Award-winning filmmaker Mat Hames’s feature documentary, When I Rise, about African American mezzo-soprano and civil rights icon Barbara Conrad, was featured on Independent Lens and nominated for an IDA Documentary Award. One of Mat’s other films, Last Best Hope, about the Belgian Resistance during WWII, eventually led to him being knighted by the King of Belgium. The Austin-based Hames found himself in a very different place, Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, for a number of years so he could patiently and properly tell the story of Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone people attempting to bring back sacred artifacts from museums so they can eventually create their own museum. The resulting film, What Was Ours, which premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Jan 16 at 10pm [check local listings], won Best Documentary Feature at the American Indian Film Festival and was a selection in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian Native Cinema Showcase. Hames spoke to us about how he ingratiated himself slowly within the Wind River community, about the challenges of telling a Native story that non-Native audiences won’t dismiss, and gives us some updates on what Mikala and Jordan are up to now.

Why did you make want to make this film?

What Was Ours was made over the course of 13 trips to the Wind River Reservation during a period of four years. I wanted to make a film focusing on three people who represent the past, present, and future of a reservation. As a boy, my family took annual hiking trips to the mountains, and I tried hard to memorize the names of the peaks. One day I learned that each mountain once had an older Arapaho name, and I wanted to know what they were. My family visited “Eagle Plume’s,” an Indian art store nestled at the base of Long’s Peak in Colorado, where an old Arapaho man named Charles would tell us jokes and stories. He knew all the old names, but I wondered who would remember those names once he passed on.

In 2011, I was working with Wyoming PBS on a project to create a digital archive of ancestral objects for the Arapaho and Shoshone tribes. After many trips just visiting with the elders over meals, I came to understand that some were upset that their ancestors’ artifacts were now in the hands of non-Indians, with collectors, museums, and churches. I wanted to help amplify their voices and follow their journey to learn about these objects so I started to make a film about it.

Philbert hunting in the snow on Wind River reservation
Philbert hunting in the snow on Wind River reservation

How did you meet the film’s subjects (Philbert, Mikala and Jordan), and why tell a story with three people?

At a tribal elders meeting I attended, Philbert McLeod arrived early. I was told it was unusual for Philbert to “put himself forward.” Immediately I was drawn to him. He spoke native Shoshone, was shy and humble, but he loved to make jokes. He agreed to an interview, and wanted to talk about his experiences in the Vietnam War as a helicopter gunner and the Shoshone object that kept him alive, which turned into 5 different interviews over the course of a few years. I believe he was trying to help me understand the human connection to these artifacts. I met others in different ways. Jordan Dresser was a journalist, then 27, and Mikala Sun Rhodes was a 17-year-old high school student at the time. Jordan and Mikala’s parents were so supportive of them, and I fell in love with their extended families.  The three emerged as one way to represent the past, present, and future of Wind River. Weaving three stories together became a way to tell one story.

How did you ultimately gain their trust?

Slowly. I made a few trips just to talk to people long before any filming. My first step was to gain permission from the Tribal Councils, who were generally supportive but asked me to meet elders. So I spent some time going to lunch or dinner with elders and listening to their concerns. The whole project took 4+ years and many trips to the Wind River Reservation. I think once the tribal elders saw that I kept coming back up there again and again, they realized I wanted to truly make a film, rather than meet a quick deadline or feed into some larger narrative I had presumed to be true.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making What Was Ours?

While I had no major challenges at all being accepted by the members of the tribes, I did face skepticism from local (non-native) people living outside the reservation in the towns, who often scoffed or tried to talk me out of it. I sometimes felt I needed to assure the tribes that I wasn’t going to tell a sensational story focusing on negatives.

Can you tell us more about that, about the resistance to films about Native Americans and Native culture from outsiders: How do you overcome the cliches/stereotypes/concerns people have about telling Native stories?

It’s an interesting question. Being an outsider to the Wind River Reservation was not a liability with the tribes as much as it was with non-natives. What Was Ours was a difficult film to make because, frankly, non-native people were the people who have resistance. I think there is a certain type of person who view themselves as progressive, yet who only wants a Native American film to reinforce a narrative they already have in mind. I feel you can only overcome resistance by making a thoughtful film that doesn’t fall into the cliches. The most important audience for the film were the people who live on reservations, because it’s their story.

Did you have to learn some of the Shoshone or Arapaho language to make the film? What was most interesting to you about how those languages work?

I definitely tried! The most interesting thing about the languages is how much humor they convey. Once the conversation started flowing in Arapaho or in Shoshone, they would be constantly laughing. But the main thing I took away from the language was “hohóu” (pronounced ha-ho), which means “thank you” in Arapaho. It’s a sentiment that I want to express to all the people on the reservation who took me into their homes and lives for these past few years. It has greatly enriched my life and “hohóu” is the essence how I feel about the whole experience.

What do you think is universal or at least relatable to other cultures in this story of artifact retrieval and repatriation? Or is it a uniquely Native peoples issue?

Philbert and Mikala look at tribal artifacts while in storage room at Field MuseumI think the legacy of colonialism is relatable across the world. At the same time, each situation is unique. Fortunately, I think museums like the Chicago Field Museum have been doing the right thing for some time now, in trying to invite first peoples to participate in their collections. The bigger issue is when tribes simply don’t know what’s out there, or have the resources to travel or to help the museum care for the items in a way that takes the tribe’s traditional views into account.

What I’ve been told by tribes is that in some cases physical repatriation is appropriate, and in some cases the tribes are grateful that the museum is equipped to house everything. The important thing is the museum and the tribes to communicate, and sometimes that can be fraught with complications depending on personalities. There is not a one size fits all solution.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

So much! There will be a ton of bonus scenes on the DVD. The story of Philbert as a young soldier in Vietnam was amazing but had to be trimmed back. Also, there was a whole section on the history of the missionaries on the reservation, Wind River’s history during the 1970’s American Indian Movement, and the history of tribal museums outside of Wind River. All of those things I hope to include in web vignettes and as DVD extras.

Has the film been shown in Wind River itself? Have the three folks featured most prominently in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

We screened it three times at Wind River, with a full house each time. The first screening, at the Peck Theater in Riverton, had around 900 people from the Reservation turn up. After that we screened in Lander at a movie theater, and the theater was full and had to turn people away, so we added a third screening. People on the reservation really seem to love the film. Jordan and Mikala love the film. Sadly, Philbert passed away in January of 2016 before I could show it to him.

Do you have any good Philbert anecdotes to share?

When we flew to Chicago to visit the Field Museum, we had to fly from Denver. As we were going through security, the TSA found that Philbert had brought along a HUGE hunting knife. He was shocked that anyone made a deal out of it since he hadn’t flown since 1967. We had to explain to him that they don’t allow that anymore. They confiscated his knife, but we got him a new one.

Mikala Sun Rhodes and her horseCan you give us updates on what Jordan and Mikala are up to these days?

Mikala is going to college and constantly making new objects, jewelry or regalia for use in Powwow dancing – some are quite amazing. Jordan now has his masters in Museum Studies, is working with the tribes to create official collections policies for artifacts, and is seeking a job as a curator. Ultimately, I think he’d love to see a tribal museum on the reservation.

What are your three favorite films?

It changes monthly, but today it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Sorrow and the Pity, and The Tree of Life.

What films or projects are you working on next?

Several at once! I’ve been directing a documentary series, called RTDocs, for Rooster Teeth about technology and internet culture for their subscription platform, which has truly been a blast. I also have another independent documentary in the works but it’s the very early stages now.