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A short film that highlights Indigenous presence in Yellowstone premiers in Jackson

Men in white shirts carrying drums walk towards teepees set up in a big grassy field. In the background, a large crowd of people watch on.
Brendan Hall
A film still from “How the Land Remembers Us,” which documents the Yellowstone Revealed project in the summer of 2022.

A short film titled “How the Land Remembers Us” premiered at the Mountains of Color Film Festival in Jackson on June 9. The festival is a three-day-long gathering which celebrates BIPOC+ filmmakers in the outdoor, adventure and conservation worlds. The film documents efforts to shine a light on the ongoing Indigenous connection to what is now called Yellowstone National Park (YNP) through the Yellowstone Revealed project, which first took place in 2022 during the park’s 150th anniversary.

The event itself and “How the Land Remembers Us” are both testaments to the fact that many different tribal nations have been – and continue to be – deeply tied to that area. YNP recognizes 27 tribes with historical and contemporary ties to the land.

The roughly twenty-minute film shows Indigenous artists and community members gathering in the park for a week in August in 2022. During that time, they camped together, set up teepees at the Madison Junction entrance and shared projects grounded in traditional ecological knowledge and ceremony.

One such project was REMATRIATE, which focused on reconnecting to the land through buffalo restoration. Artist Patti Baldes, who is Northern Arapaho and Northern Paiute, created buffalo sculptures made out of willow branches, which were brought to life through drumming and dancing by matriarchs and their daughters from the Wind River Reservation.

Jared Wahkinney is a member of the Comanche Nation and made his directorial debut with “How the Land Remembers Us.” At a panel after the premier screening, he reflected on the powerful emotions depicted in the film.

“A lot of tears of joy, right? Tears of being in a place that you haven't been welcomed to in a long time,” he said.

Three men sit on armchairs on a stage. Two look on as the man in the center speaks into the mic. Behind them is a screen with the words “Mountains of Color Film Festival.”
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Jared Wahkinney speaks on a panel at the Mountains of Color Film Festival with moderator Dr. Shane Doyle (Apsáalooke/Crow) and Nez Perce filmmaker Nakia Williamson (Ipeliikthil’aamkaw’aat, One Who Gathers the Clouds), whose film “Covenant of the Salmon People” also played at the festival.

Wahkinney wanted to make sure the land itself was a main character in the film, with room to speak and be center-stage. He shared that he and cinematographer-editor Brandon Hall had regular check-ins about whether they were accomplishing that goal.

“We asked ourselves, ‘Is the land happy?’ Not just ‘Are we happy’ but ‘Is the land happy with what we’re doing?’,” he said.

However, making the film wasn’t without its difficulties – working with many different people and different artists required a lot of organizing, along with the challenge of being in the right place at the right time.

Wahkinney said making the Yellowstone Revealed event happen took a lot of work too.

“We had to do some wheeling and dealing with the National Park Service to make that happen. But we made it happen and it's still happening now,” he said.

During the three-day-long Mountains of Color Film Festival, Wahkinney also participated in a National Geographic mentorship program for young BIPOC+ filmmakers from the Wind River Reservation and other areas around Jackson. He said he was honored to be a mentor in the program and was able to build connections with the participants over their shared connections to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

“It was great coming together with each other from the get-go and understanding that we had similar relationships with the place …I'm not from Wyoming or Jackson, I grew up in Oklahoma. So, maybe different landscapes than they are used to, but at least we can have that relationship of understanding our ancestral homelands,” he said.

While “How the Land Remembers Us” is not yet available to stream, the hope is to do some more fundraising so the film can be included in more festivals. But, Wahkinney said his biggest focus is on the film’s impact.

Green ribbons wave in the wind from the top of a teepee, against a blue sky with a few wispy white clouds.
Brendan Hall
A film still from “How the Land Remembers Us” of a teepee from the Yellowstone Revealed project in Yellowstone National Park in 2022.

“How can we talk to Indigenous youth about this, how can we talk to other tribal nations about this? And how we can maybe create another Yellowstone Revealed for other nations, their own Yellowstone Revealed?,” he said.

At the premier, Wahkinney received the second-ever “Distinguished Alumni” award from the Jackson-based nonprofit Native American Jump Start, which helped support his internship at Grand Teton National Park in 2019.

Yellowstone Revealed will take place again this summer with the theme of “How the Land Remembers Us: Tribal Tipi Lodge and Buffalo Stories.” Tipi installations with educational information will be on display at each of its five entrances from June 14 through September 9, with an opening celebration taking place at the North Entrance Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.