Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians) was born and raised in Ferndale, Washington and spent a number of years in Palm Springs and Riverside, California, Portland, Oregon, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In Portland he studied and taught chinuk wawa, a language indigenous to the Lower Columbia River Basin. His video, photo, and text work centers around personal positions of Indigenous homeland and landscape, designs of language as containers of culture expressed through personal, documentary, and non fiction forms of media.
His work has played at various festivals including Sundance, Toronto International Film Festival, Ann Arbor, Courtisane Festival, Punto de Vista, and the New York Film Festival. His work was a part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the 2018 FRONT Triennial and Prospect.5. He was a guest curator at the 2019 Whitney Biennial and participated in Cosmopolis #2 at the Centre Pompidou. He has had a solo exhibition at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, in 2020. He was awarded the Tom Berman Award for Most Promising Filmmaker at the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival, and the New Cinema Award at the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival. He was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University in 2018- 2019, a Sundance Art of Nonfiction Fellow for 2019, an Art Matters Fellow in 2019, a recipient of a 2020 Alpert Award for Film/Video, a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow, and is a 2021 Forge Project Fellow.
Season 2 of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.
Produced by BlackStar Projects, in partnership with RowHome Productions.
Host and Executive Producer: Maori Karmael Holmes
Producer: Imani Leonard
Associate Producers: Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman
Managing Producer: Alex Lewis
Executive Editor: John Myers
Music supervisor: David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams, BlackStar’s Music in Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative
- Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams.
- Sounds Supreme – “Tailored Silk” (PremiumBeat.com track)
maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore (directed by Sky Hopinka, 2020)
Werckmeister Harmonies (directed by Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2000)
What Was Always Yours and Never Lost (curated by Sky Hopinka, Whitney Biennial, 2019)
Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (written by Glen Sean Coulthard, University of Minnesota Press, 2014)
“The Camera People” (essay by Eliot Weinberger, Transition Magazine, 1992)
Nanook of the North (directed by Robert J. Flaherty, 1922)
Vision & Voice: Sky Hopinka on Sky Hopinka on Recentering Cinema and Experimental Practice (interview by Adam Piron, Sundance, 2020)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
Jáaji Approx (directed by Sky Hopinka, 2015)
Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)
Dislocation Blues (directed by Sky Hopinka, 2017)
I’ll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You’ll Become (directed by Sky Hopinka, 2016)
The Road of Life and Death: A Ritual Drama of the American Indians (written by Paul Radin, Princeton University Press, 1991)
huyhuy (directed by Sky Hopinka, 2013)
Inaate/Se (directed by Adam Khalil and Zack Khalil, 2016)
Etel Adnan (1921-2021)
[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes : As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity, and expression, the Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens.
You’re listening to Many Lumens, where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change, and popular culture. I’m your host Maori Karmael Holmes.
For this episode, I’m joined by Indigenous filmmaker, writer, and photographer Sky Hopinka. Sky’s work explores language, Indigenous relation to geography, and at times the relevance of mundanity. Sky is the producer of 13 short films including Jáaji Approx and Dislocation Blues, the feature-length film maɬni, and is the author of the books Around the Edge of Encircling Lake, Perfidia, and The Poor Farm. Producing films for only 10 years, Sky has quickly gained notoriety. In my conversation with Sky, we discuss what it means to create work that isn’t beholden to whiteness, and work that is intuitive and familial. We hear about how Sky locates himself within his creations, the ways he comes to understand them and how at times it leaves him with more questions than answers. I also ask Sky about the impact his family has had on his artistic practice and what it means to protect and nurture the space for those you hold closely.
[00:01:44] Maori Karmael Holmes : I read about you being born in Northern Washington and spending time in Southern California, and then ultimately going to Portland and living all over much of the Pacific coast and the Northwest. And there’s a quote that I wanted to share and ask you about. You say that “The Pacific Northwest landscape is familiar to me, it’s my home, but not my homeland as my tribes are from Wisconsin and Southern California.” Thinking about this idea of home and belonging for, you know, Black and Indigenous folks in particular is marked by unmeasurable violence. Yet we still make lives and worlds in the face of that. And I was curious for you where, and with whom do you feel most at home?
[00:02:17] Sky Hopinka: I think about that question a lot. I’ve moved around so much throughout my life. That wherever I can find home in these different places, it feels comfortable or just like, you know, uh, here I am with my friends in this space, I’m going back to Washington to visit my mom, and this feels like home. Going to grad school in Milwaukee, like that was great and all, but I was, you know, the only native in my cohort. And it’s predominantly like white program and there’s some really amazing people there that are part of that and friends, but it’s just, whenever I’d go to spaces with Native people, that would feel like home in a different way. A certain sort of like easing of these tensions that I didn’t realize I was carrying in these white spaces. I always try to take note of that tightness you’re carrying with you as you navigate spaces that aren’t your own. Actually, the places I was thinking about specifically are powwows. I feel like me in some ways, or like, the me that I don’t realize, you know, is invisible. I grew up dancing and dancing since I was, like four years olds like powwow dancing. And it’s a big part of my life. I mean, I always think about that when I get on the dance floor. I mean, just like how I’m like a really like shy and anxious person that doesn’t like being in front of people or speaking in front of people, but always like getting my outfit on and dancing always felt really special.
[00:03:26] Maori Karmael Holmes :There’s a moment in your film, maɬni, where you ask Sweetwater Sahme what she was like as a kid and she laughs and responds and says, I’m a Taurus. And so I’m a Taurus, so I really appreciate that. And I wanted to ask you, what were you like as a kid and what is your sign?
[00:03:44] Sky Hopinka: I’m an Aries, but I was born on March 20th. So I think I grew up thinking I was a Pisces and it wasn’t until I got one of those phone apps where you can put in your birth time and location. And it said I was an Aries. So, I guess that made a lot of sense. I feel like I can be a bit stubborn. And especially as a kid, I was pretty stubborn, whether that was playing with Legos or getting annoyed at my sister for tearing down said Legos, or just really being focused on reading and on making stories and spending time with my friends and playing outside. Yeah. I feel like I was pretty thoughtful and introverted, but at the same time, somewhat determined, I think.
[00:04:25] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yeah, I can feel Aries energy from that. Well happy belated birthday. Can you talk a little bit about your parents? I’ve read different things about them participating in like cultural traditions, like powwow. And I was wondering, are they artists, what were they sort of doing and how did they influence you?
[00:04:44] Sky Hopinka: I mean, I guess even like later in life too, I started to think more about them as artists or just being artists in a different form outside of the academic kind of Western understanding of that term. You know, my dad, I wasn’t too close to him growing up. He was like, you know, in a nearby town, but I’d see him every now and then. My dad, I think that he got a high school diploma. My mom, she got her GED when she was 15, 16? High school wasn’t it for her. But they were never really involved in higher education, and I must’ve been around six or seven and my mom must have been like 26, 27 when she started working at the [inaudible] casino as a blackjack dealer and working graveyard, that really became her career where she just worked in the casino industry and worked her way up to being a table games director. My dad, I think that he got a high school diploma. But they met on the powwow trail. My dad was a drummer, he and his grandfather who I’m named after, Blue Sky, they would travel to powwow to powwow. And that’s where you would learn how to drum and how to sing. And same thing with my mom too. Like, you know, she got her GED, so she could like focus on dancing. And so her and my grandma would travel around and go to powwow’s and she’d compete and she’d dance. And that’s how they met.
[00:05:53] Maori Karmael Holmes : Oh, wow. That’s really beautiful. Do you know what your parents assumed you would be when you grew up?
[00:06:00] Sky Hopinka: No, I have no idea. Yeah, my mom’s always been really like, and my grandma, my maternal grandmother, was always, like really encouraging me to just find what I want. I feel really grateful for that. I think they wanted me to go to college and they wanted me to pursue these passions. My grandma’s always, you know, she taught me how to play piano and was really, encouraged me to play music. When I had a band in high school and early years of college, she was really supportive of that. She always liked to hear us practice in the garage when I was a teenager. And my mom was just, is like, this you know, the things that she went through, the things that the family went through in life, that really made her want me to like, see what was beyond that. Whatever I wanted to do, she said, do you want to come work at the casino, work at the casino. You want to go to college, go to college. You want to play music, play music, but just make sure you do it.
[00:06:49] Maori Karmael Holmes : I also had a lot of freedom as a child. Sometimes I feel like that freedom was too much. Sometimes I wish I had had a little hand, but we always want what we didn’t have. Right? I read a bit that you have been always attracted to storytelling and that you thought you might be a writer when you were growing up. Also that you played music and that that’s been a part of your world and filmmaking uses both writing and music in very big ways to present the final form. And I’m curious for you, what attracted you to filmmaking and how have you come to be known for that?
[00:07:27] Sky Hopinka: Yeah. I mean, I’ve really been interested in trying to write probably since I was a kid, I remember being like eight or nine and trying to like make my own comic book. That didn’t turn out so well, I gave up after one or two pages, but still there was that desire there. And same thing with music too. I remember around eight or nine, my grandma started teaching me how to play the piano, but again, I didn’t really have that sort of discipline to dedicate to the craft. It was something that I liked to do on my own terms when I wanted. So that kind of like followed me throughout my life when I started liking to play guitar and was a teenager. And when I started writing more and just never really feeling that good at it. And so like, I mean, yeah, like in college in my many, many years of college, I studied English literature and also got into films like Béla Tarr’s, Werckmeister Harmonies, was one of the first films that I saw that really showed me what the potentials of film were or are. A few years after that, down the line where I had a fleeting, passing interest in photography, I guess all of those different interests seem to combine in a way where you have storytelling, you have music and editing, and then you have film and photography and composition, this visual language that all really seemed to combine these interests or these things that I’ve been pursuing throughout my life in a haphazard sort of fashion.
[00:08:36] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yeah, I totally relate to that filmmaking for me has felt like a kind of total form that incorporates a hundred different things that I’m interested in. When you said many, many years of college, I felt like there was something there. Were you in school longer than four years
[00:08:51] Sky Hopinka: Oh way longer. I mean, like high school was kind of one of those things too. Like where I feel like I was a student that would fall through the cracks, especially being Native, like going to high school and going to middle school. It’s just like, I had no idea, like, you know, what AP classes were or what those tracks were or to think about colleges or like how to prepare for the SATs. Those are things that no one ever talked to me about. My senior year of high school, my English teacher, Ms. Hardy, she was really important in preparing me for what college would be. I went to four community colleges, College of the Deserts, Riverside Community College, the Northwest Indian College, and [inaudible] Community College before I ended up at Portland State University. And I graduated when I was 28, I think? 28, 29. After like, you know, years of dropping out of college, working a bit, and then coming back to college.
[00:09:39] Maori Karmael Holmes : Well, and what were you studying? Were you kind of all over the place with majors that whole time? Or were you always pursuing English?
[00:09:47] Sky Hopinka: English, and language. I took a black and white photography class when I was 18, but I dropped out halfway through, so I never got to the developing stage. So I could just, I knew how to use a camera, but I didn’t know how to develop photos. And yeah, that’s kind of like the story of my academic struggles, I guess, is just like taking classes here and there that kind of piqued my interest, but not really feeling drawn to anything. But for the most part, it was English, English literature was this thing that I figured, I don’t know what else I want to do, but I know I love reading and I love writing and I love thinking about books and talking about them, but I ended up not getting an English degree. I just wanted to graduate at that point. And I was working with a lot of Indigenous language revitalization and I needed to take like one more semester for a general education requirement, and I was just so over it. So I got a degree in liberal arts. And I was the easiest one to get, So I just said I’m done, give me that paper.
[00:10:37] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yeah, that’s that Aries efficiency. So I’m going to settle on you being an Aries. So you were learning film and I think you’re principally self-taught, you studied formerly afterward, but you were studying film the same time you were learning. And please forgive me if I’m saying this incorrectly Chinuk Wawa, which is one of your mother tongues? And I was just curious about what was happening for you politically and artistically as a young adult to be training both in language and in this artistic practice at the same time?
[00:11:10] Sky Hopinka: I guess I was just talking a lot of shit. I feel like at that time it was, yeah, very much near the end of like, I want to graduate. I mean, I told my grandma I’d graduate and she passed away at that point. And it was the last two years of, you know, [inaudible] college that, one I wanted to get my foreign language requirement met in an Indigenous language, and you could do that at Portland State. And so Chinuk made sense for me, for a lot of reasons. Where it’s not one of my Indigenous languages, but it’s the language from the region that I was living in. And I wanted to learn Ho-Chunk, but the nearest speakers was like 2000 miles away. And it was just, it was hard. I met my Chinuk teacher, Evan Gardner, and he said that I’d be doing a few things if I learned Chinuk. I’d be supporting the language of the land that I live on. And I’d also be learning some pedagogical techniques that I could then apply to Ho-Chunk and to share with others. And that really made a lot of sense to me. And so I started learning Chinuk to get that foreign language requirement met and to be part of this language community, and to engage in language revitalization, which is something that I’ve been wanting to do since I was a kid. And around that time too, it was like, I guess just like the friends I had, you know, like we were just talking and really dissatisfied with Native cinema or just felt like it didn’t speak to us. Just acknowledging like yes, it’s important to acknowledge historical trauma and the tragedies and the different parts of what it means to be Native in this country and how complicated it is. But what are the things that are not being shown on film. What are the things that, you know, we want to see that represent us. If I want to make films about things, I want to see it and why not make them. And so, yeah. I remember just like talking to a friend of mine one day and saying, God, like this film sucks. He was like, yeah, it’s better than your film. And so I was like, you’re right. So I just decided, and I had a little point and shoot camera. And so I was just like taking photos and I started to record video and we went and built a fishing scaffold on the Columbia river. And I brought my camera with me and I just started a document and just like record video and learned how to use iMovie and just kinda went from there.
[00:13:18] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yeah. Toni Morrison said she started writing because she hadn’t picked up a book that she wanted to read or it was something I’m bungling the quote. But yeah, I’m really curious, so much of your work has existed in sort of like a white cube space, you know, as in galleries and museums and isn’t necessarily in cinemas, outside of festivals. So the filmmaker, Arthur Jafa, who talks about how he didn’t choose the art world, it kind of chose him after decades of trying to make films. And it just sort of wasn’t quite working for him. But I’m curious for you because I mean, it feels to me for someone who’s only been making films for 10 years, you’re very successful. The films are being received well, and you’re continuing to find more opportunities to make the work. And so I’m wondering how you came into the sort of art world? Did you know that that was going to happen? Was that something you wanted, or did you think you were going to make films that would be sort of in like the bigger cinema space?
[00:14:18] Sky Hopinka: I feel resonant with that Arthur Jafa quote. Not quite sure how it happened, but I think it’s part of like, not really understanding how these things work, just like, I think this is how things go. This is like where you should cut things together. And like, I guess I should submit to film festivals, is what it seems like you’re supposed to do. And so that’s kind of how I approached the art world as well, where after a few years of getting into Indigenous film festivals, as well as experimental film festivals, I felt like, okay, this is like where experimental film lives. And, it was actually the Wisconsin Triennial in 2016 I believe, where they asked to program some of the films in, like a gallery space. But I was really unhappy with how it was installed. They put like computer speakers on top of a projector and it was really bright, but I was really like, okay, this could work, you know, like I can see why, the curator explained that it felt like there was a sort of looping quality to the films where you don’t need to see them from beginning to end, but you can encounter them whenever. And I like to think about my films as circular in a sort of way, or non-linear or like leading into the editing approach like non-linearly in a non sort of like, you know, Western idea of having a three-act structure or five-act structure or whatever. I think it was the Whitney Biennial as well, where they installed one of my videos in the gallery space. And that I think really opened up a lot of doors for me because like one, it showed other curators what these films look like installed, and that in some ways, sometimes others are just looking for permission, or just like looking for someone to make that first leap. And I feel like that’s what happened with my video work, where then after that other curators would write me and ask if they could install the work. And I was like, sure, I love cinema spaces. But I also feel like having an experimental film play one weekend on like a Friday afternoon in whatever city there isn’t a lot of access or accessibility for this work. And I mean, I like the idea of like a film being up for a month or two months, and people can walk in. People can encounter it. People can see it as many times as they want or walk out after five seconds. And then that further, like, you know, informed me wanting to make multichannel work, or work specifically for a gallery space where it is a bit more free from the constraints of a cinema.
[00:16:40] Maori Karmael Holmes : Bringing up the biennial, were you in the 2017 Biennial?
Sky Hopinka: Yes.
Maori Karmael Holmes : Okay. Cause I know we both were curators of the film program in 2019. And I wanted to ask you, taking on that role as a curator you’ve had, of course, your long going film series that you’ve done. And with that program in particular, you know, what is it that you’re aiming to do when you program work together?
[00:17:06] Sky Hopinka: Like with that series the title is, What Was Always Yours and Never Lost. I think the idea was for it to be like an ongoing program where some work would be the same, like some work would come in from different makers, but just the part of the series that could change different iterations or be iterative. That really was, I think the beginning of just like trying to find other Indigenous filmmakers who were making experimental work or work that doesn’t fit into that narrative or documentary camps and to really find that community, cause it really didn’t feel like there was that many other Indigenous experimental filmmakers out there or support for them either.
[00:18:12] Maori Karmael Holmes : So the Yellowknives Dene scholar, Glen Sean Coulthard, in his book, Red Skin, White Masks, extends the work of Franz Fanon to talk about recognition and inclusion––how recognition and inclusion from the settler state will always be a trap. He writes that we need to center our own politics of revaluing, rebuilding, and deploying Indigenous cultural practices based on self and community recognition. And I see that happening deeply in your work. And that’s what you’ve been talking about. And I just wanted to ask, how do you navigate an industry that’s bent on representation and tokenistic inclusion while foregrounding the relational politics of your work? As you continue to get recognition from the art world and from independent film spaces, how do you continue to come back to your original intent?
[00:18:28] Sky Hopinka: I think like, it has a lot to do with how I got started in experimental film. There’s quite a few like labs, Native spaces, Native organizations that applied to in 2012/13 when I was just starting out and got rejected from. And maybe that is the Aries in me where I was just like, well, then fuck it, I’m going to make my own films how I want to make them. And so that was just like, you know, getting a camera, buying a zoom and a microphone, and paying 300 bucks for Final Cut 10. And just like, I have everything that I need. I can make a film and just started to make films that way and being self-sufficient. Really like once, you know, I started to understand and figure out how experimental film could function in an Indigenous context, I just started making work on my own. I never really applied for funding, because like these films are always hard to explain, or I never liked to try to explain them because once I would try, they just sounded dumb, you know, or just a lot of like blank stares. So I just started thinking of making the work as a sort of proof of concept. This is the thing that I can’t explain that I’m doing. And that’s just how I’ve been making films ever since with the sense of like the films explain themselves. I don’t want to feel beholden to anyone, any sort of funder or any sort of granting institution or whoever to have a deliverable. Because ultimately I think like I want the films to be what they should be, you know, without trying to fit into any sort of box. I mean, as far as like the tokenization thing, like that’s, that’s real, you know. Sometimes I feel like it’s easy for people to program me or curate me because they’re looking for a Native artist. I don’t know. I go back and forth on that. I’m not making any concessions for the work or who I’m making it for. If this white organization wants to tokenize me, then that’s their problem, not mine. It just means that the work’s getting out there and people are seeing it on its own terms. And I mean, I’m never going to change anything in a film for whoever wants to screen it or air it or install it. I do have thoughts about how it’s presented or how it’s contextualized, but that comes part of the very conversation of having more agency in how the work’s being shown. And then also just like, what does it then mean to be the token or to be one of many tokens? And what does it mean to bring others with you? Cause I feel like that’s sort of like lateral oppression has existed in Native communities where there has been well, they’re just, you know, want to be the lonely Indian in a room of white people. I just think the more people you can bring with you, the better that you’re not the one being burdens or having to shoulder the sort of idea of like having to perform and to be the token. And I think the more of us there are in these different spaces, the harder it is to essentialize these experiences because there’s a multitude of experiences, and I don’t know. Those are some of the things that I think about that I guess.
[00:21:46] Maori Karmael Holmes : No, I mean, those are all super useful I think, so thank you for sharing that. So I want to go back to Jafa just for a second. He’s changed how I think about film for a really long time. And one of the things that he’s been talking about is sort of immaturity of cinematic practice and its capacity to tell non-Eurocentric stories. And so I think about what you just said about, you know, three-act structure or five-act structure or whatever we think of as cinematic structure at all. There’s still so little that we’ve actually done with the form and experimented with it. And so I’m curious for you, what limitations have you encountered? And if you want to share any of the ways that you’ve been manipulating the kind of materiality of cinema to get at the stories as they require you to do so?
[00:22:39] Sky Hopinka: Oh yeah, yeah, totally. I feel like, I mean, well, I like to exhaust ideas. I mean, I feel like if I am reading a bunch of stuff, watching a bunch of stuff, thinking about a lot of stuff that usually finds its way into the work. I guess like maybe two or three years of me making experimental films is really this idea of like, ethnography or the ethnopoetic and what are the challenges of that? And after I felt like I exhausted that idea, or at least my understanding of it, or just felt tired of making work that felt beholden to be responsive to white structures of cinema, then my focus turned towards well, what happens when you make work that you’re not responding to these white traditions or to a white prompt? And what are the possibilities with that? And so now I feel like there’s a certain sort of space of, like mythology or with the cycles of story that I am still trying to wrap my head around. I mean, in my many years of college, I took plenty of Native literature classes too. And a big part of like, understanding Native literature is this idea of nonlinear storytelling, or cyclical storytelling, or circular storytelling. And I never knew what that meant, you know, like, I don’t know what it means. I still don’t know what it means, but I think that that’s part of the process that I really enjoy about exploring that question or that concept. Is, what does it look like? What could it look like? And really not making work that isn’t necessarily about trying to find the answers, but just seeking out for the questions that give shape to these bigger ideas of what the possibilities and what the potentials are of cinema in these different forms. I love not knowing things and saying, I don’t know.
[00:24:12] Maori Karmael Holmes : You mentioned ethno-poetics, and I’d be curious, you know, what do you mean by that?
[00:23:36] Sky Hopinka: I first heard it in an essay by Eliot Weinberger called, The Camera People, where he goes over the history of ethnographic film from the earliest films, like, Nanook of the North, up until the present. At the time, I think the essay was written in the 90s. First, he says like, you know, ethnographic films, a very, very young, medium, and mode of making film and film is so young in general and that there’s a lot more to be discovered and there’s a lot more to be established around what this idea of ethnographic film is. And his proposal or idea was the ethno-poetic, which is a mode of filmmaking that would emerge when people who traditionally have had cameras pointed at them, pick them up and start pointing them at the things that they want to point them out and start making the films that are reflective of their own experience. And that’s the ethno-poetic in those regards. And, I was really drawn to that and I think I still am like, I mean, I think it’s a beautiful thought. It’s complicated. It’s definitely a complicated thought. How I think about it now comes from that sort of like still positioning and centering white ethnographic tradition as something to be responded to rather than abandoned or ignored.
[00:25:22] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yeah, I love that as well. I pulled a quote from an interview you did with Adam Piron for Sundance related to what you just said. You said, “it’s empowering to realize that you don’t have to make films for a white audience and consider whether or not they understand the cultural references.” And, you know, I think that’s such a liberating place. I’m curious, to realize that, that you could do that. How did you, like, how are you freed from that?
[00:25:50] Sky Hopinka: I mean, I feel like that goes into, you know, the first instances of shit talking to my friends about films. It’s just, you know, wanting to make films where we don’t have to spend 20 minutes teaching a white audience or giving them a history lesson. You know, like that film that I mentioned we made, the idea was just to make a film about three friends building a fishing scaffold and not explaining what we’re doing or, or why we’re doing it. But it’s just like us knowing. I remember watching Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee, who can recall his past lives and thinking like, you know, like white audiences love this. They’re not asking him to explain what this means and what that means and to explain like Thai cosmology, they just accept it, you know, or they accept the mystery of it. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe that’s another form of exotification, but I was just like, well then why when Natives make film, are there all these questions? Like, well, what does this mean? You know, like, what’s the symbolism of this? Where does this tradition come from? And like, that’s deeply grounded in this idea of authenticity or to have a white audience member or whoever it is, ask you to prove how you know what you know, and to be in awe of it. And like that, that goes into just this sort of like, performance aspect of Indigeneity of just like who has control over the performance. Like powwows I think about a lot because of that. They’re designed in the early 1900s after the reservation system was established in order to draw white tourists to the reservation to make money, to sell beadwork, to get performances. They’re an extension of the wild west show. And it’s like a very neo-cultural phenomenon, but also one that retains a lot of agency for Native people. I just like, I mean, it’s like these sort of like, concentric circles of awareness, or who’s looking in. It’s like you have the dance floor with the dancers and the drummers, and outside of that, you have the people sitting around like family members, people with their camp chairs, you know, taking breaks between songs. Outside of that, you have the bleachers for the audience. And outside of that, you have like the vendors selling food, selling beadwork, selling toys, selling whatever. And, all the while you have tourists coming through, like taking pictures and one of the first places, like I was told that I have agency over, like who can take my picture is my parents, my family. You’re walking around with your outfit on with your beadwork, your bustle, your feathers, and, you know, we have like white people coming to the reservation to the powwow, taking your picture. But you can say, no, you can say, yeah you can take my picture, but give me five bucks. And it’s just like that sort of relationship to the camera and representation. And then also the sort of spectacle of it, but also the insider aspect of it. Saturday afternoon is, you know, one of the busiest times at a powwow. That’s when you have, like all the visitors, but my favorite part is midnight Saturday. There’s like one or two dance categories left. Everyone’s gone, except for the powwow people. You just have the dancers walking around half of their outfits are off and just relaxing, visiting. Like my grandma, she’d always have a pot of coffee at our campsite and just people to come to visit and chat. And like those moments of just the space of Natives being Native is just like really special, and seeing and growing up with that sort of variance between the performance spectacle and like the quiet intimacy of being native in the space was really powerful and potent. I think definitely informed this idea of making work for a native audience, not feeling like you have to explain something and to just know this isn’t for you. And to be able to show these things, certain things, allude to them and have a specific audience understand what they mean.
[00:29:15] Midroll: SEEN is a journal of film and visual culture focused on Black, Brown, and Indegenious communities globally. Subscribe today and receive two beautifully designed issues a year featuring essays, reviews, interviews, and more from critics, artists, and other luminaries of color. Learn more at seen.blackstarfests.org.
[00:29:44] Maori Karmael Holmes : You’re listening to Many Lumens, now back to my interview with Sky Hopkina.
So you grew up playing music as a child and in high school. And so I think it’s not surprising how much sound figures, so prominently in your work. And I was curious in the process of forming your projects, at what stage are you thinking about score or any kind of sonic influences? Or are you thinking about the visuals first and then coming to the sound?
[00:30:16] Sky Hopinka: I think like sound always comes first, like in some form or another. It’s usually the thing that if anything, it gives me a sense of the tone or the feeling that I want to go for, that I want to express visually. Even when I first started making films, when I started editing, I would always try to find some soundtrack to edit too, just as a sort of foundation. Even like, if I would change the soundtrack later on, music has always been the sort of framework or scaffolding that I used, you know, to start to understand the visuals or piece things together. And even with, and not just music, but I think the sonic sort of soundscapes or just walking around with the field recorder and seeing what I could record and what can I gather and how I could start editing those into the sound space, you know, thinking about what the possibilities are of movement and abstraction. But yeah, then it happens pretty much in tandem with the visuals and just kind of going back and forth between the two.
[00:31:04] Maori Karmael Holmes : So we talked a little bit about sound, but I’m curious, generally, how the films that you’re making, if they start with story after sound or however you’re getting to what becomes the text, how does it come to you? And what is your research process like? I’m curious if you like, write first and then meditate on the image and sound? Or if the sound is first then does the text come after that?
[00:31:31] Sky Hopinka: It varies from film to film, but I think generally, like, I mean, I will just go shoot whether that’s with friends in Alaska or with the language group or on a road trip. And from that never really feeling satisfied with the images on their own. Just thinking like what speaks to these images, whether that’s a bigger idea or a collection of recordings, like there’s this film that I made called, Jáaji Approx, and it’s about my dad, but I had these recordings of my dad for 10 years. Just whenever I’d see him, like I’d ask him to like sing some songs that he made or songs that he learned from the powwow trail. And they just really came together with this film when I was on a road trip where it’s just like finding a bridge between these two separate folders of material that really spoke to each other. And from there starting to think about what does this mean? What does this mean to me? How can I shape this into something sort of reflective of something that I can’t necessarily, you know, put to words or put to writing. Like often, I mean, I don’t like to think I know what a film is about until after I’m done with it and have a chance to think about it or have a chance to watch it with people or to just let it sit and then start realizing where these decisions came from or these choices that I made, like how they fit together. I like to think of myself as an intuitive filmmaker, but behind intuition is a lot of baggage, a lot of history and a lot of choices and a lot of experiences that shaped how and why you make these intuitive choices.
[00:32:52] Maori Karmael Holmes : What you’re describing feels to me, like when I hear jazz musicians talk about the improvisation process and there was something that I was wanting to ask you about, you know, we did our [William and Louise] Greaves Filmmaker Seminar just last week. And one of the speakers was Haile Gerima, and in closing conversation with one of our producers, Farrah, they started talking about this, I don’t know how familiar you are with Chinua Achebe, or Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, but they’re both African writers in the 60s and 70s writing about choosing a language in which to write as a political act. Right? So Ngugi is, you know, I’m going to write in my mother tongue, and Chinua is like I’m going to write in English. And so that it’s more accessible and of course they’re both right. And Haile, thinking about film, said that it’s immaterial which choice we make and that what matters more is the thought system that we’re espousing. And for him, he started talking about jazz as a thought system, which can teach us the most. And he talks about it being unruly and genius. What you just described, just sounds so familiar to what I’ve heard jazz musicians talk about how they get to work. Improv is not only about intuition and intuition being sort of receptive to spirit. Right? And being open to a kind of channeling, but it comes with lots of practice that is married with that kind of channeling. And so I was curious for you, if that resonates at all, or if there is something similar in Indigenous tradition that you might equate to jazz.
[00:33:39] Sky Hopinka: I mean that resonates a lot. I mean, I think about that, just like things that go into making something that exists outside of making something. Actually, when I was like playing music when I was younger, like, I mean, I think I read something or heard something where someone said that, thinking in your head about playing something or playing music or practicing your instrument, it can be as good as actually physically playing the instrument, or like you need both. You need like the sort of thought processes that go into that as well as like, the muscle memory. That’s one of those things that just kind of stuck with me. Where I would feel bad at times for like, not making something or not editing, but I’d spend hours thinking about something, just like all these different ways of understanding the material and what’s working and what’s not working. And I think that’s a big part of the work too. And so I think just expanding this idea of like, what work is or what practices or what it means to be making, because I think all of these things that you do in your life inform that. Maybe some things more than others, but I think that all of these things go into how we understand what we’re doing and how we’re communicating and how we’re understanding ourselves.
[00:35:28] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yeah. I want to take a sort of slight pivot. In an interview you talked about wanting to move away from showing the violence that occurred at Standing Rock and the violence that is regularly enacted upon Native bodies. And I just wanted to ask you to talk a little bit more about this and other acts of refusal that you’ve developed or might be continuing to develop in your pursuit of making cinema for Native audiences.
[00:35:54] Sky Hopinka: A bulk of my work is mostly like, landscape or places with this sort of refusal of showing bodies or people or spaces out of a sense of being protective of like, friends and family and wanting some distance, you know. With the piece on Standing Rock, this film called Dislocation Blues, it’s just like very literally being there and seeing like 200 camera crews, people with cameras, journalists, media organizations, whatever, just like, being hungry to film the actions and the violence and looking for that shot, it just felt really gross. The sort of like, maxim that I follow is if it feels gross, it’s probably gross. Even like filming maɬni, the feature that I did so very carefully or cautiously, or try to be respectful of my friendships with Sweetwater and Jordan and the spaces that I was filming and how I was filming them and what permission that I had there. I feel like there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of openness when it comes to Native communities, you know, a film that I made called, I’ll Remember You as You Were, not as What You’ll Become, it’s about Ho-Chunk reincarnation, but there’s this book that Paul Radin wrote called, The Road of Life and Death, which is about our reincarnation ceremonies. And I made it halfway through the introduction and I stopped. This isn’t how I wanted to learn this information. It’s not for me in this way. So I just like pulled some texts that were more just descriptive of our belief or [inaudible]. And made a film about that distance. I think there’s like a number of ways of trying to establish some boundaries where there haven’t been any for the last 150 years and develop some protocols or find out what the protocols are of the communities that I’m filming. You know, what can be filmed? What can’t be filmed? What can be talked about with outsiders? What can’t be talked about with outsiders? And how to reinforce those boundaries and that agency of these peoples who have been exploited by film and by media and by science.
[00:37:47] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yeah, that’s really powerful to have those boundaries asserted, even if it’s sort of retroactively. Right? You know, like in my case, I think about Black American people looking toward texts about African peoples or about enslaved peoples in the early days of the U.S. and thinking through how we make decisions about what it means to be, period. Right? And it’s sort of based on this one particular study. And sometimes it’s like, if you get access to other information, you realize like this was this person’s opinion and this is this person’s observation. And it isn’t, it’s just that. And it isn’t the same as perhaps like a more mundane approach, you know, and, and not seeing it as exotic. And so I love that you shut that down. Like I’m not going to study it this way. I’m going to like, come at it, maybe more experientially or culturally. You’ve also talked about, there’s a narrative short that you have. Is it pronounced? “We, we”?
[00:38:44] Sky Hopinka: huyhuy?
[00:38:46] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yes. You wrote, “to see our language in an unspectacular way where it’s just the way that we talk.” And, you know, narrative film, how often I think for non-white people we’re not allowed to just be. Right? And so how powerful it is when there are narrative films where there’s nothing happening, right? Like nothing exceptional, nothing tragic. It’s a quiet kind of power. And I think it’s just one that we take for granted.
[00:39:13] Sky Hopinka: I mean it with TV shows, especially TV shows that had like 25 episodes seasons. There was always those episodes where nothing happens and it’s just like world-building or something. I mean, actually I think a lot about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, where in many of the episodes of the seasons, it’s just about the relationship between two of the characters and you have a break from the sort of like, action. You have a break from the sort of conflict. And I think that really is reflected. And just a lot of work that is about oppressed communities. Because the things that you feel like you have to show are, or are being asked to show are the conflict, the tensions and the stresses. And it’s like, we carry these stresses with us everyday of our lives. Like how can the mundane and the boring be safe? Or just like, you know, a release from that tension.
[00:40:04] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yeah. I’d love to ask you. You’ve primarily made short films and of course one feature, that are largely in museum spaces and in festivals. And I’m curious if you have any desire or interest in making work that might be more conventional, like for film or television? Is that of interest to you?
[00:40:20] Sky Hopinka: You know, 10 years ago, I started making films so that I could make a romcom one day. This is just my various circuitous ways of going about that.
[00:40:40] Maori Karmael Holmes : What kind of romcom? I need more information.
[00:40:41] Sky Hopinka: I have no idea. Like, I mean, I’ve been thinking about it for years, but I don’t know. There’s just like, there’s something comforting about that idea of a film or just like, it’s such a low stakes genre, you know. But, I guess, about seeing like people that look like you that come from the community you might be coming from like, you know, figuring out love, figuring out friendship. It’s a little cheesy, but I dunno, I liked the idea of those films being made.
[00:41:05] Maori Karmael Holmes : No, I don’t think that’s cheesy. I almost exclusively watch romcoms. So I really appreciate that. I mean, you know, I’m obviously watching all kinds of other things for work, but they’re very satisfying when they work.
[00:41:16] Sky Hopinka: I think so, too.
[00:41:18] Maori Karmael Holmes : Well I’m looking forward to the romcom.
[00:41:21] Sky Hopinka: Me too.
[00:41:23] Maori Karmael Holmes : I’d love to ask you about COUSIN, which is the collective that you co-founded in 2018 with Adam Kahlil and Adam Piron and Alexandra Lazarowich. I’m just curious, how did you all start this and what are you up to?
[00:41:40] Sky Hopinka: It started over like the course of like two or three years. I mean, there’s moments where I would show work at experimental festivals and people would be like, oh, do you know Adam Khalil? I was like, oh no, I don’t. And he was like the other Native making experimental work. I mean, he existed for a few years before I finally got a chance to meet him and met him and his brother Zack, and it was just really great. They had just come out with a film, Inaate/Se, and it’s a beautiful film. And so just like that started a conversation of being one of the few Native filmmakers that we knew about in these circles. And similar with Alex, who was friends with Adam and then Khalil, and then also meeting out of her own, like through Sundance and like his work as a programmer and as a filmmaker. And really at the Flaherty Seminar in 2018, I believe we all got a chance to be in the same spot together for a week and a half, and just the idea of COUSIN was born, because it was great being around each other and being together and to not feel alone. To not feel like one of a few Natives navigating these spaces, we really just wanted to try to find a way to make it okay to be an Indigenous experimental filmmaker. Because if there’s hardly any support for experimental film in the United States, there’s zero support for Indigenous experimental film in the United States. And similar with Canada too, like First Nations, they have a lot of support system from Canada Council of the Arts, but again, it’s also geared more towards mainstream types of filmmaking. And so how can we then give some money to some filmmakers, some artists that are interested in experimental work or installation and not be too prescriptive about what that means. I mean, we all come from our own backgrounds and our experiences and our own privileges and our own oppressions. How can we add more voices to this conversation that go beyond what we know and things that we don’t want to speak to things that we’re, we’re not the ones to speak.
[00:43:33] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yeah, well, hopefully there’s room in the future for like a Blackstar collaboration and we can call it “Play Cousin”. Was that your first Flaherty in 2018?
[00:43:43] Sky Hopinka: Yeah, yeah.
[00:43:45] Maori Karmael Holmes : Aww, I’m so sad that I didn’t make it to that one. I know that it was like, exceptional and a dream because I went to Flaherty in 2014 when there were like 10 people of color––total. And so seeing the Instagram posts from that year, it was really like, amazing. But you’re programming Flaherty this year or you’re one of the programmers, right?
[00:44:12] Sky Hopinka: Yeah, I’m co programming with Almudena Escobar López. I’m pretty excited for it, and also like right in the middle of slotting the program together. So it’s a little bit overwhelming, but we’re looking forward to it.
[00:44:17] Maori Karmael Holmes : I am too. It should be very exciting. I wanted to ask you who are some of your intellectual or even spiritual or artistic north stars?
[00:44:27] Sky Hopinka: Ah, that’s a great question. Etel Adnan, definitely out of her work and her poetry and her painting. I really loved the way that Peter Rose makes films and deals with language. The Basma Alsharif is a Palestinian filmmaker who makes some really beautiful films that’s really pointed out complicated issues of lands. Those politics around that, and the ways that you can express those through films and through art. Why am I blanking right now? I have like, on my phone, the reminders, I make lists there. And I have a list of favorite foods because I always forget when people ask me the question of what do I like to eat?
[00:45:11] Maori Karmael Holmes : Well, now I have to ask you, what do you like to eat? What are your favorite foods?
[00:45:20] Sky Hopinka: I have egg salad sandwich, pears, tomato soup, eggs over easy, camarones a la diabla, pad thai, cornbread, small tomatoes. See, this is like, why do I need a list for this? But these are the things that I do.
[00:45:32] Maori Karmael Holmes : Small tomato, that’s so specific. Why small tomatoes?
[00:45:36] Sky Hopinka: It’s like, you know, like when you eat them and they just kind of like burst in your mouth, you know, it’s just like really like a refreshing sort of burst of tomato deliciousness.
[00:45:44] Maori Karmael Holmes : Well, I’ll be very Taurian and tell you that, the list is okay. I accept all of those choices. I think some of those artists are really amazing and I can see them showing up in your work. So I’m at our sort of last question. Is there anything that you’re interested in pursuing that is not filmmaking and also what is next for you?
[00:46:09] Sky Hopinka: I think, like working more with photography, I’ve done a series of photographs where I etch text on the images after I print them out. I’m also interested in painting. So I need to watch some YouTube videos and figure out how that’s done. I like the idea of that, or just like the process of that sounds fun, or just relaxing, trying to focus more on writing the next few months as well, more poems and more essays. So that’s something I’m hoping to get back into. I think a big part of like where I’m at right now, or my understanding of that is just thinking about the space that I occupy as a filmmaker, as a curator, as a programmer. And really like, what am I missing? Someone asked me about my curatorial practice the other day. And I just said it’s like bringing some cool people together and getting out of the way. I think about my privileges every day, and my oppression. Growing up as like a Native cis-man has its oppressions, but also has its privileges. And so I really want to make more space for more people, more artists who have different experiences than me, and to support them however I can with whatever platform that I have. I think that’s really important because like I said, like no one wants to be the only one. And I think that the bigger idea and the broader idea of community that we can foster, the better.
[00:47:28] Maori Karmael Holmes : That’s perfect. What an amazing way to end. I really do feel like that’s just like such a beautiful way to look forward. I really appreciate it.
[00:47:38] Sky Hopinka: Oh, thank you so much.
[00:47:40] Maori Karmael Holmes :Okay. Take care
[00:47:41] Sky Hopinka:You too.
[00:47:47] Maori Karmael Holmes : Sky Hopinka is an Indigenous filmmaker, writer, and photographer. To explore more of his work, visit SkyHopinka.com follow Sky’s collective COUSIN on Instagram at Cousin_Collective.
This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions. The Host and Executive Producer of Many Lumens is me, Maori Karmael Holmes. Our Producer is Imani Leonard. Associate Producers are Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman. Managing Producer is Alex Lewis. Executive Editor is John Myers.
Our music supervisor is David ‘lil dave’ Adams, BlackStar’s Music in Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative. Our theme song was composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by David ‘lil dave’ Adams.
Sending you light and see you next time.