Narrator: Long long ago Raven was flying around when he saw something strange down the beach. A pod of some sort washed upon the shore. Not knowing what it was Raven flew down to take a closer look. As he got closer to the pod, it opened up, and out rolled the strangest creature Raven had ever seen, a creature with no fur.
Creature (interrupting): I’m cold
Narrator: Oh, um, you don’t speak yet.
Narrator: No, that’s ok. You didn’t know.
Creature: I didn’t mean to interrupt.
Narrator: Oh, no, really it’s fine. Now this creature looked around and saw Raven and asked Raven. And Raven said…
Raven: What am I?
Hmm. And Raven said, "You are a human being."
Golly, such a long name. Got anything shorter than that?
Um ok, how about Yuk?
Yuk? What does that mean?
Uh, well it means human being.
Really? What language?
Well, it’s a language that’s not invented yet.
Well, because you will invent the language.
What will the language be called?
I don’t know. You pick.
Golly, making me do all the work here. I pick?!
Jo Reed: That was an excerpt from a skit that was aired on Raven's Radio Hour: a comedy that draws its material from the vast diversity of Alaska Native cultures. It’s a production of Native Radio Theater which is a program of Native American Public telecommunications.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works, I’m your host Josephine Reed.
Native American Public Telecommunications or NAPT is an organization committed to sharing the stories of Native Peoples and it does so by supporting the creation, promotion and distribution of Native Public Media. And given that across the United States, there are several hundred ethno-linguistic native groups or tribal nations, NAPT clearly has its work cut out. It faces geographic, linguistic and cultural differences within the nation’s American Indian population. But this challenge is also the organization’s strength because it can draw on the rich diversity of native traditions and beliefs in telling the stories of contemporary American Indians. Shirley Sneve is the executive director of NAPT and she dropped by NEA studios to talk about the organization she leads.
Here’s our conversation.
Jo Reed: Now, how did you get involved with media, Shirley?
Shirley Sneve: Well, I started out as a music major. I came from a little town of Flandreau, South Dakota. We had about 2200 students, and the arts were a way to keep me out of trouble, and I really liked music. And I got to go to music camps in the summer. I really appreciate that opportunity. And so I started out as music, but I've always been a writer, and my father taught journalism at the Flandreau Indian school. I went to the public school. And my mom is a storyteller. My whole-- the Lakota side of my family, they're all storytellers. And so telling a story always came natural to me, and I was really frustrated being a music major because we had really bad facilities at the time. Now they have wonderful facilities, but at that time it was falling apart, and they were old World War II barracks, is what they were. And so with that frustration, I decided to take a look at journalism. And so I went into journalism my junior year, and really enjoyed writing, and all of the skills that I learned as a journalist have really impacted my full career.
Jo Reed: Which is directing, as you say, Native American Public Telecommunications. Tell me a little bit about what that involves.
Shirley Sneve: We're funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting primarily to do television work. We work with-- well, every year we fund, I'd probably say, five to eight different projects around the country, working primarily with independent Native producers. Sometimes we work with public television stations in producing documentaries for public broadcasting, primarily PBS. And so the stories, while they may focus on a tribe or a family, a Native family, the message that they impart is a universal, universal themes of family, history, stories that anyone can relate to. But primarily for the public broadcasting audience, which then in turn we influence the education system as well. Many of our films are used as teaching tools in high school and college classes about Native Americans.
Jo Reed: Are the producers of the television work, do they tend to be Native Americans?
Shirley Sneve: I wish I could say they were 100 percent Native American, but our producing pool isn't that deep. And so we spend quite a bit of time and effort in professional development for our producers. I'm grateful to say that in the six years that I've been with NAPT now, we are seeing producers on their second and third movie, which is wonderful to see, to be able to see these careers develop and that they are able to somewhat make a living out of producing documentaries for public television. We do fund non-Indian producers if they have a very good story to tell and also if they have significant involvement on their crew level from Native American editors, writers, directors of photography, musicians, that kind of level.
Jo Reed: I would imagine that there's also an educational component if you want to nurture more Native American producers and more involvement in the creative as well as the technical side of television for Native Americans.
Shirley Sneve: Right. And every year we do some of our technical assistance and professional development, and then we also work with other organizations. NALIP, the National Alliance of Latino Independent Producers, already has fabulous curriculum and workshops developed. And Kathryn Galan, who is their executive director, has been working with me basically the last five years in providing opportunities for Native producers through their programs. They are focused primarily on Latino producers, but we do have a lot in common with them, and many of our producers share the same ethnic background. And so I'm hoping that this winter we will co-host another "Doing Your Doc" workshop. I'm hoping to do it in Omaha, Nebraska.
Jo Reed: Tell me about "Doing Your Doc." What is that?
Shirley Sneve: You know, it's a two-and-a-half-day intensive that tells you what you need to know to do a documentary. Obviously there's a skill level that's assumed, but anyone who's interested in understanding the process of documentary filmmaking, or what it takes to tell a good story, should come to this, because it's a very affordable workshop and you get to learn from master documentary filmmakers and go through the process of how to tell a story, story arc, development, that dramatic leap that you might need to take, and how to put together a good trailer so that you can get money to do your project. But I had filmmakers that we funded for, like I said, the third documentary that this particular filmmaker was doing for us, and I could tell from her body language that she was just upset with me that I was going to make her go through this elementary documentary workshop. And, oh, I'd say about three hours into it, her body language totally changed, and by the end of the day, she told me exactly what I had thought, was that-- she said, "Shirley, I thought I was beyond this, but this has been one of the most meaningful professional development opportunities I've had." So I mean, I want to work with them again. I'm working with other consultants to put together fundraising opportunities and plans for our producers, and just, frankly, basically the craft of storytelling. So we've worked with Sundance as well as National Geographic, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the America Indian in developing professional opportunities for Native media makers.
Jo Reed: What are the special challenges that Native media creators might face?
Shirley Sneve: <laughs>
Jo Reed: It's a tough business.
Shirley Sneve: It is. It's a tough business. But when you're in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, there's not too many funders of media that are there, and it's expensive to go to those places. And I know there's a lot to be said for artistic merit of a project, but in a lot of cases a thing that I see that takes someone over the line with a funder, it's not what you know, it's who you know. And to have those opportunities for producers to get to know some of the funders, to get that time in front of these people to really see what the projects are all about. The other thing is is that I'm here looking at arts education grants and seeing some of the fabulous opportunities that young people have in major cities to experience the arts and to take it to another level through meeting and learning with professional artists. On our reservations, we don't have that. And through the American Indian Film Festival, American Indian Film Institute, that's one of the organizations we work with as well as Fox Institute to try to bring those experiences to young people. But the fact that we are so community and family-grounded in rural areas across the country, it's often very difficult for us to land those kinds of skills and those opportunities and partnerships that I think people that live here in Washington, D.C. take for granted. I mean, I live in the Midwest for many reasons. I'm happy to have this opportunity to be in Washington, D.C., but man, I'm a prairie girl, and I'm not-- <laughs>-- it's going to take a lot for me to leave the prairie and to leave my home.
Jo Reed: Well, it also seems so paradoxical because I would assume that part of the story that many Native American media creators would want to tell would be about their community. So then to have to leave the community in order to tell the story about the community seems, as I said, paradoxical.
Shirley Sneve: It's hard. It's really hard. It's really hard for Native filmmakers to tell stories about their own people, because it's like this-- there is still this-- especially in the Southwest, I've been noticing more and more in my travels and as my relationships with tribes, tribal producers get deeper-- is that there's a lot of stuff that we don't want to share with the world. And so to walk that fine line between telling Native stories that we can and should share with the world and then keeping those things, those spiritual things-- ceremonies and cultural knowledge-- sacred to the communities, that's really a fine line. And so there's also that accountability too. If you're telling a story about your people, it dang well better be the truth. So there's that high level of accountability there, and I see many of our producers fulfilling that and living that. And I want to say something else along those lines, and that is the fact that so-- myself, my family, my brothers, my sisters, my kids-- are so concerned about our language-- Lakota language, in my case-- that we continue to use our Native languages as much as we can in today's society. So that reclamation, or revitalization, of Native languages is very important to tribal people, because so much of our cultural knowledge and our ties to the earth are reflected through our Native languages. It's very important, and I also think that's important for non-Indian people who now live in our traditional lands to realize and to know.
Jo Reed: I know we're talking about film, but there's also Native radio theater-- is any of that done in Native languages?
Shirley Sneve: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Not as much as we'd like, but the projects that we did that were funded by the National Endowment for the Arts with the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina—those people really felt strongly that the Native languages needed to be incorporated in that. I think the Cherokee language is one of the most lyrical languages to listen to, so it was fun, and it was also fun to hear the children and the elders that were involved in this thing learn these words and those languages and the concepts in order to translate into a Native radio theater project.
Jo Reed: How close are Native languages?
Shirley Sneve: Not close at all! <laughs>
Jo Reed: Not close at all. It's more like German and French than Italian and Spanish.
Shirley Sneve: How about like Swahili and Chinese. <laughs>
Jo Reed: That different.
Shirley Sneve: That different. But that said, there are some similarities amongst like-- and I'm just speaking from myself-- is that I was having a meeting with an Omaha elder and we were talking about language, and she started speaking her language, and I realized how much the words I knew, because they did sound like Lakota words, and the concepts were very similar. "Stand up" sounded very similar. Some of the animal names sounded similar. So I know that within tribes, there are those. The Athabascan language in Alaska-- people that speak Athabascan can understand Navajo, because there's that tie. I know, isn't that interesting that there's that tie between those cultures? So it's been very interesting to me as I meet Navajo producers and Athabascan producers and how much they share. Yeah. I mean, it's interesting, the migration patterns across the country and the way the languages have developed. You know, and we're also seeing some pan-Indian things happening with our languages. Migwetch [ph?]-- you'll hear a lot of Native people, no matter what their cultural background is, say that, and that's Ojibwe for "thank you." Pilamaye [ph?] is our word for thank you. Mitakuye Oyasin [ph?] is "We are all related." It's a concept that comes from our culture, the Lakota culture--we are all related--but many, many tribes feel that concept as well. So in languages, you see that around the country that people will say that from-- because they don't know their language. So it's kind of a pan-Indian language, and I don't know, I think it's very interesting that I'm seeing more and more of that.
Jo Reed: And do you see NAPT sort of playing a part in that?
Shirley Sneve: Yeah, I sure do. Uh-huh. Yeah, actually that was something that we had quite a discussion with WGBH in the creation of the We Shall Remain series that's part of American Experience from a couple years ago, is that I told them, I said, "Any chance that we can to use English subtitles, let's do it." And so every single one of the five documentaries that we did with them did have Native languages spoken and English subtitles. And I am just so proud to see that on the air, so that Americans understand that these languages still play a very vital part in our culture and our everyday existence in this country.
Jo Reed: As Native peoples reclaim language and really insist on a vibrant culture into the twenty-first century-- in many ways against all odds-- talk about how NAPT helps facilitate that.
Shirley Sneve: A lot of times we're asked to fund stories about historical events, and that's all well and good, because a lot of history books and a lot of the stuff that's on the market right now tell wrong stories and don't tell the stories from the Native perspective. They tell it from the conquerors' perspective. But we want people to know that we're still here. And so if we do tell one of those stories, for example, Choctaw Code Talkers, which is on public television stations right now, that's an example of a story that's about-- not many people know, but in World War One, these Choctaw men were code talkers. People think of World War II and the Navajos, but no, this was something that happened in World War One, and we don't know about this because these honorable men were sworn to secrecy, and that's what enabled it to happen in World War II again with the Navajos. So we talk about the story, but we do it through interviews with the heirs of the Choctaw code talkers. And we hear about how that experience influenced them as men of honor in their culture when they came back from the war. So if we do talk about historical things, we like to have current people talk-- everyday people-- talk about them. And then also how traditional cultures weave their way into our everyday lives-- our ceremonies that we still hold all the time in the appropriate ways, and how that relates to us as a people. So yeah, no, it's important to remember those traditional tribal things in contemporary stories. Otherwise, it's not relevant anymore.
Jo Reed: Tell me about a specific project that you've supported, that you think is a great illustration of the work that you do.
Shirley Sneve: Okay. So we have one that'll be on PBS coming up this spring. It's called Games of the North. And I don't know if you've ever seen the Arctic Winter Games, but they're amazing—just incredible athletes that are doing these games, like seeing how high they can jump and touch a ball so that if they're in the snowy winter landscape, from far away someone would be able to see this movement. Hopping on your knuckles to increase the blood flow to your extremities so that frostbite isn't going to be a factor as much. Ear pulls, once again, so that if you get frostbite or get stuck outside, you're going to have increased circulation of blood in your ears so you're not going to lose or damage your ears. The four-man carry. Once you go out, and I mean, this is for anybody who hunts. I mean, if you drop a buffalo or if you drop a seal, you're going to have to carry that thing back, and those things are heavy. And so to be able to develop your inner strength, your core strength, to be able to carry heavy loads. These are some of the games that are illustrated in this series, Games of the North. The thing that's important to know about this is that it's survival games, and one of the things that we struggled with in crafting this story is that how much of the other story of climate change do we want to tell, because Alaska and the North is really on the forefront of climate change because the glaciers are melting, and that's really going to affect the way wildlife survive, the way people survive, and just the total change of subsistence food-gathering and hunting that has happened there. They really are on the forefront of all that change. But at the same time, it's a social gathering to be able to watch this. It's a way that the elders can pass down knowledge to their children and grandchildren. We're seeing this very good intergenerational story. And I love my own culture; I love Lakota culture and I love the way that we experience that through our art, through our beadwork, our porcupine quill work, leatherwork and things like that. But I also love the designs of the arctic regions, of the Inupiaq tribes. I think they're just stunning examples, and their stories and their dances and their songs and their drumming is really wonderful to see that kind of stuff. The other thing that we're trying to do with our stories is make them accessible to the public. It's scary to go into someone else's culture without knowing what to do. I mean, are there things that you're supposed to do, like protocol, like when you go to somebody else's church? When do you stand? When do you sit? It's the same kind of thing. So we're trying to provide some cultural introductions so that people will understand and feel more comfortable approaching Native peoples all across the country to experience some of those things that we value about our culture and want to share.
Jo Reed: Shirley. You also have a series called VisionMakers on the Road. Tell me about that.
Shirley Sneve: Right, it’s a film festival in a box. So you can safely put together a little curated package of films and be able to learn about other cultures around the country. And certainly the materials that we're developing on our website, as far as educational materials, curriculum guides, viewers guides, will hopefully engage people to learn about other cultures. We don't stream things. We can't afford to stream things here. We haven't figured out how to do that. You can watch all the American Experience programs on the Internet. We haven't figured out how to do that. And we also think that film can bring together community to talk about issues, analyze problems, and so that's why we put together these curated documentaries that people can basically rent and do a little film festival at their community center, home parties perhaps, in their schools, in their libraries, to bring these high-quality documentaries to their own communities, with a backup of posters, prewritten press releases—the tools to make this a successful project in your home community, at a reasonable price. And the other things that we can do, which I think is so wonderful for young people who aspire to greater things, is that we will arrange--for a price, obviously--to bring a filmmaker to your community. So if there's a film-- say Reel Injun, which is a documentary about Hollywood Indians-- if you decide to book that, we will facilitate a visit from the filmmaker to your community so that he can engage students, the community, and just to spread that word about, "Yep, this is a possibility of a career that you can make money at." <laughs> In an honorable way.
Jo Reed: Can you give me a couple examples of the films that are a part of the series VisionMakers on the Road?
Shirley Sneve: Oh. Weaving Worlds is a documentaryabout Navajo weaving, but it goes much further than that, and it goes into the economics behind the Navajo weaving, that you have to have good quality water. They've had terrible outcomes from the uranium and the coalmining that has gone on in the past. They're still influencing those people. So you need to have good water in order to produce good sheep in order to have good wool. You have to be able to have markets to be able to sell your Navajo weavings, and then that relationship between that broker who is generally a non-Indian who sells the product to the general public. So it's a stunning documentary of just beautiful landscape and these very engaging women and men that are these weavers in bringing a story to the American public. Got another one called River of Renewal, which is about the damming of the Klamath River in the Northwest Coast, and what devastating effects that's had on subsistence fishing, salmon fishing. So we're trying to take a look at some environmental issues as well as just cultural issues as well.
Jo Reed: It would seem to me that given how disparate Native cultures are, and also the geographical spread across the United States and Canada that NAPT also really serves almost as a net, or a way of communication among the various peoples.
Shirley Sneve: That's definitely what we're trying to do with VisionMaker on the Road. The other thing is that I'm finding that when we bring our producers together from across the country for professional development, they create these relationships that are long-lasting. And so an example of this would be Dustin Craig, who's White Mountain Apache, most known for his photography, videography. He worked on a project about the Osage, produced in Oklahoma, because the producer and the director met him through a convening when we brought these people together, some other storytelling that can bring the best of the Native talent together across the country.
Jo Reed: Okay, if you could look into the future five or ten years down the road, where do you see NAPT?
Shirley Sneve: You know, I've been involved with NAPT all my life. My mother was a founding board member. I was on the board of directors in the 1980s when Frank Blythe was the executive director. And we are grateful for that support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and we think it's been a very wise investment of taxpayer dollars to produce these wonderful documentaries that have long-lasting impact and effect. So I think the return on the investment that the American public gets for that kind of work is very good. However, there are many more needs in Indian country to be telling stories in tribal languages. It's not something that PBS is going to have an audience for. A documentary that's all done in Ojibwe or in Hopi, those are things for our communities, and those are some of the things that I hope that we're able to do, is to be able to develop that kind of talent so that we can really truly tell our own stories for our own people. So that's one of the things that I'm hoping that we can do. The other thing is with the convergence of new media, to be able to help those people who don't have access. The digital divide is something that's very, very alive in Indian Country. I mean, there are very many places where we don't have access-- families don't have access to the Internet unless you go to the school. So I mean, that kind of stuff on the Internet that we take for granted in larger cities is not happening on the reservations. And if we can impact the way the Internet is used on those reservations, if we can influence that kind of content that will be important for tribal people and young learners, you know I'm hoping that we're going to be able to go in those directions. So it'd be great to say, and I hope that it's true that we will be able to continue our work for public broadcasting.
Jo Reed: Shirley Sneve, thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Shirley Sneve: Thanks. This was fun.
Jo Reed: Thank you. That was Shirley Sneve, executive director of Native American Public Telecommunications.
You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from "Traces of Hope" taken from People of the Willows arranged and performed by various artists, used courtesy of Makoche’ Recording Company.
Excerpt from Raven Radio Hour performed by Jack Dalton. And Ethan Petticrew. Written by Jack Dalton and Ed Bourgeois. Randy Reinholz & Jean Bruce Scott Executive Producers, and it’s used courtesy of Native Radio Theater
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U – just click on Beyond Campus and search for the National Endowment for the Arts. Next time, a conversation about contemporary and classic American theatre with the Artistic Director of the Arena Stage at the Mead Center, Molly Smith.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.