Shining Mountains spotlights indigenous filmmakers at Wheeler

Buffalo Child
Courtesy photo

Friday through Sunday, The Aspen Indigenous Foundation and The Wheeler Opera House will present the fourth annual Shining Mountains Film Festival, which showcases the work of Native American/First Nation filmmakers. The festival was founded in 2018 when AIF petitioned the Aspen city council, and then mayor, Steve Skadron, to pass a resolution to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“To celebrate this victory, we came up with the concept of doing a film festival to help educate non-native people about indigenous culture and spirituality. There is such a lack of knowledge about native peoples, especially in United States. We want to change that,” said Deanne Vitrac-Kessler, founder and executive director of AIF.

Although she grew up in the south of France, she’s always shared a deep spiritual connection with the indigenous people of North America. When she first came to the U.S. over 30 years ago, she was introduced to an Ute elder and healer with whom she formed a strong friendship and bond. That woman changed the trajectory of her life when she asked her to help educate people about ancestral lands.

“They are amazing stewards of the earth and walk in balance with nature and every living being human and non-human. They can teach us so much,” she said.

She founded the Aspen Indigenous Foundation 16 years ago to continue that work.

Deanne Vitrac-Kessler with former chairman of the Northern Ute Tribe, Roland McCook at a Dance Exhibition, Aspen – 2016
Courtesy photo

This year, she is excited to showcase two feature-length films and 12 shorts, documentary and scripted projects, all produced, written, directed and acted by Native Americans from Canada and the United States. Filmmakers will be on hand for Q&As after the screenings. She stressed that they try to support the underdog films that may not have big budgets or Hollywood names behind them but is happy to see bigger projects like Reservation Dogs on FX making their way to mainstream audiences.

“We try to bring a lot of diversity, which is not so easy with native films; but, native people are extremely creative and have lots to say to about their culture, both historical and modern,” she said.

Reggie Lopez of the Weeminuche band of the Ute Nation will open the festival with a traditional prayer and speak on the presence of Utes in this valley.

Another collaborator and emcee of the festival for the second year is someone audiences may recognize. Buffalo Child is Plains Cree who grew up with medicine people on both sides of his family. He speaks the traditional Neyheowak language fluently and is also an accomplished actor and stuntman with over 100 film credits to his name, the most notable being Academy Award winning Dances With Wolves, starring another familiar Aspen resident, Kevin Costner.

Buffalo Child
Courtesy photo

A year and a half ago, Buffalo Child was living on a ranch in Arizona that was sold. He posted on Facebook asking his friends where he should go next, and Vitrac-Kessler responded, “I have a room for you; why don’t you come to Aspen?” he said. He now serves as cultural advisor and special event coordinator for AIF.

He believes the film festival is unique because it’s all about indigenous people from the Americas.

“Our history is rich. There has been Native American history for ten to fifteen thousand years that’s never stopped. I know that as long as the rivers flow and the grass grows green, there are still spirits there. A lot of people think that is in the past, but it’s always been there.”

Buffalo Child
Courtesy photo

Vitrac-Kessler echos the sentiment.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to be exposed to (Native American) culture and stories. My hope is that people will come, embrace and have more tolerance and compassion and realize there is only one people of the earth. No one will stay indifferent; it will touch them deeply,” she said.

If you go…

What: Shining Mountains Film Festival 2022
When: Oct.14-16
Where: Wheeler Opera House
Tickets: Festival Pass $65 @