Native filmmaker Shaandiin Tome: ‘We’re more openly celebrating who we are’

Adam Piron is the Director of the Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program, which identifies and supports Indigenous filmmakers through fellowships, grants, artist labs, screenings and the Sundance Film Festival itself. Piron belongs to the Kiowa and Mohawk Tribes. This feature is part of CNN Style’s Hyphenated series, which explores complex issues of identity.

Shaandiin Tome was on the road when she heard the news. The 29-year-old New Mexico-based Diné filmmaker was on her way back from a whirlwind week at South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin where her documentary “Long Line of Ladies,” which she co-directed with Rayka Zehtabchi , had just screened. Her partner was watching a live-stream of the awards ceremony on Twitter when the film was announced as the winner of 2022’s Best Documentary Short.

“I thought he was joking, until I saw the announcement on his phone,” Tome recalled. “I pulled over and called Rayka to make sure this was really happening. We were just celebrating in the car for the rest of the ride.”

“Long Line of Ladies” steps into the world of Ahtyirahm “Ahty” Allen, a 13-year-old member of Northern California’s Karuk Tribe, as she anticipates her “Ihuk” or Flower Dance – a coming of age ceremony that takes place after young women in her community have their first period. According to the documentary, the ritual was practiced by the tribe for generations before the California Gold Rush, during which Native American girls and women became victims of sexual violence. The practice became dormant for over 120 years until its revival in the 1990s by a group of Karuk people.

Shot on 16-millimeter film, the documentary doesn’t show the ceremony itself (filming such events is banned in many Native American cultures) but instead follows Ahty in preparation for the big day – from trying on a ceremonial skirt made of maple bark to chatting with other girls about what crossing the milestone means. In one poignant scene she practices being blindfolded with a “taáv,” a blinder made out of boothbay feathers, while members of her community teach her dance movements.

The film provides a much-needed rectification to notions of Indigeneity being at odds with modernity by showing a Native tribe celebrating traditions and recontextualizing them for a younger generation. “I didn’t realize, until recently having all these conversations, that once I have my Flower Dance that it’s my responsibility to carry on (the tradition),” Ahty says as her ceremony approaches. “I feel prepared to do that.”

A still from "Long Line of Ladies."

A still from “Long Line of Ladies.” Credit: Courtesy Sam Davis

For Tome, the film was a labor of love. “Going into it, I thought of the ‘kinaaldá’: the Diné womanhood ceremony,” the director reflected over the phone.

“I didn’t want to have mine when I was younger because I was embarrassed at the time. It was a lot about how I saw myself then, which was also a reflection of how popular culture represents Indigenous women,” she explained. “Growing up, there wasn’t much representation … There were the women I saw in my life, who in my mind were powerful and had impact. Then there were representations like Disney’s ‘Pocahontas,’ which created a romanticized, one- note portrait, of Native women.

“I think to constantly be misrepresented amongst my peers caused me to feel as though I wasn’t valued, and as an extension, my beliefs and culture didn’t have a place in the Western world.”

Film poster for "Long Line of Ladies."

Movie poster for “Long Line of Ladies.” Credit: Courtesy of Shaandiin Tome

“Long Line of Ladies” co-director Zehtabtchi had previously directed the 2018 Oscar-winning short documentary “Period. End of Sentence,” which focused on women from a rural village outside Delhi, in India, who work to destigmatize menstruation. After hearing about the Ihuk’s revival, Zehtabtchi reached out to Tome – who as a director and cinematographer worked on several projects focused on untold stories of Indigenous communities – to collaborate on a documentary about the ritual. They spent over four months researching and interviewing the tribe and Ahty’s family, shooting for a total of seven days over the course of the production.

“This (Karuk) community had a different mindset. It’s incredible to see them not only practice their traditions, but that they’re also willing to adapt to future generations taking them on,” Tome said.

“We’re getting to a point where we’re more openly celebrating who we are as Indigenous people.”

A behind-the-scenes shot of the production.

A behind-the-scenes shot of the production. Credit: Courtesy Shaandiin Tome

Tome’s and Zehtabtchi’s shared win comes as the film and TV industries blossom with critically-acclaimed work by a new generation of Indigenous artists. A few major accomplishments in recent years include Taika Waititi’s Oscar wins for “Jojo Rabbit,” in 2020, as well as Waititi and Sterlin Harjo’s all-Indigenous staffed “Reservation Dogs” on FX, Sierra Teller Ornelas’ “Rutherford Falls” on Peacock, Fox Maxy’s win for “Maat Means Land” at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and Sky Hopinka’s Sundance premiere of “maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore.”

This swell of Native artists working across genres and narrative forms points to the emergence of an increasingly distinct Indigenous Cinema. As well as offering unique aesthetic approaches, this wave of movies breaks with convention by depicting individual tribes’ experiences rather than pan-Indian ones. It’s part of a larger assertion that Indigenous movies and television should not represent a monolith of a single people or nation, but should instead act as a blurred label for the work of artists hailing from distinct cultures connected by a shared historical struggle. This perspective naturally lends itself to a kind of personal storytelling, most notably by translating culturally specific perspectives and philosophies into new visual languages ​​outside the traditions of the American mainstream.

Shaandiin Tome speaks onstage during the 2020 Women at Sundance celebration hosted by the Sundance Institute and Refinery29 on January 27, 2020 in Park City, Utah.

Shaandiin Tome speaks onstage during the 2020 Women at Sundance celebration hosted by the Sundance Institute and Refinery29 on January 27, 2020 in Park City, Utah. Credit: Suzi Pratt / Getty Images

“There are so many paths coming from so many different people and their perspectives,” Tome said.

To be alive in this time now is so wild, and to think about how I get to make films with a lens that didn’t exist before. It takes a lot of risk and power to push things forward. I feel fortunate to be able to do that with this film. “With its win at SXSW,” Long Line of Ladies “is now eligible to be nominated for an Academy Award in 2023’s Best Documentary Short category. Should that happen, Tome would become the first-ever Native American director to have a movie nominated at the Oscars.

When asked about the possibility, the filmmaker said, “Ahty’s story deserves everything. This family and what they’re doing deserves everything. If getting shortlisted or nominated just helps to recognize what they’ve done (in terms of cultural preservation), I ‘m more than happy with that. “

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