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American Indians on Film and the Work of the American Indian Film Institute

This is part of a series of posts in partnership with the American Indian Cultural District to promote and document American Indian cultural sites in San Francisco. 

MC, Susan Masten (left), with Michael Smith and Cindy Spencer at the Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, c.1980s. Courtesy of Mytia Zavala.

Compiled by Kerri Young

For almost half-a-century, the American Indian Film Institute (AIFI) has brought to light the full spectrum of contemporary Native American life and culture to the public, shattering long-held stereotypes of American Indians through film and providing historical context for their centuries long fight for justice. Today, AIFI is the major Native American media and cultural arts presenter in California, and its American Indian Film Festival (AIFF) is the world’s oldest and most recognized international film exposition dedicated to Native American cinematic accomplishment.

Through film, AIFI and the AIFF are bringing to light American Indian stories and voices, while preserving and recording American Indian heritage. In this context, film is as an important vehicle for Indians and non-Indians alike to “unlearn” the damaging stereotypes that have existed on film since the medium’s inception over 100 years ago, and replace them with multi-dimensional images that reflect the complexity of Native peoples.

AIFI and AIFF founder Michael Smith (left) and actress Diane Debassige at the AIFF c.1980s. Courtesy of Mytia Zavala.

The organization’s roots stretch back to 1975, when a visionary young Sioux man named Michael Smith founded the AIFI and helmed the first ever American Indian Film Festival in Seattle, Washington. Smith founded AIFI during a time when Native activism was a capturing the attention of the nation, from the founding of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968 to the occupations of Alcatraz in 1969, Mount Rushmore in 1970, and Wounded Knee in 1973. The passion for his work with the film festival was borne from years of watching non-Natives play Natives, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and disseminating inaccurate, often offensive portrayals of American Indians onscreen. In these early years of the AIFI and the AIFF, Smith recruited two of his heroes – Mvskokee actor Will Sampson (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), and Canada’s Coast Salish actor and tribal leader, Chief Dan George (“The Outlaw Josey Wales, “Little Big Man”) – to become AIFI founding board members.

Actor Will Sampson (right) with Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).

Watching Sampson’s and George’s barrier-breaking performances inspired Smith, then only in his 20s, to establish a forum and showcase from an indigenous perspective. Smith spoke of their impact on him years later, at the festival’s 40th anniversary in 2015:

“Seeing these formidable, funny Indian actors onscreen illuminated the void of authentic portrayals, complex characters and three-dimensional Native life, in the movies. They were unforgettable presences in my life, and at the festival. The American Indian Film Festival gave us a voice, 40 years has flown by, and we’re looking forward to the next 40.”

In 1976, the AIFI and the AIFF relocated to the Bay Area, where they found a permanent home. They first established an office at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland, and then on East 12th Street, before moving to San Francisco. The AIFI was incorporated in 1979.

Michael Smith inside his office in the Fog Building located at 335 Valencia, c. 1990s. Photo courtesy of Mytia Zavala.

Much of the organization’s history is rooted in San Francisco’s Mission District, which has historically housed several important places that, today, serve as landmarks that outline the American Indian Cultural District. The AIFI found temporary homes at important American Indian hubs such as the American Indian Center (225-229 Valencia) and the Red Stone Building (2926-2948 16th Street), but its longterm headquarters was the Fog Building, located near the corner of 14th and Valencia streets. Starting in the 1980s, it resided here alongside other important American Indian community organizations such as Friendship House and the American Indian AIDS Institute, and remained at this location for almost forty years. The Fog Building was eventually sold, and the AIFI found their way to Intersection of the Arts in San Francisco’s mid-Market area (1446 Market Street), where it remains today.

The Fog Building, obscured behind trees near the corner of 14th and Valencia in 2012. A former casket factory, this industrial building was remodeled in the early 1980s as an office building. At that time, there were many nonprofits in the building, including the American Indian Film Festival, and other American Indian organizations including Friendship House and the American Indian AIDS Institute.

After 42 years dedicated to his work, Michael Smith passed away at age 66 on February 14, 2018 in San Francisco. The 43rd Annual American Indian Film Festival later that year was dedicated in his memory, and since then Smith’s daughter Mytia Zavala has carried on his legacy as AIFI’s Executive Director. Zavala comes from the Navajo, Laguna-Pueblo and Grand Ronde Tribes and is an enrolled member of the Fort Peck Sioux tribe of Montana. She shared with us a few memories of her father:

“I miss him everyday. My dad was the type of person where when he spoke, people would stop to listen. He also had this deep laugh that you could hear from the room over and you knew Mike was around. My dad loved his job. There were many challenging years that went with it but he pushed through year after year because of the love he had for his people and the stories and knowledge that he felt needed to be shared through film. With no other film festival like AIFF in existence, he knew that with this platform he had created, it was an extremely important step for us to voice our truth.”

Mytia Zavala takes the stage with her daughter at the Brava Theater during the 43rd Annual American Indian Film Festival. Courtesy of Mytia Zavala.

The American Indian Film Festival has taken place at a variety of San Francisco venues over the years, such as the AMC Metreon 16 theaters, the Brava Theater, and San Francisco Jazz Center, among others. Festival events include panel discussions, film screenings and an awards ceremony to recognize the achievements of Native American filmmakers. Zavala has continued to expand AIFI’s programming around the country, such as its recent drive-in series at the Motorama at the Downs in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


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In 2021, the festival marks its 46th year of creating countless filmmakers, screening hundreds of films by, for and about Native peoples. It will hold a virtual series running from November 5-13, and you may purchase tickets for individual films by browsing through the Film Catalog. Once ordered, you can begin streaming Video-On-Demand content beginning November 5.

Poster for season 46 of the American Indian Film Festival, premiering on November 5. 

Zavala knows the importance of carrying on her father’s work, and is looking ahead:

“Like him, I face challenges, but that’s a given, right? When you decide to protect and nourish a long-standing film organization with a tiny budget, there are hurdles. But I embrace the challenge and move forward with a full heart and open arms.”

A trailer for the 46th annual American Indian Film Festival, starting November 5, 2021.

Purchase tickets to the virtual film festival:

Support the AIFI:

Thanks to Wishelle Banks and Mytia Zavala for their research and contributions to this post.

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