Documentary Filmmaker Missy Whiteman comes to SCSU

Missy Whiteman gives presentation on her work about the problems in the Native American community. Photo by Gustin Schumacher
Missy Whiteman gives presentation on her work about the problems in the Native American community. Photo by Gustin Schumacher

To kick off American Indian Awareness Week, the American Indian Center (AIC) brought Missy Whiteman, an indigenous media advocate and artist, to talk about her work. Whiteman’s work is the voice of her ancestors, she said. She uses her art to tell stories mainly about Native American women, healing and domestic violence.

“Some of my earliest memories were being part of a broken family,” she said. “That is what a lot of young people can relate too, a lot of us came from a broken family.”

“Part of my background is that I came from an alcoholic family; my mother died from alcohol. She wasn’t part of my life for most of it, and for a young Native woman growing up, that is really important,” Whiteman said.

In part of losing her mother, she didn’t know how to express herself, she said.

“I had all of these negative thoughts, and I did not really know how to relate others to my reality,” she continued. “My father taught me how to share my story.”

At an early age, Whiteman found out that she had a problem with alcohol, she said.

“Luckily I was able to admit that I had a problem and went into recovery. I remember being in a halfway house and it was my 21 birthday,” Whiteman said.

Whiteman’s said that her struggle with alcohol did help her relate to her mother.

“It did teach me about my mother’s alcohol,” she said. “It taught me to have compassion, I was in her shoes. I decided I was going to be a mother who didn’t drink.”

She tried, through her art, to answer and solve questions she had growing up.

“Why is there so much alcoholism?” Whiteman asked. “Why are there all these negative things in the native community?”

The answer she came up with was American Indian boarding schools. Her grandparents were the first ones to go to boarding school. The only time they spoke their language was when they were drinking or didn’t want her father to know what they were talking about, she said. 

“Some boarding school took 3-year-olds all the way up to adults,” she said. “An entire generation was taken with cultural genocide.”

A lot of negative things happened in these boarding schools, she said.

“They had to cut their hair, no indigenous language, there were all these things you can’t do and you have to assimilate,” Whiteman said. “The motto was ‘kill the Indian, save the man.’”

Whiteman did a series of boarding school videos. She showed a series of photographs that pictured before and after shots of Native Americans in boarding schools.

“They had messy hair, they were usually wearing blankets,” she said. “Then you would see the next photo and they would be in ironed clothes and their hair was cut. You would look into their eyes and they would be dead and soulless.”

According to Whiteman making these films is a way to honor those who went though those experiences.

“Nowadays we have learned that there are mass graves that are undocumented,” Whiteman said. “We are in a very important time right now for healing, as native people we have rituals for when you pass on.”

When she first started out, there was not a lot of information about her family history during that period. Through her filmmaking, Whiteman said that she hopes to educate young people, so they all can heal.

“At the end of April, I am going back to my reservation to put on a four-day workshop,” Whiteman said. “At the end, the young people will make their own videos.”

Whiteman produces films about a variety of Native American tribes, not just her own.

“I believe it is important to know about other groups and there language,” Whiteman said. “My son knows Ojibwe, but he is not Ojibwe.”

“My son is half Scottish, and his grandmother knows about his linage,” Whiteman said. “I tell him one day he will return home to Scotland, and learn about his linage.”

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