Director Tsanavi Spoonhunter on documenting food insecurity on the Crow Indian Reservation
Tsanavi Spoonhunter is an award-winning director. His documentary Crow Country: Our Right to Food Sovereignty was recently voted Best Documentary Short by the American Indian Film Festival. The film portrays tribal members of the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana and their struggles to maintain food security.
The Crow Indian Reservation
The Crow Indian Reservation is the largest reservation in Montana, spanning 2.2 million acres and home to nearly 8,000 members of the Crow (Apsáalooke) tribe.
The reservation has suffered devastating federal decisions and community woes. In 2017, the Crow Agency, the headquarters of the Crow tribe in Montana, laid off 1,000 of its 1,300 employees due to government cuts. In 2019, the only grocery store in the community burned down. Director Tsanavi Spoonhunter says these are some of the reasons why members of this reserve are struggling to make ends meet.
“Many families rely on subsistence hunting, where they get most of their protein from wild game,” Spoonhunter said. “There are still no groceries on the reservation, and on the Crow reservation, the economy is not very good for the tribe. So often unemployment is very high, making it even more difficult for families and individuals to be able to support themselves and their families.
Spoonhunter said the Crow tribe is just one of many tribes exploring the idea of inheriting the right to identify their own food system. For the Crow Tribe, many want the right to hunt for traditional, nutritious foods, but state restrictions on ancestral hunting grounds prevent them from supporting their families.
Spoonhunter spent nearly 10 months on this documentary. After extensive research and time spent on the reservation, his work resulted in a 20-minute story following the members of the Crow tribe.
“You have to have some respect when you enter a community that you are unfamiliar with. You need to take these extra steps to familiarize yourself with this group of people.
One of the main characters in the movie is Peggy White Well Known Buffalo. White is an enrolled member of the Crow Tribe and co-owner of The Center Pole, an Indigenous non-profit organization. The Pole Center is a hub for indigenous resources, offering a food bank, food delivery and even a radio show for tribesmen to tell their own stories.
Each morning, White drives an hour to Billings, Montana, to collect salvage food, which is about to reach an expiration date. She then takes these foods and distributes them throughout the supply.
White introduced Spoonhunter to Prinz Three Irons, who is also an enrolled member of the Crow Nation. Prinz Three Irons is an expert wilderness guide and hunter. It relies on subsistence hunting.
“He described how many people depend on hunting and how important it is not only for their protein but also for their culture,” Spoonhunter said. “They use elk for a lot of decoration on their traditional attire.”
Spoonhunter said she wants viewers to leave with the understanding that Aboriginal people aren’t a sign of the past.
“We’re not this romanticized idea that people have primed in the minds of the film industry and Hollywood,” Spoonhunter said. “We’re real people with real current issues, and we’re resilient people because a lot of those issues stem from things that happened. What the government did in the 1800s, putting us on reservations, and how we continued to survive and thrive. … Seeing the beauty of these communities, but also understanding the issues.
Tsanavi Spoonhunter is a descendant of the Northern Paiute, Lakota and Northern Arapaho nations. Most of his stories focus on Indian country. She completed her undergraduate studies at the Reynolds School of Journalism and pursued her master’s degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
His film has received two awards since its premiere, including the Mint Film Festival Documentary Award for Best Film Made in Montana. Spoonhunter directed and filmed this award-winning film while a student at UC Berkeley.
Spoonhunter is currently working on another short film, following a Native American artist named Jean LaMarr for the Nevada Museum of Art. LaMarr will have a solo show next year.