Of the films and videos screened at the 2017 imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, 72 percent were made by Indigenous women directors; the work included feature films, documentaries, experimental films, new media, animation, games, digital stories, and virtual reality projects.1 This remarkable proportion is the exact inverse of the notoriously dismal numbers in Hollywood and the independent film industry; of independent films screened at high-profile festivals in the United States in 2016–17, 72 percent of those working in key behind-the-scenes roles were men.2 The surge and new visibility of Indigenous women's production registers a historic shift taking place in North America, and especially in Canada.
Indigenous media scholarship makes visible the centrality of Indigenous images to film and media history not only through the study of screen representations, but also by recovering and re-recognizing the presence and participation of Indigenous performers, filmmakers, artists, and intellectuals. Scholars in North America have turned to Indigenous sovereignty as an underlying formation for theorizing Indigenous visual arts, including critical studies by Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora), Beverly Singer (Santa Clara Pueblo), Randolph Lewis, and Michelle Raheja (Seneca), who defines visual sovereignty as “a reading practice for thinking about the space between resistance and compliance.”3 Māori filmmaker and scholar Barry Barclay extends Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino's schema of First, Second, and Third Cinemas—which Barclay calls “invader cinemas”—to understand global Indigenous cinema as Fourth Cinema, a perspective outside of the imposed nation-state.4 Contemporary Indigenous viewers can further “re-credit” Indigenous performances and voices—such as Indigenous extras in Westerns—that have been obscured by marginalizing screen practices.5 And beyond the study of images on-screen, anthropologist Faye Ginsburg argues that the social practices of Indigenous media production have the potential to mediate colonial rupture.6
Settler colonial erasure is interlinked with patriarchy; Indigenous peoples experience patriarchy and sexual violence through settler colonial legal systems that have undermined tribal Nations’ self-governance and attempts to protect Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people from endemic rape and sex trafficking, as Sarah Deer has argued.7 Articulated with settler colonial legal and political structures, commercial entertainment systems—major Hollywood studios, independent films, television and digital media, and other forms of commercial representation such as sports mascots—traffic in stereotypes that either omit images of Indigenous women or imagine Indian princesses and drudges.8 Behind the screen, the material burdens of digital and other media production are unequally carried by Indigenous women, as in the 1960s when Navajo women worked at Fairchild Semiconductor making circuits for an emerging electronics industry.9 In the context of this history, Indigenous feminisms assert “the polity of the Indigenous: the unique governance, territory, and culture of an Indigenous people in a system of (non)human relationships and responsibilities to one another.”10 Underpinning these feminisms, Indigenous ways of understanding gender, gender roles, and sexuality are more fluid and diverse than frameworks available in settler society allow, with many Indigenous languages recognizing more than two genders.
Largely shut out of positions of creative control in the mainstream commercial film industry, Indigenous women have nevertheless produced independent dramatic features, documentaries, and other projects that reflect decades of institutional change, deeply intertwined with broad infrastructural initiatives that democratized the means of production and distribution, and fostered minority media production more broadly.11 Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, state funding and production structures facilitated (largely documentary) Indigenous media production. Canada's state film offices developed broadcasting and film production programs such as the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) Challenge for Change program's Indian Film Crew in 1968, and in the 1990s the Studio One Aboriginal production unit.12 In the United States, pressure to diversify television broadcasting resulted in the Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium, which became Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT) and then Vision Maker Video. When satellites brought mainstream media to remote areas in the 1980s, Indigenous community demands for participation resulted in organizations such as Canada's Inuit Broadcasting Company (IBC), and in Australia, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). More recently, new structures for distribution and viewing include streaming internet platforms such as Isuma.tv, and television venues such as the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) in Canada, Māori Television in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and others.
Across the same temporal arc, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s Indigenous activists took up media innovation with political purpose, challenging settler colonial communication infrastructures and their corollary imaginaries. Some of the history of Indigenous women's film production is well known, while much work has yet to be recovered.13 Powerhouse filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki) has made more than fifty documentary films since 1971, and transformed the National Film Board of Canada from within. In the United States, director Sandra Sunrising Osawa (Makah) was among the first Indigenous women to come out of a university cinema production program, and went on to produce groundbreaking television in the 1970s.14 In Aotearoa/New Zealand, Māori filmmaker Merata Mita directed films beginning in the 1970s and 1980s. These artists mentored a second generation of filmmakers in the 1980s and 1990s who benefited from the wider range of opportunities available through video and cable.
Indigenous women have been at the forefront of contemporary Indigenous activist movements as primary spokespeople: Idle No More, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW), and Mni Wiconi / Water Is Life (#NoDAPL) at Standing Rock all originated under women's leadership and organization, and these movements have strong digital structures of visibility and support.15 New generations of Indigenous filmmakers can access established mentoring, networks, and infrastructural support, including women's leadership within state media organizations, youth media programs (such as Outta Your Backpack and Longhouse Media), festivals and programs for Indigenous filmmakers (such as the Native Program at Sundance), and collectives such as Arnait Video Productions (originally named Arnait Ikajurtigiit, “women helping each other”) and the Embargo Collective. Contemporary Indigenous activism powers not only documentary and feature production but also the Indigenization of film genres.16 Across the rise of digital Indigenous studies, women's production has surged in digital spaces, including animation, game design, and virtual reality.17 Engaging concepts around decolonial love and tribal philosophies such as the Cree philosophy of sakihiwawin (“with love in our actions”) as well as Indigenous futurisms, Indigenous women activists and media makers are theorizing, envisioning, and activating Indigenous networks in the digital and material spaces we all share.