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Animated frame of what appears to be two tribes walking toward each other in greeting. Sea, straw huts, and mountains behind them.

Still from Kapaemahu (2020), directed by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu

  • Animating the Mother Tongue: An Indigenous Language Playlist

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    Language lives at the heart of culture and serves as a vessel through which traditions, customs, histories, and knowledge travel through space and time. Language is the tool that teaches us to engage with the past, express in the present, and imagine the future. Language serves as a strong means of identification. 

    These principles inspired the 2021 Mother Tongue Film Festival’s animation playlist, which seeks to empower identification through language. Featuring short animations created by Indigenous filmmakers, or created in collaboration with members of Indigenous communities and arts organizations, this playlist provides a variety of engaging stories sure to inspire those of all ages.

    As we experience an ever-increasing engagement with digital media while locked down, we are aware of the need to offer diverse and accurate renderings of the representations and knowledges that are etched into the creation of these media. Inaccurate representations of Indigenous Peoples in the media have riddled film and digital media since the beginning of the film industry. Indigenous communities from around the globe are fighting for their proper self-representation, and many are working to share their stories across generations through the power of film, with animation being a genre most associated to children.

    Strengthening distinct Indigenous identity is the central theme of this playlist, directed toward a younger audience and expressed in a range of graphic styles. Through showcasing Indigenous animations, we aim to project Indigenous perspectives with an understanding that welcoming these voices into the home at an early age broadens perspectives, increases knowledge, and brings a greater connection to our surrounding communities.

    We have included works from various regions, including Australia, Canada, Chile, Indonesia, Mexico, and the United States, that are told in English, Spanish, and Indigenous languages, including Balinese, Dalabon, Diné (Navajo), Haida, Mapudungun, ʻŌlelo Ni‘ihau Hawaiian, and Cmique Iitom. We have also included stories that are told through song or image.

    Please enjoy the works in this playlist, and of course, share with the children in your life. We wish to thank our young advisors, Ayelén Avirama and Emilia Constantyn, for their valuable input.

    Titles marked with * are official selections of the 2021 Mother Tongue Film Festival.

    1. The Mimis

    Directed by Dave Jones | 2006

    A young Dhuwa boy of Central Arnhem Land, Australia, is ashamed of his hunting skills and longs to impress his father. While he is full of pity, fairy-like spirits known as the Mimis welcome the boy to their joyful, yet tiresome, underground celebration. When the boy has grown tired and yearns for home, it is his father who finds him and brings him back by singing in the Dalabon language. The boy recognizes becoming a hunter is not the only way to receive his father’s love. This short was created for the ABC Dust Echoes project, which works in collaboration with Indigenous Australian communities from Central Arnhem Land to create beautifully animated Dream Time stories.

    2. Navajo Tales: The Stars

    Directed by Julio Berrio, Jared Mathews, Dallin Penman | 2019

    According to this Diné (Navajo) story, the stars were intended to be a detailed guide for man, divinely and meticulously organized by Haasch’eezhini, the Black God. However, this original design does not reflect the night sky humanity has grown accustomed to. Coyote wanted so badly to help the Black God in his placement of the stars, yet his mischievous nature altered the night sky forever. This film is a Navajo winter tale, which means it can only be told during the winter. Respecting this tradition, the film is only available to watch here during that time.

    3. Mountain of SGaana*

    Directed by Christopher Auchter (Haida) | 2017

    Through weaving a blanket bearing traditional Haida imagery, a storytelling mouse shares the tale of a man whisked away to the spirit world and the trials faced by a young woman destined to save him. Based on a Haida fable, this magical story interweaves animation with Haida art and song.

    4. Kapaemahu*

    Directed by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson | 2020

    Four spiritual beings of dual masculine and feminine energy traveled from Tahiti to Waikiki many years ago, bringing with them healing arts that blessed the people of Hawai‘i. Eternally grateful for their healing abilities, the people of Waikiki erected a monument to honor these incredible individuals. Told in the ʻŌlelo Ni‘ihau Hawaiian language and collectively directed by Native Hawaiian filmmaker and Hawaiian culture teacher Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer, and Joe Wilson, Kapaemahu breathes life into a beautiful story that has been hidden from history for far too long.

    5. Hant Quj Cöipaxi Hac

    Directed by Antonio Coello | 2019

    At the beginning of time, there was nothing—until Hant Caai created the entire universe. Animals of the sea and animals of the land brought their abilities, helping Hant Caai with his creation of the world and its people. Hant Quij Cöipaxi Hac is the story of creation according to Seri cosmology, a tale from a people who have survived for centuries in the harsh environments of the sea and the desert of Sonora, in Northwest Mexico. Told in the Cmique Iitom language of the Comcáac (Seri) people, this short uses creative animation techniques and was made by children and elders from the community. This video has subtitles available in French, Portuguese, Serbian, and Spanish.

    6. Luh Ayu Manik Mas*

    Directed by Clara Listya Dewi, Ngurah Yudha, BASAbali | 2020

    At first glance, Luh Ayu Manik Mas is an average Balinese eighth grader. But when environmental disaster strikes, she channels a powerful energy deep within herself to become a superhero capable of bringing harmony back to nature. Superhero Luh Ayu is the creation of BASAbali, a collaboration of linguists, anthropologists, artists, and community members of Bali with a shared goal of protecting and sustaining the Balinese language, environment, and culture.

    7. How Coyote and Eagle Stole the Sun and Moon

    Directed by Erica Pretty Eagle Moore (Osage, Otoe-Missouria, Pawnee, Sac + Fox, and Prairie Band Potawatomi) | 2014

    Have you ever wondered why coyotes howl at the moon? According to Zuni legend, this behavior is the result of an unexpected union between Coyote and Eagle. Long ago, it was dark and always summer. Coyote was not well adjusted to the dark and could not see well enough to hunt. Eagle, on the other hand, hunted well in these conditions. The two joined forces, looking for light to improve Coyote’s abilities, but a careless mistake changes everything for both of them.

    8. SELK’NAM

    Directed by Sebastián Pinto | 2012

    For 10,000 years, the Selk’nam thrived in the severe climate of la Isla Grande (the Big Island) of Tierra del Fuego, at the southernmost tip of South America. The Selk’nam developed a rich cosmology as well as testing ceremonies to retain order in their communities. While they lived peacefully for thousands of years in their native territory, the Selk’nam faced extreme discrimination and genocide triggered by colonization as recently as the twentieth century. This animation provides a brief look into Selk’nam culture while touching on the grisly actions associated with colonialism that all but extinguished this Indigenous community in a short period of time.  

    9. Maq and the Spirit of the Woods

    Directed by Phyllis Grant (Mi’kmaq) | 2006

    Maq, a young Mi’kmaq boy, is uncoordinated in body and mind. He stumbles and falls in front of his friends and cannot speak with clarity and confidence. One day, after creating a small figure from a scared stone, Maq encounters a great being in the woods. The two spend several magical days together, and Maq learns to express himself proudly.  

    10. Treng Treng y Kay Kay

    Directed by Kimeltuwe Materiales de Mapudungun | 2016

    Treng Treng and Kay Kay is a traditional Mapuche creation story about the conflict between two powerful serpent spirits. Kay Kay is the serpent spirit of the sea, and Treng Treng resides on the land. When Kay Kay threatens the Mapuche communities by flooding the land, Treng Treng raises the land in an act of protection. Created as a Mapudungun (also known as Mapuzungun) language learning tool through the Kimeltuwe project, this short presents the story in both Mapudungun and Spanish. Mapudungun is spoken and being re-learned across rural and urban areas in southern Argentina and Chile. Find more Mapudungun language learning content on Kimeltuwe. This video has subtitles available in Spanish and Mapudungun.

    11. Little Thunder

    Directed by Nance Ackerman (Mohawk), Alan Syliboy (Mi’kmaq) | 2009

    A coming-of-age journey awaits Little Thunder as he leaves home on a canoe trip to become a man. Friends come and go and offer their skills, helping Little Thunder progress along his journey. Based upon the Mi’kmaq legend of The Stone Canoe, this animation was created as part of a collaborative project of the National Film Board of Canada and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. The music was created by one of Nova Scotia's premiere blues guitarists, Jamie Alcorn, and Nance Ackerman.

    12. This is a Hogan

    Directed by Melissa Henry (Diné) | 2020

    In this playful animation, children can learn about the many kinds of hogans—Diné (Navajo) for home or dwelling. Educational in nature, This is a Hogan introduces young audiences to the Navajo language with creativity and amusement.

    Maddie Van Oostenburg is an intern for the Mother Tongue Film Festival at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a recent graduate of Purdue University, where she studied anthropology and sociology and researched global Indigenous media.

    This project received federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.

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