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Madonna Thunder Hawk and her daughter, Marcy Gilbert. | Image source: John G. Larson

Warrior Women tells the story of a group of intergenerational Indigenous women led by inspiring activist, Madonna Thunder Hawk as they fight for Indigenous civil rights during pivotal moments across Indian Country. Warrior Women highlights and explores the work done by the Indigenous women who played pivotal roles during these movements, whereas at the time mainstream media focused mainly on the Indigenous men. This one-hour documentary was directed by two Indigenous women filmmakers, Christina King (Seminole) and Dr. Elizabeth Castle (Shawnee), who spent two decades interviewing women who were a part of AIM and the Red Power Movement. The two directors opened up to Erica Commanda from MUSKRAT Magazine about their thoughts on their own journeys towards decolonization and what inspired them to make Warrior Women.

MM: There are many strong Indigenous Women Warriors, what inspired you to focus the documentary on Madonna Thunder Hawk?

EC: You can’t deny the power of her name. She was up to it. She was the first person that I met when I started interviewing women in the Red Power Movement. Then it became an ongoing collaboration. The story really got pulled out when Christina and I connected.

CK: Beth and I started working together in 2011. We interviewed tons of women who were amazing and had their own incredible stories, but what was really interesting about Madonna were the interviews in Beth’s collection with Madonna’s daughter Marcy. That’s what started clicking with us in terms of how to narrow down all of these important stories that were a part of the movement. We went in a direction that let us into the most important part of the movement: that it was a movement of family and community.

It was very important to us that this film not be a grandiose portrait about somebody that we put up on a pedestal. We didn’t want it to be a self serving biopic. We wanted it to be a look at what it really took for a movement of people in those early days of Indigenous self empowerment and we loved the fact that you could access that community story through Madonna Thunder Hawk and Marcy. One thing that I often don’t identify with is when I see stories about Indigenous people that leave out the community. To me that rings false because it feels like a white European narrative with brown faces. That’s the kind of film we didn’t want to make.

MM: With non-Indigenous filmmakers making films centred on Indigenous people and stories, how do you think your perspective and style of filmmaking treats Indigenous stories/material from that of non-Indigenous directors?

Madonna Thunder Hawk & Marcy Gilbert in Standing Rock, ND to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Madonna Thunder Hawk & Marcy Gilbert in Standing Rock, ND to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. | Image source: Khyber Jones

CK: I think that I want to acknowledge that when we first started making the film we spent the first couple of years making a film that was solid, but something didn’t feel right about it. We really had to undergo a really intense process of decolonizing our filmmaking voice, ourselves. I think a lot of times, directors like to just make it look easy. I personally always like to hear how its hard, then younger folks know they are not alone when we make these things.

We wanted to do a group interview because Madonna Thunder Hawk is Madonna Thunder Hawk because her community decided she was. They decided she was the leader. To pull people out of that community and isolate them in singular interviews didn’t make any sense. You pull our Indigenous style out of the space that makes us who we are, then you have to do a lot of weird things to reconstitute a sense of Indigeneity. It doesn’t work, we actually ended up writing our own manifesto on how we were changing our language and how we were approaching this in order to take back our Indigenous voice from a process that was setup by European filmmakers.

EC: I just wanted to add one of the things that was really important and guided us from the beginning is following Indigenous protocols and rules in engaging the most basic aspects of being accountable to Indigenous community. The way in which are actively giving back and asking ourselves: is the collaboration we are making serves the community? These are standard in group conversations, but that is not how things are produced all across the board. Putting all those things together is pretty revolutionary.

MM: I always find that the more information on Indigenous issues and history that I’m exposed to, my outlook on what decolonization means changes and evolves. Has your understanding on decolonization changed after making the film? What does decolonization mean to you?

EC: I think one of the most central challenges is just in moving into the conversation of decolonization when we are still struggling to define, understand, give a name and purpose to how colonization affects all of us.

The most important part is the way it’s utilized as radical self empowerment and radical community empowerment. When people can use it in that way and engage it in that way it just takes away this big word that people don’t understand. It helps you bust through the chains of colonization that are so active in so many Native communities. That is just so important for us to be talking about it and making it a part of the conversation everyday and allowing it to be part of personal and collective community liberation.

CK: One big breakthrough was that we were decolonizing our storytelling process to the point where we were nailing that feeling of radical self empowerment as best as we could.

My thoughts and feelings about decolonization are embracing more positive self talk and not giving face to narratives that were set up to bring you down. I feel like it used to be very specific, now when I think of decolonization it’s more about feeling the spirit as Beth has described.

That was the feeling of Standing Rock. When we were shooting there with Madonna Thunder Hawk, she looked around and said what’s going on here is decolonization, referring to the camp. Yes we were stopping the pipeline, yes were standing up and being heard, yes we were commanding our own stories through Indigenous media, yes we were having tribal operations, but at the end of it all everyone was so radically self empowered. That means decolonization, it’s a thing in the air, it’s not an action or a habit you do as she described it. I’m still experiencing my relationship with that.

Marcy attends an International Indian Treaty Council meeting as a teenager in the 1970s | Image source: Jean Francois Graugnard
Marcy attends an International Indian Treaty Council meeting as a teenager in the 1970s | Image source: Jean Francois Graugnard

MM: What does being a warrior mean to you?

EC: Specifically in connection with the film, it’s fighting for something that is bigger than yourself and that fight is for family and community. Whether we are honouring or calling on our ancestors or our future generations, those things are totally connected. Fighting for something bigger than yourself.

CK: I think about what a warrior isn’t to me. The idea of the warrior that has been pushed through the media is somebody that stoic, unwavering, elevated above community and somebody that is tough at all times. All of the people in my life that are warriors, both men and women, are so in a very complicated way. Strength and weakness are binary, I don’t think they are two sides of the same coin. To acknowledge the warriors in our family, we have to acknowledge that they are often strong and covering up the core of a lot of pain. On the flip side, there are also warriors to acknowledge that have the strength to need their weakness, you acknowledge that you can feel and that takes some incredible warrior heart to do as well. It’s very complicated because we need so much from each other to build our communities up that we also have to do a lot for ourselves in order to be there for each other, that means our strengths have to take many forms.

MM: What are you most inspired by after making Warrior Women?

EC: I’ve been working with folks connected to this for twenty years. It was a chance to see these historical stories everyone has told me about. These occupations and concepts of this incredible liberatory freedom, this idea of being free to construct your own community. I wouldn’t give that up for anything, that’s transformative, super powerful and inspiring.

CK: After so many years of interviewing Madonna and Marcy about things like Alcatraz, Wounded Knee and the actions they undertook during the early days of the American Indian Movement, I really spent time to understand where they were coming from. When we were at Standing Rock, I felt like I didn’t know anything. I’ve been to marches, sit ins and protests, but being in an occupation that requires work on a community scale that our world doesn’t have any more is absolutely a huge paradigm shift. I finally understood what she meant and why they were all willing to give their lives for what they were doing. That will always stay with me.

I hope the most inspiring part is yet to come. I’m waiting for the conversations that will come out of local activism because this is about that fire that gets lit. The reason why we made the film is to draw warriors together and spark conversation. I hope it draws people together to connect on really important work that we are all doing throughout Indian Country.

** You can catch the final screening of Warrior Women during Hot Docs at the Fox Theatre, Saturday May 5th. 

Christina D. King Bio
A enrolled member of the Seminole Tribe, Christina D. King’s work spans commercials, documentary, film, and television with a focus on civic engagement through storytelling.
Christina is currently in post-production on an adaptation of the New York Times best-selling novel We the Animals. King also recently produced the documentary Up Heartbreak Hill​ (POV) as well as This May Be The Last Time​(Sundance Channel International), which explores the origins of Native Muskogee worship songs in Oklahoma.

Elizabeth Castle Bio
Dr. Elizabeth Castle is a scholar-activist making her first documentary based on her book on Native women’s activism and oral history collection. While completing her PhD at Cambridge, she worked for President Clinton’s Initiative on Race and served as a delegate to the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. She received the UC Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship at UC Santa Cruz under the supervision of professor Angela Davis. Elizabeth is descended from the Pekowi band of the Shawnee.

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About The Author

Erica Commanda

Born in Toronto, Erica Commanda (Algonquin/Ojibwe) grew up in the small community of Pikwakanagan. From there she moved across Canada living in Ottawa, Vancouver and now Toronto, working in the bar/hospitality industry, mastering the art of listening to stories from her regulars while slinging and spilling drinks (at them or to them). And now through a series of random decisions and events in life she is on a journey discovering and mastering her own knack for storytelling as Associate Editor for MUSKRAT Magazine.

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