2022 Changemaker Missy Whiteman: Indigenous Media Innovator

Photo Nedahness Greene

Emmy-nominated filmmaker and multimedia artist Missy Whiteman (Northern Arapaho and Kickapoo) describes her work as “a voice for [her] ancestors, their stories and wisdom.”

Drawing from her gifts as a writer, director, producer, curator, and interdisciplinary publiX artist — with the X symbolizing how Indigenous people were manipulated into signing away “public” land — Whiteman is revitalizing Indigenous stories while pushing the boundaries of filmmaking and media art.

In the 33 short films she has created throughout her career, Whiteman explores Indigenous issues and history — including missing and murdered Indigenous women, boarding schools, and the loss of culture and identity — with the unflinching gaze of a truthteller. Whiteman’s work demonstrates her intuitive understanding of the creative process as an avenue for healing and rebirth, especially when Indigenous artists come together in collaboration.

“There is so much commodification of work that an artist can’t say, ‘this is my healing project,’” Whiteman says. “But in a collective movement, there’s power in numbers and that gives us autonomy.

“This is the way we create now — we come together and use art as ceremony.”

Having grown up with a mother who was afflicted with alcoholism and a familial line of unhealed trauma stemming from the genocidal practices of Native American boarding schools, Whiteman turned to art early in her life as a way of processing suppressed emotions. As a teenager, she attended Perpich Arts High School, where she worked through grief and depression with the mentorship of her visual arts teacher Karen Munson.

Learning to communicate using visual language led Whiteman to film and media work in 2001. These early experiences also inspired empathy for artists’ struggles and a commitment to building community.

When the pandemic closed the Native film festival INDIgenesis: Indigenous Filmmakers Past and Present at the Walker Art Center, Whiteman worked with Indigenous artists, musicians, dancers, and chefs to move the event into a new dimension. At online and outdoor venues, the festival was a magical, healing space that celebrated Indigenous artists across genres.

After that, Whiteman and company knew they wanted to continue creating live experiences around art. Since 2020, Whiteman has been instrumental in creating several community-focused events — called “Expanded Cinema” — featuring original films, live painting, dance, music, and traditional storytelling.

“We need less competition as artists, period. These events are opportunities for artists to work in a less competitive setting,” Whiteman explains.

Whiteman’s most recent work of this nature premiered in August. Based on a 2017 short film, “The Coyote Way X: Expanded Cinema” included a live score, video projection, and virtual reality. The film blends sci-fi and documentary to explore traditional trickster stories. It contains no verbal dialogue, instead featuring Plains American Indian Sign Language, a centuries-old intertribal communication tool.

Whiteman believes new media can help build a creative movement from an Indigenous perspective, one that is centered in ethics. Many Expanded Cinema events have taken place outside of museum settings since white art institutions have historically commodified and disrespected Indigenous work.

When a New York Times article described Whiteman’s reservation, Wind River in Wyoming, as a dangerous place for young people, she was invited home to help her community tell their own stories. Whiteman returns to Wind River every two years to support training and creative opportunities for youth in media work.

Through the production company Whiteman launched in 2012 — Independent Indigenous Film & Media (IIFM) — she has developed a pilot mentorship project that trains older youth to mentor less experienced peers. IIFM is beginning to focus on BIPOC adult artists as well.

Whiteman often credits her late father, Arapaho visual artist Ernest Whiteman, as an influence. As a child, she spent hours creating alongside him, and Ernest encouraged his daughter to develop her own artistic vision and understand the practice of art as ceremony.

“When I decided to walk that path of creating, he said, ‘We are really lucky and we are really special.’ I didn’t quite understand that until I got older, I just thought we got to make cool art. But when my father’s brother passed away and he made art for him — that is when I started to really understand that what you create is not for exhibition or classification,” Whiteman says. “You are creating new dimensions for people.”

When her beloved father began his spirit journey in 2019, Whiteman created a mural called “Celestial Embodiment.” She described this work as a “prayer, an offering,” that visually communicated her understanding of death, and her connection with the universe and the spirit realm.

In an industry that continues to be male dominated, Whiteman is a role model for women. She has continuously redefined what Indigenous film means to her and for a new generation.

Action = Change

Missy Whiteman gave advice for those looking to start making change in their communities: “Begin by finding volunteer opportunities to help and support initiatives and projects that you are interested in. Connect with individuals who share the same vision and heart that you do for change in the community.”