About the Indigenous Film Studies Initiative

DER stewards a world-renowned collection of ethnographic and Indigenous-made films from around the world.  The films address topics ranging from belief systems and healing practices to land rights, subsistence practices, and relationship to the environment. Showcasing language, cultural change, and revitalization efforts of Native Americans and Indigenous people around the globe, these film have the power to change perspectives of audiences. Produced, for the most part, with the intention of engendering cross-cultural understanding, these films also serve as historical records for future generations of the portrayed communities.

With our current Indigenous Studies Initiative, DER is excited to be taking steps to fulfill this latter objective and to support community efforts toward cultural survival and sovereignty. As part of this Initiative, we are excited to launch our new Interactive Film Map, Culture Group Index, and Subject Categories — all constructed with the purpose to increase the findability of relevant titles in our Indigenous Studies collection.

The Indigenous Studies Initiative is a key element in our commitment to decolonizing and indigenizing our film collection. Many of the films in the DER catalog were made in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.  We recognize that the production relationships undergirding the making of many of these films were rooted in the inequalities of the colonial perspective, but we are proud that despite the historical circumstances, many of the films reflect innovative approaches to cross-cultural filmmaking.  By challenging stereotypes and decentering the authority of the filmmaker through a variety of collaborative relationships and storytelling devices, the films in DER’s collection offer intimate access to individuals and communities marginalized by mainstream media. They are also testimony to the fact that despite facing both significant transformations and great adversity, contemporary Indigenous communities continue to thrive around the globe.

We are acutely aware that many of the films and textual descriptions on the DER website embody documentary and descriptive practices of an earlier time and specific cultural space and do not reflect contemporary cultural sensibilities. DER is committed to updating how the films are presented while maintaining the authenticity of these historical documents, with an eye to their value for source communities and other Indigenous groups that may be struggling with similar concerns.

As we continue this evolving endeavor, DER’s primary goal is to expand our outreach and develop relationships with Indigenous communities, museums, educational institutions, and filmmakers in the hope that our collection will continue to engage and educate for many generations to come.

Read our Press Release

Our use of the term "Indigenous":

DER recognizes that there is no single consensus on how to define indigeneity or the appropriateness of the term for each culture group represented in our film collection. Further complicating matters is that there is not an authoritative list of Indigenous culture groups on a global scale. Often politics plays a hand in how the term Indigenous is defined. Some embrace it as a notion of self-governance and sovereignty. Others accept the term as an appellation enforced upon them by governmental structures with negative consequences. For all groups, depending on how the term is translated into a local dialect will also determine how the word is received. Regardless, for each Indigenous community the term becomes part of their identity.

In consideration for the collection at DER consisting of dozens of communities spanning the globe, we want to offer a working definition offered by Cultural Survival, an Indigenous-led international organization, that has been serving Indigenous communities since 1972. As stated on the Cultural Survival website, “There is no universally accepted definition for “Indigenous“, though there are characteristics that tend to be common among Indigenous Peoples.”  They further define these common, guiding characteristics as follows:

  • Indigenous People are distinct populations relative to the dominant post-colonial culture of their country. They are often minority populations within the current post-colonial nations states.
  • Indigenous People usually have (or had) their own language, cultures, and traditions influenced by living relationships with their ancestral homelands. Today, Indigenous people speak some 4,000 languages.
  • Indigenous People have distinctive cultural traditions that are still practiced.
  • Indigenous People have (or had) their own land and territory, to which they are tied in myriad ways.
  • Indigenous People self-identify as Indigenous.

Indigenous Peoples world over, number about 6.2% of the world population. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), there are approximately 476.6 million Indigenous People in the world, belonging to 5,000 different groups, in 90 countries worldwide. Indigenous people live in every region of the world, but about 70% of them live in Asia and the Pacific, followed by 16.3% in Africa, 11.5% in Latin America and the Caribbean, 1.6% in Northern America, and 0.1% in Europe and Central Asia. (Source: Cultural Survival )

Our approach to naming

Our intention is to bring to the forefront current preferred terminologies to the culture groups depicted in our film collection. The purpose of this is obviously to give self-determination and agency to these communities. However, there are legacy terms applied to many of the communities from colonial entities or other Indigenous culture groups. Some of these terms can be offensive or derogatory. These problematic terms, unfortunately, are sometimes the terms that are most widely known. For the sake of accessibility, we have chosen that instead of erasing these legacy terms, we instead choose to address them in our informational paragraphs about each culture group in our regional indices. By addressing these historically fraught issues and placing them alongside the preferred terms, our objective is to bridge the gap between outdated sensibilities and contemporary, preferred terminology to ensure ease in finding and identifying films relevant to a particular community.

Furthermore, the complexities of naming can and will continue to be an evolving process. Some communities name themselves based on location, language, or their interpretation of what it means to be a human being. These differences highlight the importance of what a name can mean and how it can define a worldview and the place that a people occupies in how they view their own existence.