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August 16, 2011

A Day in the Life of the Tribal Nations in Minnesota

Mn flag

On July 22, I finished a final version of the exhibition video for “Why Treaties Matter: The Dakota and Ojibwe Nations in Minnesota.” The production of the traveling panel exhibit was a collaboration between the Minnesota Humanities Center and the National Museum of the American Indian which began about a year ago. I was brought in to develop the media piece concept in February of this year. The production of this video was on a very tight timetable. I needed to finish the video in time for the exhibition opening in August and decided I couldn’t really begin the production until June when I could capture a green landscape.

There wasn’t a clear idea for the media piece initially, just that it would emphasize how treaties were important to the tribes today. We decided that it was important that the media piece would show how treaties provide the foundation for the sovereignty of Minnesota tribal nations today and reveal how sovereignty affects the lives and outlook of contemporary tribal members.

The narrative structure of the video was to be “a day in the life of the Minnesota tribal nations.” I wanted to avoid the standard talking head interviews where the subject is seated and instead find situations where I could have tribal people talk about how treaties informed and influenced their life as they moved through their day. I really wanted to include all of Minnesota’s eleven tribal nations but due to budget and time constraints we chose six tribes to be part of the piece. 

_DSC4913Jim Jones and friend

The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council was an integral part of the planning and execution of the production plan. Jim Jones, the Cultural Resource Director, and Tom Ross, a tribal elder from the Upper Sioux community accompanied Christopher Turner and myself on a pre-production visit in early May to meet with the tribes so that we could explain what we wanted to accomplish with the video. Whenever I can visit a community or meet a potential interview subject without the crew and the unblinking eye of the camera staring at them, it's valuable and we were fortunate that we were able to make this trip. We covered 1200 miles in three days and met with five tribal nations.

In speaking with the tribal leaders, we were able to identify many of the people and things that we thought would tell the story of treaties in Minnesota today. Keeping the day in the life concept in mind, I decided that we would try to get out on the fishing boats at daybreak on Red Lake, which owns and operates its own fishery, and that we would capture footage at sundown at the White Earth powwow. At the very least I thought if I have a start and an end to the video, I’ll figure out where everything else goes during during the edit!

Before we began our two week production in Minnesota in early June, I worked to develop a schedule so that we had interviews set up and to confirm with the tribes when we would plan to be in their community. We basically had only a few days in each location.

I also composed and recorded some music for the video before the shoot. Music really helps to move the story forward so I also asked the tribes if they could provide a local musician who could contribute music. I was put in touch with Keith Secola (Bois Forte Band of Chippewa) and was able to collaborate with him on the opening and closing track “Red Lake Sunrise” by sending tracks back and forth electronically. I wrote and recorded the keyboard, bass and drums and Keith added the flute and slide guitar. Keith also contributed his track “Homeland” that plays during the Bois Forte section of the video. The rest of the music, I put together right here at my desk in the museum.

  Upeer Sioux with Tom RossRobbie Wood, Pete Palma, John Plummer and Tom Ross

I worked with Jim Jones and Pete Palma from the Indian Affairs Council during the main production. They did all the driving and Jim provided amazing logistical and cultural support throughout the trip. Jim gave me an education about the tribal history in the state and a lot of background for the video. We got to know each other pretty well after two weeks on the road and I owe him a great deal for what he put into this project. I was really happy that we were able to videotape Jim fishing on the Leech lake reservation and include it in the final cut. Pete Palma drove the production van and kept the crew entertained with his stories. The other members of the team were Kevin Cartwright who was the digital tech, second camera and voice of reason, John Plummer, our cameraman and Robbie Wood, our soundman. This team really gelled and went above and beyond day after day.

We began our production in St. Paul. Our first day of production was pretty typical: we interviewed Tom Ross in the morning, then interviewed Kevin Leecy at the state capital and were able to get footage of him meeting with the governor of Minnesota then recorded Annamarie Hill, Executive Director of the Indian Affairs Council who provided the narration you hear at the beginning and the end of the video. After that we got our van and car loaded and we drove the five hours from St Paul to Bois Forte!

The next day we were in beautiful northeastern Minnesota on Lake Vermillion. Helen Wilkie who works with the Bois Forte band helped to set up interviews with the tribal chairman, the tribe’s museum director, business leaders, the tribe’s radio station manager, the director of their language program and even got us in a prop plane so we could get aerial footage. If only we could have brought her on the entire production trip throughout the state! She provided lots and lots of opportunities for the video and unfortunately I was unable to keep all the footage in the final cut. Here’s the section of Kevin Leecy at the State capital that I would have loved to been able to include but didn’t make the final cut:


After Bois Forte, we visited the Red Lake Nation and were able to get footage of the Red Lake Fishery workers setting nets at the end of the day and pulling the nets at the beginning of the next day. Kevin Cartwright and I tried to get a time lapse sunrise shot and Kevin nearly got picked up and carried away by the ravenous mosquitoes who populated the shoreline at dawn. I stayed in the car and directed him from there! Red Lake provided some amazing scenery. We got footage of a bald eagle, a pelican, lots of birds,beautiful landscapes and even a fleeting glimpse of a bear.


We made sure that we visited White Earth next in time to get footage of the 143rd annual powwow that they host every year. The powwow commemorates their arrival to the reservation created by the 1867 treaty between the United States and the Mississippi Band of Chippewa Indians. The White Earth Nation has created a gorgeous site for their powwow and Kevin and I were able to climb to the top of a nearby building at sunset to get our shot of the powwow at the end of the day.

  Kevin at Powwow 1*

Kevin Cartwright on the roof

We traveled to the Leech lake community next and Jim Jones took us out on Cass Lake to pull nets and showed us how in detail to filet the fish and prepare them. We ate the fish you see on camera and it was delicious. My ambition was to find interview subjects doing things and avoid the standard talking head interview convention but in the end this interview with Jim was one of the only interviews that I conducted that was in motion. I have a lot of ideas about what I want to get when planning a production but one of the main things I have learned about producing a documentary is to stay flexible. I think the idea of getting interview subjects going about their daily life might work if we had a lot more time.

We visited the Upper Sioux Community next and hit our only day of bad weather. I was able to interview the eloquent chairman of the Sioux Community, Kevin Jensvold, in the morning but it began to rain pretty hard after that. I spoke with Dallas Ross about rescheduling because of the weather and he said, “Why? We have weather every day!” We lucked out since the next day the sky was filled with fast-moving clouds that created some amazing imagery that now populates the video.

Upper sioux clouds
Our final stop was at the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux community, where I was able to interview their long-standing tribal chairman, Stanley Crooks. As we set up in his office, I mentioned that he was probably used to all the cameras and lights and he told he that he had only granted three interviews during his nearly twenty-year tenure. I was honored to be able to speak with him on camera.


I am very proud of what we were able to achieve with this short video and I am happy to be able to share it with you as part of this blog. The traveling exhibition will be at various locations throughout the great state of Minnesota. You can find out more information about the exhibition through the Minnesota Humanities website:




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