(2021) Documentary (Inhabit) Michael Kotutwa Johnson, Kalani Souza, Ervin Carlson, Frank Lake, Teri Dahle, Bill Tripp, Chris Caldwell, Pershing Frechette, Caleb Johnson, Betty Cooper, Marshall Recore, Gregory Arteche, Kathy McCoury, Kenneth Brink, Tony Waupochick, Rick O’Rourke, Stormy Palmeteer, Laurie Reiter, Shirley Kauhaiho, Vikki Preston. Directed by Costas Boutsikaris and Anna Palmer
Native Americans have always had a very special relationship with the land that they lived on. They consider it their sacred duty to act as stewards, to protect and nurture the land that protects and nurtures them. For millennia they lived in harmony with their surroundings, until European colonists came and chose to exploit that land, driving them into small reservations and nearly annihilating their culture. In spite of it all, that culture perseveres and their connection to the land endures.
This documentary examines the relationships of five different indigenous peoples and the land they live on; the Hopi of the American Southwest, the Karuk of Northern California, the Blackfeet of the Plains, the Menominee of the Northern Midwest and the Native Hawaiians.
Dr. Michael Kotutwa Johnson of the Hopi explains dry farming – farming done without artificial irrigation – and how it has been able to bring drought-resistant crops in even in the arid Southwest. He shows ancient Hopi methods – using a planting stick to push the seeds deeper into the soil where they get to where the moisture is retained, and shy away from the straight lines of Western farming, using drought-resistant plants like certain strains of beans and corn to help make the Hopi more self-sustaining; more importantly, as climate change could potentially turn farming land more arid, it will provide valuable ways to continue to feed those who rely on that farmland for food.
As California has been ravaged by wildfires, the Karuk aboriginals have had the solution for generations; controlled burns that rid the redwood forests of highly flammable underbrush; the smoke from the controlled burns gathers in the canopies and helps retain moisture in the soil, and the nutrients from the burning also enrich the soil. More importantly, these control burns make the trees more fire-resistant with layers of carbon that protect the trees in case of a wildfire. Bill Tripp of the Karuk oversees their efforts at keeping the homes and people on their reservation safe from the devastating wildfires that have plagued the state the past two years, and it may be that the state of California is taking notice of their methods.
For the Plains natives, the buffalo was always a major economic engine; the bison provided food, clothing and shelter for the natives, but the animals – who once numbered in the millions, were down to about 200 by the mid-20th century and were on the endangered species list. Careful stewardship of the buffalo, including that of Erwin Carlson (President of the Intertribal Buffalo Council) and Teri Dahle (Program Director of the Iinii Initiative that is providing an ecological reserve on which the buffalo can thrive) have brought the animals back from the brink of extinction to the point that they are no longer on the edge of extinction; in fact, non-native culture is discovering the benefits of the bison as an alternative to beef.
For the Menominee tribe of the Northern Midwest, the forest is their sacred land and protecting it is their responsibility. They do it through selective tree harvesting, removing diseased and stunted trees for lumber harvesting while planting seedlings for future growth. Chris Caldwell of the Menominee shows graphically the deforested areas adjacent to the reservation where lumber barons wiped the forests out without regard for replanting. The Menominee forests are thick, lush and healthy, illustrating how a sustainable model can be economically viable for all concerned.
Finally, native Hawaiians led by the Reverend Kalani Souza illustrate the concept of food forestry – using native plants and roots as a food source. Planting breadfruit, taro and other plants native to the islands creates a sustainable food source that thrives in Hawaii’s temperate climate, even as European settlers threatened to overwhelm the islands with pineapple and coffee plantations, neither native to Hawaii. As seen in all these examples, the wisdom of the original inhabitants is finally being heard, as it is being rediscovered by the indigenous peoples themselves.
Co-directors Costas Boutsikaris and Anna Palmer prefer to tell their stories in a non-linear fashion, jumping around from region to region which does dilute the power of the messages a bit. However, the talking heads recruited here are incredibly persuasive and passionate about their various fields of expertise. The cinematography is often breathtaking and conveys the spirituality with which Native Americans regard the land they reside on.
We non-indigenous folks have a tendency to misunderstand the deep connection between indigenous peoples and the land they live on; it is a part of their culture that is often overlooked. As the world is faced with the sobering realities of climate change, it is somehow comforting to know that some of the solutions are ancient and have been with us for two thousand years and more. We ignore this ancient wisdom at our own peril.
This is the last day that the film will be available online as part of the DocLands film festival (you can purchase it by clicking the link under Virtual Cinema below), but keep an eye out for it on the festival circuit. It is also likely to end up on PBS or Discovery at some point.
REASONS TO SEE: The information is fascinating. Beautiful cinematography in an almost spiritual way.
REASONS TO AVOID: Bounces around a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Native Americans of the Karuk tribe used controlled burns to regulate forest undergrowth two thousand years ago; for awhile in the early 20th century it was illegal to use that method on their own tribal lands. Ony now as science has discovered the benefits of controlled burns have they been allowed to return to their tried and true methods.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (today only)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: If a Tree Falls
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Riders of Justice