By Shelby Otto
On Nov. 5, Dr. Amanda Morris, with help from the Women’s Center, curated KU’s first inaugural Native American Film Festival and arranged for Marcella Gilbert and Madonna Thunderhawk, two Native American female activists, to speak at a lecture in detail concerning their film “Warrior Women,” which focuses on the struggles of Native people today.
Gilbert and Thunderhawk are both of the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota nation, which is called The Great Sioux Nation. Both longtime activists, they demonstrated through their film not only the social and political problems that have plagued Native Americans since the arrival of the colonists but that indigeneity is not of the past but of the present.
The film takes a unique form as a documentary, with no accompanying narrator but Gilbert and Thunderhawk themselves (along with some dialogue between friends and family). The audience is presented with a collection of both historical and contemporary clips featuring news reports from the 70s, 80s, 90s and today, historical portrayals, profiles, interviews and other meaningful additions.
The film explores political and social clashes across several decades, such as the incidents at Wounded Knee in the 70s, all the way up through the protests at Standing Rock just a few years ago. The Wounded Knee incident occurred in 1973 when about 200 Oglala Lakota and followers of the American Indian Movement (AIM) seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee for 71 days. In retaliation, various law enforcement surrounded the area and killed several Native representatives, who were unarmed.
A more familiar political act might be found in the protests at Standing Rock in 2016. Thousands collected there to protest the construction of the projected Dakota Access Pipeline. While the crowds were again unarmed, law enforcement surrounded the area and the protestors, spraying attendees with icy water during frigid temperatures to try and force people to disperse.
With both women who spoke at KU at the forefront of the Indigenous Peoples Movement, “Warrior Women” shows Thunderhawk’s attendance and leadership at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee and both women’s extended attendance at Standing Rock, among other events. Despite Thunderhawk being 79, she remained at the forefront of the Standing Rock protests, ever persistent in the support of her people.
When Dr. Morris inquired about any initial spark that began their involvement with the movement at the lecture, Thunderhawk simply said, “There was no spark. We’ve been decimated and there is no longer a strong nation, but there are strong families, and out of that, there is a responsibility. Through the strength of our ancestors, we are still here.”
That statement seemed to be the overarching theme of the entire film. While we gained a sense of the Native experience both historically and contemporarily, we also got an insight into Native American families and the structure and upbringing of Native American children then and now.
The film showed Gilbert teaching a group of children about natural, Native foods and the importance of certain grains, berries and crops. As a representative and member of the non-profit Simply Smiles, Gilbert not only assists youth in food knowledge and assurance but also helps provide children of Native nations with things like clothing, shelter, medical care, education and more.
Further, we gained a sense of how the family works in Native communities. We learn about the Survival School initiated by Thunderhawk herself, a less traditional school that, rather than teaching about everyday academic lessons, instructs youth about what it means to be Native in contemporary society. Gilbert said the program itself was very empowering because it reminds a person of their roots and their rights and their relationship to American land.
“The lessons we learned [at the Survival School] carried me and continue to carry me through my life,” Gilbert said. “We knew our place in the world, and we know that we belong here, and as a young person, you’re like ‘hell yeah!’”
Gilbert and Thunderhawk closed the lecture with questions from the audience, who were a mix of individuals both of Native descent and those of various other nationalities.
Gilbert attended a discussion of the United Nations back in 2014 as a Cohort of the Bush Foundation’s Native Nations Rebuilders Program and Thunderhawk continues to work with a multitude of organizations today, as does Gilbert. Thunderhawk has spoken all over the country, in addition to traveling internationally to places such as Central America, Europe and the Middle East and has served as a delegate at the UN in Geneva.
Those interested in learning more about Gilbert, Thunderhawk or the Native community as a whole can visit the “Warrior Women” website at warriorwomen.org.