WMEAC Board President Lin Bardwell and Mariano Avila, a producer at WGVU Public Media, had been working on a project together for months, a documentary that was a social-cultural look at West Michigan’s Native American community. Then one month from the final edit, Bardwell got the opportunity to travel to Standing Rock during the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Bardwell invited Avila to come along and film the experience. According to Avila, Bardwell told him, “You can miss it, but then you’ll miss the story.”
In a matter of a few days, Avila had scrounged up funding and a crew and was off to Standing Rock with Bardwell.
“I ended up turning what was going to be a half-hour program into a two-hour documentary called “We the 7th” and it ended up being about Standing Rock, the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Bardwell said.
Bardwell said this experience opened up conversations between her and Avila about how he had operated as a journalist within the Native American community.
“How it was much different than how media usually works,” Bardwell said. “And then through his conversations with another Shaping Narratives cohort member, we realized that media often tells the story that they tell from their perspective. Very seldom was the perspective of the story told by the subject.”
In an attempt to remedy some of the issues they had noticed in how the media chose to portray people of color and how often people of color were not telling their own stories, Bardwell and Avila created Shaping Narratives. Shaping Narratives was a two-part program, created in collaboration with Grand Valley State University, WGVU and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in which people of color were educated in media production and then given resources to produce their own pilot programs. These programs followed each host as they explored aspects of their respective cultures. Bardwell’s pilot, entitled “Ngiiewe” followed her on her journey to reconnect with her culture through the creation of a traditional Native garden.
The first part of Shaping Narratives was a 30-week course on media. It took people of color with no previous media experience and taught them the logistics of media through a social lens. The program was broken up into three modules: decolonizing your story, understanding the technical elements of media from the perspective of social power and using community organizing as a tool for targeted content distribution.
After the course was completed, each individual began producing their own pilot program.
“The coursework really helped us figure out what our show was going to be about,” Bardwell said. “What was important to us, who our audience was, who are interested community members who are going to help us on this journey.”
In Bardwell’s episode, she sought to reconnect with her culture by creating her own traditional garden. During this process, Bardwell ended up skinning a bison, gathering edible plants and was gifted seeds — a crucial step in creating a traditional garden.
As a self-identified urban Native, Bardwell grew up disconnected from the local Native American community. She said after her program aired, many urban Natives reached out to her and said they felt disconnected from their culture as well.
“There are a lot of people who identify as an urban Native who feel less connected and there are others that feel more connected,” Bardwell. “It’s those ones that feel more connected that you have to seek out, gravitate towards. And we, as urban Natives, have to build our own community. We’ve got to make sure we’ve got a space, and we’ve got programs, and we’ve got a sense of community, and a sense of community is defined by different populations differently, but Native people, we’ve got to seek out those spaces to speak and congregate with other Native people.”
Throughout the production process of creating her show, Bardwell said trust and relationships were important, as they are critical to the Native American community. This meant Bardwell had to trust the crew she chose to bring into her community.
“So when it came to making the show,” Bardwell said. “There’s always the pressure of representing my community in a good way, a respectful way. So in order for me to do my work I had to make sure I had a group of people that I respected and I knew the community respected, to be along with me on the journey.”
She said that she also wanted to make sure she was navigating through the community in a respectful way, so she relied on community members who stood behind her to help keep her on the right path.
“So it wasn’t a project I did,” Bardwell said. “It was a project that my community did.”
As the producer for Shaping Narratives, Avila said he faced the challenge of keeping each story as authentic to the storyteller’s vision as possible.
“That was a challenge, was making sure that while we’re all investing our personal blood, sweat and tears into these projects,” Avila said. “That we kept in mind that the vision did not belong to us.”
Avila said that there are so many places in the production process where a story can diverge from that original vision of the storyteller, and shepherding the story through all those processes was also a challenge. For example, Avila wrote most of the script, but each Shaping Narratives participant had the final say over everything that was scripted and filmed.
“I had to remind myself that it was their script, not mine,” he said.
In reminding himself this, Avila said it opened his eyes to the power behind storytelling and the power of the people behind the camera, which are often not members of the communities they are showcasing.
“It’s the producer, the director, the writer, the people that are behind the cameras whose faces you’ll never see, that are actually the storytellers,” Avila said.
Bardwell emphasized the importance of giving people of color the opportunity and resources to tell their own stories because journalists not belonging to those communities may not know what to emphasize or what to omit in a story.
“Everyone has a different relationship with what’s in front of them,” Bardwell said. “And for people of color to be able to tell their own stories, write their own stories, to create their own TV shows is huge because it’s in their voice. It has pieces, important pieces, of their community contained within that writing or that show or the product that anyone who’s not from that community just wouldn’t be able to put in there.”
Photo: Seth Sutton