Leanna Lewis raises awareness of indigenous issues through film

March 13, 2020, 12:08 a.m.

Leanna Lewis ’23 is making waves. A video she originally created for professor Shane Denson’s fall Introductory Seminar FILMSTUD 50Q: “The Video Essay: Writing with Video about Film and Media,” has accumulated more than 87,000 views through social media. Her video, “Silent Genocide: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women・A Crisis Perpetrated by False Representation in the Media,” offers Lewis’ take on the harm done by Native American stereotypes. 

Lewis, who is Tesuque Pueblo, O’odham and Wailaki, and grew up in Tesuque Pueblo in New Mexico, said she knew that she wanted to educate people about harsh realities Native women face. 

Her video shows how portrayals of indigenous people such as Native American-themed Halloween costumes and the sugar-coated Disney story of Pocohantas contribute to the sexualization and objectification of Native women. 

Statistics provided in her video illustrate the ongoing issue of missing and murdered indigenous women: Native women are five times more likely to experience physical violence and 10 times more likely to be murdered than the national average. As of 2016, out of the more than 5,700 reported cases of missing Native women and girls across the country, only 116 have been accounted for by the Department of Justice, according to the National Crime Information Center. 

A recent CNN article documents how ongoing violence against Native women has received little action from authorities across the country. In Montana, for example, Native Americans make up 6.7% of the state’s population but 26% of missing person reports. In several cases, authorities did not send out AMBER alerts or organize search parties. 

Cultural appropriation and misrepresentation of Native women in the media distracts people from the realities of life in Native communities, Lewis said in her video. 

“Your costume is contributing to my endangerment,” she said. 

Lewis recalled a moment of deep realization about the dangers Native women face: when she was 13 years old, and her mother sat her and her twin sister down to talk about the statistics on Native women and their safety, reminding them to be careful.

“It’s very important to me because it impacts me directly,” Lewis said. “There are people who think that because the issue doesn’t affect them, they can brush it off. But I wanted this video to show that no, this is important to a lot of people.” 

In January, her video was on display in the McMurtry building’s foyer as part of “Amalgamate: An Exhibition of Video Works,” which featured projects from Denson’s class. Since then, her video has gained traction on the internet, with more than 87,000 views on Facebook and 2,500 views on Instagram. People have reached out to Lewis, asking to feature her video in film festivals, conferences and classrooms, she said. 

“Initially, I had no idea I could impact this many people with something I made at this point in my life,” Lewis said. “Seeing the impact grow over such a short period of time has reminded me that I do have a voice.” 

Denson said her video demonstrates the care she put into the project. 

“I thought that Leanna’s video, which starts with a powerful opening and great use of voiceover, was an excellent example of a video essay that engages with deeply personal and political issues, connecting them to wider issues of representation and mediation in our contemporary culture,” Denson wrote in an email. “The video made good use of a variety of techniques, including screen recording, original footage and interesting visualization techniques to convey its message. Twitter screenshots offered a powerful means of bringing the various issues together, connecting the discussion of stereotypical costumes with online hate and real-world violence.” 

Lewis’ video shows her commitment to give back to her community and educate others about indigenous issues, as well as her pride in her indigenous identity and her community. She starts her video by introducing herself in Tewa, the language spoken by the Tesuque Pueblo. She fondly describes the Tesuque Pueblo in New Mexico as a strong, tight-knit community that raised her and continues to support her. 

“When I’m going through something hard, I can remind myself that I have a community to support me, no matter what,” Lewis said. “The fact that I have my community, along with the traditional dances and language, is a big part of me, and because I have these roots, I feel more grounded when I’m in an environment that’s less accessible.” 

Beyond using film to raise awareness of issues important to her, Lewis plans to pursue engineering, potentially majoring in product design, and hopes to be a role model for Native youth. And like many Native youth, she says, she wants to return home to make a positive impact on her community. 

“I always know that I’m going to go back [home] to help because the community supported me my whole life and will continue to do so,” Lewis said. “I don’t know of any engineers from my pueblo. I want to be the person who says, I did it, and yes, you can do it too.” 

Lewis affirms that Native filmmakers have powerful perspectives to share. Using film to share personal stories and information about pressing issues facing the Native American community, she hopes that her work prevents people from tuning out their stories. 

“We will not be silenced,” Lewis concludes in her video. “We are strong, indigenous women.” 

Contact Patricia Wei at patwei ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Patricia Wei ’23 is a reporter on the news and data section. She believes that everyone has a meaningful story to tell and is excited to approach her storytelling with curiosity and compassion in order to listen to the stories of people in the community.

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