By Bill Mayr
An MFA graduate from CCAD is helping tell the story of some of America’s least-known military veterans: Native Americans.
Pamela Theodotou (CCAD 2013) is serving as director of photography, cinematographer, and editor for the multimedia project Warriors from the Reservation, which is examining the warrior tradition and experiences of veterans from the Oglala Lakota tribe in South Dakota.
The project will include photography exhibitions, two documentary films, and a print/digital book.
Initial filming for the project was done last summer on the Pine Ridge reservation, which sprawls across nearly 3,500 square miles of arid southwestern South Dakota. Pine Ridge was home to both the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 and violent confrontations between Native Americans and the U.S. government in the 1970s.
Despite ongoing challenges from and conflicts with mainstream America, Native Americans have served in American military units for 200 years — and government studies show that Native Americans serve in the military at a higher rate than other American racial groups.
Veterans who identified themselves as American Indian and Alaskan Native totaled 154,000, a 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs report said.
These veterans had the lowest median personal income among racial groups in the country, the study reported. Fewer held college degrees, and more were unemployed than veterans of other races.
Like other veterans, some tribe members suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and other problems when they return home from war zones. However, their ability to address these problems is different.
“There is an increasing amount of evidence showing that American Indian veterans have the highest rate of PTSD of any ethnic group and face significant barriers to care,” organizers of Warriors from the Reservation say on their website. “For a population already feeling the extreme burden of poverty, the effects of PTSD only add additional emotional and economic stressors to an already isolated community.”
An Artist’s Connection
Theodotou was asked to join Warriors from the Reservation by Kris Wetherholt, a film producer working on the project who is also a founder of the International Information Policy Foundation.
The topic appealed to Theodotou for several reasons.
“I have done some work with Kris in the past on veterans, so the topic is important to me,” she says. “I also am currently working on a script for a feature film about my mother’s experience as an operative for the OSS [Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor to the CIA] in Nazi-occupied Greece, so the many facets of the [Native American] war experience have made their way into my narrative fabric.”
A veteran photographer who branched into cinematography, Theodotou sought a graduate degree from CCAD in order to expand and refine her skills.
“I attended CCAD because I believe that to quest for excellence in modern filmmaking you have to have a strong understanding of technology,” she says. “Being at the college allowed me to up my game on that front.”
The Role of Editor
Capturing the story of military veterans coming from this milieu is important, Theodotou says. Her role as an editor is important as well.
“As Native Americans going into military service, they have a unique perspective from a historical and cultural standpoint, and it’s easy to get very clichéd about symbolism and simply rehash old, and mostly inaccurate, images,” she says.
“So as we document their stories and cut together a film about their perspective, we have to constantly reevaluate what we think the story is and reorient our perspective based on what we are learning. The goal is about uncovering the reality of their condition and their beliefs.”
Plans for Release
Additional filming for Warriors from the Reservation to obtain the government’s perspective will likely take place this summer at Pine Ridge and in Washington. Plans call for release of a documentary short, We Bleed Too: The Story of Tony Bush, this spring, followed by the main documentary film in late 2014.
A serious look at the issues is needed, Theodotou says.
“It’s not just about veteran issues, but also what Native Americans face as crises on a daily basis,” she says. “That is juxtaposed with the incredible and indelible spirit and hopefulness of these people, which so often gets lost in the sensationalism that dominates depictions of them.”
For more on the project, including trailers, visit its website, www.warriorsfromthereservation.com.
All Warriors from the Reservation images in this story are © 2013 Warriors from the Reservation LLC, all rights reserved.