Tsanavi Spoonhunter is an award-winning film director. Her documentary Crow Country: Our Right To Food Sovereignty was recently awarded best documentary short by the American Indian Film Festival. The film profiles tribal members of the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana and their struggles to retain food security.
The Crow Indian Reservation is the largest reservation in Montana, stretched across 2.2 million acres and home to nearly 8,000 Crow (Apsáalooke) tribal members.
The reservation has endured devastating federal decisions and community misfortunes. In 2017, the Crow Agency, the headquarters of the Crow Tribe of Montana, laid off 1,000 of its 1,300 employees due to government cutbacks. In 2019, the community’s only grocery store burned to the ground. Director Tsanavi Spoonhunter says these are some of the reasons why the members of this reservation struggle to make ends meet.
“A lot of families are relying on subsistence hunting, where they get most of their protein from wild game,” Spoonhunter said. “There is still no grocery store on the reservation, and on the Crow Reservation, the economics aren’t very good for the tribe. So a lot of times, unemployment is really high, so it’s even more of a struggle for families and individuals to be able to provide for themselves and their families.”
Spoonhunter said the Crow Tribe is just one of the many tribes that are 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 and nutritious foods, but state restrictions on ancestral hunting grounds prevent them from providing for their families.
Spoonhunter spent nearly 10 months on this documentary. After extensive research and time spent on the reservation, her work culminated in a 20-minute story following Crow tribal members.
“You do have to have a certain amount of respect when you’re going into a community that you are unfamiliar with. You do have to take those extra steps to become familiar with that group of people.”
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One of the film’s main characters is Peggy White Well Known Buffalo. White is an enrolled member of the Crow Tribe and the co-owner of The Center Pole, a Native nonprofit. The Center Pole is a hub for Native resources, providing a food bank, food delivery and even a radio show for tribal members to tell their own stories.
Every morning, White sets off on a one-hour drive to Billings, Montana, to gather recovery foods, which are foods on the edge of reaching an expiration date. She then takes those foods and distributes them across the reservation.
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. He relies on subsistence hunting.
“He described how many people do rely on hunting and how important it is not only for their protein but for their culture,” Spoonhunter said. “They use elk for a lot of decoration on their traditional attire.”
Spoonhunter said she wants viewers to walk away understanding that Native people are not a token of the past.
“We are not this romanticized idea that people have primed in their minds from the film industry and Hollywood,” Spoonhunter said. “We are real people with real current issues, and we are resilient people because a lot of these issues stem from things that happened. What the government did in the 1800s, putting us on reservations, and how we have continued to survive and thrive. … Seeing the beauty of these communities but also understanding the issues.”
Tsanavi Spoonhunter is a descendant of Northern Paiute, Lakota and Northern Arapaho Nations. Most of her storytelling focuses on the 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.
Her film has received two awards since its premiere, including the Mint Film Festival’s documentary award for best made-in-Montana film. Spoonhunter directed and filmed this award-winning film during her time as 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 exhibition next year.