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Race & Hollywood: Native American Images On Film
Remind Me

Naturally Native

With the tagline "Sometimes when you're going home, it's important to know where you've come from", Naturally Native (1998) was the first film by and about Native Americans to be completely financed by a tribe.

Director Valerie Red-Horse's film is about three sisters who want to start a cosmetic company but are having trouble with funding. Since they're Native Americans, the corporations assume they could just go to the tribe for the money. However, the sisters were adopted by a white woman when they were children and have no papers, which would entitle them to distribution checks from the casino owned by the tribe.

The film mimicked Red-Horse's own difficulties getting her films financed by Hollywood and her frustration at roles for Native Americans, "If you don't like how you're depicted on screen, you need to create your own projects and let your voice be heard." Red-Horse and her friend Jennifer Farmer enrolled in a class on low-budget filmmaking at UCLA. Said Farmer, "We were eager to learn and unafraid of asking questions. I don't think our fellow students took us seriously when we told them we were going to make a film." Asking Farmer to co-direct the film turned out to be even more important when Red-Horse learned she was pregnant with her third child during production.

Unlike the three sisters, Red-Horse found her funding with surprising ease. Red-Horse and co-producers Dawn Jackson and Yvonne Russo approached the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe of Connecticut, who run the world's most successful casino. The tribe liked the script, in which Red-Horse took pains to stress the similarities between Native and white cultures, and instead of the $100,000 that Red-Horse had hoped for (she had planned to raise the remaining $600,000 from other tribes), the Mashantucket Pequots gave her the full $700,000.

Full funding did not mean an extravagant or lengthy shoot. As Farmer remembered, "We went to post houses and qualified crew and said, "Come on the journey with us. Come be part of something that we think is special and meaningful and magical and that is going to be both important and entertaining to people on down the line. [...] We invited people to come be a part of it. Basically no one told us no. So asking is a good thing. We didn't have to compromise on anything because I think having a strong vision as a filmmaker is not something you should have to compromise on. Perhaps I didn't get to shoot on the back lot of Paramount Studios, but we found ways to shoot and make it very believable and real and good. Again, having a lot of on-set experience and training and having my education from UCLA really brought me to this with experience and an experienced eye. I had never directed, but I still certainly knew what the recipe was. The major hurdles of course were related to being low budget – not enough time and not enough money. But I think probably with the exception of Jim Cameron there never was a picture or a director who said, "You know what? I really didn't need all that time to shoot that movie and I really didn't need all that money." So knowing that, you just have to decide, 'This I what I've got and this is where I'm headed, and this is what it takes to make this picture and this story.'"

Naturally Native was shot in only 19 days starting in October 1997, with Bruce L. Finn as cinematographer. Finn had won an Emmy for his work on an After School Special that Red-Horse had written, called My Indian Summer (1995). For the other two sisters, they cast Kimberly Norris Guerrero and Irene Bedard in roles which Red-Horse said represented herself at various stages in her life. "The youngest sister typifies how I was in high school," said Red-Horse. "I was more interested in boys, clothes and the shallower aspects of life than with my Indian heritage. The middle sister represents my college years, when I was trying to forge an identity through academic achievement. The oldest sister, whom I play in the film is who I am now, knowledgeable, but secure in who I am and where I come from." Also in the cast were well-known actors Mary Kay Place and Max Gail.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998 and received excellent reviews, including one from The Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, who wrote that the film "has lots to say but proves so stirring that it sustains its didactic stretches. A celebration of sisterly love and devotion, it focuses on the lives of three beautiful and intelligent siblings, and Valerie Red-Horse, Irene Bedard and Kimberly Norris Guerrero deliver such strong, committed portrayals that the sisters and the issues they confront become very real. [...] They have no idea that the search for modest financing for their venture will lead to such a profound confrontation with their need to work out their identities as Native Americans. Along the way their experiences illuminate the social, political and economic realities that members of all minorities deal with--in addition to the challenges that face all human beings trying to live lives that offer meaning and the promise of better opportunities for their children. [...] By the time the film is over, the sisters have moved from the particular to the universal. Vickie is much like Helena Rubinstein was nearly a century ago when she started building a cosmetics empire from a face cream formula handed down to her in her native Poland. Vickie, Karen and Tanya are like women everywhere who gathered courage to gamble on their own abilities in defiance of traditional expectations of what women's roles should be."

Producer: Dawn Jackson, Valerie Red-Horse, Yvonne Russo
Director: Jennifer Wynne Farmer, Valerie Red-Horse
Screenplay: Valerie Red-Horse
Cinematography: Bruce L. Finn
Music: Murielle Hamilton
Film Editing: Lorraine Salk
Cast: Valerie Red-Horse (Vickie Lewis Bighawk), Yvonne Russo (Joanne Chapa), Irene Bedard (Tanya Lewis), Kimberly Norris Guerrero (Karen Lewis), Pato Hoffmann (Steve Bighawk), Mark Abbott (Mark), Collin Bernsen (Craig), Mary Kay Place (Madame Celeste).
C-107m. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Lorraine LoBianco

Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film
Stubbs, Liz, Rodriguez, Richard Making Independent Films: Advice from the Filmmakers
Turan, Kenneth. "Naturally Native: Sisterly Bonds Put to the Test in 'Native'", Los Angeles Times 8 Oct. 1999


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