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Ben Alex Dupris Filmming Bunky Echohawk

Introducing Four Sacred Colors by Ben-Alex Dupris

November is Native American Heritage Month - and I feel that it is more important now than ever to be celebrating and promoting Native stories by Native filmmakers.   Native americans are on the front lines protecting our environment from exploitation and degradation, yet according to the massive research study Reclaiming Native Truth Project found that invisibility is now the modern form of bias against Native Americans and it's no wonder considering their representation in media.   Native American characters ranges from 0 to .04% in prime time television and popular film.” The report goes on: “The writers, directors, producers, professors and other influencers who create these representations of Native people are mostly non-Native, yet they are shaping how people view and portray Native Americans.”

This past year I have been incredibly fortunate to work with the incredibly talented director Ben-Alex Dupris, producing his new film Four Sacred Colors featuring the artist Bunky Echo-Hawk. This week we will be presenting a work in progress of the film at Doc NYC.  The film is part of a new initiative from PBS/American Masters through Firelight Media: Masters in the Making.   I thought I would do a short interview with Ben for this piece so that he can give his perspectives on Native American representation in media – and why he wanted to make this film. 

Why is it important for you to tell stories as a native filmmaker and/or?

“I was born and raised in a family I would later identify as being “Native American.” Growing up, I couldn’t see a difference between myself and those around me in the secular world. As I grew older it was evident that my culture, and the way our families interacted was not reflected in the pop culture we loved so much. The characters on TV were white or black. The homes they lived in didn’t look like ours, and the circumstances they faced had nothing to do with my own reality on the reservation. I’ve waited half my life to see this change, but it just hasn’t happened. I’m now completely dedicated to seeing our stories and images reflected in this way through film and television.”

What is important about Bunky’s story to you as a native filmmaker?

“Bunky Echo-Hawk has been a polarizing figure in the Native American art world for a long time. His refusal to follow conventional tropes in his work has branded him as a wildcard in the “Native” world where we are slow to embrace change. We have a collective distrust of change because of how fast the world has changed for our people in the past 500 years. So change is not encouraged, even when it’s grounded in our own contemporary thoughts and ideologies. Bunky brings forward a sense of confidence in the opportunity to be both modern and traditional with the same equality. It’s truly refreshing.”

A bit about Bunky:  Bunky Echo-Hawk was born on the Yakama Indian Reservation  30 miles downwind from the Hanford Nuclear Site. From 1946-1954, Hanford, under the direction of the US Government and General Electric, the contractor, experimented with long term, low rates of radioactive exposure on his Yakama relatives. Without their knowledge or consent, they were exposed to ten times more radiation than the amount released during the Chernobyl meltdown. This injustice has informed and continues to influence Bunky’s art. 

What is important about Bunky’s story to you as a native filmmaker?

“Bunky is unafraid to talk about the grey nuances of being Native American today. He’s unapologetic in his position against extraction industries like fracking companies, or nuclear power plants that do not care about the people who have to live in the communities they reside. His deep understanding of Pawnee tribal history allows us to see another layer of American history that we might not otherwise have known.”

What are your thoughts on how most stories are told about native/indigenous people and issues?

“I know that we are in a very rapid transitional period in Native American filmmaking history. For decades our stories were stereotyped and exploited as part of the empirically inaccurate narrative of colonization from the white perspective. Generations have only understood us from the construct of being a conquered people. Nowadays we are rebuilding that narrative to include the amazing accomplishments of our people, and really dive deeply into the complicated nuances of our own Indigenous spirits. There is still a long way to go, as we have yet to stray too far from the political and social justice narratives. We are not exclusively warriors of change, or radically inclined to fight the atrocities of the U.S. Government. That is only one type of story. I’m excited about telling the other stories, the ones where we get to live like human beings before our issues first.”

What kind of stories are you interested in telling?

“I’m interested in telling stories that inspire hope. I know the challenges we face as a human race are infinite and our Indigenous history is tragic. But my role in the filmmaking universe is to make the hair on the backs of our necks stand up, tears swell, or even scream for joy. I truly want people to taste life through Native American stories, and our people.”

Working with Ben has been an incredible heart filled experience.  Four Sacred Colors is our first full collaboration and it has been wonderful to have the opportunity to see Ben’s development as an artist.  I am taken not only with the stories he wants to tell, but his working methodology. I think you will appreciate his work as much as I have. The issues that Bunky brings to his work are so deep and complex that deciding what will go into the max ten minute short has been one of the biggest struggles.  We are considering developing a feature documentary about Bunky to really do him justice. If you happen to be in NYC please join us Thursday at 5:15pm at the Cineopolis theaters - click for more info. Stay tuned for the American Masters release early next year.