Brooke Swaney ’03, a Blackfeet and Salish filmmaker, is committed to telling contemporary Native stories. Her debut feature documentary “Daughter of a Lost Bird” follows Kendra, an adult Native adoptee raised in an upper middle-class white family, as she reconnects with her birth mother and wrestles with her Lummi identity. Through Swaney’s empathetic rendering of Kendra’s story, the film explores the larger history of Indigenous adoption — and its intergenerational consequences — in the U.S.
I recently spoke with Swaney by phone about “Daughter of a Lost Bird.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed her time at Stanford, the ethics of documentary filmmaking and what she hopes audiences will take away from her film.
The Stanford Daily [TSD]: In what ways is “Daughter of a Lost Bird” a continuation of your past work? In what ways is it a departure?
Brooke Swaney [BS]: It was a departure in that I made a documentary — I went to graduate film school at New York University, and my training was in fiction primarily. I had never made a doc before so, here I am, multiple years later, and I have a feature documentary under my belt.
TSD: How did you make the transition from fiction to documentary filmmaking?
BS: Whether you’re doing fiction or documentary, you’re still telling a story, and you still have to orient the audience in the story that you’re trying to tell. You still have structure and the type of turns that you’re expecting the film to take. Both documentary and fiction do those things equally.
TSD: The creative team of “Daughter of a Lost Bird” is predominantly composed of women and Native folks. What was it like to work in that environment, and how did your experience differ from other sets you’ve worked on?
BS: I’ve worked on productions that have had primarily men on; I’ve also worked on productions where it’s been mostly women. And so I feel, being in those gender dynamics, it has been interesting to see the differences. I didn’t purposely build a team that was mostly women; it just happened that way. I think it probably informed some of the storytelling, but it also was just what happened and who was available.
Sky Hopinka, who is an amazing filmmaker in his own right — he spent time growing up in the Lummi Nation, and that’s not his tribe, but he grew up there. So he really helped us make connections to folks there when we were on the ground in 2016. And there’s just that cultural sensitivity and nuance. You don’t have to explain to another person who is also Indigenous about those types of protocol, so that was really important to me.
TSD: Kendra is a producer on the film — was she a producer from the get-go, or did that come about after the movie started? How did her input behind the camera affect the way the story unfolded?
BS: Kendra has been involved with the project since the beginning. She was very brave — being open to having cameras following her around and sound equipment and that whole kind of rigmarole that can be intimidating. I think as an actor, she’s a little bit more immune to having a camera around because she’s used to it.
As far as her involvement, journalistic integrity has always been really important [to me], and while she did give us some feedback on the cuts, ultimately I always had final cut and final say on what the final film was. And I think Kendra actually pushed for my perspective to be included in the film. At one point, we didn’t have my drop-in voiceover moments, giving context to where the film was going, and she was part of my team that was like, “No, Brooke, we really need to have your perspective in there.” And I think that’s actually one of the strongest pieces of the film — that dialogue between the two of us.
TSD: Midway through the documentary, there’s one of these voiceover moments, in which you describe your discomfort about filming Kendra’s intensely personal journey. Did you ever consider not continuing the film?
BS: I didn’t have thoughts about stopping. When I start a project, it’s very rare for me to not finish it in some capacity. And so I always knew we had to finish the film — not to mention the fact that we got major funding from our producing partner, Vision Maker Media, to do the film, so we’re contractually obligated at that point.
But what I was mainly uncomfortable about was how much documentary influences people’s lives. Having a camera in the room is always going to change things; it’s just going to change reality. That idea of this pure documentary where you have a camera on the wall and it’s not going to change something — I don’t believe that’s true. As soon as people know they’re being watched by a camera or another person, the dynamic changes. And so there was something about that where I started thinking more about it and just feeling weird.
TSD: In the film, you mention that this is Kendra’s story, not your own. But I’m curious: has following her story over the years changed the way that you think about your own heritage and upbringing?
BS: Absolutely. Since starting filming with her, I moved back to Montana because I had been living in New York City while I was working on my graduate degree. And when I came back home to Montana — and specifically to the Flathead Reservation, which is where I spent some of my formative years and childhood — it was nice to be able to reconnect with family here and with some of our cultural teachings and traditions and things that we do around here that I wouldn’t have had the ability to do had I stayed in New York City. I mean, you can do it, but it’s harder when you’re not living around here. And I felt like I was witnessing Kendra going through an identity journey that I experienced in my early college years, a time when you’re really cementing who you are as a person.
TSD: On the topic of college — do you have any favorite memories of your time at Stanford?
BS: Oh my gosh, I mean, so many. I really loved my time at Stanford. It was the first time I felt there were so many of my peers that I could identify with — from my friends in the Stanford American Indian Organization (SAIO) to my friends in my dorm. I just felt like there were so many possibilities, and it’s an exciting time in your life to try things out and see if they’re right for you.
I had an amazing mentor while I was a psychology major: Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, now at the University of Michigan. She and Dr. Hazel Markus were my advisors when I was working on my senior thesis about the effects of media on Native people’s health beliefs. Steph’s research was on stereotypes and how they have negative effects on Indigenous youth. That was a really cool experience — to be able to work with her and help her as this little research lab assistant, doing coding and all of the small things you do when you have a work-study job.
I was part of Stanford Gaieties, which was so fun, and involved with SAIO. Drawing for housing was always a drama-filled time — but also fun. I got to do a study abroad for two quarters in Paris, which was really amazing. It was a really great time.
TSD: How did you first get interested in film?
BS: When I came to Stanford, there wasn’t a film program at the time. There was an art history major, but I was like, “Oh, I should do something practical, something that would give me a job.” Little did I realize that there’s a lot of schooling that you have to do if you want to become a psychologist — I mean, I kind of knew that, but also didn’t totally understand that. So, when I was doing all this research and getting further into my psychology degree, somewhere along the way I realized it wasn’t my passion. And I was having way more fun taking these elective film classes, and doing really well in those classes, and thinking, “Maybe I could actually try to do this as a career.” And a good friend of mine at Stanford was like, “You should apply to film school.” And so I did.
TSD: Do you have any advice for Native students at Stanford, and for Native filmmakers?
I think, for Indigenous students at Stanford, it can be a big culture shock coming to the campus. Not always — but, for me, there was a bit of a culture shock. There’s so many people from so many different backgrounds, and that can be a lot to navigate, depending on where the student is from. So I think it’s just being strong in your identity and feeling good about where you come from because everybody has a story to offer.
Right now is a really exciting time for Native filmmakers — it seems like the industry is actually taking us seriously. Just keep pushing and do as much as you can to make the best work that you can.
TSD: Finally, returning to “Daughter of a Lost Bird,” what do you hope audiences take away from the film?
BS: I hope that they’re going to learn something, that they’re going to learn a little bit more about the history of the United States and how it can affect an individual. We made a character-driven story to give that emotional impact because, when you’re reading history, sometimes you’re not always aware of how impactful that is on a person’s life. So that’s part of it, but [I also hope the film will] help people better understand the importance of the Indian Child Welfare Act. It’s currently being challenged yet again in the court, in the Supreme Court, which is really a shame for multiple reasons. That’s part of some larger impact goals that we have for the film as it continues to make the festival circuit, and as we gear up for national broadcast.
TSD: Final question: What’s next for you?
BS: I’m moving back into fiction, and I’m writing a feature film script. I have a writing partner, and we also have this TV pilot that we’re working to find partners with and pitch around Hollywood.
“Daughter of a Lost Bird” was screened virtually at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival on Sunday.