‘I’ve had a love-hate relationship with [film] throughout my life. There’s so much corporate media and mass-produced, fast, easy-consumable stuff, and that’s not for me.
But when I can be in charge of the story that’s being told and the way that we’re portraying it, then I love it.’
When Ivey-Camille ManyBeads Tso was in fifth grade at school in Flagstaff, Arizona, a teacher made her sit at a separate table along with all the other Indigenous Navajo students. ‘She gave us all third-grade homework because she didn’t think we could do anything higher than that. It’s a border town; there’s just a lot of racism,’ she says.
‘The teacher also refused to let me test [for] the gifted programme because, she said, it would be impossible for me to be a gifted student.’ However, a short while later, aged just 13, Ivey-Camille made a film that won 11 awards and was shown in 90 film festivals.
Now 27, Ivey-Camille has just released the multi-award winning Powerlands, a stunning and devastating film documenting Indigenous resistance to the dispossession and pollution of their lands by multinational companies in Navajo County (Arizona), Colombia and the Philippines.
‘I started off with the simple idea that as Indigenous people we feel so isolated and alone oftentimes during this resistance,’ says Ivey-Camille. ‘The whole purpose was to show people that they’re not alone and all of us collectively can make a massive impact.’
Ivey-Camille spent her early years on a reservation – Black Mesa in the Navajo Nation. She lived with her grandmother, parents, her father’s seven siblings, their spouses and children in three hogans (eight-sided traditional buildings) and a two-roomed main house. ‘There were 30-plus people and we all just piled in,’ she says. When she was three-years old, she moved with her parents to Berkeley, and then on to Flagstaff, a town about one-and-a-half-hour’s drive from the reservation. She still lives there today.
I ask her what it was like to grow up as a Navajo in Arizona. ‘The United States are racist,’ she replies. ‘So, depending on where you are in the States, your type of brown might be accepted or it may not. If you’re close to res [reservation], then that border town tends to hate whatever native tribe is in that area. Growing up, I heard a lot of derogatory things thrown my way. I got told “Oh you’re going to be an alcoholic because you’re native”. It was just constant.’
I started off with the simple idea that
as Indigenous people we feel so isolated
and alone in our resistance. The whole
purpose was to show that all of us
collectively can make a massive impact
She remembers coming home from school one day, aged four or five, and telling her mother that she had stopped speaking Navajo. Racist bullying was the most likely reason, but she says: ‘I don’t really know what happened, it’s kind of a black spot in my memory.’ Navajo was her first language and she’s re-learning it now.
But Ivey-Camille says she always had family and friends to rely on. She had lots of cousins and aunties living in Flagstaff, and she’s still close to her old schoolfriends with whom she endured playground racism: ‘We bonded and stood together when we needed to.’
Family is clearly important to her. Powerlands is inspired by the example of her grandmother, who spent years struggling against Peabody Coal and BHP, corporations that began mining on Navajo lands 40 years ago. ‘She’s a badass lady,’ says Ivey-Camille. ‘She has marched on Washington. She has pulled up fenceposts. She’s gone toe-to-toe with multiple rangers. She taught me how to stand up for what I believe in.’
The film features two other inspiring women in her family: Louise Goy (her grandmother’s sister) who refused to move house to make way for mining, and Marie Gladue (her grandmother’s niece) who tends sheep as a way of preventing corporations encroaching on Navajo land.
Ivey-Camille joined a film-making workshop when she was nine years old and has been making films ever since. The idea for Powerlands emerged from a conversation with producer Jordan Flattery, who had just returned from Colombia. Ivey-Camille saw the similarities between mining’s impact on Indigenous peoples there and in Arizona. In one powerful scene a Colombian community leader sits across the table from smart-shirted representatives of Cerrejón – a giant coalmine controlled by Glencore – and describes how 427 families had been ‘uprooted’ from their homes with ‘fire and blood’.
Ivey-Camille says viewers in Europe, the US and elsewhere can help. ‘Your dollar bills are powerful. By holding these energy corporations accountable, by being like: “Hey, we want you to clean up after yourselves. When you’re done mining, pick up your shit.” That’s going to help the people in Colombia, here in Black Mesa, in the Philippines.’
She is now working on a film about her mother. ‘Film is a medium that I’ve had a love-hate relationship with throughout my life. There’s so much corporate media and mass-produced, fast, easy-consumable stuff, and that’s not for me. But when I can be in charge of the story that’s being told and the way that we’re portraying it, then I love it.’