HOLLYWOOD — A panel of Native American musicians, actors, and filmmakers discussed their obstacles and successes in the world of entertainment during a question and answer forum at the Native Reel Cinema Festival as part of the Seminole Tribal Fair and Pow Wow in Hollywood. The group of artists are leading the way for other young Native artists and spreading messages of encouragement.
On day one of the Tribal Fair, Feb. 8, the Native Reel Cinema Festival started its four annual outing with a screening of the 90s independent film “Smoke Signals.” Actors Cody Lightning and Simon Baker attended the festival, both of whom played the younger versions of the two main characters Victor (Lightning) and Thomas (Baker) in the film. Lightning and Baker were both around the age of 12 when “Smoke Signals” was filmed.
Also in attendance for the Q&A were Martin Sensmeier, Spencer Battiest, and Zack Battiest. Sensmeier is an actor of Alaskan Native of Tlingit, Koyukon-Athabascan descent. He was one of the supporting actors in the 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven.”
A commonality among the panel was the struggles of navigating the entertainment industry where Native American presence is virtually nonexistent. Indigenous movies such as “Smoke Signals” do well with critics and film festivals, but big budget movies involving Native subjects tend to revolve around a white protagonist – a movie trait that has come to be referred to by Natives as the “white savior” character – or the main Native characters are completely whitewashed.
On the music side of entertainment no Native American has yet to claim the status of icon despite the significant influence Native American culture has had on many music genres.
“You are going to be doubted, you are going to get rejected,” Sensmeier said. “Failure isn’t the opposite of success; it’s a part of success. You have to fail to succeed, and you have to have the courage to fail. It takes courage to get out there and try. You’re never going to succeed if you don’t try.”
A member of the audience asked Lightning and Baker what it was like to work with Native American activist John Trudell on the set of “Smoke Signals.” Baker admitted that they were both young at the time and did not know Trudell’s significance in Native American culture.
Lightning recalls Trudell being somewhat of a mentor while growing up in Los Angeles. While reminiscing about Trudell, Lightning became emotional when discussing Trudell’s passing in 2015.
“I want to say to the youth that anything is possible as long as you get out and go forward,” Baker said. “Our elders have left these imprints in our lives for a reason and those imprints we need to follow, but we need to make sure those imprints go forward and our generations are going to leave footprints for the next to follow. I say to the youth, look at what we’ve done, look at what we can do, and see what the future holds for all of us and it’s beautiful.”
On the second day of the Tribal Fair, the Native Reel Cinema Festival wrapped up with a screening of several short films made by Native Americans, including a new music video featuring Spencer and Zack Battiest and the short film “Mud” directed by Diné filmmaker Shaandiin Tome, who hails from Albuquerque, New Mexico.