By DR. HONEY DAWN KARIMA PETTIGREW, Ph.D
“I absolutely love my job and feel like I’m one of the luckiest people in the world,” states Pawnee filmmaker, Nathan Young IV, during a recent interview. “But honestly, and I know this may sound cheesy, I’ve always wanted to serve my culture and it seems that this is the best way for me to try and do that.”
Young, a member of the Pawnee nation, began his filmmaking career while teaching at Fort Gibson Public Schools in Oklahoma. While emphasizing cultural studies and bilingual education in Native American languages, Young encountered Joe Erb, who taught him the techniques needed to create stop-motion claymation movies.
“I had the opportunity to work on The Messenger to learn animation and I was lucky that Fort Gibson was so supportive in giving me the resources and freedom to learn,” recalls Young. Young, whose passion for Native American languages led him to pursue the study of Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw during his studies at University of Oklahoma, viewed claymation films as an opportunity to educate and to inspire.
As part of the bilingual education program at Fort Gibson, Young’s students created short films, using the stop-motion claymation technique. These films shared traditional Cherokee stories, performed in Cherokee (with English subtitles) by the students, who ranged in age from middle to high school level. Each of these films is considered a vital part of bilingual education by Native American educators.
In addition to invigorating interest in the use of traditional languages, these films have generated interest in filmmaking and drama among the members of a rising generation of Native Americans. From Cane Flute—which shares the origins of the traditional Cherokee flute to the widely shown and acclaimed First Fire—with its depiction of the origins of flames and warmth, Young’s films appear in film festivals and classrooms throughout Indian Country. While the Fort Gibson projects inspired Young to pursue fulltime filmmaking, he has since turned to other forms of film and video to chronicle the lives and events of Native Americans.
Young is eager to present Native people as they are in modernity, and finds that the documentary form allows him to do that, using time-based media.
“I’m producing a concert/document hybrid of a performance of the Culture Shock crew next week,” he states. “Right now I’m finishing a documentary for the National Indian Women’s Health Resource Center,” he continues. “It’s called Creating Space: Culture and History in Indian Health Care.” According to Young, “It’s a case study of the practices and policies of six tribally run health care authorities, their processes in making sure that their health care providers are culturally sensitive. I’m just about to lock picture on it.”
As Young finishes work on these two documentaries, he is delighted by an opportunity to collaborate on a film with Sterlin Harjo, a Creek filmmaker noted for his disturbing depiction of Indian Health Services, entitled Good Night,Irene.
“I’m collaborating with a really talented writer/director named Sterlin Harjo on a true story about a guy who I grew up with that was murdered,” Young declares. “The working title is Heavy Metal Indians.”
The prolific filmmaker says, “I’m also working on a short film with a really great director of photography called Kitstahutux. A kitstahutux is the pawnee word for boogy man.”
“Originally,” he proclaims, “a kitstahutux was a scalped person, that’s actually what the word means, but now the word means someone or something scary.”
Young, discussing his new projects, reflects, “One thing though, I think I need to say that both of these stories havea lot of dark subject matter at their core.”
When asked to explain, he expounds, “Drugs/alcohol/violence play prominent roles in these stories. I don’t know, that’s something that I’m kind of grappling with…but honestly, most Indian realities are dark, Indian Country is full of racism, pessimism, violence, drugs and all of the other societal ills.”
For Young, finding a balance between truth and fiction is a key component of his work. As he deals with the “dark” issues he views in Indian Country, he feels that continuing his work with more positive aspects of his identity is important.
“I’m also working on a Pawnee language animation,” he announces. “I’m Pawnee/Kiowa/Delaware, and my Pawnee project is part one of a HAKO series that is called Kits-pa-rux-ti: The Wonderful River.” Young is eagerly anticipating the development of this series as a celebration of Pawnee culture.
“It’s the story of the origin of the Pawnee Medicine Societies,” the filmmaker explains. “It’s not going to be a claymation, more like cell animation, actually drawn by frame. I’m just getting the language together now so that I can start animating.”
Nathan Young is an outstanding educator, who utilizes media in order to express his ideas, address issues of culture and identity, and to educate viewers regarding Native American culture. Further, he is responsible for equipping young Native people with the information and education to make movies of their own. His cinematic works are important contributions to the discourse concerning Native America, traditions and modernity.
Dr. Honey Dawn Karima Pettigrew, Ph.D. is the author of two novels, The Way We Make Sense and The Marriage of Saints. She is an award-winning filmmaker and resides in the Yellowhill Community.