Māori writer, director, and performer Taika Waititi’s land acknowledgment at the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony is one of the biggest Indigenous moments at the Oscars since 1973, when Marlon Brando declined his award and Sacheen Littlefeather took the microphone in his place to make a statement supporting the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee. Waititi’s acknowledgment of the Tongva, Tataviam, and Chumash as “the first peoples of this land on which the motion pictures community lives and works” ricocheted across the Internet. Indigenous responses ranged from Nick Martin’s remarks about the “dissonance” of land acknowledgmentsin the face of public apathy on Indigenous issues to Heperi Mita’s deeply appreciative contextualization of Waititi’s achievements within a Māori “filmmaking whakapapa.” Whakapapa is often defined as “genealogy,” the ordering of generations and the relations among their stories, although the term also entails broader concepts fundamental to Māori worldviews and epistemologies; Mita invokes it here to foreground Indigenous relationality across multiple generations of filmmakers.
Indeed this moment—Waitit’s win, and his speech—has multiple genealogies, some obvious and others more hidden, because Indigenous participation in film and media production has occupied contradictory positions of invisibility and hypervisibility for a very long time. In the face of long-term erasure from the screen, we point to the resilience and endurance of historical and ongoing communities of Indigenous performers and filmmakers. Recognizing this presence and power re-centers Indigenous participation in North American film and media; it draws our attention to offscreen production networks and infrastructures, interventions in regimes of redfacing, and the leveraging of hard-won screen visibility to support political movements such as #MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) and #NODAPL (No to the Dakota Access Pipeline).
“Indigenous Performance Networks” centers the lives and work of Indigenous performers, consultants, writers, directors, fans, and others who have participated in the systems that produce screen images. These are stories that have not been told before about Indigenous Hollywood. Faced with screen images of “vanishing Indians,” we see evidence of Indigenous presence, from early cinema to the Hollywood studio system to independent media arts to contemporary television and digital media. Through historical recovery and print, digital, and interview research, we “re-credit” the work of Indigenous performers, filmmakers, and digital media artists, making visible their pathways across professional and political networks. In addition to chronicling individual stories, we also attend to infrastructures of media production, from casting agencies and organizations supporting Indigenous actors to state arts funding initiatives. We extend historical analysis to the industry phenomenon that John Caldwell calls “production culture”—the practices by which workers at all levels of production make sense of their labor—and build upon what Michelle Raheja and others have called “visual sovereignty,” or the “space between resistance and compliance” within which Indigenous filmmakers engage and re-shape film conventions.
Returning to Waititi’s 2020 Oscar speech, it is worth noting that he combined a land acknowledgment with a dedication of his Oscar award to Indigenous youth. While gesturing to ancient and ongoing Indigenous presence on the land—still there, despite centuries of erasure—Waititi also insists on Indigenous futurity and its great promise: “to all the Indigenous kids in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories,” he said, “we are the original storytellers, and we can make it here as well.”
For notes and references, see:
Joanna Hearne, “Introduction, Indigenous Performance Networks: Media, Community, Activism,” JCMS 60, no. 2, (Winter 2021): 152-156.