Gary Robinson and Jesse Hummingbird


Gary Robinson and Jesse Hummingbird

Three French hens, two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree will likely make few wish lists this Christmas.

However, there may be some gift inspiration in a contemporary Native American version of the classic holiday tune for Natives and non-Natives alike.  In Gary Robinson’s five-minute production of the Twelve Days of Native Christmas, he brings to audiences a better understanding of the vastness of Indian Country and “a better understanding of Native people” by reworking the lyrics, Robinson said.

To realize this longtime goal of bringing this adaptation to life he sought an illustrator with whom to collaborate and in Cherokee artist Jesse Hummingbird “found a good visual partner,” Robinson said.

 “I had some ideas of how I wanted to take the song Twelve Days of Christmas and adapt it for Native flavor but I wanted to make it intertribal,” he said. “So we’d have multiple cultures and multiple tribes represented.”

With attention to detail, so subtle that they are almost undetectable unless you are looking, some of the exchanges in the song, for example, include two Apache style high-top moccasins in place of turtledoves, four Cherokee style ribbon shirts swapped for calling birds, and five specifically Pueblo-inspired turquoise rings in lieu of gold.

After seeing that there were adaptations of the song appealing to different American subcultures, such as the Cowboy Night Before Christmas and Hillbilly Night Before Christmas,  Robinson saw an opportunity to show mainstream America that Natives are not so different from them in that 95 percent of Natives celebrate Christmas too, the Cherokee and Choctaw filmmaker said.

“One of my goals as a filmmaker has always been to combine education and entertainment,” Robinson said. “These two projects fit that really nicely.”

Robinson and Hummingbird have collaborated before on another project called Native American Night Before Christmas, which was shown at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco. 

“If we can touch a nerve among our own kind we know we can reach a broader audience,” Hummingbird said. “Most Natives have a wry sense of humor. So we kind of go beyond the stereotype of Native folks being stoic and so darned serious. That in itself I think is a great accomplishment.”

Hummingbird had a lot of free range to adapt Robinson’s story into hand-drawn illustration, he said. Through collaborating to storyboard their idea, Hummingbird had the guidance he needed to complete his drawings. Then it was up to Robinson to find the funding to bring it to DVD. 

Recently, Robinson was a winner of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian’s Veteran’s Day film contest in which he placed third for a three and half minute film he did about the Native American tradition of serving in the military. Hummingbird is currently exhibiting more than 20 original works at the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, Ariz. as part of an exhibition titled “Paint! Breaking the Buckskin Ceiling.”

The two plan to collaborate on more projects in the future to bring the stories of Indian Country to fellow Native people and the larger population.

by Nancy Kelsey with assistance from Ben Kreimer