On Monday, Feb. 18, experimental filmmaker Sky Hopinka came to the University to give a talk on his work as a contemporary artist. The event was hosted by the Center for the Arts, the American Studies Department, the Center for the Americas, the History Department, and the Indigenous Studies Research Network in the Ring Family Performing Arts Hall.

In addition to being a filmmaker, Hopinka is an Assistant Professor in Film Production for the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University. Hopinka’s work “Anti-Objects, or Space Without Path or Boundary” is part of the Audible Bacillus exhibition at the Zilkha Gallery running until March 3.

Hopinka is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation on his father’s side and descended from the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians on his mother’s. He grew up in Washington state and learned to speak Chinook Wawa, the indigenous pidgin language of the Pacific Northwest. His work delves deeply into his many different identities and the landscapes that form these identities.

“How do I exist in these different locations respectively at a distance but also as a member of these different communities that I’ve lived through?” Hopinka asked. “I’ve had a lot of different moments to think and reflect on how I exist not only as a person who [was] three or four years old when I was living in those places but also as a visitor who’s Pechanga or a member of the community who speaks Chinook Wawa.”

“Anti-Objects” as a work of art is composed of wide-sweeping landscape shots of modern day Portland juxtaposed with the spoken word of one of the last native speakers of Chinook Wawa.

“I dream as if I were in Oregon, you know that’s where I grew up,” the nameless Chinook speaker says in the recording. “You know that’s where I was born. I was dreaming I was back in Oregon, way off there near the ocean.”

Through placing the footage of Portland’s public infrastructure on a solemn soundtrack of Chinook Wawa, Hopinka bridges the past with the present. In the recording, an elderly Native Chinook speaker instructs Hopinka’s teacher in the language of Chinook Wawa. Hopinka noted that with this recording, he is capturing how language is passed from generation to generation.

“Part of the conceit with the recordings as an object is how did I previously view them as archival objects and artifacts?” Hopinka asked. “It provided me with a different glimpse of this relationship, allowed me to participate in ways I haven’t before. I could see where words came from in the dictionary. To hear my teacher’s teacher being taught is very powerful for me.”

Hopinka also went on to talk about his time at Standing Rock during the protests over the oil pipeline from 2016 to 2017. He traveled to North Dakota three times, but felt exploitative filming people’s lives there. There were over 200 documentary crews covering the protest at one point, he was told.

“I wasn’t shooting a lot,” he said. “It’s very easy to walk around camp and shoot people’s tents and their TVs and their yurts but then when I started doing that it felt kind of gross. These are people’s houses. There is a lot of performance being done or people are being asked to do. I tried to negotiate what my purpose was there but also how I fit in as an indigenous person.”

He questioned his usual techniques of visual manipulation, wondering if it was too indulgent in this case because of the sensitive nature of the protest. Instead, he let the setting tell more of the story by placing his objects, or artifacts as he calls them, in panning shots of the great plains. In this case, his artifacts were the protestors and their accessories: the tents and necessities of life.

Hopinka was also concerned about undermining others’ stories or misrepresenting the people who talked to him.

“I never wanted to make the Standing Rock movie, and by limiting this to only two interviews, I was hoping to try to highlight that point of how incomplete it is and how imperfect is is,” Hopinka said. “Cause I’d rather see my work function as a constellation rather than a just like a single star.”

Currently, Hopinka is working on a feature-length film on how to tell tribal myths, because tribes have very particular rules on who has the power to tell their stories and when they can be told. One concern he is taking into consideration is when these stories are made public, they can change how tribes relate to their own culture and tribal identity. Hopinka himself deals with this problem, because he has read about his tribes from 1950s accounts by white outsiders, and notes that not everything that ended up in these accounts was supposed to be said.

Hopinka sees his films as a jumping-off point for a wider discussion of indigenous questions.

“I see each of these videos as a cry for community,” Hopinka said. “Hey, here I am. What do you think?  I think the most interesting thing that comes out are the conversations afterwards. I don’t have any answers. These are just propositions of how to relate to indigenous culture, to identity, to myth. I don’t want to be the token.”


Stuart Woodhams can be reached at swoodhams@wesleyan.edu.

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