GOOD DOCS spoke to Elizabeth A. Castle, a historian, educator, filmmaker and Executive Director of The Warrior Women Oral History Project. Co-directed with Christina D. King, WARRIOR WOMEN is the Peabody Award-nominated story of Madonna Thunder Hawk, a leader of the 1970s American Indian Movement (AIM) who shaped a kindred group of activists' children - including her daughter Marcy - into the "We Will Remember" Survival School as a Native alternative to government-run education. Today, Madonna and Marcy are still at the forefront of Native issues, fighting against the environmental devastation of the Dakota Access Pipeline and for Indigenous cultural values. Interview conducted by Naomi Wainwright.
Who are the Warrior Women and what is your film about?
The film is about a mother and a daughter. They are this powerful vehicle. Madonna Thunder Hawk, known as the “OGG” - or “Original Gangster Granny,” which she is in every way possible. She's this very powerful, strong, humble figure, as is her daughter Marcy. We tell the story of this mother and daughter, from the early times of Madonna's activism and engagement as a community organizer in the late 60s through the Standing Rock Resistance Movement of 2016 and 2017. They're still as active today, if not more so than they have been throughout their lives.
Warrior Women is this powerful idea of bringing back and reconnecting to the matriarchy that is behind Native culture and is something that I think all of us are wanting to connect to more and more now.
How was the idea for the film conceived?
This film came from a moment 21 years ago while I was on an interview trip for my Ph.D. about women and the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. I was really conscious about being in that interview, listening to what these women were saying and I remember my thought patterns being transformed, and I had the realization: ‘this is what unlearning and relearning is.’ I was learning a history and an experience that blew my mind. I realized that this was going to be bigger than me and it needed to be something that would reach a lot of people. Even though it began as a scholarly project, from the very beginning, the idea was always ‘what's the point of knowledge gathering and creation if you don't make it accessible and transformative for people?’
In 2010, I met Christina King, who is a Native filmmaker and who was working on another project. We started talking, and she saw the power and the potential of the film. I like to say that even though it took a long time, it happened right on time. We can talk about Native women's leadership and a lot of issues that are in the film and people connect to it now because we're reaching a stage where this leadership and this knowledge is something that people want and need. It's been a long journey but it's been super powerful because now I think we're going to be more effective in getting this history out there.
This is a directorial debut for both you and Christina. How did each of your career experiences inform your approach?
That is part of why this film is so powerful, and all of the materials that have been gathered, created and produced behind it are also going to be put out in the world as part of the impact plan tied to the film. We just have this incredible team. How many people get the actual historian who wrote the book on the subject? We have a collaboration with the "subjects." I'm saying that in air quotes because our entire process in making this film, before some more advanced terminology about extractive filmmaking and colonizing film practices...We are delivering history through powerful storytelling and using very rare archival footage and ultimately centering Indigenous voice and experience in the process. That's a really hard thing to do, and it's something I think we could only do through the partnership that Christina and I have, and also the support that we got all along the way.
I'm always in academia trying to think: how do I make it real? How can we get beyond the silo...One of the big reasons why so many women would interview and wanted to interview with me was the fundamental recognition and perception that as a white-appearing woman that went to a fancy school, with a camera, who was accessible and they could talk to, that they were going to create something that was gonna be able to be part of that. Maybe the words weren't used exactly this way – but it was going to transform that master narrative.
In other words, the Warrior Women Project, which is this huge collection of oral histories that the film is based on, is something that is a very valid historical resource and for academics, schools, and universities who want to look at this model of: ‘how can we do this work, so that it's not extractive, so that it benefits students but it also protects and/or respects the voices and the communities from which it comes?’ All of those things are packed into this film.
Can you talk about your use of archival footage in the film?
There's a way in which the words "archive" and "history" still denote this fundamental feeling of things gone by, things that are old, things that are not relevant. The big switch in our film was when we started to – through a real super-sleuth research process – find this archival footage. Though it is historical and archival, I feel like it does the opposite of what people think – it really brings them alive.
One of things I'm really excited about and I hope to connect with other filmmakers is about a way in which we can work to make archival of women of color, of groups who fall in this marginalized category. You have to really create some strategies to be able to find this material historically…[We were] really trying to retrace and find folks who are not part of any traditional, archival system.
You use memory in a non-linear mode to tell this history. Can you talk a little bit about this choice?
I'm trying to distill 20 years worth of figuring out how to tell this story and 10 years of really working on it. Initially we made a more traditional film in which we followed a more linear narrative. Everything happened in an order. You saw the years when they happened, which also put attention on trying to identify, put dates in, name people.
However, the decolonized filmmaking processes, decolonizing documentary, is leading the way for a new model that doesn't have to stay in that framework where there's one singular voice of authority. The difference is, Madonna was still our primary narrator, her and Marcy. But we spent a lot of time trying to re-record and make her say certain things that she would normally never say. One of the key elements is that she doesn't say, "I." "I did this" - everything is we. It could've been this uncompromising story of a woman who kicked ass and took names. It would be very narrow and it wouldn't be the full story. It wouldn't seem like a vehicle for all these other people's stories….As a historian, I had to make sure that nothing is said that is untrue.
It's hard to make an inspiring film about Native issues because it's a story of surviving genocide. But I think we did it! That's the thing I can't believe. We are shocked at how many people come to see the film who knew nothing about Indian country or Native people or any issues and now they want to go do something...I think you come out of the film and have an idea of what intergenerational trauma and historical trauma look like, but we never use that phrase. It will be more impactful because they were personalized in the story of Madonna and Marcy.
What does it mean to decolonize your filmmaking voice?
The very nature of how you decolonize your voice as an individual is a great challenge and is really critical. If you don't do that, you're still sort of performing this age old framework where you're “functioning without bias”. This is somewhat the bedrock of filmmaking or journalism - that somehow you're a conduit for something and not affected by it.
I would describe Indigenous filmmaking, in particular, as a process and a product that is grounded in an Indigenous worldview, in so much that the Indigenous experience and voices and worldview are what is normalized. It's the baseline and that is a really hard space to achieve because, typically, the majority of the folks in the room at any given point don't come from an Indigenous perspective and are always asking you to translate or create that for this audience. It's very important because if not, you're not necessarily making an Indigenous film from an Indigenous filmmaking perspective: you're making a film about a Native issue.
You don't do work, research and extractive research processes on communities without having certain accountability, responsibility, and reciprocity and without a real definition of who benefits and who is the audience.
This is something that has been part of everything that we do. For example, Christina has talked often about the importance of decolonizing her own voice. As a Native identified filmmaker, she's in a space where all of us are still often encouraged to tell the great hero narrative, [in which a] lot of things would be considered Eurocentric, European model or classic white framework of how the story should be told and who should be focused on and who the audience is. One of the basic frameworks of Indigenous filmmaking is flipping all of that on its head. You're thinking differently about who the audience is, who the narrators are, and what the whole context is for the story. It's a lifetime question that I think needs to evolve and being able to recognize how we put the film out in the world and what we went through as individuals was really important.
Can you give us an example of how these considerations influenced your process?
We had two different cuts of the film. The first version was very linear and chronological that addressed boarding school first, in a way that focused heavily on explaining what boarding school was to people who don't know that it was a place where cultural genocide was practiced. This first cut started with boarding schools so that Survival School could be seen as a reaction to it. Survival School being this powerful, transformative, alternative space - where in this case, survival is literal survival and the cultural right to exist and be - by teaching Native tradition and values and worldview and politics.
So we asked, how are Madonna and Marcy remembering all of this? And guess what - they remember both at once. So why not start with this empowered, unapologetically Native footage of young Indian people being fully confident in who they are? I think if we had followed the traditional model of documentary filmmaking, the film might be more widely shown on different distribution platforms, but we tried to frame it in a way that was more true to Indigenous memory and voice, and we're wholeheartedly not doing the Columbusing narrative of “it's new to me, so it's new to everybody”.