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By Colin Dabkowski
December 13, 2009, 7:04 AM / 0 comments
At the Thomas Indian School in Irving, 30 miles south of Buffalo, children from Native American families were systematically stripped of their native culture and heritage, and sometimes abused, for nearly a century. The school closed in 1957.
Such schools are the focus of Ron Douglas’ “Unseen Tears: The Impact of Native American Residential Boarding Schools in Western New York,” one of four documentaries in this year’s “Channels: Stories From the Niagara Frontier.”
The three-year-old project, a joint endeavor of Squeaky Wheel Media Arts Center, the Community Foundation and local grass-roots organizations, pairs local documentarians with important issues that deserve wider attention. The films will soon be available to watch for free on Squeaky Wheel’s channel at vimeo.com/squeaky.
There are more stories of struggle and triumph in the eight counties of Western New York than a single newspaper or television station could ever hope to contain. It’s heartening to see a program that pushes local documentarians to set a few more of those stories to film and push them into the public consciousness.
At a well-attended screening of the films last Sunday in the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center, gasps escaped from some audience members as interviewees talked about their nightmarish experiences at state-funded “Indian schools” in Western New York and Southern Ontario.
It is a painful legacy. To grasp the grave injustices of the Native American boarding school system is to better understand the issues that haunt an entire culture, and therefore to know our own region more deeply. Without this perspective, we can’t hope to confront the status quo.
“Our hope with this project is that it raises awareness of an issue that’s not really talked about in our native community as well as the community at large,” said Michael Martin, executive director of Buffalo’s Native American Community Services, who spoke at the screening. “The critical nature of this documentary is to help get those stories out there.”
The same goes for low-wage workers fighting for a living wage in various pro-
fessions in and around Buffalo. They are the subject of “Round the Clock: Buffalo Workers and the Fight for Jobs With Justice,” a 16- minute documentary by Christine Zinni and produced by Buffalo’s Coalition for Economic Justice.
Loren Sonnenberg’s “Raising Literacy/Lifting Communities” looks at the efforts of groups like Read to Succeed Buffalo that are trying to raise a third of Buffalo’s population out of illiteracy.
Finally, “Preserving Our Past for Our Future,” Diedie Weng’s terse exploration of Buffalo’s vacant housing crisis, highlights the efforts of unsung community workers like J. A. Gulcik. His window restoration company on Plymouth Avenue, which teaches job skills to young workers while salvaging some of the city’s long-neglected architectural treasures, is the epitome of a successful neighborhood grass-roots project.
The strength of “Channels,” now in its third year, lies in the organizers’ faith in the special insight artists (or video journalists, as it happens) bring to the work of heroic activists and organizations. It also comes from the knowledge that some of those artists simply need a financial and programmatic push in the right direction to achieve powerful work.
The films that resulted from this year’s project, with perhaps the exception of Douglas’ promising “Unseen Tears,” are not Ken Burns-polished, broadcast-ready pieces. They are, however, succinct and powerful commentaries on issues of vital concern to anyone who calls Western New York home.
The program is a tremendous achievement, and a gleaming example of what can happen when money, intelligence and artistry join together in equal measure. That’s something to celebrate.
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