This month, I’m going to talk a little bit about a six-minute video I produced in 2007 on the Chiricahua Apache for NMAI’s Our Peoples gallery. One of the key challenges the museum has is to distill complicated histories and stories into bite-sized pieces. Telling this particular story in a manner acceptable to the tribe represented a substantial test.
The Chiricahua Apache, the last tribe to resist U.S. government control of the American Southwest, were held as prisoners of war at a number of locations for more than twenty-five years. The story of their incarceration was of central importance to the tribe and had to be included prominently in the small gallery exhibit. This history could have been explored in an hour-long media piece or even a series of videos, but we had space for only a wall-mounted monitor with no seating. This usually indicates that I’ll need to boil down the essential facts to a couple of minutes. The more I learned about this dramatic story the more it seemed almost impossible to accomplish well.
When curator Emil Her Many Horses and I met with the community, I expressed my anxiety about simplifying the story into a very short video. Lynette Kanseah, one of the Chiricahua elders, told me that it would be fine as long as I did it in the right way. That was followed by a long and meaningful look!
Believe me, those words and the way Lynette looked at me stayed with me as the project took shape.
The video was put together around a series of interviews, one in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and the rest on the Mescalero reservation in south-central New Mexico. I decided that we would shoot the interviews on green screen so that I could layer archival images from the NMAI collection behind the speakers as they told the story. The images and the words of the people together were very powerful, but I wanted to heighten the visitor’s experience of this tragic history by adding music. I turned to Laura Ortman, a White Mountain Apache, whose music has a sense of longing and heartbreak that was a perfect fit for the project. This was an unusual move for the museum at the time, as we generally had not used music in our storytelling. Laura, who performs solo as the Dust Dive Flash, allowed us to use music from her album Tens of Thousands. We owe her a debt of gratitude for her contribution to this video.
When the Chiricahua community came to Washington for the opening of the exhibition, they watched the video many times. I could see by their faces that emotional story was being told in a respectful way. Lynette saw me and slowly nodded.
Watching the video now, I see mostly the technical flaws. Still, I am happy that this difficult but important story is being told at our museum. I think I must have found the right way.
This video highlights some of the amazing photographic resources of the National Museum of the American Indian. Our long-time photo archivist, Lou Stancari recently passed away. I will always be reminded of his great contribution to this museum whenever I see the NMAI’s archival photo collection. I will miss you Lou, but your memory lives on.