American Indian Film Festival Is a Vehicle to “Unlearn” Damaging Stereotypes

Out of all of the Bay Area film festivals, and there are many, the American Indian Film Festival (AIFF) gets the least amount of attention. It’s currently underway in San Francisco celebrating its 35th anniversary. The AIFF is one of the most important Bay Area festivals because Native Americans are still so marginalized in the media and society.

Press play to listen to Your Call with Rose Aguilar: “American Indian Film Festival Is a Vehicle to “Unlearn” Damaging Stereotypes”:

Press play to listen to Your Call with Rose Aguilar: “American Indian Film Festival Is a Vehicle to “Unlearn” Damaging Stereotypes”:

The festival acts as a vehicle for Indians and non-Indians alike to “unlearn” damaging stereotypes and replace them with multidimensional images that reflect the complexity of Native peoples.

So why does it get so little attention?

“The media ignore anything positive about Native people,” says Michael Smith, a member of the Sioux tribe, and founder and president of the American Indian Film Institute, a nonprofit media arts center founded in 1979 to foster understanding of the culture, traditions, and issues of contemporary Native Americans.

Smith says in the early years, the San Francisco Chronicle’s esteemed journalist Judy Stone was a champion of the AIFF and often wrote about it, but since her departure from the paper in 1993, the festival has only been mentioned twice.

“As a token gesture, they did something this year, but this is the second time we’ve had coverage in the Chronicle’s Pink section in 34 years of programming in San Francisco,” says Smith.

The first time the Chronicle’s Pink section covered the festival was when Robert Redford, producer of “Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story,” attended in 1992. “Every media outlet was there,” says Smith. “They were all there with their cameras in tow.”

In other words, the AIFF won’t get attention unless a big-name white actor is involved? “Unfortunately, that’s the name of the game here with San Francisco media. It’s unfortunate,” says Smith.

Buffy Sainte-Marie, the widely acclaimed Canadian Cree singer-songwriter known for her political activism and work for Native American rights, will be at the festival from Thursday through Saturday. Like so many activists involved in the Native American movement, Sainte-Marie’s antiwar lyrics and activism got her blacklisted from the airwaves during the Nixon/Johnson years. She was often told that Native issues and the peace movement had become unfashionable and to limit her comments to celebrity chat.

In an interview with Indian Country Today’s staff reporter Brenda Norrell in 1999, Sainte-Marie said, “I found out ten years later, in the 1980s, that Lyndon Johnson had been writing letters on White House stationary praising radio stations for suppressing my music.”

Despite Sainte-Marie’s international acclaim, endless accomplishments, political activism, 18 albums, and colorful past, not one reporter has called the AIFF to request an interview.

Cindy Benitez has been doing publicity for the AIFF for the past five years. She says it’s slowly getting better, but it’s still an uphill battle. “I had one journalist tell me he had no idea Natives still existed. This was a very well known reporter and he was being absolutely blunt and honest,” she says. “I was shocked. I told him, ‘Yes, they still exist. They were here since before Columbus.’ I still pitch him, but he hasn’t written anything.”

Benitez says most reporters tell her they don’t cover Native issues because if they don’t relate to Native Americans, their readers probably won’t. “It’s sad,” she says. “There are so many beautiful films that will never be seen. So many incredible Native filmmakers are trying to reach the next level, but without attention, it’s hard to get support and funding. Something needs to change.”

This year’s festival features 120 documentaries, feature-length films, animated shorts, and music videos from around the U.S. and Canada. Topics range from native history and the loss of native languages, to healthcare and issues facing Native youth.

Many of the films also deal with Native identity—exploring what it means to be a Native American today.

The festival runs through November 13th in San Francisco.


Michael Smith is the founder and president of the American Indian Film Institute. The AIFF runs through November 13th in San Francisco.

Jack Kohler, a Yurok, Karuk, and Hupa Indian, is an actor and co-director of the “Behind the Door of a Secret Girl,” a film about a depressed American Indian teenager who lives on a reservation with her meth-addicted mom. The SF Chronicle recently reviewed the film.

Ernest Webb is president of Rezolution Pictures, an Aboriginal-owned film and television production company, and producer of “Reel Injun,” a documentary that looks at Hollywood’s portrayals of American Indians throughout history.

Rose Aguilar is the host of “Your Call,” a daily call-in radio show on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco and on KUSP 88.9 FM in Santa Cruz. She is author of “Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey Into the Heartland.”