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Volume 23 No. 29
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Documentary will tackle Native American branding

Ongoing social justice protests are forcing companies to reexamine their branding, from Land O’Lakes to Aunt Jemima. Similar conversations have long been part of the discussion in sports, most notably with the NFL’s team in Washington. An upcoming documentary, “Imagining the Indian,” plans to shine an even brighter spotlight on the issue.


“We need to recognize that sports is very slow when it comes to social change. It’s not a leader, it’s a laggard,” said Kevin Blackistone, the Washington Post columnist and ESPN talking head who’s co-producing the film. Blackistone and fellow producer Sam Bardley, who co-wrote and produced the 2009 “30 For 30” documentary “Without Bias,” have been pursuing a film documenting the movement to remove Native American team names and mascots since 2014.

After an initial effort was stymied by funding issues, the duo teamed up with filmmaker Aviva Kempner. The child of a Holocaust survivor, Kempner has made a career out of documenting Jewish heroes, including baseball player Hank Greenberg. She had also worked as an activist and lobbyist for Native rights before her filmmaking career. Kempner brought in Ben West to co-direct; the two had previously been working on a script about Larry Casuse, a Native activist killed by police in the 1970s. West is Cheyenne and the son of W. Richard West Jr., the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Filming began in late 2018 with a seed grant from the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, located near Sacramento. In January, filmmakers showed a three-minute trailer at the Sundance Film Festival, and they say the ideal plan is to debut the full film at next year’s Sundance. But COVID-19 has created complications. Next year’s festival might not happen, and even if it does, the film was largely relying on funding from a coalition of tribes, many of which rely on casinos that have been shuttered by the pandemic.

Kempner estimates the film is about 70% shot, and filmmakers are now trying to raise the funds needed to cover the rest of the planned $1.8 million budget. Beyond finding distribution for the film, the long-term goal is to package DVD extras with a teaching guide that can be used in schools. “That’s what we’re trying to do with this film: give people the tools to understand,” said Kempner.

Filmmakers are also adjusting to the fact that the subject of their film is changing in realtime. “We’re sort of recalibrating to not only document the movement, but document results on a significant level,” said West. Filmmakers were on hand earlier this month to capture the removal of a statue of George Preston Marshall from RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., which hosted the city’s NFL team for more than 35 years.

Blackistone even thinks that the team’s name could soon be changed. “Given all that’s happened in the last couple weeks, I think the finish line is a whole lot closer,” he said. “I don’t even think it’s on the horizon now, I think we’re almost there.”