Diné filmmaker Deidra Peaches screens documentary Voices of the Grand Canyon during Indie Film Fest 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona.
PHOENIX, AZ—Diné filmmaker Deidra Peaches is making work at the intersection of several of today’s most pressing issues: extraction, water, and climate change; whitewashing history; and the lack of representation in film and other creative industries.
Fewer than one percent of film directors and cast members are Native American, according to the University of California, Los Angeles’ latest Hollywood Diversity Report. But Peaches is part of a generation of Indigenous filmmakers working to change that, both through the types of stories she tells and the way she tells them.
“Filmmaking is an instrument or tool for me to have access to my culture and my personal identity as a Diné woman,” says Peaches, who was born and raised in Flagstaff, Arizona, and continues to live in the region.
She grew up watching films her family rented from the local video store, focusing first on the stories filmmakers told before honing in on elements like lighting and sound.
Today, Peaches recalls when her first film screened at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. in 2007. “I was part of a series with young filmmakers showing work about what they were thankful for,” she says. “My premise was being thankful for imagination.”
Since then, Peaches has made several films focused on Native culture, identity, and experience. This month, her short documentary film Voices of the Grand Canyon premieres during the Indie Film Fest in Phoenix, where an earlier film titled Alaska Journey to Celebration created with photographer Matika Wilbur (Swinomish and Tulalip) was named best indie documentary in 2020.
Voices of the Grand Canyon features words, videos, and audio stories from Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Havasupai, and Hualapai tribal members interwoven with images of the Grand Canyon and music composed by Kino Benally (Navajo). The film opens with the sound of wind and closes with a star-filled night sky.
It comes more than a decade after filmmaker Ken Burns released his twelve-hour documentary titled The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, shown as a six-part television series in 2009.
Peaches’s film runs just over twelve minutes and centers on Indigenous rather than settler culture.
“A lot of my work explores struggles related to colonization and westward expansion,” explains Peaches. “I like to focus on social justice and environmental issues.” In 2013, for example, she released Tó éí ’iiná até (Water is Life), which addresses the industrialization of the Navajo Nation.
Here, she considers both historical and contemporary Indigenous culture in and around the Grand Canyon. “This is a very sacred area to thirteen tribes, but a lot of Native peoples have been uprooted and removed from this region.”
Peaches hopes the film will help viewers see the Grand Canyon as far more than a tourist destination. “I really feel endearing respect for the canyon and the beings that surround it, and this is a way for me to share my reality and my perspective with others.”
The film is particularly well-timed given the failure of the current United States Congress to pass the Grand Canyon Protection Act that would ban new uranium mines in the area and the fact that the federal government celebrated the Grand Canyon’s 100th year in the national park system in 2019.
“I’m looking at how the Grand Canyon has been whitewashed, even from its creation as a national park and having that signification,” says Peaches. “We should have that respect everywhere, for all sorts of land.”
Of course, this particular canyon has long been a popular subject for filmmakers, authors, artists, and other creatives. It’s featured in a 1971 episode of The Brady Bunch, the 1991 movie Thelma & Louise, and songs performed by myriad artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Lou Reed, and Neil Young. Photographers who’ve trained their eye on the Grand Canyon include the Kolb Brothers, Ansel Adams, and collaborators Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe.
The Grand Canyon Conservancy has an artist-in-residence program whose recent participants have included Texas-based multi-media artist Heather Johnson. Applications for the 2023 program will open this summer.
There’s also a Grand Canyon Music Festival which includes a Native American Composer Apprentice Project where artists-in-residence such as New Mexico-based Raven Chacon (Navajo) train talented youth in musical composition.
As the premiere for Voices of the Grand Canyon approaches, Peaches is looking back on the people and programs that helped her pursue her passion for filmmaking, from the uncle that introduced her to Quentin Tarantino movies to the organizations that let her borrow film equipment as a teen.
She’s also teaching after-school workshops in Flagstaff, eager to help more Indigenous youth tell their stories through film.
“We need to normalize seeing Native people on the screen and continue to advocate to tell our own stories,” reflects Peaches. “It’s really coming full circle, and I encourage more Indigenous artists and filmmakers to collaborate to bring our stories to life.”
Voices of the Grand Canyon premieres during the Indie Film Festival in Phoenix on Saturday, February 12, 2022. The three-day event is scheduled to take place in a hybrid format from Thursday, February 10 through Saturday, February 12. In-person screenings will take place in various downtown Phoenix locations. Cahokia PHX will host a panel discussion with Deidra Peaches at 8 pm Thursday, February 11.