Some filmmakers are bringing audiences back to reality with pressing issues such as cultural extinction and environmental problems.
The Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies presented “Standing on Sacred Ground,” an event featuring four documentary screenings and two discussion forums centered around the theme of indigenous people defending their culture and environment, last Thursday and Friday. The films selected were taken from the Sacred Land Film Project by Toby McLeod ’75 and Jessica Abbey, and forum guests included indigenous musician Tiokasin Ghost Horse, conservationist Terry Tempest Williams and Kapiolani Laronal, assistant director of the Native American Cultural Center at Yale. According to F&ES senior lecturer Mary Evelyn Tucker, an event organizer, the event’s first night garnered an audience of roughly 50 people.
“As unique as each indigenous culture is, they share a profound love for the earth, a deep attachment to homeland that is characterized by respect, reciprocity, responsibility and reverence, universal values that we can all learn from and which we need to practice if we are to survive,” McLeod said.
McLeod said he completed the four-part documentary film series “Standing on Sacred Ground” in 2015 for the Public Broadcasting Service. The series features eight indigenous cultures around the world that are protecting sacred places from a variety of threats, including mining, pipelines, dams and New Age appropriation of culture. Similarly, he said the importance of these topics was also apparent during his time at Standing Rock, North Dakota, where there was a sense of a major shift in the recognition of indigenous leadership in the face of the climate crisis.
As a filmmaker, McLeod said his job is to bring stories of protest to wider audiences and act as a cultural bridge in translating the historic meaning of these struggles for audiences while simultaneously fostering dialogue about these complex issues. All of his work is done in a culture blinded by materialism, he added, and the often “mindless pursuit” of profit and personal advancement.
“Everyone wants to talk about [these challenges] and figure out what is going on,” McLeod said. “It’s a very important shift, involving tremendous growth in the number of allies who listen to Native American leaders and offer financial support and advocate honoring treaties.”
After graduating from Yale, McLeod attended the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. For his master’s thesis film, he spent four years in Hopi and Navajo country in Arizona and New Mexico documenting the cultural and ecological impacts of coal and uranium mining. He said he learned that traditional indigenous leaders were most concerned about the desecration of sacred places — springs that give life to entire villages, sacred mountains where spirits of ancestors dwell and ancient villages where clans developed complex ceremonies. Many of these areas were and are being destroyed by American corporations in collusion with the U.S. government, he noted, and his films seek to bring these facts to light.
The series took seven years to produce and took him to eight special locations around the world, including the Rift Valley in Ethiopia, the Altai Republic of Russia in Central Asia and the sacred lands of Native Hawaiians.
McLeod noted that even more people attended the second day of the event, with about 100 in attendance on Friday afternoon at F&ES. He added that the second day of the event featured conversations with Laronal as well as one of her students who told stories of contemporary struggles on Hawaii. They were joined by Williams who shared her thoughts on how U.S. national parks are actually sacred lands that should be visited with the protocols of pilgrimage.
“It was good to bring out strong, receptive and participatory audiences for both days of the film showings,” said John Grimm, another event organizer and the director of the joint-degree program in religion and ecology between F&ES and the Yale Divinity School.