“Spirit doesn’t exist in the academic realms for the most part. Nobody talks about spirit. Like it’s taboo even, to talk about spirit in school,” Preston asserts, a hereditary leader of the Winnemem Wintu in Northern California. “I was trying to remind people, through academic language, of how one relates to ecosystems and how to protect them, and why traditional ecological knowledge in the Native worldview is important.”
By ANNA K. BALL
Today, as the earth splits beneath our feet, water is siphoned by human whims, and we are thrown unprepared into the ether of digital conditions, not all that is sane and good is lost. A vast resource is emerging to guide us as we balance on the brink of humanity’s coming of age. Taking their sovereign place in global leadership, Indigenous communities around the world are offering their traditional ecological and cultural knowledge to address the crises humans have manifested on the planet.
One Word Sawalmem and Native Wisdom: The Peoples of Eastern Oregon are two recent documentaries that bring this essential perspective to the general public. In both, we see a contemporary incarnation of Indigenous storytelling traditions. Through the medium of documentary film, One Word Sawalmem embodies twenty minutes of the Winnemem Wintu worldview with a single word. Its early moments blend the rhythms of human song, waters heaving in the San Francisco Bay, and cries of seagulls, compelling us to resonate with the message before we can even name it. The individual voice of Michael “Pom” Preston, narrator and co-director of the film, carries many voices.
“Spirit doesn’t exist in the academic realms for the most part. Nobody talks about spirit. Like it’s taboo even, to talk about spirit in school,” Preston asserts, a hereditary leader of the Winnemem Wintu in Northern California. He is reflecting on his time at the University of California, Berkeley, surrounded by its empty sidewalks and auditoriums. “I was trying to remind people, through academic language, of how one relates to ecosystems and how to protect them, and why traditional ecological knowledge in the Native worldview is important.”
We move with Preston into the green cover of a forest, where a creek’s current bends over his palm, where he dives headlong into a pool of water and reemerges. “Sawalmem means sacred water. How much vast insight one can get from water, and how much, just, beauty, exists in it really, and how much hope. It’s a spiritual entity with divine intelligence, is what it is.”
Returning to the Source
With a gentle but undeniable vitality, the visual storytelling of co-directors Preston and Natasha Deganello Giraudie guides us into the perspective of the Winnemem Wintu, swelling, rolling, stretching into clarity, and returning always to the source of the message: water. The narrative’s integrity signals how Indigenous practices of the twenty-first century can be a wellspring of healing for humans’ troubled relationship with the planet. As Preston keeps coming back to sawalmem, his reverence for lineage becomes more palpable. This reverence discloses the pivotal role of community elders in the work of young Indigenous leaders, as they strive to keep their sacred traditions alive in the twenty-first century.
At the Eugene Environmental Film Festival last week, One Word Sawalmem flowed into the ether to meet a global audience. Preston, speaking on the Indigenous Rights panel mediated by Zoom and broadcast over Facebook Live, addressed how documentary filmmaking became a part of his tribe’s storytelling tradition in an effort to protect their sacred sites. “We’re a federally unrecognized tribe—that’s the reason we even started using film. It’s because the United States government and the different bureaucratic agencies would not recognize us as native people, and so we had to bring in the film crews to try to get the message out because nobody would listen to us, in a certain sense.”
When Preston was a child, his mother, Winnemem Wintu Spiritual Leader and Tribal Chief Caleen Sisk, took part in the film In the Light of Reverence. This project drew attention to the obstacles facing the Winnemem Wintu, Hopi, and Lakato Souix at the turn of the twenty-first century as they strove to protect Mount Shasta, the Four Corners, and Devil’s Tower, respectively, as sacred sites under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.
Out of this legacy, Preston is raising awareness about the need to prevent the proposed raise of the Shasta Dam, which would continue to negatively affect the water systems of Mount Shasta. According to the film, the dam flooded 80% of the Winnemum Wintu’s homelands when it was built in the 1940s and has prevented Chinook salmon, a species integral to the tribal lifeway, from returning to their spawning habitat.
To address this latest transgression against their sacred sites and ways of life, Preston describes how his community was inspired through traditional spiritual practices to create the Run4Salmon, a 300-mile trek where tribal members and supporters offer prayers and encouragement to the salmon along their spawning journey up the McCloud river. The annual event has its origins in a tribal prophesy, which foresaw that the salmon were waiting for the Winnemem Wintu to help secure their return. “They gave us the pathway,” says Preston in the film, “and the pathway was through the salmon, to stop the dam and to restore the river system and to restore the people.”
Speaking on the panel alongside Preston, filmmaker Kunu Bearchum of the Northern Cheyenne and Ho-Chunk Tribes contributed to the conversation around innovative collaborations happening these days within Oregon’s Indigenous communities. He is a producer and co-director of Native Wisdom: The Peoples of Eastern Oregon, a subtle beauty of a film in the festival landscape which documents the ongoing work of cultural and natural resource leaders within the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde.
Like One Word Sawalmem, the educational documentary Native Wisdom seeks to reach an audience of young people, especially Indigenous youth. “This film was originally made really just as an educational asset for curriculum to bring the Indigenous perspective around changing climate—climate catastrophe—and how Indigenous nations are reacting,” says Bearchum, explaining that after Senate Bill 13 was passed in 2017, he and his colleagues wanted to create material for educators. The new Oregon legislation ensures, for the first time, the inclusion of tribal histories in the state’s public school curriculum. “The people who we interviewed are kind of younger, college educated, you know, tribal members who are coming back to the reservations to help their tribes with the sciences they have learned. Just always using that traditional ecological knowledge as kind of the guide to how they’re trying to help their nations.”
We are accustomed to environmental issues being presented as data, opinions of pundits, and cheesy B-roll of oil rigs, fires, and storms. Native Wisdom takes us to the point where humans and the planet connect: the ground. This is experienced through the traditions of what those interviewed call first foods, practices continuing uninterrupted since the “hunter-gather” days. Predating agriculture by hundreds of thousands of years, these human practices for collecting foods offer a view of the actual condition of the Earth, as the land is not modified by cultivation, chemicals, or irrigation. The film documents how these communities—still acutely aware of these ancient methods of sustainable food-sourcing—are creatively tackling today’s environmental crises at the local level.
“We approached the farmers and asked the farmers to put water back into the Umatilla river, and they said, ‘Why? You have no salmon,'” recalls Kat Brigham in the film, secretary of the Board of Trustees for the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation. “And so we approached the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and we said we’d like to put salmon back into the Umatilla river, and they said ‘Why? You have no water,'” she continues, understating the political challenges that compound the environmental issues her community has to resolve. “And so we had to work really hard to convince both the farmers and Oregon that we were going to put our fish back. Now we’re averaging over 3,000 fish a year coming back into the Umatilla River.”
America’s First Scientists
The film emphasizes how current practices within Oregon’s Indigenous communities are leading the nation in innovations for addressing the climate crisis, particularly in habitat and species restoration. Underlying these policies is a profound respect for the ecological knowledge of tribal elders.
“The first thing we do when we’re looking at a project or looking at restoring some species or maybe salmon to a river, we go to our elders,” says Wenix Red Elk, public outreach specialist for the Department of Natural Resources for the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation. “You need to get down the key information from the people, from that place, from that land, and the connections and the stories and how it’s all related. And then once you start taking a look at that, you actually see the science in it.”
Speaking on a variety of scientific and cultural topics within the documentary is Rob Pond, Ph.D., a retired associate professor of the Plateau Center for American Indian Studies. At one point he recalls when he tended the fire for the sweat ceremonies where his elders would gather. “This one elder told me a story. He said that, ‘See the salmon, they go out there [on] their vast journey, and they get so far,’ he said. ‘But all they’re trying to do is make it back home, so they can carry out their cycle,'” Pond recalls. He continues relaying the elder’s words, his gaze becoming more penetrating. “‘The salmon come back to who they are.’ And he said, ‘Are you going to come back to who you are?’ is the question he asked me. ‘Are you going to come back to who you are?'”
The reserves of information that surface in the film are dazzling, as are the patterns of interwoven ecological and cultural practices. It’s enough to sprout a homesickness for one’s own indigenous roots, long dried up and lost across the oceans of time. The communities that make up Oregon’s interior tribes recognize the importance of keeping the channel of knowledge moving into the present.
Halfway through Native Wisdom, we arrive at the Annual Children’s Feast. This new tradition began 18 years ago in an effort to engage the youngest tribal members directly with the culture of first foods. In the Longhouse, children are dressed festively for the occasion. After lining the dishes carefully down the tables, the kids form a circle in the center of the hall. “Truly it is said that it is naming itself as holy, the meats,” they sing together. “Truly it is said that it is naming itself as holy, the roots.” Around them, adults keep the rhythm steady with their drums.
While many efforts like these are engaging young people in tribal traditions, the film emphasizes that the survival of these first foods practices is not guaranteed. “I told her, we’re getting too old for this!” Linda Jones, administrative manager of the Department of Natural Resources, says of her time gathering roots with her mother.
She laughs, as we watch women and children leveraging specialized tools in the plains of Oregon. An older woman bends low to pull out a root. She rises and places it carefully in the woven bag at the hip of a boy assisting her. He checks that the root is secure, then looks into the camera. “Cause it’s hard work. I mean, we’re digging up the ground. That’s what I think the younger people are finding out, and my thought is, it’s too hard. So they don’t do it. And, I don’t know how we can encourage them to [realize]… You need to do it.”
Both Bearchum and Preston are focused on getting their films into Oregon and California schools. Back on the panel discussion, Preston explains why his community is choosing to share their tribal stories. “We’re kind of open to telling more and more stories nowadays, because the times are so hectic, right now, and people are like, searching and searching—people are kind of not knowing how to interact with the sacred sites and protocols and different ways of being in relationship with the true essence of the land. […] It’s an effort to try to preserve some of this knowledge as well, for our kids, to try to understand it and normalize sacred site responsibilities.”
Bearchum offers his vision. “A big mission for me as a filmmaker is to, you know, I guess I want to use the word ‘normalize’ too, just normalize Indigenous identity in the present. Because we’re constantly battling this idea of us being frozen in the past and not having modern identities.” He explains that he views his work as that of a journalist, documenting what’s happening now in Indigenous communities. “What’s new Native America? What are the youth of our tribes doing right now?”
Waking to the Native Now
One Word Sawalmem and Native Wisdom each provide a glimpse of this “now” in Native America. Both films capture a present moment that is extending out of long-standing lineages, an invaluable perspective at the confluence of old knowing and new insights, emerging not a minute too soon. The work of these filmmakers is a testament to human resilience on a local and global scale—a potential realized through Indigenous communities awake to the Earth, holding vigil through their sacred traditions.
“To stay asleep in Western societal culture is a choice,” Preston reminds us towards the end of One Word Sawalmem, as seagulls call out above him on the bay. He responds to them. For a long moment, he follows with his eyes a bird we cannot see. “Like, it doesn’t take much intelligence to realize some of that truth. Those seagulls that just passed us, they know more about why water is sacred. You don’t have to convince them of why water is sacred. It’s humans that need convincing, for some reason.”
For its final scene, Native Wisdom returns to the essence of oral tradition. As Thomas Morning Owl, one of the Turtle Island Storytellers, performs “The Promise of the First Foods,” his words are accompanied by illustrations of the animals, the plants, and the water that spoke their promises to the human ancestors at the beginning of time. They have not broken their promises, he says plainly, nearing the end of the story.
“The salmon that went and came back never changed, never broke that promise. The animals that lived in the mountains that could never change, they’ve never broken that promise. But when the European people have come and brought us all the easy things of life—many years ago it was a gun, metal, knives—things were easy, made easier—canvas, homes, cars, airplanes, tv, internet—everything this day that makes our life easier takes us that much farther away from our first foods. We’re the ones that have changed.”
To watch One Word Sawalmem, check out the next screening on October 15 at this link.
Native Wisdom: The Peoples of Eastern Oregon will be screening at the American Indian Virtual Film Fest during the week of November 6-14 at this link.
You can see the Indigenous Rights panel discussion, referenced in this article, on the Facebook page of the Eugene Environmental Film Festival.