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Makah Filmmaker Fights Stereotypes One Story At A Time

Courtesy of Sandy Osawa

Sandy Osawa is a local filmmaker and a member of the Makah Tribe. She and her husband, Yasu Osawa, have been creating documentaries for four decades. They have produced more than 65 videos, including five PBS documentaries. But for the Osawas, this is not a business. It's a battle. They use film to fight society's images of American Indian people.

Makah Creation Poem By Sandy Osawa

We sprang From salt water A meeting of waves Our men hollowed Canoes from logs With the bone of whale And together we rose As one But were many Giving thanks to the sea We were born... [continues]

Sandy Osawa wrote this poem in college. It is a creation story for the Makah. This piece would later mark a turning point in Osawa's journey as a filmmaker.

It was the summer of 1965 in Neah Bay, Washington. Returning home from college, Osawa realized that few people knew the Makah dances, and only her tribal elders knew the songs. The Makahs were in danger of losing their culture. All across the nation, tribes were facing this same problem.

Osawa created a Makah culture program for youth, where elders passed on their tribal knowledge. It was among the first of its kind in the country. That summer, Osawa brought in her poem. "The teenagers came in the afternoon," she said. "I told them I was going to read them a poem about the Makahs and somebody said, 'Well why would anybody want to write a poem about us?'

"I realized that this teenager was telling me that Makahs, or we, are not important enough to have anybody write a poem about us. And I started to think about the whole impact of self image. That when you don't see anything positive about your life anywhere, like in newspapers or in the media; it does say something about the fact that you're really ignored. As a people, you're really dismissed. And you're, of course, not going to be understood as a people."

The image of American Indians in popular media did not represent the people Osawa knew in everyday life.  Osawa grew up with people who were creative and smart, people who had a strong grounding in both the Native American and mainstream American cultures.

"The picture that society has of the American Indian is one of a victim," explained Osawa. "That Indians are victims, and Indians are losers. You might get one story where Indians are the stereotypical wise elder on horseback looking into the sunset, and you might get a nod for spiritual wisdom," like Tonto in the "Lone Ranger."   

Osawa was determined to change the tide. She attended UCLA's film school, and since then she has dedicated her entire life to remaking the Native image. Osawa chooses Native American success stories for her films. "There is a strong resistance to each and every story that I've ever told," she said.

In "Pepper's Pow Wow," Osawa features Jim Pepper, a man who fused traditional Native music with American jazz. One of his best known songs is "Witchi Tai To," a peyote healing chat he learned from his grandfather.

In her film, "On and Off the Rez with Charlie Hill," Osawa presents the importance of humor in the Native community. Charlie Hill's stand up material revolves around the Native perspective within history. In a clip from the film, Charlie Hill jokes:

I'm an Oneida, and I'm from Wisconsin. That's where my people are from. We used to be from New York, but we had a little real estate problem. Anyway, I'm feeling good here. Watched the World Series, and the Cleveland Native Americans lost. Get over it America! Why are you still making us mascots? The Indians? You know how offensive that is? That's like saying, "Today's game is New York's cheap Jews versus the lazy n------ from Alabama."

In her documentaries Osawa is careful to accurately present the Native perspective. And her thoughtfulness has been acknowledged. She has been honored as Native American Filmmaker of the Year at the Taos Talking Pictures Film Festival. She has received an Outstanding Producer citation from KNBC. Her films have gleaned Best Documentary and Best of Show awards at the Fargo International Film Festival. Yet these prizes are not the ones Osawa seeks.

"Your reward is in finding those audiences," said Osawa. "And you know that one by one, when you see enlightenment in people's eyes, when you hear their responses, then you know you've reached an audience."

Osawa can see change coming. Slowly, perhaps. But film by film, and audience by audience, she believes the tide will turn. "There was one woman in Taos, New Mexico, when we first showed the Charlie Hill film," she recalled. "And afterwards she got up and raised her hand and she said, 'There was no yelling, there was no preaching, there was none of that, but I suddenly understood why this mascot issue is so important. And I suddenly got it.' And Yasu and I both though, well that's really why we did the film. This is good. This gives you a reason to keep going."

Sandy and Yasu Osawa will keep going. They will continue the battle. And Sandy Osawa plans to change more minds, one story at a time.

Makah Creation Poem, Continued

Now our men Keep returning to the sea Filled with the rhythm Of salmon Flashing a strange beauty Through dark waters As silver fins Leap wildly over death Seeking the savage moment That saves the young Our people will not die

This story was originally broadcast on Monday 9/2/13.

RadioActive is KUOW's youth radio program, and all the stories here are produced by young people age 16-21. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook.