According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 5.2 million people in the United States identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, and 22 percent live on one of over 300 reservations in the country. Yet despite First World surroundings, life on many reservations is more likened to that in the Third World due to poor housing, healthcare, and education. Suicide and substance abuse rates are especially high among these groups when compared to the American population as a whole, and according to interviews conducted and research examined by Zachary Erwin ’17, these issues are deeply embedded in the history of the marginalization of America’s indigenous people.
From July to August 2016, Zach spent 10 days in the Pacific Northwest filming, interviewing, and living with thousands of Native Americans participating in an annual “Canoe Journey.” Zach also took a week off from his usual schoolwork this November to stand alongside the Sioux tribe at Standing Rock in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline. His work is part of an ongoing documentary project he's working on with photographer Gabrielle Colton entitled Still Here, which will examine the burden of suicide and substance abuse in native populations.
Q: What inspired you to begin this project?
A: I met Gabrielle Colton on an editorial photo shoot for a Louisville-based photographer. She is a Native American from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde which are located in Portland, Oregon. She wanted to do a project highlighting life on reservations, and a great way to see a lot of different perspectives from different tribes is to do the Canoe Journey. The Canoe Journey is when over one hundred Pacific Northwest Native American tribes canoe along the Puget Sound. At the end—in Nisqually—there are thousands of Native Americans gathered together; I think one count said 10,000.
It’s incredible because I’d always seen Native Americans as being monocultural but that’s not true at all. That’s like saying Americans are the same everywhere. It was incredible to see all these different tribes with all of their different traditions, languages, dances, and songs. Gabby photographed, I shot video, and once we’re done with our series, Gabby’s planning to apply for a grant to make a full documentary. That’s the end goal.
Q: Where does your passion for Native American people come from?
A: Honestly, it came from proximity. Gabby and I had talked some about her identity as a Native American and, as an economics major, I was really interested in the question, Why are reservations in such bad shape right now? Some tribes are rich but others don’t have running water, and they’re only 30 minutes away from an American metropolis.
In most cases, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, and obesity tend to be higher in these Native American communities. So I started doing research in history books starting in 28,000 BC, just trying to figure out what the historical precedence is for these problems and why they are continuing.
Q: And so it was the studying and the statistics that made you choose to look at drugs, alcohol, and suicide specifically?
A: Yeah. Those are indicators of a society whose people are in pain. And just exploring those topics and acknowledging that they’re there is a big move toward figuring out how to solve them or how to at least let America know they exist.
Q: What sort of change are you hoping this film will elicit?
A: All we are really shooting for is awareness. The series is called “Still Here” for the reason that more than half of the Native Americans that we interviewed said they just want America to know that they’re still here. And so I think I’ve taken that priority onto myself.
Q: What were you most surprised by during the trip?
A: Maybe “surprise” isn’t the right word, but I was most floored by their kindness to me. As an outsider and a white person—a European—I came into the situation with a decent amount of shame. I deserved nothing from them because people that identified as white Christians in the past have taken everything from them.
Their kindness was typified in the send-off of the Maori; they’re indigenous New Zealanders. They say goodbye by taking your hand, touching noses and foreheads—it's just this beautiful and really quite intimate expression. I went to say goodbye to one of them and she said, “Oh, it's the quiet one,” because I really hadn’t said much that week.
I replied, “I’m not native, so I just shut my mouth,” and then this big, tall, intimidating man stooped down and, taking my hand, said, “We’re all native somewhere.”
That was so kind; him extending the grace of common humanity to me just blew me away.
Q: How did Wheaton equip you for this project, and how did this project equip you to return to Wheaton?
A: They’re so intertwined. Wheaton was essential in me figuring out how I deal with white privilege, my inherited privilege. It really prepared me well for caring for and approaching, in a student-like fashion, the marginalized. It’s hard, because this is something I’m still really struggling with. I think this project helped me come back and really formalize in a practical way what it means to be a voice for the voiceless. To come back and be reintegrated into an academic setting has given my studies a totally different purpose.
Q: How has this shaped your goals for the future?
A: This is probably my ideal project. I get to really unify my art form and my love for economics. This is the first time I’ve really been able to join two things I’m passionate about.
As far as how this project has influenced my trajectory, I’d say it has rekindled an interest for social justice in my medium. A video gives a voice to those who maybe wouldn’t be listened to otherwise. As the filmmaker, I’m not seen, so my direct voice is not there. I think the arts are an incredible medium to give a voice to those whose voice is hushed.
Q: Was this the first big production you’d worked on?
A: This was not the first, but it was the largest and the most important in my mind.
Q: What effect has this project had on the community you were with?
A: I made one promotional video and it got an incredible response because it was seen as such a beautiful expression of identity. There were no words, only music, and it was shared a lot.
I got this response from a lady I didn’t know: “Hi, my name is Kayleen, thank you for the video of our canoe family. It is beautiful, my grandson is in there. First time dancing and singing this year. It really touched my heart. Thanks again.”
I don’t think we ever even met.
If this video makes somebody think about Native Americans for 2 minutes and 36 seconds only, it will have accomplished its goal. Ideally, it does more than that. A secondary goal is giving Native Americans something to share, to say, “This is where I’m from. This is a part of my culture.”
Zach Erwin ’17 is an economics major at Wheaton who plans to pursue a career as a DP (Director of Photography) for feature and documentary films. He hopes to use his training in economics to inform his work in future documentaries. View more of his work on his website.