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‘Warrior Women’ a perfect fit for Native film festival

By: Sallie James
Special to the Tribune

HOLLYWOOD — Native activist Madonna Gilbert Thunder Hawk knows how to quiet a room.

A hush fell over the crowd at the Native Reel Cinema Festival when the star of the documentary “Warrior Women” shared stories about organizing against the Dakota Access Pipeline and being fired upon during the Wounded Knee incident in 1973.

Her presence at the festival during the Seminole Tribal Fair & Pow Wow on Feb. 8 was a living lesson in history.

“I’ve been at this since 1960. [The film] documents what happened from the eyes of Native women who were there,” said the 80-year-old Thunder Hawk, a member of the Lakota Tribe.

The audience at Native Reel Cinema Festival watches the “Warrior Women” documentary on the second day of the festival. (Photo Sallie James)

Thunder Hawk’s lifelong activism and her determination to effect change is the focus of “Warrior Women,” one of several Native films shown in a ballroom the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood.

She hopes her role in the documentary on Indigenous rights will impact generations to come.

Everett Osceola, cultural ambassador for the Seminole Tribe, said “Warrior Women” fit perfectly into this year’s film fest theme “Rise Above.” More than 350 people attended the two-night event, which is in its sixth year. The first year the festival was held at Stranahan House in Fort Lauderdale and featured just one film, he said.

“I saw ‘Warrior Women’ in New York last year and I fell in love with it,” Osceola said.

The film’s opening includes a backdrop of archival footage showing Indian activists and a young Thunder Hawk, her long black hair in a ponytail, speaking about the American Indian Movement.

Native American activists and “Warrior Women” stars Madonna Gilbert Thunder Hawk, right, and her daughter Marcella Gilbert, center, and Elizabeth Castle, the documentary’s co-director and co-producer, answer questions from the audience at the Native Reel Cinema Festival on Feb. 8 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood. (Photo Sallie James)

“This country was built on the bones of our ancestors. We have our culture, we have our way of life, we have our language. What we’re trying to do is retain it,” she said in the film’s introduction. “Retain our right as a people to be Indian.”

Co-director and co-producer Elizabeth Castle described “Warrior Women” as an intergenerational story of a Native mother and daughter telling their story from the 1970s to today.

The film also includes interviews with Thunder Hawk’s daughter Marcella Gilbert and much historical footage.

“The goal was to make an engaging film that tells you the history you don’t know about – how important the matriarchy is in Native American culture through a lifetime of community organizing and activism,” Castle said.

“The press automatically gravitated toward the men, but who really knew what was going on, who was really running the show was the women,” Thunder Hawk notes in the film’s opening.

Thunder Hawk describes the film as an “untold history lesson.”

“It’s about all the issues our people deal with intergenerationally. We are tied to the land. We don’t have to go to,” she said. “The ancestral memory is in all of our people. Even the young ones and they have to pay attention to it. It’s our strength.”

The film unveils not only Native women’s perspective of history, but also examines the impact political struggles have on the children who bear witness.

“Being the daughter of Madonna, she definitely had a reputation of being strong,” Marcella Gilbert says in the film. “She did what she had to do to make a difference.”

Thunder Hawk participated in several occupations protesting violations of Indian treaties during the 1970s. She took part in the 1969-1971 Occupation of Alcatraz, with the goal of persuading the federal government to end its policy of termination.

“Warrior Women” highlights the history of the American Indian Movement, including Madonna Gilbert Thunder Hawk, one of its leaders. (Photo Sallie James)

She was also involved in the two occupations of Mount Rushmore in the early 1970s, a part of the Black Hills seized by the U.S. government in 1877. The occupation protested continued violations of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

“We learned what is meant to be Indian in the country,” Thunder Hawk’s daughter says in the film.

She said she cried the first time she saw the documentary because there was so much archival footage in it, highlighting events she had personally experienced as a child.

“I grew up with all this,” Marcella Gilbert said.

Thunder Hawk recalled having her 10-year-old son with her when shots rang out as their caravan of cars headed towards Wounded Knee in 1973. The group was en route to a nearby reservation to meet with another community.

“Then the powers that be opened up on us,” she said. In the film, she recalls feeling “tracers going overhead.” She was there about a week when the elders decided it had to end, she said.

Castle said younger Native Americans need to pick up the reigns.

“Madonna Thunder Hawk is in her 50th year,” she said.