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Two people in light-colored grass skirts, one carrying a woven basket on their back, walk down a forest path, dappled with sunlight.

Film still from Long Line of Ladies, directed by Shaandiin Tome (Navajo) and Rayka Zehtabchi

  • Mother Tongue Is Coming Home: Highlights and Themes in This Year’s Film Festival

    After two years of online programming, the Mother Tongue Film Festival is Coming Home. We are elated to return to the National Mall February 23 to 26 to celebrate International Mother Language Day in the best way we know how: showcasing powerful, colorful, and moving Mother Tongue films. In celebration, we reflect on the testing voyage that is the return home and seek to inspire inquiry into the concept of home itself.

    Acknowledging that home is a process—encompassed in a range of experiences from the physical to the spiritual—this year’s festival creates space to feel the multiplicity of emotions connected to Coming Home. We see this journey reflected in a number of ways, from the return to traditions, land, and community to the inner strength that is exercised in daring to follow the internal call leading to a place of contentment from within. Home can be found in a place, a person, a song, a prayer, an emotion, a language—the list goes on.

    In 27 films from 12 regions of the world in 23 languages, we will peer into the numerous definitions of home and explore the qualities that accompany the return.

    The Return to Traditions and Land

    A physical return home does not exist only on the material plane. Inevitably, energy and emotion are expended and deeply felt in this process. This can be seen in the feature film Whetū Mārama – Bright Star (February 25, 6:30 p.m., National Museum of Natural History), in the passion that is exerted in protecting and revitalizing traditions. The film follows the legacy of legendary Māori wayfinder Sir Hekenukumai Ngaiwi Puhipi, aka Hek Busby, in his efforts to rekindle Māori knowledge of the stars that guided great voyagers of the Pacific for thousands of years—skills that were lost over the last 600 years in the face of colonial rule.

    For the Māori people of Aotearoa New Zealand, celestially guided sea navigation is a central element of identity, a tradition that ignites a sense of deep knowing from within. The reawakening of this knowledge, which was forcefully silenced, can be compared to a homecoming. Through a return to traditions, land, and water, home is evoked.

    The power of revitalizing traditions is prevalent across many films in this year’s festival. The documentary short Long Line of Ladies (February 25, 1:30 p.m., NMNH) is an intimate look at the coming-of-age ceremony for Ahty, a young Karuk girl of Northern California. Weeks of ceremonial cleansing prepare her to enter into womanhood, and she is supported every step of the way by her community. The traditional rites of her ceremony had been paused for 120 years in response to violence brought on by the California Gold Rush. By breathing life back into ceremony, Ahty has the opportunity to connect with the lineage of women who have passed this wisdom down to her. It is through tradition that Ahty embraces her connection to her people and her homeland.

    Displacement and the Treacherous Journey Home

    The return home after displacement—physical, spiritual—is a healing process many Indigenous peoples and communities are grappling with in the wake of state-sponsored violence. Forced removal and assimilation have left deep wounds on the psyches of their descendants.

    Daughter of a Lost Bird (February 23, 6:30 p.m., Hirshhorn) addresses these collective wounds. Kendra Potter was adopted into a white upper-middle-class family in Portland, Oregon unaware of her Native Lummi identity for the majority of her life. When she contacts her biological mother after thirty-four years apart, and the truth of her identity begins to unravel before her, she is forced to reconcile with the intense trauma and attempted erasure that placed her into the life she had always known. Kendra’s newfound identity brings with it questions of placement and belonging.

    At times throughout Kendra’s journey, she wishes that following the call to learn who she is didn’t bring on the intense emotions and responsibility that it inevitably held. Yet she continued anyway. With a subtle perseverance, she carried on as though there were no other option.

    Home, the Internal Call That Cannot Be Silenced

    Like any great epic, the journey home seems to imply a call that will not be silenced. Home can be encased in the internal call to discover equilibrium, peace, or contentment in our lives, and it often forces us to traverse unforgiving landscapes. In some cases, the call home inspires a surrendering of the individual to a greater good.

    This sentiment is clearly embodied in the protests on July 17, 2019, against the desecration of Maunakea, the highest peak on the Hawaiian Islands and one of the most sacred locations for Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians). Maunakea has repeatedly been the site of unwelcome construction for massive telescope projects, and Kānaka Maoli will not allow for the abuse any longer. The unity required to overcome extractive forces is seen in the documentary short Like a Mighty Wave (February 25, 6:30 p.m., NMNH).

    The film documents hundreds of Kānaka Maoli peacefully protecting Maunakea when a heavily armed police force arrests thirty-six kūpuna (elders). Their sacrifice is one far beyond themselves. It is one for the continuation of their culture, their land, their people. The call to protect their home, and everything that it stands for, pulses through them. The call home sometimes rings in this way, as a volcanic responsibility, an understanding of the necessary action in order to move in its direction.

    The Process of Coming Home

    As we explore this year’s theme, romanticizing the return home may be appealing, but the process of home is more complicated. It is a journey that requires a deep look into both the light and the dark, a journey that requires the entire picture. And sometimes the picture isn’t so pretty, as the foundations of home are built by both experiences of inspiration and deep suffering. Yet a call remains—to celebrate it in all of its beautiful messiness.

    As we return to in-person screenings, we are eager to explore the complexities of home with you. Through a cinematic, linguistic journey around the world, the Mother Tongue Film Festival is Coming Home.

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

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