A Native American Filmmaker Captures Her Father’s Language Before It Vanishes

While indigenous people have endured a sometimes complicated history in California, the contemporary filmmakers, writers, chefs, and artists featured in L.A. Weekly's Native American Issue recontextualize what it means to be a Native Angeleno today. Read more about them here.

A little girl clad in a pink, fringed Native American outfit with two long braids draping down over her shoulders spins around and around. Her face is one of focused concentration, totally oblivious to the audience watching her, as she steps in and out of the six hoops in her hands. This is Kayla Briët — the young award-winning, self-taught filmmaker — as a child in her personal documentary short film, Smoke That Travels. It has screened at festivals all over the world and earned her multiple fellowships. And she's only 20.

In the film, that old home video footage of her dancing is juxtaposed with a clip of then-President Reagan in 1988, giving a speech about Native Americans. "Maybe we made a mistake," Reagan says. "Maybe we should not have humored them in that wanting to stay in that primitive state, and said, 'You know, come join us, be citizens.'"

The clip has a particular resonance for Briët. "When I was young, I was talking to my dad about why it feels like many people aren't taught about Native culture in their education," she says, "and my dad told me about the first time he saw that clip of Reagan when he was a young man. He heard this beloved president saying words like 'primitive,' and it made my dad feel — for the first time — 'Perhaps I am an outsider.' It haunts him to this day."

Briët, who is Potawatomi, as well as Chinese, Dutch and Norwegian on her mother's side, says it was a difficult decision to include that Reagan clip. She's a fierce optimist who focuses on the positivity in her artwork, and that speech represents something painful in her familial history. But she is adamant that both sides must try to "learn the full story in order to build a bridge to understanding." She remembers being in school, reading about Manifest Destiny, "and of course everyone looks to you for your reaction." It's why she's determined to make the kinds of films and interactive games that go past a cursory understanding of Native history and get to the heart of their beliefs.

Briët's father is one of only 10 people left on this planet who can speak his Native language. He often performs his people's ring dance, like the one Briët performed as a child, at sites like Knott's Berry Farms, surrounded by simulated scenes of the "old West." In Smoke, Briët allows the melodic tongue of her father to dissolve into a kind of spoken-word electronic track she composed, which was inspired by the traditional songs she heard as a youth. Briët knows a few words of her Native language but wants to make it her mission to become fluent, to pass it along to another generation. Much of Smoke is concerned with the overwhelming drive to preserve her culture, a burden she says can sometimes feel heavy.

But she's not alone.

Kayla Briët
Kayla Briët
Danny Liao

"I've met so many different Native filmmakers and storytellers traveling with my film, artists who also share a part of their childhood," she says. "It's a very common theme in Native filmmaking, exploring the past and trying to capture that and share it with others. Native art at its core is very vulnerable art."

Film about — and starring — Natives has a long and complicated history, dating back to 1913's Hiawatha, a silent film based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem about the leader of the Iroquois. As the first film featuring a Native American cast, it presaged the later fetishization of indigenous culture reflected in movies over the next decade. Right before Nanook of the North (1922) — an early, partially fictitious documentary about the Inuit people — took the fetish to its pinnacle, one of the more celebrated all-Native films, The Daughter of Dawn (1920), screened at the College Theater in downtown Los Angeles to rave reviews. Thought lost until 2012, Daughter eventually received a long-overdue restoration.

It wasn't until 1961 that another film of prominence, The Exiles, featured an all-Native cast. While made by a white man, The Exiles — which tells the story of young Native men and women who moved to Bunker Hill — offered a more intimate and loving portrayal of its characters. It was a re-creation of daily life of urban Native Americans, where they dance and drink and cruise the city, hyper-aware they don't fit in but trying their best nonetheless. They want to escape their history to become so-called "regular people," part of America's dominant culture. But in some ways, becoming "regular" means abandoning their culture. At the mercy of a modernizing country that has just chosen to lay waste to their treaties, squeezing them out from their homelands and into the city, these youth are caught in a world in-between, marooned as second-class citizens denied full entry to the dominant white hegemony.

Briët's father, who grew up in the 1970s and '80s, was fortunate enough to be reared after the rise to prominence of the American Indian Movement (AIM), which allowed many Natives to reclaim their heritage and pride — though not necessarily their rights. Briët reaps the benefit of her father's experience.

"You do feel a sense of longing in the past," she says. "But it's an ember of a fire, and you feel proud to pass it on to others. I don't think I've ever felt ashamed of being Native in school. But I know I am very fortunate to say that."

The Native films that have come out since AIM — and since Briët was born — are reverential, dramatic and also increasingly directed by Natives too. Think of Chris Eyre's classic family film Smoke Signals (1998), Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2002) or Sterlin Harjo's Barking Water (2009).

Still, there very few Native filmmakers, and even fewer who are female. Yet this doesn't seem to concern Briët. She's also in the minority of females studying computer science and coding. More than anything, she says she wants to harness the power of virtual reality, because she "love[s] the idea of VR being a new medium with a level playing field, where anyone can step up and decide how it will be used."

Briët may be on her way to making her mark on cinema and technology, but she's still got a piece of that little girl in her, the one who stands before the world and dances for herself and her people, with eyes and heart forward.


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