Groundbreaking Filmmaker Finds Native Roots



I recently watched a short Indie Documentary that stopped me cold. As
the great grand-daughter of an Osage woman, “A New Frontier” stirred me. The documentary details the deceitful efforts of the 1950’s American government to relocate Native Americans off Reservations to obtain access to natural resources.

I sat down recently with the filmmaker, Valarie Blue Bird Jernigen, to discuss her personal journey in Film. What emerged is a unique perspective on the power of Film to transform the Filmmaker.

Valarie Blue Bird Jernigen films the documentary, “Forty Winters”

Valarie’s journey to Film became a journey back to her roots. As a
Choctaw living in Oklahoma in the 1990’s, post-high school employment
prospects were grim. College seemed like a way to enhance her options, but
after obtaining a Bachelors degree, job prospects didn’t improve. When she saw a job involving collecting data on Native American health habits, she jumped at it. Public Health Professionals she met told her that a Masters Degree in Public Health would allow her to address the needs of Native Americans broadly, including social activism. In short order, Valarie earned her Masters in Public Health and then, continued at UC Berkeley for her PhD.

It was at UC Berkeley that she first worked on a public health campaign
which used video as a medium. Seeing video get the word out in such a broad and persuasive way ignited Valarie’s imagination. She began editing public health videos with ‘imovie’. Then, the possibilities emerged. How might Film be used in conjunction with public health research to inform Native Americans? Valarie’s very personal mission to Filmmaker was born.

Simply, Valarie Blue Bird Jernigen realized, “Filmmaking is what I love to do.”

She met other Native American filmmakers at the American Indian Film
Festival and the Native American Film Institute, who fueled her resolve. She
interned on the Wounded Knee episode of the WGBH 2009 series “We shall

But, her heightened involvement in Film and her work in Public Health left
her torn between them. When she decided to take a post-doctorate public
health position at Stanford, she told the University that being able to go to Film School needed to be part of her employment arrangement. Not only did the University agree, but it paid for her film education.

She enrolled in a one-year filmmaking program at San Francisco School of
Digital Filmmaking, (SFSDF). Her 2009 film thesis “Forty Winters,” explores the efforts of Robert Free, a Bay Area Native American and Activist, to revive the ‘Occupy Alcatraz’ movement of 1969, when seventy-nine Native Americans managed to occupy Alcatraz Island and erect a tipi on its shores. The documentary follows Robert as he seeks to re-ignite the movement some thirty- plus years later. In addition to governmental opposition, he must face the mixed support he gets from his family who questions the cost amidst their modern-day struggle just to get by.

Native Americans reclaim Alcatraz with a declaration

In part, Valarie says the documentary “Forty Winters” raises awareness through irony. In the film, Robert Free is told by national park personnel that “Erecting a tipi would disturb nesting birds,” birds that are not native to the area.

“Forty Winters,” she explains, allowed her to witness Native Americans
who commit to activism as a way of life, a life-changing experience for her.
Now, she watches the movement to return to the Reservations and the struggles young Native people feel to blend Native and non-Native culture with more insightful eyes.

Ultimately, “Robert Free’s journey to re-establish the tipi back on Alcatraz
allowed me to examine my own journey as a Native person and what it is I stand for.”

Filmmaking has also brought Valarie love and unexpected collaboration.
She met her Choctaw husband, cinematographer, producer, and writer Tvli
, not in their native Oklahoma, but on a filmmaking project in California. Most recently, they have collaborated on a feature script that explores a character’s attempts to get the tipi back on Alcatraz. The film she says, “ends the story as I would have liked to see it.”

The script was submitted to represent U.S. Native Peoples at the “Indigenous Film Conference” held near the Arctic Circle in the Sápmi region of Norway. “We had to take five flights to get to this village in Northern Norway for the award. Once we got there, we met filmmakers from all over the world, and from festivals like Sundance.” The Conference yielded a collaborative “Solemn Declaration,” a mission statement about the commitment of ‘Indigenous Screen Storytellers.’ Read about the conference and its mission statement here.


Native American Activists occupy Alcatraz Island
Valarie and Tvli have relocated back to Oklahoma and she’s taken an academic position at the University of Oklahoma. Her current Public Health Filmmaking project involves getting the word out to Native Americans about the benefits of an “indigenous diet.”

You can learn more about Valarie’s groundbreaking documentary Forty
Winters, here.



Katherine Bennett is a freelance, screen, and fiction writer. She also reviews films. She resides in Northern California. You can visit her on Twitter @VerbaVitae and her website