The Glacier Reporter was one of the local news outlets that reported on the 1964 flood on the Blackfeet Reservation.
The Glacier Reporter (via Blackfeet Community College Library archives)

“We never talked.”

“I’ve never told anyone before.”

“No one wanted to know.”

Again and again, survivors of the worst natural disaster in Montana history told us stories they had told no others, stories that went untold even within the close-knit families on the Blackfeet Reservation. In June 1964, heavy rain had led to the collapse of two dams and the deaths of 31 people. Houses were swept away, bodies lay hidden under a seal of fine silt and glacial rock. Some of the dead have never been found. The scars on the landscape and the people ran decades deep. So did the silence.

When we arrived in 2013, the survivors began sharing their stories with us — two white filmmakers. Why?

As outsiders producing a documentary film on a tragic moment in Blackfeet history, we placed ourselves in the midst of a distinctly Native story. We convinced ourselves that we were trained and positioned to tell this story with the utmost care. We received permission from tribal leaders to film. We partnered with Blackfeet videographers and Native producers, as well as Vision Maker Media and ITVS. We had both worked in Native communities for many years.

Butch New Breast on his ranch just west of Browning, Montana
Butch New Breast on his ranch on the Blackfeet Reservation. He still rides Birch Creek looking for the bodies of his mother and sister, swept away by the wall of water during the 1964 flood.
Photo Courtesy Of Torsten Kjellstrand

Even so, the film we produced comes from our perspectives as outsiders. We conducted dozens of interviews, pored through newspaper and government archives, and traveled across thousands of miles of roads in north central Montana. Then - in consultation with Native producers - we built a narrative from those pieces. We are convinced that other filmmakers may look at the same source material and compose another narrative entirely.

Such is the nature of storytelling. Stories, after all, are the connection of disparate data points into a narrative line. It is done on a daily basis without our recognition. We are fed these narratives, and they can coalesce into something unseemly and false.

There are two main lessons we drew from this experience: the media world needs more Native storytellers, and non-Native storytellers must do a better job of understanding the communities they cover. As educators who teach at public universities in the Pacific Northwest, we are empowered to help early-career Native journalists but we need more students coming through these programs and we need more opportunities for our graduates — not just in tribal media, but in all media.

In addition, non-Native filmmakers must acknowledge that the dominant narrative of Native peoples is rooted in myth, stereotypes, and falsehoods. Too often, allied filmmakers — even those with the best intentions - traffic in negative stereotypes intended to raise support for Native groups, or have presented idealized versions of the “noble savage” trapped in the past. Reclaiming Native Truth, a landmark project that examined public perceptions about indigenous peoples, has called for a narrative change, seeking a more comprehensive, modern and true representation of life for Native peoples.

Eloise England's children still raise cattle along Birch Creek
Eloise England's children still raise cattle on the ranch they moved to after the flood washed away most of their belongings.
Photo Courtesy Of Torsten Kjellstrand

As a natural byproduct of these dominant narratives, we often encountered deep and well-founded distrust of outside filmmakers like us. Before a conversation could begin, we found ourselves answering questions first: Who are you? Who is your family? What precisely do you want from me? Why are you asking these questions now?

And what was the story we were going to tell?

We know the simple story is often the most dangerous. As storytellers, we are selfish, seeking neat and packaged narratives that are often too neat and too packaged. We must fight continuously against our own self-interest, against the temptation to view another’s story as the means to our own ends. It is a far more common and unseemly motivation than we like to acknowledge. It has a particularly nasty history in the stories told about Native peoples.

Cultural anthropologists discuss two approaches that provide insight to modern journalism: the emic and the etic. Emic stories are often simplified as the insider’s perspective, with special consideration to the cultural distinctions of members within that community. Etic views are from the outsider’s perspective, positioned as an objective third party. Those approaches are fluid rather than static distinctions in the media world: Outsiders can endeavor to understand another’s condition, collecting not just the single story but approaching the story as a collaboration that represents the complexities of reality.

Naomi "Omie" Crawford at home
Naomi "Omie" Crawford at home in her home in Heart Butte, Montana on the Blackfeet Reservation.
Photo Courtesy Of Torsten Kjellstrand

We reject the idea that any of us should only make films about people who are just like us. Storytelling is necessarily an act of projected empathy and imagination that has the capacity to help us see each other in more human terms. In this way, telling stories across cultures is necessary to understanding. But it is also fraught with problems, especially when the filmmakers are on the power side of a relationship that has traditionally brought so much pain and devastation to Native communities. We worked on this film because no one had recorded the stories, because we showed up when the stories were ready to be told, and because we repeatedly were asked to continue telling the stories. By working with the community, we hope that the stories are honest, respectful, and add understanding to our viewers, most of whom are not Native.

But it is essential that others tell these stories as well, so that stories become democratized rather than totalitarian. If there were more Native voices in filmmaking we would see more Native characters with rich, complicated lives at the center of stories. We would see stars instead of sidekicks. We wouldn’t see a monolithic “Native,” but we would see Blackfeet, Coeur d’Alene, Siletz, Cayuse, Athabaskan, Sugpiat, Cheyenne, Cree, Navajo people, living lives full of the tensions, disappointments, pride, joy and story that inhabit all lives. We need Native stories made by Native people – documentaries, feature films, comedies, tragedies, game shows, reality television – so that we can see and hear the complex ways of being and seeing. For those of us who sometimes make films with Native communities, we need to continue the hard and humbling work of getting past the many stereotypes and hidden expectations we have for Native stories.

We ended many of our interviews with the flood’s survivors with a simple but essential question: In your mind, what is the story of the flood? What is your narrative? It is the opening to a much longer conversation.

Article contribued by filmmakers Benjamin Shors and Torsten Kjellstrand. "The Blackfeet Flood" premiered on WORLD Channel's Local, USA Monday, Nov. 25 at 9pm ET/8cpm CT. Streaming is available at and on WORLD Channel's YouTube Channel.