Mat Hames is a filmmaker who is more interested in raising questions than giving answers. That much is clear from the titles of his films, like 2010 documentary When I Rise, and his latest documentary, What Was Ours.

Hames runs a nonfiction production company, Alpheus Media in Austin, with his wife Beth Hames, executive producer and co-founder, and Wilson Waggoner. His films range in subject material, but he gravitates toward the socio-political arena. As he puts it, “We like making films that can help bring positive change to the subject’s life, so we seek out stories we can tell which have a chance to help someone.”

In 2011, Wyoming PBS asked for Hames’ help with a digital archive of ancestral objects from the Arapaho and Shoshone tribes who live in the state. During the filming, he saw an opportunity to make a larger feature. “After the archive project I just couldn’t quit,” he says. “I came to understand that the elders wanted an archive, but were unhappy that their ancestors’ artifacts were in storage far away. With their blessing and tribal council permission I started filming lots of interviews.” Fortunately, Geoffrey O’Gara, who wrote the book What You See in Clear Water: Indians, Whites, and a Battle Over Water in the American West, introduced Hames to Jordan Dresser, a Northern Arapaho journalist who had started working on creating a small museum for the Arapaho people.

Over a period of four years, What Was Ours shaped into a film that traces the sacred tribal objects in The Field Museum in Chicago, where Dresser, powwow princess Mikala SunRhodes, a Vietnam vet and tribal elder Philbert McLeod raise questions around their cultural history.

What Was Ours explores the question: Who does the past, present and future belong to? Appropriation is among the heated topics in dicussion. “The documentary became about Philbert, Jordan and Mikala’s journey to recover objects and their response to the things that have been boxed away,” says Hames.

What Was Ours director and producer Mat Hames

The film has been a positive contributor to the conversation about the importance of native people making decisions about who owns and controls their culture. It won the Best Documentary Award at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco, as well as Best of Class X and Best Film at SWAIA, the Santa Fe Indian Market. The film also won the Western Heritage Award for Best Documentary, presented by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum to honor work in literature, music, film and television that feature the American West. The film screened at 11 festivals in the U.S., including the Salem Film Festival earlier this month, as well as in Canada and Greece. However, says Hames, “the most important audience for the film were the people of Wind River, as it’s their story.” The film screened at reservations in Wyoming to around 1,600 audience members.

William Paul Smith, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What was it like to enter a Native American community as an outsider? How were you able to establish agency with the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes?

Mat Hames (MH): I felt very accepted by people on the reservation. It’s very hard to put it into words. I tried to be open to encountering things that I didn’t understand or that were bigger than myself. I stayed focused on Jordan, Mikala and Philbert, their extended families and the unfolding of events. After a few years, it just felt like going and visiting friends and their families. A few non-native people who lived in the towns off the reservation were sometimes discouraging. I heard a few comments like, “Good luck with that!” when I tried to explain what I was doing. It took a few trips before I fully grasped the racism that exists off the reservation, and that made me a bit more self-conscious. I think just taking time, not trying to helicopter in and back out, but really showing that I was dedicated to listening over a period of years helped.

MM: Were there any discoveries about the topic of appropriation that might expand the conversation further; anything specific in terms of Native American communities and their sacred objects?

MH: If you look at the bigger picture of these collections, many objects were fairly purchased, but purchased under duress. Many others were dug up from graves or gained by going to battlefields. That shocked me, although, sadly, it probably shouldn’t. But not every museum, in my opinion, is evil. I think places like the Field Museum actually have been way ahead of the curve in inviting tribes to co-curate, or repatriating items the tribe wants. On the Wind River Reservation, there is a vibrant culture among Shoshone and Arapaho, and new objects are constantly being created that reflect who they are today. Even words like “artifact” have connotations that are colonial. Not everything in the past; each tribe has a thriving current identity. At times, museums present the past but don’t allow visitors to know who Native Americans are today. I think in terms of sacred objects, it bothers me to see them boxed away, but I think an elder of either tribe should comment. It’s not for me to say.

Northern Arapaho regalia hand-beaded in the traditional style in What Was Ours

MM: What type of film crew did you need to make What Was Ours? Can you describe a typical day of shooting?

MH: Every day was a bit different, and we filmed there during all the seasons. Out on the reservation, I usually had a very small film crew: myself and a camera person who also handled sound. A few times we were lucky to have a coordinator or assistant. Later on, for a few bigger events like powwows, we brought a second camera person along and also a sound person [and] location manager. When filming artifacts, it was sensitive and important for us to work with the elders to understand the boundaries of what was OK to film and what wasn’t. Also it was important that the business council and Tribal Fish and Wildlife knew when we were there filming, so I always gave them a call before making any travel plans, and then I worked closely with Jordan Dresser, who was also our co-producer.

MM: Considering this project took four years to make, did your equipment choices change or remain the same throughout?

MH: Yes, the cameras changed over time. I was fortunate to work with two great cinematographers, Wilson Waggoner and David Layton. Each of them used a similar lens package including Zeiss Prime lenses. When Wilson wasn’t available, David would go, and visa versa. Occasionally I would film a few things with a DSLR. We began the project in 2012 filming with a Panasonic AF100 as the main camera; over time we started using a 7D, then a 5D Mark III, then a C100, and then Wilson got a Sony F55 which was a huge boost in quality. I love that camera. Our colorist Daniel Stuyck took on the challenge of grading all of those cameras to match each other.

MM: Can you talk a little bit about your lens choices?

MH: For What Was Ours I was intrigued with the look of tilt-shift effects for thematic reasons. Tilt-shift allows you to blur a part of the image while bringing another part into sharp focus. There are actually a few reasons I wanted to use tilt-shift lenses for this film. It fit the theme of the film, which is all about perspective and who has the control over the perspective. The second reason is that I felt that on the Wind River Reservation, there was much to take in, but much of it wasn’t necessarily meant to be understood by a non-native. So we would shoot panoramas but have part of the focus blurred out. Finally, I liked it because I was shifting my own perspective as I got to know the people of Wind River. We usually used prime wide lenses on the interviews, with a slight tilt-shift effect. I didn’t want to stage things but wanted to see more context that I wasn’t controlling.

MM: I’m interested in your choice to use found footage and how that worked its way into the film.

MH: Philbert loved to hunt and so I asked if we could go with him to a spot he likes to hunt. We followed him down a lot of icy roads into a pretty remote area that was pretty much frozen. He talked about his experience in Vietnam and then surprised me by telling me a story of a beaded medallion that he took with him, which came from a Shoshone elder. Philbert got pretty emotional, standing there in the snow, and brought his medallion out of his pocket and showed it to us. As we rode back home he told me he had footage that he had filmed himself in Vietnam on a Super 8 camera and asked if I’d like to see it. The footage was amazing and I used it in the film because it gave us a raw first-person perspective.

Elk hunting with Philbert McCleod, Shoshone Elder, on the Wind River Indian Reservation

MM: Can you tell us about your relationship with PBS? And what was the funding process like?

MH: My 2006 documentary, Last Best Hope, aired on PBS nationally after KLRU-TV in Austin shared a rough cut with them. Later, When I Rise premiered at SXSW, and Independent Lens approached me after the screening.

Our budget wasn’t enough. After the Wyoming PBS project was completed, I financed the shoots out of my own pocket, applying for grants simultaneously. In the end, the wonderful people at Vision Maker Media offered us a grant, and then ITVS Open Call funding made it possible to complete the film. It was a very tough road. I applied for many grants that I didn’t get but I just refused to give up and pushed forward in the hopes that funding would come in. Always try to get notes from grants you don’t get, even if they are painful to listen to. Listen to feedback, but don’t over-correct based on notes.

MM: What type of research took place for the project?

MH: Geoff O’Gara’s book was wonderful. I read Arapahoe Politics by Loretta Fowler, People of the Wind River: The Eastern Shoshones by Henry Stamm, as well as several other books. My research also included going into archives at the University of Wyoming, The National Archives and other collections. But the bulk of research was in talking to people on the reservation, like John Washakie, William C’Hair, Starr Weed and others. I asked several members from the reservation to serve in advisory roles, formally and informally. I felt very encouraged by the tribes to move forward, but it was extremely important to always listen to the elders.

MM: What did you feel, ultimately, was most important to address in your film?

MH: The biggest question I asked myself is how to frame this story. I would say that nobody on the reservation necessarily wanted to be the main character in a documentary, or was seeking attention. So I arrived at the idea of three main characters who in a way are three strands of one story. I wanted to make a film that showed the past, present and future of the Wind River Reservation. Philbert, Jordan and Mikala represent each. Given the place and the specific community, it felt natural to weave three stories together to tell a larger story. Ginny Patrick, our editor at Alpheus, was a huge help in structuring this approach.

MM: Can you explain your editing process? How did you develop the story and characters? Was there anything you wanted to address but couldn’t?

MH: We shot and edited simultaneously. In Austin, I’m lucky to have a lot of talented editors to collaborate with. Ginny and I were the consistent editors on the film, and at other times we brought in others to help us: Leah Marino, Heather Courtney, Sandra Guardado and Greg Wright. Weaving three characters’ stories together was the biggest challenge of the entire production, and there is a fourth main character, which is Wind River itself.

I would have liked to have provided more context in the film for how other tribes, like the Saginaw Chippewa in Michigan, have returned artifacts and remains and opened the Ziibiwing Center, a wonderful tribal museum. There are many amazing tribal cultural centers that I wish we could’ve included.

Filming Northern Arapaho children for What Was Ours

MM: Is there any advice you’d like to give to young filmmaker pursing their careers?

MH: If you believe in the project, don’t give up. Write and re-write a treatment, keep refining it. I think a treatment—even if it’s a documentary—helps you get your mind clear about what you’ve shot so far and how it might all work together. Read a lot of books—fiction, history, nonfiction. To me that’s as important or more important than consuming a lot of other documentary content. Films that are only 60- or 90-minutes long unfortunately can’t always include all the historical context, but the filmmaker needs to know it, as it will infuse itself into the story. Try to understand what humans were going through when they made big decisions in the past. Read things that might seem to have nothing to do with film, just to take your head into another time and place. MM

What Was Ours aired on PBS in January 2017. It is now available on DVD or Blu-ray. All images courtesy of Alpheus Media.