NCFY Reports

Young People Focus Through Native Lens

Here’s how Sara London, then in high school, knew the staff of Native Lens trusted her: They handed her a $5,000 video camera.

Though London had used computers and a “little digital camera” before participating in Native Lens, a filmmaking program for Native American youth in Washington state, “I had never used such a high-tech camera,” she says. “It made us feel important to have the cameras and all the sound equipment.”

Entrusting students with the same professional gear and editing software Spike Jonze or Martin Scorsese might use is key to Native Lens’ two-pronged mission. First, prepare young Native Americans—particularly those who’ve gotten in trouble, done poorly in school or had problems with drugs and alcohol—for the digital age and, possibly, for careers in filmmaking and digital design. Second, and perhaps more important, give them the tools to tell their stories to a wide audience.

Photograph of a native youth with a camera.
Photograph courtesy of Longhouse Media.

“We just set the bar really high, and I think this helps us to keep ahead of how technology’s changing,” says Tracy Rector, executive director of Longhouse Media, the Seattle media-arts organization that houses Native Lens.

Youth who participate in the program learn a range of skills including filmmaking, Web design and podcasting. The idea of teens making digital art may not sound unusual, but many Native youth are on the wrong side of the so-called digital divide that separates those with access to technology from those without.

“There are Native communities in 2009 that are just now gaining access to the Internet and having their communities wired,” says Dana Arviso, a Native Lens volunteer and a graduate student in the University of Washington’s College of Education. “It’s really important for all youth of color, and particularly Native youth, to have exposure to technology. Our world is radically changing, and so much is being built around technology.”

Though Native youth may not have computers at home, many of them have hidden expertise that can be applied to filmmaking and storytelling, Rector says.

“Many of our youth are latchkey students. They watch 10 hours of television a day. We turn that into not a ‘shame on you’ for watching TV but show them they can use that,” she says. She tells youth to think about the messages they are receiving, shot choices, composition and music.

Many youth also come to the program with storytelling skills because of their cultures’ emphasis on oral history, she says.

“We say, ‘OK, you’ve heard these stories all your life. What’s a story that’s meaningful for you? How would you tell that story?’” she says.

Learning to tell their stories not only boosts young people’s self-image, Rector says, it also helps counter Hollywood stereotypes of Native Americans.

“We can show we aren’t just natives who live in teepees or are drunks,” says London, who is now an undergraduate student at the University of Washington. “We can show that we have stories to tell outside the stereotypes.”

Youth can receive high school or college credit for the hours they spend in Native Lens. Several have gone on to film school or jobs in television, film or cultural preservation.

Youth also are given opportunities within the program. Rector says, “We’ve seen a lot of youth programs that oftentimes youth age out at age 19, so we try to scaffold our work so there’s a peer mentoring component and an opportunity where they can be teachers as well.”

Arviso believes learning to make films has a profound effect on some young people—beyond enhancing their communication, research and technology skills and their employability. In 2007, she studied three youth working on “March Point,” a 2008 Native Lens documentary about the impact of oil refineries in the Swinomish community in Washington.

Making the film, she says, led the youth to some truly reflective moments: “They’re growing up, and they’re looking at themselves a year ago when they were making poor decisions, and they’re realizing that with adulthood comes the opportunity to define their lives through a series of choices.”

Native Lens’ first feature film, “March Point,” aired on PBS’ “Independent Lens” program in November 2008 and March 2009. See the trailer.

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