Rock Hill residents and Winthrop students gathered in Richardson Ballroom for the 19th Annual Native American Indian Film Festival of the Southeast. The Department of Mass Communication and its Student Advisory Board co-hosted the event.
Dr. Guy Reel, the chair of the Mass Communication Department, was offered the opportunity to promote and screen the films.
“I jumped at the chance. It’s a great opportunity for our students and our community. I was happy to do it,” Reel said.
“We agreed with Dr. Reel that it would be a good thing to do to promote the Native American community since the Catawba Nation is so close to us,” advisory member Em Leamy said.
Leamy stated that this cultural event was a part of the full film festival that had film showings at various locations in Rock Hill and Columbia.
Guests watched two short documentary films, “My Identity” and “First Light,” before a panel of experts discussed Native American films, the short film format and issues in the Native American community.
“My Identity” is a biographical film about Ashley, a young Native-American Caucasian girl who converted to Islam to find structure in her life. The film touched on how race, religion and family heritage can influence one’s identity, but also addressed issues with the child welfare system.
“First Light” investigated the history of discriminatory child welfare practices with Native American children from the 1800s to modern day. American governments interpreted the actions as progressive and an act of “civilization.”
A couple consequences of these practices are the deletion of Native American culture and traditions, and feelings of shame among Native American descendents. According to testimonies from the film, some foster families made them feel like outcasts.
The panelists were Dr. Will Moreau Goins, Gerry Martin, Melissa Harris and Bert Hesse.
Harris is a Winthrop alumna as well as the first Catawba to graduate from Winthrop. She currently works for the Catawba Indian Nation in Rock Hill, being the Indian Child Welfare Act head start director.
Harris, who has a background in social work, stated that there are some issues that Native American communities struggle with, affecting whether they keep their children or not.
“Sometimes our people will struggle with substance abuse and domestic violence issues,” Harris said.
Harris grew up on the Catawba reservation, and still lives there today with her husband and four children. She was also at a rally for the Dakota Access Pipeline event, and felt that news media is not covering the situation thoroughly.
“Our voices are not being heard. I spoke with the Chief at the Dakota reservation, and he’s concerned that it’ll get worse,” Harris said.
Hesse is the president of Catawba Studios, the first Native American-owned movie studio.
“We are all looking for identities. The word tribe is being used a lot with current day nomenclature and in the election. Not just for Native Americans, but for groups of people in general. But by the end, we are all a part of the human tribe,” Hesse said.
Martin works with Red Heritage Media, a Catawba-owned production company. Having his video and film expertise with major brands such as NASCAR, Fox Sports, Walmart and Target, Martin applies his skills to projects in Red Heritage Media.
Martin noted that he had to do a lot of research understand the background of the Catawba Indian Nation. It offered him inspiration during his short film projects.
“I had to look up references, check out books, and did some research, and there is a tremendous story there, from day one,” Martin said.
Goins did not speak on the panel, but spoke with guests after the event about opportunities and resources about local Native American areas.
Winthrop student Ethan Mitchell is of Waccamaw-Siouan descent. He found it difficult to identify as a Native American.
“Most of the population here is either white or black, and Native American is kind of in the middle of everything. You feel like you’re outcasted all the time, but not socially awkward. I don’t understand sometimes African-American culture and white culture. It’s a little different because I was raised different,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell also found Ashley’s story in “My Identity” relatable.
“Her story is similar to a lot of Native American stories,” Mitchell said.
“Identifying as Native American is so important for me and our ancestors who spilled blood for us to be here today,” Harris said.
Winthrop student Sierra Kirby found the cultural event educating and “eye-opening.”
“I think Native Americans are often overlooked and I never would have known the stigma they face. I also thought it was awesome how proud they are of their culture and also how willing they are to share it,” Kirby said.
Kirby also grew up near Rock Hill, and is familiar with the Catawba reservation.
“I know other students who are not from here that have no idea they are so close,” Kirby said.
Harris encouraged non-Native American Winthrop students to learn more about Native American heritage.
“When you’re in a school like Winthrop, you have to be open to the different communities around you. It’s important there are other races out there. Knowledge is power. Come visit Catawba Nation, and come meet with our people,” Harris said.