Celebrating the Creative Spirit of Indigenous Filmmakers

Music, art, literature were phenomena that helped those prehistoric producers of cave art forge a sense of group identity and mutual trust that enabled them to adapt and persevere.

- Mervyn L. Tano

The 14th Annual Indigenous Film & Arts Festival took place in Denver on October 4-10, 2017, presented by the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management (IIIRM) presented in venues across the city.


In this week’s Arts and Society blog post, Mervyn L. Tano, President of IIIRM, reflects on this years festival theme, “Celebrating the Creative Spirit”.

As I compose this letter I’m listening to Billie Holiday singing “All or Nothing at All” by Arthur Altman and Jack Lawrence. With a click of my mouse I could listen to versions of the song by Karrin Allyson, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Freddie Hubbard, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, or Frank Wess that are parked on my computer hard drive in a series of zeros and ones. By lifting my eyes from the computer monitor I see five small water colors of Paris street scenes, including one of the Place de la Bastille and another of Shakespeare and Company, hanging on my office wall. If I glance to my right I see Hawaiian Sculpture and Navajo Textiles stacked higgledy-piggledy atop books on French architecture and the cave art of Lascaux. And when I take my mid-afternoon break, I scoot past a piece by Bunky Echohawk that’s been sitting on the library floor for over five years now. Then I roost on the sofa with paintings by local artists Walt Pourier and Melanie Yazzie to my left and right. 

I suppose what I’m saying is that celebrating the creative spirit is an integral part of my daily life. The creative spirit and the art it produces is an important part of who I am. And like the autonomic nervous system, for the most part, it operates autonomously—music as white noise; Paris street scenes as a step or two beyond wallpaper. But not always. And it’s in these interstitial spaces when the automatic pilot is disengaged and my synapses are fired up that my relationship with the creative spirit and its impact on my identity is shaped and defined. 

For example, sometimes the watercolor of Shakespeare and Company triggers a flood of memories. I’m transported to 1962 Paris as an awestruck 19-year old GI. And Shakespeare then was Mistral. George Whitman was George Whitman. He sold me a beat-up copy of Margaret Mead’s Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World from which I learned about the notion of human fatherhood as a social invention. 55 years later I’m still not totally convinced. Anyone who’s been to Shakespeare and Company in Paris and seen my basement library will immediately grasp the resemblance—narrow aisles lined with, shall we say, an eclectic assortment of shelving. And, by the way, I still have that copy (now even more beat-up) of Male and Female

And sometimes I’ll queue up all versions of songs like All or Nothing at All just to see how the creative spirit works to turn the “original intent” of Altman and Lawrence into something quintessentially Ella, Coltrane, or Lady Day. Or I’ll browse The Cave Art of Lascaux: The Final Photographs by Mario Ruspoli and ponder the universality of colored outlines of human hands. Was there a single, unifying theme that bound the prehistoric peoples in present day Belize, France, Indonesia, New Guinea, Spain, and Australia, or was there a multiplicity of meanings and motives for these hand stencils, including the usual explanations of rituals, sacred rites and initiation ceremonies? Or was it something as prosaic as a prehistoric “Kilroy was here.” 

The films we’re screening this year memorialize the creative spirit of native writers, filmmakers, artists, musicians, and storytellers. The films come from Canada, Guatemala, Aotearoa, Hawai’i, and the U.S. They are diverse. They tell different stories, using different styles and technologies. But they are also universal. Music, art, literature were phenomena that helped those prehistoric producers of cave art forge a sense of group identity and mutual trust that enabled them to adapt and persevere. This is why we screen film to celebrate the creative spirit and why we think art is as necessary as food and shelter. The songs we sing, the music we play, the stone we sculpt, and the “symbolic artefacts” with which we adorn ourselves, our homes, and our places of worship are the social glue which bind us together and, like our ancient predecessors, enable us to adapt and persevere.