The city of Missoula sits on Salish land, and Montana is home to twelve tribal nations and seven Indian reservations, each with its own culture, language, identity, and history. Uniquely located to elevate Native voices, Big Sky Documentary Film Festival has a long tradition of celebrating Indigenous documentary film, stories from Indian Country and expressions of American Indian filmmakers. 

In 2018, the Big Sky Film Institute is proud to introduce the Native Filmmaker Initiative to bring more Indigenous stories to the festival, support and engage the American Indian media arts community and have a greater impact on community youth. The initiative includes special festival programming, educational outreach, a digital toolkit curated for Native filmmakers, and a fellowship program.


The Native Filmmaker Fellowship offers four filmmakers the opportunity to attend the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, DocShop filmmaker's forum, and a private seminar with leaders in the Indigenous filmmaking community and the film industry at large. The fellows will also automatically qualify to participate in the 4th World Media Lab at the Seattle International Film Festival in May 2018.

Big Sky Film Institute is proud to announce the 2018 Native Filmmaker Fellows:


Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota/Diné
Leya Hale is an American Indian documentary filmmaker and an Associate Producer for TPT-Twin Cities PBS. In 2013, she co-produced The Past Is Alive Within Us: The U.S.-Dakota Conflict, an Upper Midwest Emmy Award-winner for Best Historical Documentary. In 2016 Reclaiming Sacred Tobacco was her TPT directorial debut and was an official selection at the American Indian Film Festival, a nominee for Best Public Service Documentary, a nominee for Best Short Documentary at the Red Nation Film Festival, and winner of the 2017 Upper Midwest Emmy Award for Best Topical Documentary. Her portfolio also includes Black Brilliance (2015), and her most recent productions, Climate Smart: Cities Working Together airing in February 2018 on TPT, and a Vision Maker Media-funded documentary, The People’s Protectors, airing in the Fall of 2018. In addition, she was selected as one of four Knight Fellows for the 2017 John S. and James L. Knight Foundation through the Sundance Film Institute. Leya continues to work on a variety of local content documentaries in an effort to create social change within Minnesota communities.

Alex is a Cree filmmaker whose work has screened at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) and at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. She has received funding from BravoFact, CBC and the Canada Arts Council and has had her films screen at festivals around the world, in her work she continues to try and tell the stories of Indigenous people. 

Native Hawaiian/Kānaka Maoli
Christen Hepuakoa Marquez holds a BFA in Film and Video Production from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her work has been supported by Cal Humanities, The Independent Television Service (ITVS), and Pacific Islanders in Communications. Since 2013 she has been working as a Producer and Videographer in broadcast Television and online content creating non-fiction and docu-style content for Discovery, Nat Geo, PBS, and Film45. Christen is committed to producing character driven documentaries and covering social justice issues throughout the world. Her greatest area of interest is for stories from the indigenous people of the Pacific and their diaspora. She is currently Producing a feature documentary titled "Belly of the Beast" which has been supported by The Tribeca Film Institute's Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, and the Pacific Pioneer Fund amount others. She is also Directing and Producing a feature documentary titled "The Ninth Island" about the Native Hawaiian diaspora in Las Vegas, Nevada, which is currently in development.

Choctaw Nation
Colleen Thurston is a media producer and film programmer from Tulsa, Oklahoma. She holds a degree from the University of Arizona in Media Arts and Anthropology, and earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Science and Natural History Filmmaking from Montana State University, where she also completed a graduate certificate in Native American Studies. Specializing in short form documentary production, she has worked for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Channel, as well as in freelance production positions for other non governmental organizations. For the past two years, Colleen has been producing short documentaries for the Cherokee Nation’s television show, Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People. She is a two-time Heartland Emmy Award winner for her work as a producer and writer for the show.


Each year, BSDFF screens a selection of impactful documentaries made by and about Native peoples. Our mission is to bring stories from across the globe to our beautiful mountain town, create a vibrant, quality event that gathers our engaged community and expand conversation around ideas that matter. Indigenous stories and storytellers are paramount to this conversation, and the Native Filmmaker Initiative seeks to elevate the role of Native documentary filmmakers, their perspectives and artistic expressions, in this dialogue.

Official selections in the 2018 Native Filmmaker Intitiative Strand include:

THE BLACK WOLF - Trevor Solway
KEEP TALKING - Karen Lynn Weinberg
LADY EVA - Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson, Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu
MORE THAN A WORD - Kenn Little, John Little
OUT OF STATE - Ciara Lacy
WATER IS LIFE - Joseph Erb
WE BREATHE AGAIN - Marsh Chamberlain, Enei Begaye Peter, Ryan Jacobi, Evon Peter


To accompany these new programs, BSFI is in the process of curating a digital resource and toolkit where Native filmmakers, storytellers of Native narratives and interested movie-goers can learn more about the history and opportunities in American Indian media. The resource center will feature materials from the National Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian (NMAI), the University of Montana Native American Studies department, and Vision Maker Media, which works with Native producers to develop, produce and distribute educational telecommunications programs for all media including public television and public radio. This digital resource will also include materials on filmmaking and getting work into festivals, to promote and encourage filmmaking as a vocation.

This feature will debut following the 2018 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. Interested in contributing? Email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


An important part of the Big Sky Film Institute’s mission is bringing our global and educational stories to the next generation. Each year during the BSDFF we bring our quality programming into classrooms with our Filmmakers in the Schools program, in which have special in-school screening of age-appropriate documentaries followed by a discussion with the filmmaker. A part of our NFI educational outreach program will be to bring Indigenous content and films from Native American filmmakers into classrooms, giving students the unique opportunity to dive in deeper into the content of the films by voicing questions and talking with the filmmakers themselves.

In partnership with Inspired Classroom, BSFI is working to become a resource for schools to gain access to educational films about American Indian culture and films produced by Native filmmakers. BSFI is acquiring educational content, including films with classroom guides and curricula, and working with educators to bring this content into classrooms in the fall of 2017. During the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Native filmmakers will be featured in the Filmmakers in the Schools program, sending filmmakers to classrooms in the Missoula area as well as virtually via video conferencing technology, to discuss their films with middle and high-school age students.


The Big Sky Native Filmmaker Initiative is funded in part by a FilmWatch Grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences