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Filmmaker Explores Contemporary Native American Life

Indie filmmaker Travis Holt Hamilton has made a name for himself in the world of Native American cinema. Above, he looks at scripts at a recent audition for his latest movie.
(Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)
Indie filmmaker Travis Holt Hamilton has made a name for himself in the world of Native American cinema. Above, he looks at scripts at a recent audition for his latest movie.

Like most indie filmmakers, Flagstaff’s Travis Holt Hamilton makes movies from a different perspective than Hollywood. But unlike almost any filmmaker, that perspective is a Native American one.

His movies star native actors and tell contemporary native stories. And – spoiler alert – he’s a white guy.

Recently, he was auditioning at the Sacred Hogan, a frybread restaurant in central Phoenix. Yeah, he stood out in the crowd of mostly Navajos, flipping through scripts.

But Hamilton is used to it. He used to be a young Mormon missionary in the Navajo Nation. That’s what inspired him to make a movie about everyday reservation life that didn’t rely on stereotypes. “Turquoise Rose,” about an urban Native American woman, was released in 2007.

“And people started asking, 'Well, when’s the next one coming out?'” Hamilton explained, “So, we made another one, and people are like, 'When’s the next one?' And so it’s kind of snowballed into, well, people are wanting our films, so let’s make another one.”

So he did and sort of fell into his niche. Now, he is working on his fifth film, a sci-fi flick. Like all his movies, it’s extremely low budget, as in under $15,000. And like his other movies, it might be shown on TV in Canada or on movie screens on reservations. Hamilton will probably bring it to tiny communities where he will hear reactions from crowds made up almost entirely of Native Americans.

“We’ve had people stand up in the audience,” Hamilton said. “One lady, specifically, was, you know, crying, thanking us for making a contemporary – a positive, contemporary story that helps other people in the world see her culture the way that she sees it.”

As Hamilton put it, you can’t put a “dollar sign” on something like that. He doesn’t, however, romanticize the countless hours he pours into his movies. It’s not just the time he spends behind the camera or writing the script. It’s times like this night, when Hamilton walks through the script with about two dozen or so actors, from all levels of experience.

One of them is Kent Smith, who was in Hamilton’s last film, “More Than Frybread,” a cheeky mockumentary about a fictional frybread competition. Smith is a Yavapai, and he insisted it was weird to be directed in a distinctly Native American satire by someone who isn’t.

“It’s kinda, kinda comical, because, you know, he being around natives a lot, just kind of goes with the flow, kind of knows when to pull back, kind of knows how to – not control, but handle the large group,” Smith said. “And basically knows how to have fun.”

Hamilton can also portray his observations without perpetuating historical stereotypes. That’s how Mike Clark, a San Carlos Apache, sees it. He’s a classically trained singer who has never acted before but he felt inspired to give a shot. He said Hamilton’s movies take a true-life sliver what it is really like to be Native American and make it funny. And Clark sees that Hamilton does not focus on all the regalia and dances that some movies do.

“I like that he appreciates certain ideas about my heritage, and that’s what I like, yeah,” Clark said. “I think we have a connection in that sense.”

He feels that connection even though this is was the first time they had met. Other actors include Efrem Yazzie, visiting from Chinle in the Navajo Nation. He owns all of Hamilton’s movies on DVD and said that seeing “More Than Frybread” last year was a wake-up call that he could try more than construction work.

“It got me into stand-up comedy,” Yazzie said. “You know, I try to get in front of crowds and get used to everyone staring at me and laughing and making fun and making fun of myself.”

Yazzie now goes by Lizard Chaser, at least on stage. He and the rest of the nights cinematic hopefuls will find out if they have made Hamilton’s cut in the next several weeks. But first several more audition need to be held, from Shiprock, N.M, the Yakama Reservation in Washington state.

Stina Sieg was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2013 to 2018.