Filmmaker Sky Hopinka’s unconventional ways of telling Native stories

The artist and filmmaker Sky Hopinka was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Genius Award last fall, celebrating a decade of his experimental work focused on Indigenous people. Jeffrey Brown met Hopinka in New York’s Hudson Valley for the final story in our series on contemporary Native American Arts. It’s part of our arts and culture series, "CANVAS."

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    The artist and film maker Sky Hopinka was awarded the prestigious MacArthur genius award last fall, celebrating a decade of his experimental work focused on indigenous people.

    Jeffrey Brown met with Hopinka in New York's Hudson Valley for our final story in our series on contemporary Native American arts.

    It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Woman:

    I was here last month, and it was all water.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A young Native woman soon to give birth, having survived rough years. Speaking in English, with Chinook subtitles.

  • Man (through translator):

    I sing this song to Vincent.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A young man immersing himself in his Native language and customs, he speaks in Chinook with English subtitles.

    Both exploring the beauty, history and mythology of the Pacific Northwest. The 2020 documentary "Malni: Towards The Ocean, Towards The Shore" is lyrical in form, circling around its themes, a meditation a Chinookan myth of death and rebirth.

    It's also a love letter to the natural world. It's the first feature by filmmaker and photographer Sky Hopinka.

    Sky Hopinka, Artist and Filmmaker: There's something about shooting the Oregon coast in the winter when it's gray and rainy and cloudy and the trees are a special kind of green and the dirt is a special red of hue that I just really love.

    And I just really want to express that visually. And then that works in tandem with just like the high-minded ideas about language and about decolonization and about these different ideas of myth.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The 38-year-old, who now teaches at Bard College in New York's Hudson Valley, grew up between Washington state and California, the son of casino workers, his father a member of the Ho-Chunk Tribe from Wisconsin and his mother a member of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians from Southern California.

  • Sky Hopinka:

    My family would go to powwows. And my mom was a dancer and my dad was a drummer. And that's how they met was on the powwow trail.

    And so it was something that I grew up with. I grew up close, but adjacent to a reservation. But it wasn't my own reservation. There's a lot of feeling a part of the community, separate from the community, and also trying to locate myself in the landscape, but also amongst my family.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You grow up knowing you're Native, of course, knowing that this is a part of your culture, but did you feel it defined you?

  • Sky Hopinka:

    Yes, I mean, it definitely defined me. I mean, how could it not?

    You know, it's like you're brown and you're a kid and you're living in a small white farming community. You know, of course it defines you. No one would ever let me forget that I'm Native.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Hopinka was in his late 20s when he decided to pursue experimental film as a way to explore that identity.

  • Sky Hopinka:

    I was thinking about Native American film and wanting to see my life and my experience reflected in these films and in ways that I hadn't.

    And so, like, if I want to see myself, my experience represented in film, then why not make it myself?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    His work can take on current events, as in "Dislocation Blues," a film Hopinka shot while at the Standing Rock protests in 2016 and 2017.

  • Woman:

    Papa talked Spanish. Mama talked Indian. She would talk Indian. He would talk Spanish. He would talk English. And there were three languages spoken in the house.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But, more often, personal histories are explored; 2021's "Kicking the Clouds" is both a language lesson and family history. The film centers around old audio cassette tapes of his grandmother.

  • Sky Hopinka:

    My grandma passed away some 15, 16 years ago, and we were really close. And I had never heard her voice that young before. And so that was really striking.

    And here she was in 1971-'72 trying to get her mom to teach her Luiseno, to teach her Pechanga, because she never did. And my great grandma was resistant because she went to the boarding schools in Southern California and was taught not to want to speak her language, to be ashamed of it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    She could be punished for it.

  • Sky Hopinka:

    Yes. So you could hear that tension in some of the back-and-forth in some of the exchanges. But you can also hear their joy.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    His films are rooted in what he calls Native people doing Native things, but as they define it, even the boring, banal stuff of everyday life, far from the spectacle of trauma so familiar in Hollywood films.

  • Sky Hopinka:

    And it's important for that to exist. But it's also important for these other parts of me, of a community to exist that are not based on the definitions of our trauma or how an audience outside of us looks at us, how the white Western world looks at us.

    And so what does it mean to pick up a camera and point the things at — that I want to point it at that are interesting to me, but might be boring to anyone else?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Hopinka, also an accomplished photographer, wants his work to broaden popular ideas of both Native life and visual storytelling.

  • Sky Hopinka:

    Like, on one hand, they're for everybody. And, on another hand, they are for me, my family, my community, my tribe.

    I want people to watch these films because I want them to be part of a larger conversation of, like, then what comes next? What does the next generation of indigenous experimental filmmakers look like?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Hopinka says the recognition and funds from the MacArthur fellowship can help him support those efforts.

    In the meantime, he's at work on two new feature films and has an upcoming gallery exhibition of his photography and videos.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York's Hudson Valley.

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