Heather Rae, The Power of Story

World Indigenous Tourism Summit 2018. Heather Rae. Photo by Mark Coote.

My name is Heather Rae.

I live in Los Angeles with my husband, Russel, and 15-year-old daughter, Johnny Sequoyah. I also have two grown sons and a two-year-old granddaughter.

I am a film producer.

I make independent films that are outside the American studio system. They’re usually independently financed and have a less commercial subject matter. I consider myself a hybrid between narrative and documentary films

Do you do independent films by choice?

I make independent films because that is the way I came into the industry. I started out as a documentary film maker doing a lot of work in the native community. The studio system, particularly when I came into the industry, 30 years ago, was not looking for stories like the kinds of films I was making.

An example of that is “Frozen River” which is the story of a young Mohawk girl who creates an unlikely alliance with a non-native woman. Together, they transport people in the area of upstate New York in the Mohawk territories that straddle the Canadian border.

At that time, Frozen River was considered not commercially viable.

It was described as a niche or boutique film. It went on to be nominated for two academy awards, the grand prize at the Sundance Film Festival, 25 Best Picture Awards around the world, nominated for 5 Gotham and 7 Spirit Awards.

What led you to story telling through film?

I was led to film making by a larger calling. I didn’t specifically seek it out, I was studying other things at school, but as time went I realised that I was drawn to being able to tell stories, and to tell them with a visually.

There were also different points in my life where I had conversations with my Mother, my Grandmother, my Grandfather and both of my Great Grandmothers, all of whom said “You have to make a difference.”

I think in many ways it was their asking me to make a difference in ways that they couldn’t. That moved and motivated me and essentially was cause for me to want to pursue telling stories and being part of affecting the narrative.

What does your native heritage mean to you? And what responsibilities or obligations does that put on you as a story teller?

I have always strongly identified with my family’s indigenous roots. It always made the most sense to me, seeing the world this way,  bringing more truth to the understanding of our world.

I’ve recently learnt more about my biological father’s side of the family and have been to Ireland. I felt very connected there also. And I happen to know that I have this family history of human beings being enslaved, both African and European

Slavery is how most countries were colonized. I am always surprised how people in this day and age don’t understand that. That much of what we have now in America was built by slavery. Slavery then and slavery now.

This is something that always weighs heavily on me.

I feel strongly that as we’re decolonizing our minds and our consciousness that we must in turn be putting something in its place. We are re-indigizing.

I think there was once a time we were all indigenous to the land. Europe colonized itself, long before it came across the world. It spent 500 years colonizing the tribes of Europe through the inquisition and the spread of Christianity. So Europe has been a much longer process than anywhere else in the world. This is the beginning of the destruction of their original cultures and wisdom. For example, European women were targeted as witches, it is possible that as many as 30 million were killed, it was a holocaust but has never been labeled as such.

I suspect that this has had a profound impact in the lack of balance in those cultures and what eventually led them to colonize the world.

We go to school for 12 years to learn to worship Europe so we really don’t learn anything about deeper indigenous histories and wisdom. This consistent erasure has made it that much more difficult to get to access to native knowledge. For us to be able to connect to those deeper histories is actually a process and a conscious process at that.

Are Native American families typically matriarchal?

There a 567 federally recognised Native American tribes and 450 who remain unrecognised by the state. I can only speak for myself and my family, other people have different opinions and represent their tribes and cultures differently.

Most tribes are matriarchal but not all, especially in a post-colonial world. With Christianity came patriarchy and male dominance which has affected the way people are now.

In my observation, most eastern tribes are structured by a matriarchal systems and women have a tremendous amount of power and influence.

In your presentation you described a global perspective of indigenous people, particularly the sensitivities of our youth and in turn their high suicide rates. Can you expand on this?

In North America and Canada, the highest rates of suicide are native youth. I see all of this in terms of native representation in film and media

I see this as being connected, that fact that native youth are most vulnerable but least represented in all mediums and popular culture is concerning.

The reality is that they cannot see themselves in this mirrored culture that we live in, if you never see yourself but every other group is represented then inherently the message is that you don’t have value, you are not important enough to be acknowledged or exist.

I think that there is something very directly connected in terms of native representation. We don’t exist in education or in literature, in music or in films and are completely non-existent in popular culture.

Somebody is taking the brunt of this absence, and it is our youth.

You talked about language and the power of language. Do you think that indigenous people should be more mindful in the way we speak and if so why?

I think that language is very important for two reasons.

Firstly, there is an importance in indigenous people speaking their own language. It is crucial that language revitalisation and preservation continues because that is where all the great cultural wisdoms lie.

Secondly, language is powerful so using it mindfully to put strength in the way in which we talk about our history, removing victimization and empower ourselves going forward.

What issues do you feel are most pressing now in America?

We have to speak truth. History exists right now. We are creating it.
We must dismantle white supremacy. There are currently over 200 white nationalist organisations in existence in the US. They are behind many of the mass shootings and the prevalence of violence against people of colour.

White supremacy is a deadly force, it has been for centuries and it continues to be but the greatest issue is that we have normalised it and so our most important work is to dismantle and disrupt it.

This is why we must tell our story.

What else do you want us to know? 

We, as women, need to step forward. We can not let ourselves off the hook and be content to let our men lead without our influence. We need to step into their spaces and be powerful to create balance for a better future.



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