Emmy winner travels with Indian tribe as embedded filmmaker on doc

Emmy winner James Fortier was the Muckleshoot Tribe’s ?embedded filmmaker’ for the annual Tribal Canoe Journey.

James Fortier spent 14 days last July shooting out of a canoe, traveling along the north coast of the Olympic Peninsula on the Tribal Canoe Journey.

The Evanston-based filmmaker was documenting a canoe family from the Muckleshoot Tribe, one of dozens of tribes from the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia who participate in the annual Journey.

“I traveled with the Muckleshoot as their embedded filmmaker,” Fortier said. “Their reservation is inland, so they trailered their canoes out to the tip of the peninsula and backtracked, picking up more tribes as they went, so there were 60 canoes that landed at the destination.”

The Muckleshoot hired Fortier to film their journey, based on his illustrious career telling native stories through documentary. The tribe initially envisioned the project as a tool for tribal education and regional outreach.

“As this incredible story unfolded before the camera, the tribe’s initial benchmarks were exceeded, and we expanded our target audience,” Fortier said. “I told them we had the potential to take it to Sundance, where my films have screened before, and we could approach PBS national.”

The Muckleshoots’ territory originally included the entire Seattle area, but when they were landlocked by the location of their reservation near Auburn, Washington, “they went from being a fishing culture, to only being able to survive by hiring themselves out in the hop fields,” Fortier said.

“The economic forces and assimilation policies led to a dismantling of their culture. Now casino revenues put them in a position to renew their culture through their tribal schools, preservation of their language, and their participation in the Canoe Journey. But all the money in the world doesn’t necessarily allow you to buy back your culture,” Fortier continued. “There’s a spiritual underpinning to the Canoe Journey that they needed to learn in order to be a part of that culture in a significant way.”

Fortier’s only crew on the trip was Seattle filmmaker Eric Soma, who provided audio and additional camera. Regular collaborator Mike Yearling of Ohio is editing the 93-minute doc, which is scheduled to finish post in mid-December, with the working title “Pulling Together.” “If we go theatrical the sound has to be a lot better, so I’m talking to the Muckleshoots about taking a few more months to polish it up,” Fortier said.

This latest work reflects a career dedicated to re-orienting the way Native stories are told. “For far too long, native stories have been told through the prism of non-native storytellers,” said Fortier, who is M?tis, of mixed Ojibwe and French Canadian ancestry.

“My goal is always to provide a venue for my tribe or other tribes to tell their own stories as much as possible through a first-hand account, in a storytelling structure that’s compelling and dramatic and funny.”

An Ontario native, Fortier grew up in Wheaton. He moved, along with his company Turtle Island Productions, to Evanston last July after 20 years in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Fortier won his third Emmy Award last May for the PBS doc “Alcatraz Is Not an Island,” his first feature-length work as director.

Fortier is DP and co-producer with Rhode Island director Gode Davis of the 2-hour doc “American Lynching: Strange and Bitter Fruit,” which is set to go into full production in early 2004.

See turtle-island.com. ? by Ed M. Koziarski, edk@homesickblues.com.