone), who — following her sister's disappearance — kidnaps her 13-year-old niece from the child's white grandparents and sets out for the state powwow in hopes of keeping what is left of their family intact. "The Cayuga word for mother is 'kno:ha' and the word for aunt is 'kno:ha:ah,' which translates to 'your small mother,' or 'your other mother,'" Tremblay explains. "Seeing the strength of matrilineal ties and kinship in the language led me down a path of wanting to see that exercised in a modern setting."
Fancy Dance premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and Tremblay says, "I honestly never imagined I would get to travel the festival circuit with other Native filmmakers and collectively celebrate our successes. We now have proof that we can and should be the stewards of our own stories, but the industry still has work to do." After a lauded debut at Sundance, Fancy Dance is still seeking acquisition for distribution. "My hope is that the distribution pipeline will open up for us so that our stories can reach an audience. I want folks in and out of my community to have access to watch and stream Native-made films in the same way they have access to films like Killers of the Flower Moon."
Below, Tremblay shares with A.frame the five films that most inspire her as a Native American filmmaker.
Directed by: Alexandra Lazarowich
Anytime I find myself in a creative rut, I turn to Fast Horse. It is a stunning 13-minute watch that beautifully encapsulates a modern Native experience told through a group of Indian relay racers preparing for a Blackfoot bareback horse race. The care with which Lazarowich tells this story of triumph and loss is the standard I set for all of my projects. It's a reminder to seek out and celebrate the enduring vibrancy of Indigenous life.
Written and Directed by: Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers
The night this film came out on Netflix, I watched it through twice. There is a burning honesty with which Tailfeathers and Hepburn tackle difficult questions around class and racism, and I've returned to this film many times to explore their intricate answers. The lead turns from Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Violet Nelson shatter all versions of the Hollywood myth that casting actual Indigenous people to play Indigenous people is too risky. They are absolutely breathtaking and generous in their roles as modern Native women navigating their bodies and the world.
Written and Directed by: Sterlin Harjo
I deeply adore this film shot by my longtime friend and mentor, Sterlin Harjo. The freedom and whimsy with which he navigates real issues in Indian Country lands us in a world of humanity and understanding. I love stories that take me on a journey through tears and then laughter and back to tears again. Cody Lightning and Tamara Podemski turn out incredible performances, and seeing this film as an aspiring filmmaker set my sights on returning to Oklahoma to tell my own stories of Native America.
Written and Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
I can never forget this film, because I will never forget the first time I saw Lily Gladstone's face on the screen. She was sweeping out a horse barn in Kelly Reichardt's epic triptych of women surviving the modern Montana frontier. I had come to the film to watch my favorite director do her thing, and I was enthused to also find the beautiful representation of a Native woman just living her life. Lily's expressions and manner told a complicated and deeply moving story of loneliness and heartbreak.
After the film, I wrote Lily's name in my journal as a call-out to the universe to connect me with her someday, somehow. I am so very grateful that I have now had the chance to collaborate with her on two films.
Written and Directed by: Kent Mackenzie
The Exiles is a film that feels like it shouldn't exist, and it's a miracle that it does. Set and filmed in Los Angeles during the height of the Native Relocation Act of 1956, Mackenzie's docu-fiction approach captures a very specific and human portrait in time. The transfixing photography lulls you into a lost Los Angeles where young Native folks arrive on trains and shack up in Bunker Hill, where they are found living, laughing, and crying as fully formed characters — an alternate universe compared to the Cowboys and Indians representation of the era.
When I watch this film, it kind of feels like hanging out with what I imagine to be the beatnik version of my grandparents. It's a great reminder that our stories and our prowess didn't die with Manifest Destiny.