A not-for-profit gives Native American filmmakers a voice and prepares them for careers in a booming New Mexico industry
BY JANNA LOPEZ
Native American sovereignty is a concept with deep individual and cultural significance. It entails autonomy, liberation, and recognition. Sovereignty for children, teachers, elders, tribal leaders, and community members is at the heart of Silver Bullet Productions, a not-for-profit educational film company.
For nearly 20 years, volunteer board members, tribal advisors, and unpaid staff from Silver Bullet Productions have worked alongside individuals from 20 of New Mexico’s Native American communities, teaching the art of storytelling through filmmaking. More than 55 documentaries have been completed, some nationally recognized and aired on PBS.
However Wide the Sky: Places of Power, which won a regional Emmy Award, explores the history and spirituality of Indigenous people and places of the American Southwest. It was directed by David Aubrey and written by Conroy Chino and Maura Dhu Studi. According to Silver Bullet, “The film transports viewers to Chaco Canyon, Bears Ears, Zuni Salt Lake, Mount Taylor, Santa Ana Pueblo, Taos Blue Lake, Mesa Prieta, and Santa Fe, and is narrated by Indigenous actress Tantoo Cardinal.”
Such Silver Bullet films are partnerships with Native American communities, creating invaluable connections across generations. They share the uniqueness of each pueblo’s language, history, culture, and traditions, serving as archives of sovereign representation and truth.
The filmmaking is collaborative, taking as long as a year to complete, unifying leaders, teachers, elders, and children in the process. “Together, we decide the stories the community wants to explore and share,” says Pam Pierce, a lawyer, former teacher and charter school director, and cofounder of Silver Bullet Productions. “The intention is to preserve the voices of each tribe’s elders, illuminate a depth of heritage most people don’t know, and braid together unique languages, art, the beauty of the land, and teachings.”
Once a connection has been made between a community and Silver Bullet Productions, conversations about film projects begin, with students, teachers, and tribal leaders involved the entire time. Participants are asked: What question do you want your film to answer? Which stories do you want to tell? How will you approach historical complexities? And how will you best honor your culture?
Silver Bullet Productions provides the equipment and hands-on learning which give students professional career skills and opportunities for expression. They also get access to industry stars like Wes Studi, Maura Dhu Studi, Chris Eyre, and many other Native American film directors, producers, actors, and screenwriters.
Film professionals commit to mentor-ing each community’s new filmmakers for a year.
“Silver Bullet Productions uses filmmaking to educate and spark discussion about culture and place,” director Eyre says. “Their teaching and documentaries help to grow Native American filmmaking and provide an avenue for authentic Native voices and storytelling.”
Adding to the authenticity are each project’s unpaid cultural advisors. Matthew Martinez, PhD, has been a board member and film project advisor for 12 years. He is a member of the Ohkay Owingeh tribe, a former New Mexico lieutenant governor, and past director at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
“Advisors are a critical piece to our projects,” Martinez says. “We rely on community educators, scholars, and tribal leaders to provide input in the development process of our documentaries. Advisors are key to helping set up site locations and identifying graphics, music, and other voices that help convey a narrative.” With great sensitivity, they guide the themes of documentaries, which include such topics as the inherent power of Indigenous women, the warrior in past and modern times, tribal leadership, and sovereignty. “Silver Bullet Productions will not include footage or recordings that cross cultural boundaries or may be perceived as questionable,” Martinez says.
Looking ahead, Silver Bullet Productions plans to raise awareness and needed funds to engage smaller, more rural communities in educational, student-centric, collaborative films across New Mexico. Each project includes classroom discussion guides related to culture and thoughtful representation. Workshops are immersive and include panel discussions in which the whole community participates.
Silver Bullet Productions wants to guide a rapidly accelerating New Mexico film industry in a way that is inclusive and honors and sustains Indigenous cultures. Its mandate is to give the power of voice to Native American people so that they can tell their own stories in ways that protect and preserve their sacred cultures and lands.