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Filmmaker Drawn to Stories About Native Americans


This spring, the National Museum of the American Indian premiered A Thousand Roads, a movie designed to help museum goers experience what it's like to be Native American in the 21st century.

"It's a movie with heart and soul and passion, and those are the kinds of movies I love to make," says director Chris Eyre.

It's no surprise that museum officials chose him to direct the film. An enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, Chris Eyre is the foremost Native American filmmaker working today. His movies have been lauded at the Sundance Film Festival; he took home top prize in 1998 with his first feature film, Smoke Signals.

"'Smoke Signals' was quite an initiation and a pleasure because it did have such wide distribution and it is still the movie that I am best known for," Mr. Eyre says.

Based on a short story by Spokane Indian writer Sherman Alexie Smoke Signals was the first film written, produced and directed by Native Americans.

Adopted by white parents and raised in Portland, Oregon, Chris Eyre says he is drawn to stories about Native Americans. "It happens to be what interests me the most. I don't feel an obligation. I don't feel a mission per se," he says. "What I'm trying to do is touch the surface of something I want to examine. That is Native America. As I got older, I started to reflect on perceptions of who native people were and perceptions that people had of me which deeply influenced my work."

In 2002, Chris Eyre was chosen to direct the first film version of one of Tony Hillerman's popular Navajo mysteries - Skinwalkers." In 2004 he was reunited with the cast for Thief of Time. " Both films aired on American Public Television.

"Doing the Hillerman series is a great honor because of Tony Hillerman's work, also because Robert Redford executive produces them," the director says and adds he has enjoyed revisiting the same characters. "We have a real community of actors that work on those movies. How often do you get to rework the same characters in different situations? I love doing those movies."

Telling the story of contemporary American Indians has been the focus of his career, but the 36-year-old director's latest project is a bit of a departure. "I'm developing a movie on Sitting Bull which will be the first period piece I've done, if it comes to fruition."

He says the film will explore four years Sitting Bull spent in Canada. "After the battle of Little Bighorn, he [Sitting Bull] exiled himself. The U.S. government took four years to capture him and put him on a reservation," Mr. Eyre explains. "I was interested in why the U.S. government pursued him for so long. It is an untold history."

As an independent filmmaker, Mr. Eyre has not gotten the wide theater distribution that directors like Steven Spielberg and Cameron Crowe get. While he would like his work to be seen by as many people as possible, he's happy to be working, and optimistic about the future.

"For me as a younger person, I still feel like I have things to work out as a filmmaker, and I get better each time I go out and work," he says. "I think eventually [my work] will be seen wider and I probably will be a better filmmaker by the time it is seen wider."

Critics are currently praising Chris Eyre's latest production, Edge of America, about a black teacher who takes a job at a reservation high school. The film premiered at Sundance last year, and is being featured this month on the Showtime cable television network in the United States.