J. Carlos Peinado


J. Carlos Peinado

He picked up his first projector and roll of film during his first job at a movie theater at age 12 and filmmaker J. Carlos Peinado hasn’t put them down since. For writer, director, producer and now professor Peinado, filmmaking is more than a passion. It’s a way of life.

“I got it really early on that the sum (of a film) is greater than the parts you put into it,” Peinado, 42, said. “And if you do it right, you can change people’s minds, change people’s lives and make them feel a little better about themselves for a couple of hours. You can sort of take them and whisk them off to another place.”

And Peinado, an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, is taking his and his family’s lives to public television this winter with a documentary about the Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara Nation. Waterbuster is a personal story about how his family and the Fort Berthold Reservation were affected by a $294 million federal damming project along the Missouri River. The largest project, the Garrison Dam, a more than two-mile long earthen structure named fifth largest of its kind in the world, forced the relocation of hundreds of Native and non-Native families in the 1940s and 50s but created hydropower for thousands in the Midwest who had no electricity at the time.

“Over 90 percent of the reservation was on the bottom land of the Missouri River and when Lake Sakagawea was constructed nine towns were displaced. They weren’t relocated to higher ground, they were relocated to cities all over the country,” Peinado said. “Then a light bulb went off in my head. I thought that was my aha moment—there is a sort of social discord going on back at Ft. Berthold because of this dam and a lot of injured lives, a lot of injured feelings, a lot of walking wounded.”

Raising money from friends and family to buy camera and gas money to drive to North Dakota from California in 2004, Peinado began on his two-year journey to show how the Garrison Dam continued to displace lives.

In the film, Peinado returns to his roots in North Dakota when a headstone is placed on his grandmother’s grave. While in Fort Berthold, he begins to search for answers to why his grandmother left the reservation when she was young, as well as the origins of his kinship within the Waterbuster Clan. In interviews with tribal members and family members who remained behind on the reservation and his research, he discovers how tribal members were like any other Americans, cheering at high school football games and dancing at sock hops, until the federal government condemned 156,000 acres without initially consulting the tribe.

“We sign this with heavy hearts,” said Tribal Chairman George Gillette in 1948. “Right now the future does not look good for us.”

With much of tribe in turmoil, many tribal members chose a federal program that promised job training in cities. Peinado’s grandmother went to Los Angeles to elude another cold winter in North Dakota. She later moved to Arizona to raise her children and later returned to the reservation.

Although Waterbuster was a personal piece, Peinado, who holds a B.A. in film and cultural anthropology from Dartmouth, admits this story wasn’t easy. He struggled with the storyline for about eight months before finding the common thread, which was the river. He also had trouble filming on the reservation in the beginning, despite his family ties. Peinado also hadn’t initially planned on being in the film until filmmakers at the Tribeca Film Institute told him that he should be center.

But now the film has been completed and shown at Tribeca and various film festivals around the nation and in Canada, Peinado hopes people who see this film not only learn about a significant time in U.S. history but understand how important it is for indigenous filmmakers to tell their own stories.

“There is a whole audience out there that we, as Native people, should be thinking about and making programming for,” he said. “There are these personal stories; these issues surrounding Indian Country.”

As for new projects, Peinado says he wants to concentrate on teaching. As head of the film department at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., a job he took over a year ago, Peinado says he is living his dream of making good film through his students.

“I’m not really interested at this point in trying to make the next great American film that everybody sees. I’m personally content asking the students to consider that they think about issues, matters and stories that are much closer to home and that people in communities would love to see about themselves,” he said.

by Kim Baca

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