Although Tracy Rector has always enjoyed working with youth, it’s hard to imagine her working in film. A graduate of Evergreen State College in Washington, Rector wanted to pursue herbology and work with Native medicine. She went on to earn her B.A. in communications and Native American Studies, and then a master’s degree in education from Antioch University in Seattle.
But it was Rector’s insight and “way with people” that attracted the attention of Katie Jennings, who runs the Washington-based IslandWood Media and helped introduce Rector to film. The company produced an hour-long movie called The Teachings of the Tree People, one of Rector’s first films.
“We were looking for someone to train in the tribal community,” Jennings recalls. When Rector was asked to help, Jennings said Rector stepped up, exceeding Jennings’ expectations.
“It’s just easy for her to talk to people and talk her way into places,” Jennings said. In one instance, Rector secured a screening to Environmental Protection Agency offices in Seattle for 60 people.
“It’s an example of how nothing is too small or nothing is too big for Tracy,” Jennings said. Rector treats audiences that small as if it were a big New York premiere, Jennings added. “The important thing for her is to get the word out.”
Rector’s interest in engaging Native youth, coupled with her own life experiences, led to her co-founding of Longhouse Media. The organization’s mission is “to catalyze Indigenous people and communities to use media as a tool for self-expression, cultural preservation, and social change.”
Rector and Longhouse Media co-founder Annie Silverstein created a project called Native Lens in 2003 that fell under the Longhouse Media umbrella. The project—aimed at getting youth involved in their communities through digital media—was first piloted on the Swinomish Reservation and lead to several productions, including Rector’s latest film, March Point, which will premieres on PBS’ Independent Lens on Nov. 18.
These films, created by indigenous youth with the help of mentors, such as actors Misty Upham and Eddie Spears, have created quite a name for Rector in the Northwest and Indian Country, in addition to environmental circles. March Point alone has won best documentary at the International Cherokee Film Festival and the EarthWatch Institute has invited has invited producers to submit the film for the organization’s annual film award.
“I think for me my interest in filmmaking is working with at-risk youth, working with youth who are exploring what it is to be Native,” Rector said.
On the Swinomish Reservation in Washington, “DO NOT ENTER” signs surround oil refineries near the in an area historically given to the Swinomish by treaty. Three teens from the tribe tangled in the reservation’s juvenile court system were given a choice: Participate in a film production or go through a drug rehabilitation program.
The boys never took notice of the refineries growing up because they had been there since they were born. Cody Cayou, Nick Clark and Travis Tom all have had hardships in their personal lives on the reservation, including their family struggles and drug problems. And at the start of the project, the three admit that their expectations were minimal to begin with. But the events that their involvement set into motion led them down a different path that none of them considered a possibility before.
“About 350 people had showed up and the response was overwhelming,” Rector said about the original March Point that debuted in the Swinomish community as a 20-minute short. “The boys didn’t know what to make of it. It just floored them.”
But during the next three years the boys would uncover the refineries’ impact, which would eventually lead up to visits with Congressmen in Washington, D.C.
It is this kind of call to action in youth through digital media that is Rector’s passion. March Point combines the three: working with youth, filmmaking and the environment. By bringing real-world experiences to the screen, not only does Rector puts Native environmental issues to the forefront but combats common fallacies about Native people and what it is to be mixed-race. Many of the youngsters that she works with are of blended heritage and coming to define their own identity.
“I would say about 80 percent of our youth are mixed-race or intertribal,” Rector said, adding that she is mixed-race but “always was raised to honor my Native American heritage.”
Rector, who is Seminole, Mississippi Choctaw, Powhatan and other Native descent herself, is unique not only in her ethnic background but also in her urban upbringing in a predominately white suburb in Washington. Many in her community, she said, thought she was Asian.
“I think that was confusing growing up trying to straddle these different worlds,” she said. “I think I have a different experience than a lot of people.”
And using film as a platform to challenge the misconceptions people have about Native Americans is important to her.
“I’m really interested in uncovering the stereotypes of people, of how all Native people live in rural communities, they’re Plains Indians. You know, just the typical stereotypes Hollywood perpetuates.”
As an independent filmmaker she enjoys “the inherent freedom,” she said. But most of all she loves being able to pursue a variety of issues, including her values and passions. “It’s always important for Native people to be involved in a variety of roles in media.
“Overwhelmingly, people find hope in this story and they find hope for many reasons,” she said. Many Native audiences identify with the journey and development of the teens while many non-Natives’ interest deals more with the environmental issues and environmental racism.
“There’s a lot of education that’s still needed,” she said. “A lot of the communities of color, especially Native communities, are pushed out of the green movement or not included in a way that is relevant.”
More than that, Rector hopes that audiences in the Pacific Northwest learn more about their indigenous neighbors.
“I hope that people become more aware and more active and inspired to address environmental racism because it’s affecting our tribal populations at a higher rate than other communities.
“There’s a possibility to make a change.”
By Nancy Kelsey