Jeffrey Palmer’s thoughtful documentary, N. Scott Momaday: Words From a Bear premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and recently aired as a part of the PBS “American Masters” series. Palmer’s documentary spotlights Momaday’s resounding voice whose vibrant depictions of myth and personal experience became the founding influence of the Native American Renaissance and inspired countless Native American artists and various political movements. The film weaves together an insightful sense of magical realism with historical commentary and visually stunning representations of the expansive landscape of New Mexico and the Great Plains. It also serves as a reminder of the urgency to keep oral storytelling alive alongside other more privileged forms of narrative expression to better understand the human existence, the origin of specific identities, and the function of collective memory.
Jeffrey Palmer is a Kiowa filmmaker and media artist. His short films have screened at the Sundance Film Festival, Hot Docs, The Seattle International Film Festival, and many others around the world. He has received awards and recognition from ITVS, JustFilms/Ford Foundation, Sundance Institute Creative Producers Lab, Sundance Institute Native Program Lab fellowship, and Firelight Media Documentary Lab Fellowship.
I talked to Jeffrey Palmer about his new film, discussing what led him to this project, his filmmaking style, and how he relates his own experiences and identity to the process of profiling N. Scott Momaday.
Lora Maslenitsyna: First of all, Words from a Bear lyrically illustrates N. Scott Momaday’s life and perspective, and just as importantly, grants another platform from which to amplify his voice to a greater audience. What specifically drew you to telling his story, and how do you think the visual storytelling of documentary film works together with traditions of oral storytelling and written storytelling?
Jeffrey Palmer: Well, first and foremost, we are both members of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. I wanted to tell a story about Kiowa people, utilizing the words and thoughts of N. Scott Momaday. He was the catalyst. His words, stories, and of course his voice, provided the magical ingredients for the visual. From a documentary standpoint, I think the mixture oral storytelling and written storytelling pushes the genre into new and exciting spaces. As Native people, our oral traditions are historical, passed down generation to generation through storytelling. Many of these stories have been written as well, but it is the telling that is most effective. Incorporating layers of history, testimony, and magical realism is what makes good documentary filmmaking, I believe. That’s good storytelling.
LM: In the film, Momaday says that “[His] whole life has been a story of gathering [himself] in terms of [his] ancestry. The Kiowa part of it is crucial to [him].” Since you are also Kiowa, do you relate to Momaday’s journey, and did it affect the direction of this film?
JP: Absolutely! It was a journey of gathering my own history, a coming home of sorts. In making this film, I believe I found myself. Native people often have to leave their families, their homes, to go out into the world and find work, study, become members of American society. Some of us spend years away from our traditions, ceremonies, language, and knowing our relatives. I think Scott and I shared a similar experience of diaspora in our studies and work as artists, away from our homeland. I think we both made it a priority in our works, to utilize our experiences as a way to reclaim our identity and understand ourselves.
LM: When discussing his painting style, Momaday says that “realism is, to me, less interesting than something very stylized.” Do you feel the same way? Considering that documentary draws on the realist tradition, how does your perspective influence your filmmaking style?
JP: I think there has to be a balance of the real and magic in the stories you tell. Documentary through the lens of a Kiowa, is quite different from the staid tradition of documentary. I think Words from a Bear is trying to lay the groundwork for this Kiowa aesthetic of documentation. Stylization has to be a part of the documentary process, because we are visualizing the ancient and fusing those stories with our contemporary lives. How do you do this in documentary? For me, it was through stylization and experimentation to get the story out.
LM: Both animation and archival images play a significant role in bringing Momaday’s personal history as well as his literature to life. How did you choose your method of animation and what do you hope that audiences will take away from seeing these images alongside actual photographs of historical figures?
JP: Again, it’s the fusion between the ancient and the contemporary. I guess I see things in three levels, the ancient, the historical, and the testimonial. To me, this lays the foundation of a Kiowa’s life. The only way I felt we could get at the ancient was to create animations in real places. Animation mixed with live action drone footage. It would be as though you were looking into a time travel window, seeing the documentation of Kiowa people receiving the Tai Me medicine bundle or the storm spirit Man-Ki-Ih blowing across the Oklahoma plains. All of those moments are fundamental in developing Kiowa identity. The historical is also there as well. Scott grew up in twentieth century America and so there were many events we examined through the archival record. And we focused on his testimonies of today. This juxtaposition of the ancient, historical, and testimonial are natural in my opinion.
LM: Momaday doesn’t consider his writing political, nor is he interested in writing about political subject matter. But, Words From a Bear conveys and explores a range of political topics. Do you consider yourself a political filmmaker? What is your relationship with representing political themes and subjects in your films?
JP: I don’t really consider myself a political filmmaker, but I think as Native American storytellers and as colonized people, we do challenge the historical narrative that has been created by the colonizers. We all become historians, trying to overturn this myth of the West. We are not relics of the past, we are a vibrant and contemporary culture. But, we must unpack that history and reclaim what is fact and what is myth. This is our duty to the public at large. Therefore, we delve into dark areas of history that may seem political, but they are really just a part of our lives as Indians. How can it not be? Indian people have always been entangled in treaties, blood quantum, assimilation policies, land disputes, environmental disputes etc. We are on the frontlines of issues directly affected by the government. But there is something deeper than politics at play here. I think it is about showing how we are a part of the American story, that we in fact are at the heart of that story, and that in fact we have more similarities, than differences in our struggles as Americans.
LM: What advice do you have for young and emerging filmmakers exploring their voice and identity through documentary film?
JP: Your own story is where you should begin. We all have great stories to tell, through our own experiences. Don’t forget your own experience and what you’ve learned and how important you are to larger story. Make an autobiography and you will be surprised what you find out about yourself and how others will be drawn to that story of yourself. Because you know that story better than anyone.