From Storyteller to Storyteller:

Oregon State Productions forges partnerships with the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians at the 2019 Tribal Climate Camp in Polson, Montana.


August 12, 2019

Flathead Lake is the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi. It is also home to 5,000 members of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, and surrounded by quintessential Montana mountains covered with traditional foods like camas, bitterroot, and sarvis berries. It is stunning and calm – devoid of your average Tahoe tourist – and full of human history that precedes the white men and women who swept through just centuries ago.

View from the University of Montana Flathead Lake Biological Station main building.

In mid-June my colleague Daniel and I arrived to the Flathead Lake Biological Station, a small peninsula jutting out into Yellow Bay with docks for recreational boating and cabins for seasonal scientists. We were humble participants of the 2019 Tribal Climate Camp, hosted by the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) and attended by climate organizers from 13 tribes around the nation. Our task was to shoot a lot of footage and lead a short workshop on how to most effectively use media for public engagement in the face of climate change. But before we could finalize our slides, I caught myself asking: Can film really inspire momentum to tackle certain issues and maybe even incite change?

As we pointed to successful documentaries – including Blackfish for bringing Sea World’s stocks down by 30% and An Inconvenient Truth for bringing global warming to the forefront of the environmental debate – I felt myself doubting my contributions to society as a filmmaker.

But then something happened that I have experienced before but tend to forget when drafting proposals or completing an edit. Videos are not just about the final product and reaching an audience, they are also about the people behind the scenes – the inevitable collaboration between subject and filmmaker that spurs discussion and engenders trust. This is sometimes very hard to do, especially when communities of different backgrounds come together to tackle an issue as complex, partisan, and pervasive as climate change.

Salish-Kootenai elders share their connection to the land and lake of Flathead.

As a land grant university, OSU has a responsibility for public engagement. And what greater public than the people whose lands were taken away over 150 years ago in the name of gold, fur, lumber, and for what would eventually become the American dream. But that dream is now under serious scrutiny – we have exploited these lands, and the ancient fossils buried deep within them, to a fault. We have altered the natural balance that humans before us so delicately maintained and respected because it was innate to them and their relationship with nature. We, us later arrivals, could learn a lot from them. And now is the time to turn to the proverbial elder, the native peoples of North America, and really listen. This is when sharing ones expertise takes a turn and becomes a two-way street. What we had to offer this community very quickly became a lesson in how to frame these issues for people whose sense of place and ties to the land differ greatly from ours. And we were all ears.

Climate change is still, somehow, a hot button issue. But when it comes to subsistence and the preservation of ancient culture – survival even – there is no right or wrong, no Republican or Democratic Party, and no doubting that nature is out of balance. There is only the meeting of basic human needs. For the Seminole tribes of South Florida, that’s freshwater as gradual sea level rise and storm surges contaminate aquifers. And for the Umatilla here in the Pacific Northwest, that’s a serious shift in the wild foods harvested year-round. “Now I’ve got to learn how to plant a vegetable garden?” one participant lamented; that requires an entirely different, frankly western, set of skills.

The City of Portland shares their climate action plan.

Each of these stories need to be heard, and whether a short video or longer documentary is the best medium to bring the native perspective to the forefront of the debate on climate change, remains a question. But it’s certainly an important place to start, if not to inform policy on a state or federal level, then at least to get the behind-the-scenes discussion going between individuals of various backgrounds, regardless of language or lineage. So though film, in very rare cases, has the potential to change how people spend their vacations or vote, the actual production of it is about people really creating something together and sharing perspectives on a profound level: communicator and scientist, artist and native elder, storyteller and storyteller.

Tribal Climate Camp organizer and Executive Director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation gives out gives on the last day.

As I continue to forge a path in filmmaking, I am increasingly humbled by the people I come across and my fizzling prejudices of who they are, their values, and their stories. It is essential to keep an open mind as you tell stories on camera, and with growing partnership such as this one with ATNI, Oregon State Productions has the opportunity test film as a medium for change, but also as a medium for formative exchange.

– Saskia Madlener, Science Documentary Producer, Oregon State Productions

Take a look at this beautiful PSA produced by Daniel Cespedes during the camp:

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