Aug 16, 2013 - Filming Sundance: Tradition, Technology, and Journalism Collide, By Kevin Gonzaga

A few weeks ago I was invited to help at a Sundance ceremony that was being organized and run by friends of mine in the Native American community. Sundance is a sacred ceremony common to a number of Native American tribes (mostly from the Northern Plains) that is held annually during Summer.

True to indigenous form, this was a “learn-by-participating” experience for me and essentially nothing was described or explained to me beforehand. The one thing that was made clear though was that it was forbidden to take pictures or film the ceremony in any way.

So one can imagine my surprise yesterday when I discovered that the Aboriginals People’s Television Network (APTN) was releasing a several part feature on the Sundance ceremony. APTN was invited to observe, film and report on the Sprucewoods Sundance by its leader, Chief David Blacksmith, and they had accepted.  APTN reporter Shanneen Robinson and her film crew attended and filmed the Sundance ceremony. APTN is now releasing the feature in a series of episodes.

The controversial decision to photograph and film a Sundance and publish this series immediately sparked a lot of conversation in the Native American community. It evoked strong emotions including dismay and outrage from many who were shocked APTN would do this.

As a non-Native I have attempted to generally speaking stay out of this discussion because this is not my culture’s ceremony. However, due to some interactions on Twitter I felt I should articulate my opinions (despite how little they might matter) to clarify what I think and do not think about the situation.

APTN: APTN should have known better than to do this.

I get that teachers teach, and car mechanics fix cars, and reporters report on things and a news organization being invited to report on something interesting and pertinent to their main demographic would naturally agree to do the report. However, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should and it doesn’t mean you are justified in doing so.

Agreeing to film a ceremony, even though this is forbidden, is a rather serious breach of cultural respect. I do not think the permission of Chief Blacksmith absolves APTN of this because he is only one among many Sundance leaders. This would be like freely photographing all Amish people (who refuse to be photographed outside of very specific conditions) given the word, consent and invitation of one Amish community leader. (If there was a tribal level decision to allow for the filming of a Sundance, I might feel differently and there is even a precedent for it.)

I would actually be more inclined to be sympathetic if a white/mainstream news organization did this.  I would assume such a network simply failed at being culturally aware.  But APTN is an Indigenous news network. They should have known better and they did but they went ahead with the report anyway.

Was APTN being a brave broadcasting company, unafraid to push the envelope to spark much needed dialogue and conversation?

Now I get that reporters at times push the envelope and make people uncomfortable to spark dialogue (or drive up ad revenue). This is not inherently unethical or in bad taste. Some have suggested APTN’s feature is pressing for much needed conversation regarding ceremony, the origin of the ban on photographing ceremonies, technology and ceremony, how to reach out and include Native and First Nations youth in ceremony, etc. However, I don’t think we can characterize APTN’s decision only in this light for a number of reasons.

First, instead of directly addressing why they decided to participate in the breaking of this protocol, or even address the fact that photographing a Sundance is forbidden, APTN coyly hinted at the fact that they knew of the ban but were going on with the reporting anyway. I say this because comments like “unfettered access” and “secret ceremonies” appear in their feature. This taints the piece with a sensationalist and exploitative tone, not the tone of reporting on something held sacred by many.

Second, they have invited people not just to watch their feature but to weigh in on their controversial decision after the fact. In this they appear to be seeking to use the controversy to their advantage (like all news agencies do) presumably to drive up website traffic and ad revenue while advancing careers.

Third, even if the conversations sparked by this feature were necessary for Native American communities to have, a simple article that required no actual photography, reporting or filming of a Sundance would have sufficed. APTN could have tapped a writer to write a piece discussing the conundrum of being invited to film a ceremony that is not to be filmed, explaining the reasons for this invitation being extended, and calling for conversation about the issue. This conversation could have happened without actually violating the ban on photography.

Fourth, is it even a news agencies place to determine what conversations should happen around ceremony? Is it their place to decide when and if there is a need to discuss something about ceremony that is so important that it sanctions the breaking of a widely held to ban on photography?

Fifth, the dynamics of the situation appear to be tailor made to absolve APTN of responsibility for a decision they knew would be controversial. APTN will reap whatever benefits come from this “breaking-the-taboo” hype, and as they face well-deserved criticism for their decision they will undoubtedly point to the leader that invited them to film the Sundance and hide behind his character and reputation. I have seen a number of their defenders already employ this strategy. Saying, “But we were invited by the reputable leader of this Sundance…” is not exactly the cry of a brave journalist who is accepting responsibility for their controversial decisions due to their stalwart conviction regarding the merits of that decision. This sounds like someone angling to get away with what they did and shifting responsibility to someone else.

Chief David Blacksmith: was this his decision  to make?

I don’t know Chief Blacksmith but many who do say he is a great man who has devoted his life to serving his people. He has personally prayed with and done ceremony for family members of people I trust who speak for his character. So let me be clear; I’m not contesting these claims about his character or attempting to discredit him in anyway. I have no cause to assume he is not a good man and a good leader. Quite to the contrary, because I’m an outsider, on any Native American issue, including those surrounding ceremony, my default would be to defer to him.

However, what I will say is that good people who serve their communities can still make mistakes and I think Chief Blacksmith did make one by inviting APTN to film his Sundance, whatever the merits of his reasons.

I say this because it is one thing for a leader to make a controversial decision that impact the community he or she is responsible to and for.  It is an entirely different thing for a leader to make a controversial decision that impacts many communities he she has no relationship with, responsibility to, or reputation with.

If Chief Blacksmith had, with the informed consent of his Sundance community, allowed for the filming and recording of their Sundance to create material that would not be widely available but used personally be him to reach out to Natives (especially urban Natives) who would otherwise remain disconnected from ceremony on the land, I would have no issue with his decision. Ultimately the community he is responsible to, and the community this decision impacts, would hold him accountable if there were any negative repercussions.

However, this was not the decision he made. Chief Blacksmith invited APTN, a national news organization, to film and report on a ceremony that is held dear to many tribes and many communities. He knew APTN would then take this material and publish it online which inherently creates a number of problems beyond the violation of protocol, such as making it available to those that appropriate native culture, and using this controversial filming of a ceremony to generate ad-revenue for APTN (essentially commoditizing Sundance), etc.

In this Chief Blacksmith made a decision that impacted many communities and this was not a decision he had the right to make.  Sundance is a ceremony common to many different tribes performed by many different communities within those tribes. While each Sundance ceremonies might have idiosyncratic differences, as different Sundance leaders do things differently, the ban on filming and photographing the Sundance ceremony appears to be universal. To knowingly break this protocol, in this way, a way that literally broadcasts online what many believe should not even be photographed,  would require either a widespread consensus, which doesn’t exist, or some type of pan-tribal spiritual leader who was qualified to make such a decision, who also doesn’t exist.

In short, regardless of Chief Blacksmith’s personal character, knowledge and intentions, I think he made a decision he had no right to make because I am fairly certain no one has the right to make this decision unilaterally, even with the advisement of close council and good intentions in hand.

Last Real Indians