Growing up, Scott Badenoch did not always claim his Native American identity, because doing so could have very real consequences. Badenoch’s grandfather and great-grandfather were both removed from their families and boarded at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and Badenoch grew up knowing that the government or the army could show up at any time and take him away.

“We always had a plan,” Badenoch says, referring to himself and his brother. “If we were removed, we knew where we would go. We were taught at an early age how to take public transit. We knew how to operate.”

Badenoch tells this story in the documentary Our Fires Still Burn: The Native American Experience, directed by Audrey Geyer (A.B. 1988). The film examines the lives and cultures of a handful of Native Americans across the Midwest. Stories from so-called “Indian boarding schools”—places where Native American children were forcibly boarded for assimilation purposes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—juxtaposed with powwows and fire-lighting ceremonies and scenes of performance art by artist-activist Bunky Echo-Hawk.

Many of the most poignant moments come from reflection, such as Lee Ruffino, who is biracial, recalling how her non-Native family referred to her as “Squaw” growing up. Journalist Levi Rickert talks about the issues that mainstream media outlets will and won’t cover relating to Native Americans. Badenoch leans over a table filled with photographs that had been ripped in half by his grief-stricken mother.

“It is a balance for me as a filmmaker trying to sort out how to present material when so much of it is so emotional,” says Geyer. “You don’t want to inundate the viewer with a litany of despair. You want to balance the reality of the topic that you’re talking about so people can get as much as possible from it.”

Questioning, Inside and Out

As a student at Michigan, Geyer knew from her first classes that she wanted to be a filmmaker. She took every documentary film production class that she could find, competing with other students for coveted time with then-scarce recording equipment.

Geyer also studied literature, double majoring in English and in the Program in Film and Video, predecessor to today's Department of Screen Arts & Cultures. Geyer found that the former expanded her interest and ability in the latter.

“At first, literature sounds as if it’s pretty disconnected from documentary filmmaking,” Geyer says. “But literature addresses a lot of social issues, just as documentary work does. Your hope is that while you’re studying literature that you’re learning to question assumptions, to look within yourself, to look around you, to reflect and be curious. That kind of mindset is really important to be successful in my field.”

Henry Pratt, the longtime superintendent of the Carlisle Industrial School in Pennsylvania, is credited with the phrase, "Kill the Indian...and save the man." Students, such Tom Torlino (pictured above), were removed from their families and boarded at the Carlisle Industrial School, where they were forcibly separated from their language, culture, and heritage. The picture on the left is from 1882 when Torlino arrived at Carlisle; the picture on the right is from 3 years later at the same school.

When she started the Our Fires Still Burn project, Geyer partnered with Steve Spreitzer at the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. Spreitzer introduced Geyer to members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe near Mount Pleasant, Michigan, and those introductions led to more introductions to friends, family members, counselors, and tribal spokespeople.

“I don’t just show up right away with a camera,” Geyer says of her process. “I have long discussions on the phone, I meet with the interviewee in person. I approach all of my documentary subjects with openness and compassion because, in the end, I’m trying to tell their story, not mine. It’s their story that is the focus.”           

Since the documentary’s premiere in 2016, Geyer has been showing it at universities and libraries. She works to educate people on the topics covered in Our Fires Still Burn, especially the story of the forced boarding of Native American children—a story that has seen increased attention in recent years, Geyer says, but is still not well known even in communities in close physical proximity to historical boarding schools.

Geyer’s newest project is a documentary on Native American lawyers and law systems, with a trailer coming this summer and a completed hour-long documentary later this year.

“This is about a group of Native Americans who have maneuvered through a lot of different obstacles before going back into tribal communities to work on social and legal issues,” Geyer says. “It covers topics such as sovereignty and sacred justice and things called peacemaking courts and healing-to-wellness drug courts. It’s about looking at all of the alternatives for nonviolent offenders within Native American communities and seeing how they function and seeing how non-Native judicial systems can really learn from these courts.”

This will be the second film—Our Fires Still Burn was the first—to be produced by Visions, a 501(c)3 nonprofit started by Geyer with a mission to produce films that address social issues facing underrepresented groups.

“We hope to cover people you don’t normally see on TV,” Geyer says, “Even on PBS.”



Photos courtesy of Audrey Geyer. Illustration by Becky Sehenuk Waite