Filmmaker Sanjay Rawal explains the complexities of making the documentary for and about Indian Country.
Filmmaker Sanjay Rawal explains the complexities of making the documentary for and about Indian Country.
October 14, 2020
Director Sanjay Rawal is the first to admit that he, the First Nations Development Institute, and the half dozen Indigenous-led partner organizations they worked with to make the new documentary Gather, didn’t set out to reach a general audience.
“We never expected that anybody outside Indian Country would like this movie. And we didn’t make it for anybody outside Indian Country,” says Rawal. Instead, they wanted to capture a series of pivotal efforts to re-engage with Indigenous foodways around the country and inspire more of the same. And yet, Gather, which was released in September, has also been well-received on the national stage.
The film follows a handful of central characters, and weaves together historical threads of forced displacement, violence, and disenfranchisement with those characters’ current day work to rebuild traditional foodways and heal intergenerational trauma.
Traditional forager Twila Cassadora of the San Carlos Apache Nation (pictured above) gathers wild amaranth seeds with her niece and hunting for wild rodents. Chef Nephi Craig launches Café Gozhoo, a café designed to introduce the residents of White River, Arizona to traditional Apache cuisine using the food grown by farmer Clayton Harvey at Ndee Bikiyaa or “the People’s Farm.”
The film also follows high school senior Elsie Dubray of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation, who uses Western science to prove the nutritional value of her family’s bison herd. And the Gensaw brothers—Samuel III, Peter, and JonLuke—of the Yurok Nation spend time catching salmon, and teaching young people about their tribe’s traditional foodways through their group The Ancestral Guard. The work is not without its challenges, but all the characters are doing more than feeding themselves—they’re rebuilding their lineage, and repairing their shared world.
As Chef Craig says in the film:
Our ancestors saw the world end once. That whole lifeway is gone. Now, we’re on the other side of the apocalypse, but we are still very much in resistance today . . . . Maintaining our foodways is our own battle to fight for our human rights. We still hold dear these traditions of food and agriculture, and the generosity attached to those practices, so I feel that we are experiencing a profound, wonderful, and amazing return to those concepts and ideals.
Rawal has been making documentaries for over a decade, and his films include Ocean Monk, Challenging Impossibility, 3100: Run and Become, and Food Chains, which tells the story of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the group of farmworkers known for revolutionizing the tomato harvest in Florida.
Civil Eats spoke with Rawal recently about the collaboration at the heart of the film, the connection between land access and food sovereignty, and his hopes for larger change in the food system.
I wanted to hear about your relationship or connection to food traditions and food sovereignty and why this topic? Why did this appeal to you?
There isn’t enough knowledge out there about the suffering that cultures around the world have gone through because of colonization. And as people know, the Crusades were the petri dish for the colonization of the Western Hemisphere. But then the colonization of the Western Hemisphere became the playbook for going to Southeast Asia, to India—where I’m from—and to other parts of the world. They were all based around fortune hunting and extractive economies.
This was all pre-Industrial Revolution, it was land-based farming of cash crops like tobacco, cotton, and spices. The appeal of going to places where you could enslave people and get these cash crops produced with a zero labor [cost] drove the creation of massive fortunes in Europe and then subsequently in America and my country. India was under British occupation until 1947. And one of the things that colonial systems do as they extract wealth, is develop supply chains and those supply chains end up changing diets tremendously.
When you look at the food system as a whole, really nobody is eating the same foods that their great-great-grandparents did. There are remnants of the techniques, like fermentation, etc. But corporate controlled agriculture, the commodification of calories, and the development of supply chains and supermarkets have all led us to a very unhealthy physical lifestyle. And so that’s been my interest in food and food systems. My dad was also [a tomato breeder].
But I would have never, ever have dared to attempt to make a film about Native American food sovereignty were it not for the First Nations Development Institute. My first film was about migrant farmworkers in South Florida. And they had a hard enough time getting a seat at the table, being considered Latino. But in fact, they were all Indigenous—Guatemalan, Chiapan, and Oaxacan migrants.
And that organization, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, is undoubtedly the most successful anticorporate Indigenous movement in the world. So, I got a sense of indigeneity and the deep connection with food systems by making that movie. But it was through a series of conversations with First Nations that Gather developed. And it was very much a partnership or, more accurately, they were the driving force behind the content, and behind the relationships, and they infused the film with indigeneity.
Preserving foodways seems to be the high-level topic. But there’s another thread that ties all of these stories together, and that is healing intergenerational trauma. Can you talk more about the experience of seeing that thread emerge in this story?
With the development of extractive agricultural economies on Turtle Island, African American bodies had value in terms of labor, Native American bodies didn’t have value because it was the land that they stewarded that had the value. So, when people were stripped from their lands, they were stripped from all of the traditions that they developed over tens of thousands of years. And Gather really outlines in a nutshell how it wasn’t just physical removal from land because Native tribes were very, very powerful. It took asymmetrical warfare and the destruction of food systems, destruction of culture, language, and creation stories, which all tied into land, food, and physical and spiritual survival.
But you can’t ever extinguish spirituality completely. Kernels of spirituality obviously exist deep within the Native American communities we were in and you could see how valuable they were, like coals or embers of a long-forgotten fire.
Those embers, and the redevelopment of those systems are literally healing because they are identity. The great conundrum in human life is answering that question: Who am I? That’s deep on so many levels. And the first thing that people need to feel comfortable with addressing is what their histories are, what their place is right now in the world vis à vis other people, vis à vis creation, vis à vis the creator. And food knowledge that exists within the food sovereignty space holds all of that.
So, this idea of healing comes from those embers, from that knowledge itself. Opening up that knowledge, that wisdom to a young heart or a young mind is naturally healing because knowledge is consciousness and consciousness is energy and life. We saw those threads all throughout Indian Country while developing this film.
And there were a number of incredibly worthwhile stories. But we ended up having to select the stories that best fit the medium of visual storytelling.
How do you hope this film can shift perspectives on food systems?
I take cues from the characters in our movie. What non-Native, non-BIPOC audiences can’t really see in a film like this is the fact that food system work is life or death. The work has to be done in its fullest capacity right now, or we’re going to continue to lose loved ones. And there has been a 500-year history of creating institutions that prevent physical, emotional, and spiritual health in Indian Country. So, there’s a lot of work to do. There are a lot of people out there engaged in this work on very deep levels, from Denisa Livingston to Sean Sherman to tens of thousands of other people.
They need support, and that support is really two-sided. In some cases, it’s staying out of their way. That is an institutional perspective, a policy perspective. Stopping or dismantling the systems that are purposely preventing them from [doing their work to the fullest]. The other form of suppert is delivering the resources or allyship that those organizations need. Less than one-third of 1 percent of American philanthropy goes to Indigenous-led organizations working with Indigenous people in North America. And the vast majority of philanthropy comes from fortunes that are directly dependent on stolen land and enslaved bodies. So, the inequity is based around the original extractive economy of the U.S. But the solutions aren’t coming from that same money.
The characters in the movie don’t necessarily present themselves as leaders or as examples, but rather as inspirations. Hopefully they can inspire people to listen to their elders, to start helping the activists and advocates in their communities, achieve community goals.
As a young person, I was particularly inspired to see the young people with the Ancestral Guard taking initiative to bring youth into closer relationship and connection to traditional foodways. This is what I want to be doing in the future with land and my community—restore our relationship to sheep and crops. I notice how sensitive you are around this material and how you’ve really navigated the challenges of telling a story about Indigenous people for Indigenous people. Why was it important for you to do this film in a way that is not extractive and does not perpetuate patterns like tokenizing or romanticizing?
The very first documentary film ever was a 1929 film called Nanook of the North, which started an industry of ethnographic filmmaking—outsiders going into communities and telling stories—which, on the surface, isn’t inherently problematic. But it just so happens that Nanook of the North was a complete recreation, entirely staged, extraordinarily exploitative, and it set a pattern for outside filmmakers coming in communities all around the world and not working in partnership, much less with oneness of spirit and goals with those communities. So in dealing specifically with the dark history of outsiders coming and making films about Native Americans, that issue was top of mind. Native kids get more media about their own people made by non-Natives than they do [media made by] Natives.
And I’d seen people coming and making films about the community that I’m a part of and I’d seen how inaccurate they were and how problematic they were. So, it was a little bit of a challenge, stepping up to the role of director of this film. But First Nations Development Institute was explicit that they would be there to tell me what mistakes I was making and help guide the depth of the content. So, with that really deep friendship, I felt comfortable taking on a role that, frankly, I had no place to take.
You framed a lot of the stories in Gather around the inequities that have led to loss of Indigenous foodways, and right now there’s a movement of Indigenous people demanding their land back. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase or seen the hashtag #landback. And we’re at a point where, if we want to preserve foodways, if we want to have food sovereignty, if we want a safe climate, land (and other reparations) needs to go back to our communities. What your thoughts on that?
I can only speak about it from a food systems standpoint. Readers will be familiar with the “school to prison pipeline” that a lot of African American children are subjected to. And that’s institutional racism any way you look at it.
But there is a corollary for Native American men and women to pull them into the prison system, or the fine-based extractive governing economy, and that’s by denying them treaty access to land. And denying their hunting and fishing rights, even when those rights are bound by treaties. We’ve seen, especially during COVID, even stay-at-home enforcement has resulted in fines placed on ,Native foragers for harvesting (and those acorns can provide a year’s worth of food). But folks aren’t being fined for going to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods.
There’s a deep-seated institutional racism around land use and land access on the most basic level, and the goal is basically to penalize Native people, pull them away from any sort of claim on the land so that the extractive economy can take over. So, the Land Back movement includes dismantling a system that literally prevents Natives from feeding themselves.
And this idea of public land being wilderness as opposed to something that requires human intervention, has resulted—to some degree—in the massive wildfires in the West. Obviously, there’s a climate change component, a strong one, but the lack of Natives at the table when it comes to preventative fires, and using fire suppression measures rather than controlled burns, is a direct result of those policies, too. There’s so much “public land” out there that’s totally mismanaged, and [non-Native] people need to realize that Land Back movements are critical to the survival of our environment. It’s not even so much an economic argument. It’s about the survival of everybody living on Turtle Island.
How have the people in the film responded to it?
I believe our characters have really enjoyed the movie. They’ve all been on a number of panels and I think that they’ve been able to see that the movie at least moderately effectively conveys the scale and scope and depth of their work. Audiences have been pretty effusive and nonjudgmental and really, really supportive of their work. And it’s been evident in the dozens and dozens of questions they have, not for me, but for our characters at every Q&A that we do.
How have your subjects been impacted by the COVID epidemic?
The San Carlos Apache Nation—where Twila Cassadora lives—has experienced an almost entire shutdown and lockdown and so travel on and off the rez has been impossible. And I know a lot of Twila’s work involves meeting people and teaching people. She’s been able to continue doing that on her reservation, but she hasn’t been able to do the knowledge sharing that she usually does with people from different tribal nations.
Café Gozhoo had to close—not permanently, but it had to shut down because of COVID. They couldn’t serve food in a socially distance way on a reservation that was experiencing probably as high or even higher numbers per capita than Navajo was. Obviously with a different time window.
With regard to the Ancestral Guard, they’re literally further away from any major supply chains than any of our other characters, despite how remote the other reservations are. So, they have had to double down on a lot of their food sovereignty work and have had expand out of the river and plant gardens. They’ve rapidly expanded the scope of their work and are doing regular food deliveries to elders and all sorts of other people who have been heavily impacted economically and health-wise by COVID.
And lastly, Elsie Dubray, hasn’t been able to attend classes in person. She was she was given the option to take this fall quarter as though it were a summer quarter. And so she is hoping to get back to campus at Stanford for the winter semester and then really do a full summer of studying next year.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The trailer for Gather is below. Visit Gather.film for information about screenings and where to stream the documentary. Civil Eats in 2017 and 2018 partnered with the filmmakers to publish several stories drawn from their reporting to create the film. You can read those stories here.
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