Arts & Culture 

A future comes into focus

For Diné film student Tinia Witherspoon, telling her own story was a critical component of her education. Now she’ll use her skills to tell the stories of her community in the Navajo Nation.

While looking through the viewfinder of a video camera to capture the past, Diné student Tinia Witherspoon saw her future. Witherspoon is on track to graduate in 2023 with bachelor’s degrees in Psychology and Creative Media and Film. And while psychology is an interest, film is her true passion. She discovered her love for it almost by accident, early in her college experience.

A family emergency had called her home to the Navajo Nation from the college she was attending in Colorado, where she had just begun her psychology studies. While at home, she received a call from one of her old teachers, asking for help with a middle school project.

“It was a film shoot about honoring our elders. It involved kids from Rocky Ridge Boarding School [in Kykotsmovi, Arizona,] going out into the community and sitting and getting oral history stories about recent events, the Navajo and Hopi land dispute, their take on climate change, and just whatever they chose to give feedback on,” Witherspoon said. “And that experience of going there, and sitting with my elders, it was the first time that I was able to take in all this information that was just being lost.”

Telling stories through film

Over the course of the project, Witherspoon fell in love with film. She transferred colleges to attend the NAU School of Communication’s Creative Media and Film program, with the ultimate goal of documenting the oral histories that, until now, have only lived in the minds of her elders. “I thought, this is a medium I can use to learn about my own history and culture and to try and do some of that preservation. That experience intrigued me enough to want to try and better my film skills.”

It was OK for me to communicate my story as a student, as an Indigenous student. …And that was everything for me.

Before telling her community’s stories, however, she had to tell her own.

Witherspoon had grown up in tiny Hardrock, Arizona, and then spent a short time at a small college in Colorado. The transition to Flagstaff and NAU came with challenges. “It took some adjusting,” she said.

Witherspoon’s hard work experienced a setback while working on a project for a documentary film production. Her project was focused on mud and its impact on daily life in the Navajo Nation. During times of rain and snow, the roads, mostly unpaved, become impossible to navigate: kids can’t get to school, adults can’t get to work, and emergency vehicles, already in for long trips to and from medical centers, are often unable to transport patients at all. For Witherspoon, getting footage was difficult—not just because of the mud, but also because of the distance she was traveling for filming, all while trying to keep up with her other coursework.

Once shooting wrapped for the project, Witherspoon’s return to campus was a slow, hazardous trek through snow and ice. Despite her best efforts, distance, road conditions, and lack of internet access on the reservation had prevented her from meeting an academic deadline. By the time she was able to get back to campus, she was behind on a project for another course, so she asked her teacher for an extension. Without understanding the unique transportation challenges of the region, the professor denied her request during class time.

 “I was embarrassed because I just asked to be given more time with an assignment,” she said. “It just made me realize that there was a culture clash there. It made me feel like a failure, like I didn’t belong.”

Witherspoon was crushed. But then another teacher, Communication and Journalism Lecturer Rachel (Tso) Cox, stepped in and encouraged her to use the tools she had amassed to tell her own story.

“Rachel Tso, she pushed me to tell my own story of conflict at that time, even if it was with the larger institution that I’m attending. Being told to lean into that, to lean into something like a struggle that tends to be unique for Indigenous students, it helped me feel more welcomed in that space, rather than isolated for that same reason.”

Telling her story

The film she finished, “Medicine and Obligations,” tells Witherspoon’s story of frustration with her institution, using tools provided by that very same institution. In a series of interviews, she asks Indigenous students to talk about the unique pressures they face balancing cultural and familial responsibilities at home with the demands of higher education.

The Native American Cultural Center on campus was instrumental in helping Witherspoon find both support and interview subjects. “I appreciate the fact that there’s a Native American Cultural Center,” she said. “It’s a place where I’m more likely to run into someone who has an understanding of my culture, where there are huge ties to respecting your clan ties and things like that.”

“Medicine and Obligations” was screened at the Arizona Women’s Film Festival and Indigenous Film Festival, a great accomplishment for Witherspoon. But more importantly, she said, “I’ve had a lot of friends at different institutions ask to use this video to communicate to staff that this is happening here, too.” As a result of Witherspoon’s determination to tell her story, her film has become a tool to teach cultural competency to educators around the country. By telling her story, she found liberation.

Cox, and other supportive professors like Associate Professor of Psychological Sciences Chad Woodruff, taught her some important lessons: “It was OK to have a perspective that deviated from what would be considered the norm. It was OK for me to communicate my story as a student, as an Indigenous student here at your institution, and to say certain things and actually be received. And that was everything for me.”

By speaking up, she inspired conversation and introspection about empathy and understanding in an area where cultures intersect. As an Indigenous student, she said, “You tend not to have instructors that look like you or relate to the place you come from. And I feel like [the film] opens a wider conversation about what it means to be so close to this population of Indigenous people. I think having that hard conversation helps the institution to go in a better direction.”

For the future, she hopes the conversation on campus continues with more efforts to amplify the voices of Indigenous students. “Maybe having something actually held within the Native American Cultural Center. Indigenous students—if you really do want to hear what they have to say—what better place to give them a voice?”

To that end, she was pleased to see President Cruz Rivera inside the Native American Cultural Center for an address to the Lumberjack community. “A gesture like that is important,” she said. “It says something.”

As for Witherspoon’s plans moving forward: she has her eyes on a master’s degree in film, followed by a return to the Navajo Nation, where she can get to work telling the stories of her community.