Autumn Peltier in The Water Walker | Image source: Seeing Red 6Nations
The Water Walker tells the powerful journey of Autumn Peltier, a young Anishinaabe girl who is following in the footsteps of her late great-aunt and water defender, Josephine Mandamin. The short documentary follows Peltier as she gets ready to give a talk to the United Nations, from her emotional plea to Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau about his lack of actions to protect the water, and to her personal struggles at school. The film comes together beautifully as acclaimed Métis artist, Christi Belcourt’s art comes alive through animation in the film, and as Graeme Green narrates the project.
The Water Walker made its world debut Sept. 14, 2020, at the Toronto International Film Festival. Coming off the success of Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, Stevie Salas helmed the project as executive producer after he met Autumn and was quite impressed with the tenacity of the young activist. Salas spoke with Erica Commanda with MUSKRAT Magazine about The Water Walker and why it’s time for everyone to step up to protect the water.
EC: What does water mean to you? Can you tell us about any Apache teachings on the water and how that may have influenced The Water Walker?
SS: Ironically, I was brought up living on the beach in San Diego, California with my family who migrated from the New Mexico/Arizona area. I was born on the beach surfing. For me, the water was a different story. I wasn’t brought up with any traditional teachings from my Indigenous background about water other than don’t waste, don’t pollute, and be conscious of the earth. It was sort of like our natural way of thinking. I spent my whole life surfing, my whole life traveling the world, my whole life fishing on the ocean, watching the fish disappear, and seeing the oceans polluted. Those teachings are really important to me and not just as a human being that is an Indigenous human being. The water for me is a huge part of my whole existence.
EC: What inspired you to transition from a music career and work in film?
SS: Well, I tell you, I spent a lot of time on movie and TV sets my whole music career from Top of the Pops, Saturday Night Live, The Jay Leno Show and David Letterman. I was always around that stuff and scoring films. That world always interested me.
In 2006, I was in Winnipeg making a new album and met some people from APTN who wanted to meet me because I had a pretty successful music career as an Indigenous person. They asked: if I could do my own TV show, what would I do? I just said this crazy idea about a variety show with some guys who don’t know what they’re doing. They said, OK, hooked me up with a crew, and funded it. It was a show called Arbor Live, which was this crazy show with Adam Beach, Eric Schwieg, and me. Every rockstar in the world was on our show, which for Canada was mind-blowing. These were all my friends who would come on the show for fun. I would just call up my friends like Tommy Lee, who was in the first episode. I told him, “there’s so many Indigenous people who love your music and your band that live in places like the Hudson Bay and all these other places where we would never go on tour who would never get to see you play. You got to do my show! They were like yeah, let’s do it! While doing that, I learned a lot about production and fell in love with it.
EC: How did the premise for The Water Walker come about? And why did you get Christi and Autumn involved?
SS: Well, there was no film without Autumn. I met Autumn and I thought, I need to make a movie about this magical little person who sacrificed her youth and her childhood. She’s not out there, you know, doing things like normal 13 or 14-year-old girls are doing. She’s working, she’s driven and she’s here to change the world. Meanwhile, all us grown-ups are so busy watching our 401k and are worried about how rich we’re going to be. We’re letting the whole world go bananas. These kids are like, “oh, no, man, this is not working for us.” I just wanted to get into that subject.
I worked with a cool group of people from the Dreamcatcher Charitable Foundation. We go into areas and parks to install water filtration systems for people that don’t have clean water to use. I was up in Ontario working on a reserve with them when I heard about Autumn. I just said that I need to know who this person is. So, I met with her and her mother in Toronto and thought, yeah, we need to make a film about her. We don’t need to make a documentary that’s just like a straight doc. I wanted to make more of a fairy tale where you understand the reality of their information. Then we thought about animation and Christi Belcourt’s art. I just thought, wow, if we could make that come alive under narration, it would help create a sort of Indigenous feel [to convey] the magic of this young girl.
EC: I do see a slow transition in the film industry where people from minority cultures in America are starting to take control and tell their own stories. As an Apache person working in film, what changes do you hope to see in the industry?
SS: Well, I’m a little concerned about the industry right now. I believe that the separatism will be the downfall of everybody. I believe in collaboration. I believe in collaborating with intelligent people and like-minded people. I believe that we should embrace the finest people who can help us learn. We need to collaborate and spread out so we can learn to be better. A lot of us haven’t had the same opportunities to learn things like a guy with a rich dad can do.
When I got out of high school, I started playing guitar with George Clinton from Parliament-Funkadelic, and Bootsy Collins. Both of them are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Both are legendary musicians. Then I started to work with people like Thomas Dolby, a British guy. Then I joined Rod Stewart’s band, who’s also a British guy. In that span of three years, what I learned from those guys, I couldn’t have learned in 10 or 15 years on my own. I couldn’t have learned what I learned from those guys in a school – none of that in a school. So, with those guys teaching me and helping me be better, I could turn around and help other people in my own culture.
All of the shows I plan on doing in the future will have some type of educational format that goes with it. Where people can learn how to be better writers and directors. If we’re going to tell this story, we need to have great storytellers, filmmakers, and cameramen.
To do that, I believe we need to collaborate.
EC: What do you hope the audience takes away from watching the film?
SS: There’s a couple of things. One is I hope that young people are inspired to know that they can make a change and a difference in the world. Sometimes you feel powerless. Autumn is a perfect example that you can get up every day and do something. Every little bit makes a big difference in the end.
The other take away is I hope grown-ups look at each other and say, “man, we suck. We need to get out there. We’re letting politicians just do whatever they do for the sake of us making a couple of extra dollars in the stock market.” We need to look long term because grown-ups are just looking at short term everything right now. Like how much money can I make right now? Nobody’s thinking about 20 years from now. Realistically, kids should not be marching in the streets. They should be in school learning. Their parents should be marching in the streets for their children.