Suree Towfighnia and Debra White Plume


Suree Towfighnia and Debra White Plume

Crying Earth Rise Up is a film by Suree Towfighnia of Prairie Dust Films with consulting producer Debra White Plume (Oglala). The name of the film comes from an old belief of the Lakota that Mother Earth needs to be cared for through good stewardship of the land—caring for its natural resources.

The location for the documentary is on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation—the land of the Oglala Lakota—on the South Dakota-Nebraska border.

The story of Alicia Yellow Thunder is central to this story as we learn about the health problems that plague her family. Her daughter was born with serious birth defects. Yellow Thunder believes that the cause lies in the contaminated well water that she drank while she was pregnant on the Reservation. As a geology student she has been testing the soil and water at various places on the reservation. For many years, the water in several locations around the reservation has texted positive for carcinogens.

This environmental concern is paired with issues of uranium, which is plentiful in the region. Thirty miles south of the reservation, near Crawford, Nebraska, is a uranium mine. Environmental concerns clash with economic concerns on both sides of the border.

Crying Earth Rise Up is not the first film for Towfighnia and White Plume. In 2007, Prairie Dust Films’ documentary, Standing Silent Nation, was featured on POV, the PBS documentary series. It’s a story of tribal sovereignty, economic development and federal government agricultural policy.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe passed an ordinance to allow the cultivation of industrial hemp within the borders of the reservation. White Plume’s family planted hemp, but the crops were destroyed by the federal drug enforcement officers—just as it was readied for harvest. To learn more about this project:  To purchase the DVD go to

Both films highlight the issues and opportunities for what many economists call “the poorest county in America.” Obstacles of jurisdiction between the sovereign Tribal government, the states of Nebraska and South Dakota—as well as the federal government compound the intense rural poverty facing Native Americans.

Towfighnia is an independent filmmaker and co-founder of Prairie Dust Films with Courtney Hermann. She began the Lakota Media Project (LMP) initiative in 2003 to provide mentorship and documentary training to Lakota girls and young women dedicated to documenting their stories and way of life.

As an educator, Suree teaches master classes and workshops on documentary directing, fundraising and shooting at Columbia College Chicago, EICTV in Cuba, Cinema Chicago and for non-profit groups. Since 2005, she has worked with the Center for Community Arts

Partnership, Project AIM, working in Chicago public schools to create films with teachers and elementary students. She now lives in Arizona.

White Plume descends from Chief Red Cloud on her Father’s side, and from the Northern Cheyenne on her Mother’s side. She lives along the banks of Wounded Knee Creek with Alex, her husband of 30 years, where they raise horses and provide stewardship to the small buffalo herd kept for spiritual and cultural purposes.

Debra has been involved in Lakota cultural preservation and revitalization work her whole adult life, this includes working to protect Treaty Rights and Human Rights. She has been an active community organizer around such issues for 40 years, from the grassroots level to the United Nations, where she participated in the drafting of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples and Issues. Debra and Alex and their extended families founded Owe Aku, Bring Back the Way, in the late 1990s to serve as a formal vehicle to pursue their work.

Towfighnia and White Plume discuss these films in the podcast interview recorded in January 2013. Crying Earth Rise Up is in post-production now, with an anticipated late 2013 release.

Interviews were conducted by Shirley Sneve and edited by Landon Mattison.

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