Real Native American Stories
Sandra Sunrising Osawa B.A '64 has been making films for 30 years. Both poetic and political, her filmmaking approach can be traced back to her study at Lewis & Clark in political science and English.
Jack Crampton, now professor emeritus of political science, was her advisor and encouraged her to take courses in many different subjects--economics, art, philosophy. He felt it was more important to broaden one's knowledge than to specialize.
"That broad-based approach is still with me," says Osawa. "It's what separates me from other filmmakers. I tend to have layers, not just one single narrative."
Another of those layers is a passion for poetry. Osawa studied with two legends at Lewis & Clark: Vern Rutsala, award-winning poet and professor emeritus of English, and the late William Stafford, professor emeritus of English and former Oregon poet laureate.
"I love poetry," she says. "It teaches you the discipline of finding the quickest, clearest, best way to say something." While for her, poetry has taken a necessary back seat to filmmaking, she still sees its connection to her chosen craft. "In film, you work with the written word and sounds--as well as with concrete images. It's an all-encompassing art form."
A member of Washington state's Makah tribe, Osawa is committed to changing the way Native Americans are represented in film. Of most contemporary film treatments of Native Americans, she says, "There is still a need to see us as creatures of the past and as problems or victims."
Osawa has encountered some of these unenlightened attitudes in her own life. She remembers, for example, listening to Igor Stravinsky's Firebird in college and having a friend say it was strange to see an Indian studying classical music.
It's these types of stereotypes that Osawa seeks to dispel. Her films are firmly rooted in the present and feature thought-provoking interviews with fellow Native Americans, such as dancer Maria Tallchief and comedian Charlie Hill.
Maria Tallchief, a member of the Osage tribe, became the United States' first prima ballerina; in fact, her legendary Orpheus performance in 1948 was a catalyst for the formation of the New York City Ballet. Charlie Hill, a member of the Oneida tribe, has been a comedian since the 1970s. He has worked alongside many big-name comedians, including Jay Leno and Richard Pryor, and has appeared on the Tonight Show and other national TV programs.
Of Maria Tallchief, her most recent film, Osawa says, "It's amazing that this story had to go untold for so long, all these decades. It's quite an omission that cannot be accidental or coincidental. It's why Yasu and I haven't felt our mission is accomplished."
Yasu Osawa, a Japanese American, is her husband and filmmaking partner. The two met in UCLA's film school. "We were both interested in doing work for our respective communities," she says. "And Yasu luckily agreed to help with my interest in getting some contemporary Indian stories out there."
Osawa has a theory to explain why Tallchief's story isn't as well known as those of her collaborators, Balanchine and Stravinsky: "We're all creatures of habit. Once the American Indian image has been molded and shaped so strongly by dime novels, Western movies, early paintings, and even current films, it's difficult to recast that image; it's quite powerful."
Recast is exactly what the Osawas do with their films. Pepper's Pow Wow tells the story of Portland resident Jim Pepper, a jazz saxophonist who melds modern jazz with traditional harmonies from his Creek and Kaw heritage, creating a new musical form.
Precisely because their work cuts against expectations, the Osawas have often had trouble getting funding or distribution for their films. "An American Indian jazz musician? People tell me, 'That's not an Indian story.' It doesn't fit into their idea of the typical story," she says.
It would be easier for Upstream Productions, Osawa admits, if they caved in to stereotypes. However, like prima ballerina Maria Tallchief, who early on was asked to don a stereotypical Indian costume and perform according to the misconceptions of the time, Osawa refuses to succumb to commercial forces.
"We still feel a sense of urgency," she says. "There's a lot of untouched territory. Even if we worked for the next 50 to 100 years, we wouldn't be able to get to it all."
Back to Spring 2008 Chronicle