Filmmaker Sandy Osawa

Filmmaker Sandy Osawa

PENINSULA PROFILE: Filmmaker captures Native American triumphs

PORT ANGELES — Sandy Johnson Osawa needed a few days to work up her courage to call Maria Tallchief, the world-renowned dancer.

But Osawa, a member of the Makah tribe who grew up in Port Angeles and Neah Bay, was determined to illuminate this untold story of America’s first prima ballerina. A veteran screenwriter and documentary filmmaker, Osawa had the skills to tell the story — and in a stroke of serendipity, she had the good fortune of meeting Tallchief’s daughter, poet Elise Paschen, when both women were teaching at the Fishtrap writing conference in Oregon.

When the filmmaker did phone Tallchief, the dancer’s response was instant: “Let’s

do it.”

“Maria Tallchief,” the movie to screen this Friday night at Peninsula College, is classic Osawa.

It is the story of a Native American who used her prodigious gifts, who transcended stereotypes and who triumphed as an artist. It’s but one of the films made by Osawa’s Upstream Productions, the Seattle company she and her husband Yasu Osawa own.

‘Not the typical story’

“I’m interested not in the typical story. I’m interested in the strengths that we have, in many different ways: culturally, spiritually,” Osawa said in an interview this past week.

When she was growing up on the North Olympic Peninsula, and as she sought to build a career in documentary filmmaking, Osawa saw few if any success stories about Native Americans.

“You hear about failure and loss. My mission is to turn that around, story by story,” she said.

“Young people coming up don’t know we have this legendary dancer,” who was the first American-born woman to ascend to ballet’s pinnacle.

Tallchief grew up in Oklahoma’s Osage Indian community, the daughter of an Osage father and a Scots-Irish mother. She moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was just 8, to study with the leading dancers of the day, and in the 1940s, she worked with the pre-eminent choreographer George Balanchine. They became husband and wife, and though their marriage didn’t last, their artistic collaboration did. Osawa’s film follows Tallchief to her performance in “Orpheus” in 1948, a production that helped lead to the founding of the New York

City Ballet.

Tallchief went on to dance the principal roles in many Balanchine works, including “The Firebird” and “The Nutcracker,” and became a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater and a guest artist at the Royal Danish Ballet. The National Medal of Arts in 1999 and a 2006 tribute exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are among her many honors.

Osawa’s own path, which began at Lincoln Elementary School in Port Angeles is also a story of determination. She has worked behind the scenes, with children, teenagers and elders, to affirm the celebration of tribal art and culture.

Osawa was an extremely shy child. She scarcely spoke to anyone till fourth grade. Her father, the late George Johnson, also didn’t like giving public speeches. Due to this, he urged all six of his children to take speech and debate in school, and his eldest, Chris Johnson, took second place in a national oratorical contest in Los Angeles during the 1950s. Osawa remembers well the welcome home Chris received: a parade through town and a newspaper headline proclaiming her sister had “put Port Angeles on the map.”

Chris was one of the first people who showed her that members of her tribe — girls included — could step into the spotlight and succeed.

She also remembers those who were less than encouraging.

Cold War essay

At Port Angeles High School in 1960, she wrote an essay at a time when the Cold War still was fanning fears. She concluded her essay by writing that “understanding is the key that will unlock the door toward world peace.”

“I got red marks all over that paper and a D minus, minus, minus,” Osawa said. “Are you suggesting we live behind the Iron Curtain, the Bamboo Curtain?” her English teacher demanded to know.

Osawa thought her writing skills were weak. But with scholarships and the role models of her sister and her older brother, Jack Johnson, who became the first Indian fisheries biologist in the Northwest, and her father who had raised her as a single parent in the wake of her mother’s death, she went off to Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore.

“The environment was really rich,” she said.

She earned A’s, and studied theater, writing and the humanities with teachers such as the renowned poet William Stafford.

College workshops

In 1962 and 1964, Osawa attended college workshops on Native American culture in Boulder, Colo., and was galvanized.

At the workshops, students from tribes across the country learned from one another, she said. “We learned the other side of history, the side that was not being taught in the colleges.

“All of the people in those workshop became leaders in some way,” including her fellow Makah, the late Bruce Wilkie. He served as director of the National Congress of American Indians and helped lead the Northwest tribes’ fight for fishing rights.

After Boulder, Osawa returned to Neah Bay, where she had spent the summers of her girlhood.

“I remember walking in the parade on Makah Day with only a few other teenagers and a truckload of elders. I saw the dances being done primarily by elders and wondered what would happen when they passed on,” she said.

Osawa went to work in the schools on the Makah reservation, bringing elders together with students. The elders taught the youngsters legends and how to count numbers in the Makah language. At the Makah Community Hall, she organized classes for the kids to learn the Makah Day dances and songs.

Years later, a Makah elder told her that her efforts in the mid- to late 1960s were revolutionary. He had graduated from high school in Neah Bay without one word being devoted to Makah history or culture.

As they learned the dances, “the little kids were into it from the get-go,” Osawa remembered. “But the teenagers were pretty self-conscious. I wasn’t sure if they would come back” after the first classes.

But one of the drummers, Sebastian LaChester, told her: “Oh, don’t worry. They’ll learn. They’re crazy to be Indian, just like the whites are crazy to be white.”

“He was right. There was a strengthening of self-esteem,” Osawa said.

“That was some of the most important work to me. It is so rewarding in many ways, to be who you are, sing who you are, dance who you are.”

Osawa was to stay in Neah Bay through the decade. She landed a tribal job, “with an actual salary,” and became a warrior in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. As community action director for the Makah Nation, she established the first Indian Head Start early childhood education program in Washington state.

Movie night was another activity Osawa organized for young people in Neah Bay. Using a 16-millimeter projector, she’d show films in the gym on weekend nights. And though she searched for films portraying Native Americans in positive ways, she found few.

Filmmaking course

This dearth troubled her, of course, and instead of sitting still and lamenting it all, she looked for opportunities to enter the world of mass media. She learned that the University of California at Los Angeles was seeking to increase the numbers of minority students in its film school. And by 1970, Osawa and her future husband were two of the 16 minorities to be admitted to UCLA’s prestigious program.

A number of scholarships and student films later — and after she and Yasu married in Neah Bay in 1972 — Osawa landed her first producing job. It was a dream project: producing “The Native American Series,” a 10-part program for NBC in 1975.

“The series is now recognized as the first television series to be entirely produced, written and acted by Native Americans,” said Osawa, who earned an Outstanding Producer award for the program.

Yet Osawa wanted to be independent of a TV network. She continued working on her own in Los Angeles, and with funding from fellowships and grants — and plenty of grit — she developed her career as a writer, director and producer. She and Yasu formed Upstream Productions and moved to Seattle, closer to her family.

Together, the couple has produced documentaries about Native American treaty rights, including “Usual and Accustomed Places,” funded in part by the Ford Foundation, and “Lighting the Seventh Fire,” which inaugurated Native American programming on “P.O.V.,” a showcase for documentaries on public television. These are “Ken Burns-style films without the Ken Burns budget,” Osawa quipped.

Port Angeles screening

Osawa has long wanted to show such films in Port Angeles and the surrounding area but didn’t find an organization or venue to make it happen — until recently.

“I was finally able to talk to the right person,” she said. He is Bruce Hattendorf, associate dean of instruction at Peninsula College and programmer of the Magic of Cinema film series.

He arranged this Friday’s screening of “Maria Tallchief,” and Osawa made plans to do a question-and-answer session after the movie. She’ll also get to visit her sister, Bets Johnson, who lives in Neah Bay.

As for her next projects, Osawa has several in the works. She hopes to produce part two of “Usual and Accustomed Places,” to bring the Native American treaty-rights story up through the landmark Boldt decision, which reaffirmed the fishing rights of Washington tribes.

There are many other stories to be told, the filmmaker said.

“We are more than a people of the past; more than a people beset with problems,” Osawa added. “We are a people of and from this land.”

Today, Neah Bay is a place where Makah culture is celebrated freely, with tribal art everywhere in the community and cultural arts classes taught in school. Makah Days brings traditional dance, music and salmon feasts in August, while the Makah Cultural and Research Center is a major attraction year round.

Struggle for change

“Whenever you work for change, there’s a struggle,” Osawa said. “When I see the Head Start program still going and the onetime students who are now the leading singers and drummers, I’m encouraged that my efforts helped add to our strength as a people.”

She credits her family’s values in education and hard work as her first source of energy.

“I come from a long line of very strong people,” one of whom was her maternal grandfather Jongie Claplanhoo, one of the traditional leaders in Neah Bay.

“He was a great seeker of justice,” Osawa said, “who was always writing to his senators and writing letters to the editor.”

He was known, too, for his four-hour funeral orations.

“He would take you back generations in time . . . and then he would conclude in the present,” coming full circle.

“Our storytelling tradition is a long one,” Osawa said, “and I’m also a traditional storyteller. I just use a camera. That’s the only difference.”

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