For the first time in its 300-year-old history, the Laguna Pueblo villages are sharing with the outside world their annual summer celebration, Grab Day. A feast day celebration in honor of their patron saints, Grab Day culminates in the Throw—when families flock to the flat, traditional pueblo style roofs of their homes to shower high spirited crowds of community members below with bread, water, toys, food and other gifts. In the new documentary GRAB, award-winning Native filmmaker Billy Luther takes viewers into the Laguna Pueblo community as he follows three families throughout their months-long preparation that culminates in Grab Day.
“I really wanted to make the film from the voices of the community, but I also wanted to have my own perspective on it too,” Luther said.
Luther, whose Indigenous heritage includes Laguna Pueblo, Hopi and Navajo, grew up celebrating Grab Day with his father’s family.
“I remember Grab Days, things flying up in the air, hands up in the air and laughter...I remember the joys of that,” he said.
Grab Day’s origins go back to the time of Spanish influence in what is now the American Southwest. After their arrival in 1540, Spaniards began oppressing the local Indigenous population by forcing them into servitude. The Spaniards also banned the Indigenous religion and ceremonies in an effort to convert the pueblos to Catholicism.
In 1680, the Laguna Pueblo population rebelled, burning churches, killing 400 Spanish troops, 20 priests and ultimately ousting their Spanish oppressors. A decade later the Spanish returned on more peaceful terms and allowed the pueblos to practice their preferred religion. The pueblos in turn integrated the Catholic saints into their feast days, resulting in what came to be known as Grab Day.
Grab Day, Luther said, is about honoring a family member named after a particular saint. This person is honored by having a Grab Day Throw during which gifts are given to the community in return for their prayers and well wishes. GRAB marks the first time cameras have been welcomed to film the celebration.
“Coming from the community, I knew lines I was not going to cross, what I was going to show and what I wasn’t going to show,” Luther said.
Prior to filming, Luther had to get permission from the Tribal governor that would allow him and his non-Native crew of three cameramen and three still photographers to visually document the Laguna Pueblo community.
“Posted around the community are signs that say no photography, no sketching, no filming,” Luther said. “We were stopped a couple times [by community members] because not everybody knew we had permission.”
It didn’t take long for the community to embrace the presence and work of Luther and his crew.
“People were inviting us into their homes to eat, if we were tired they were like, ‘come take a nap on our couch,’” he said.
To capture the diverse ways the families of Laguna Pueblo celebrate Grab Day, Luther included three different families. Rebecca, a widow, and her daughter Jessica prepare for Grab Day by planting a garden so they can throw fresh vegetables in place of processed foods that normally get thrown. Josie, a traditional potter, lives with her husband and two children. She made a piece of pottery especially for her family’s Throw. Del, a Vietnam veteran, teaches high school history through a Native American perspective. He lives in Albuquerque, but will be joining his family in the Laguna Pueblo community to celebrate Grab Day.
“These are three really diverse families and they each celebrate this [Grab Day] in a unique way,” Luther said.
During the Grab Day roof toss mishaps happen. On a previous Grab Day, Rebecca was aiming a water balloon at her sister, but she missed, and knocked an old lady over. Once when it was raining on Grab Day, Josie threw a box of macaroni and cheese that broke open, covering a woman in the orange powder. The rain turned the powder into cheese as the woman continued to grab.
Since childhood, Luther had a love for movies of all genres. His desire to make films took him to Chicago where he began studying filmmaking at Columbia College.
“A week after high school [graduation] I left small town Winslow, Ariz., moved to Chicago and started summer school,” he said. “It just felt right.”
Luther is in the process of filming documentaries about the three Tribes, Navajo, Hopi and Laguna Pueblo, that he is descended from. His first documentary, Miss Navajo, follows 21-year-old Crystal Frazier, Navajo, as she competes in the Miss Navajo Nation competition. The competition events include an evening gown competition, sheep butchering, rug weaving and a talent contest. With the completion of GRAB, a film about the Laguna Pueblo, Luther has wasted no time in shifting his focus to a documentary on the Hopi.
“Sometimes when I am in the middle of making a film I’m like, ‘what am I doing? Why am I here?!’ just because it’s a lot of work,” Luther said. “But, I love what I do, and there isn’t any other job, any other thing I’d rather do.”
Interviews were conducteed and edited by Ben Kreimer.