"Sooyii," a feature film shot entirely in the Blackfoot langauge, premiered at the Montana Film Festival last November.
CNN  — 

On its face, “Sooyii” is a story of resilience in the face of unimaginable loss.

The independent film, directed by Krisztian Kery, centers on a young Blackfoot man in the 1700s who sees his people decimated by smallpox after the arrival of European settlers in the Great Plains. But as much as “Sooyii” is a story about a specific period of Blackfoot history, about power and deadly disease and ethnic conflict, it’s also a cultural artifact – a 90-minute, cinematic record of an endangered tongue.

“Sooyii” is shot entirely in the Blackfoot language, a significant feat considering how few first language speakers there are among the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. Jesse DesRosier, a Blackfoot language teacher who served as a consultant on the film, estimates that his tribe – one of four bands that make up the Blackfoot Confederacy – has about 50 people who grew up with Blackfoot as their first language.

That’s precisely why he agreed to come on board the project.

"Sooyii" was shot on the Blackfeet Nation reservation in Montana.

“If a language is gone, who are the people?” DesRosier said. “Language is your identity. It’s the vehicle that carries you into the future.”

DesRosier translated the script into Blackfoot, recorded himself speaking lines, coached actors through the dialogue and even made a small appearance in the film. Now that “Sooyii” has started showing at film festivals, he hopes that it might inspire other filmmakers and viewers to take an interest in Indigenous languages.

“I’d like to see it reach an audience where people are gonna say, ‘I want to learn that language,’” he added. “I want it to raise questions. I want it to spark interest. I want it to create a spark that sets the new generation on fire.”

“Sooyii” is one of several films in recent years to bring attention to Indigenous languages – from the Haida language feature film “SGaawaay K’uuna” (“Edge of the Knife”) to a Māori language translation of the Disney hit “Moana.” And as these endeavors prove successful and demand for such content grows, the medium is increasingly being seen as a tool to revitalize dying tongues.

Dubs of popular films make learning fun

Despite making up about 5% of the global population, Indigenous people speak a majority of the world’s more than 7,000 languages. More than 40% of those languages are already endangered, and experts warn that one-fifth will be dormant or dead by the end of the century. The Covid-19 pandemic threatens this loss even further.

The threat facing the Navajo language, or Diné, had been on Manuelito Wheeler’s mind even before he became the director of the Navajo Nation Museum. Seeing films dubbed in Spanish, French and German, he wondered if the same might ever happen for Navajo.

When Wheeler eventually became director and embarked on an initiative to bring “Star Wars: A New Hope” to audiences in Navajo, his ambitions were modest. He just wanted to get more people talking about the language – to create something that both Navajo and English speakers might want to watch.

A Navajo version of "Star Wars: A New Hope" premiered in 2013, and opened the door to similar dubs of popular films.

“My objective was to create this movie in Navajo and let that be the point,” Wheeler said. “The point of it all was to bring awareness about Navajo language, period.”

As it happened, the project did exactly that, Wheeler said. The 2013 premiere of the Navajo-dubbed “Star Wars: A New Hope” was a huge success, opening the door to wider debates about the language: Who should be learning Navajo? What should be done about the impending problem of language loss?

It also left audiences clamoring for more content in Navajo. So in 2016, the Navajo Nation Museum collaborated with The Walt Disney Studios to bring a Navajo version of “Finding Nemo.” After catering to younger audiences in its first two projects, the museum turned its attention to elders in the community, dubbing the iconic spaghetti western “A Fistful of Dollars” last November.

“You can take classes learn the language. You can immerse yourself amongst people that speak Navajo,” he added. “But this is a fun [activity]. People could easily participate in it, because it was put in the form of entertainment.”

Wheeler isn’t under the illusion that Navajo dubs of popular movies can alone save his ancestral tongue. For him, part of what has been so gratifying about this work is seeing how much other Navajos have appreciated the dubs they’ve done so far.

Still, Wheeler said, Navajo language teachers are using the films in their classrooms – and if they find those materials useful in their curricula, that makes the projects all the more powerful.

Film preserves ancient stories authentically

Decades earlier, another Indigenous filmmaker had already been making inroads.

In 2001, Zacharias Kunuk’s feature film “Atanarjuat” (“The Fast Runner”) debuted to critical and commercial success. The film, made entirely in the Inuktitut language, is based on an ancient Inuit legend and is a tale of love, betrayal and survival in an Arctic community. It won the prestigious Caméra d’Or award for best first feature at Cannes when it was released and in 2015, film critics and academics voted it the best Canadian film of all time in a poll conducted by the Toronto International Film Festival.

In 2001, Zacharias Kunuk released the groundbreaking film "Atanarjuat" ("The Fast Runner"), made entirely in the Inuktitut language.

For Kunuk, whether to make his films in his native language of Inuktitut was never a question. There were stories of his people to be told and preserved, and film seemed like the way in. He remembers how his parents and their friends were entertained by “cowboys and Indians” movies despite not knowing a word of English, and how kids in his village used to crowd outside his window trying to catch a glimpse of the TV he had bought in the ’80s.

“I saw the future,” he told CNN. “We wanted to teach our young people that this is what they’re going to face. We might as well put it in the box.”

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Kunuk’s other projects have also drawn from Inuit knowledge and beliefs, from his film “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen” to “Qapirangajuq,” a documentary about Inuit knowledge and climate change co-directed with filmmaker Ian Mauro. In each one, he is committed to showcasing the Inuktitut language and culture as authentically as he can.

“One hundred years from now when we’re 6 feet in the ground, people will study these films,” Kunuk said. “So we have to get them right.”

Making these films is a learning exercise in itself

Andrew Okpeaha MacLean got into filmmaking partly as a way to get in touch with his native language and culture, and partly as a way to keep it alive.

MacLean, an Iñupiaq filmmaker who teaches in New York University’s graduate film program, didn’t grow up speaking Iñupiaq. His parents’ generation attended residential schools where they were punished for speaking their native language, and as a result, spoke mostly English with their children. Despite hearing his grandparents and parents speak Iñupiaq with each other during his childhood in Alaska, he remembers being unable to understand most of what was being said.

As MacLean got older, he began to try and regain what he had lost, eventually combining his efforts to learn Iñupiaq with his passion for storytelling.

Andrew Okpeaha MacLean's Iñupiaq language feature film "On the Ice" was based on his short film "Sikumi."

“That was part of it and it’s also the idea of bringing the language out of a classroom setting and into life and into media. That’s where languages ultimately live,” he said. “Language can survive in a textbook, but in order to live, it needs to be out in the culture.”

Inspired by Kunuk’s “Atanarjuat,” MacLean applied and got into film school at NYU. In 2011, his feature film “On the Ice,” based on his short film “Sikumi,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win multiple awards. Shot in Iñupiaq, “On the Ice” tells the story of two teenagers who accidentally kill a friend while on a seal hunt and find themselves tangled in a web of lies.

“We understand the world through stories. The entire world watches films. The entire world consumes media in this kind of way. It legitimizes a language,” he said. “The experience of sitting in a theater and listening to this language, seeing people who look like me, who look like my relatives and are from a culture that I recognize – that’s a powerful thing.”

The process of making films in Iñupiaq is challenging, MacLean said. Though he is now proficient in Iñupiaq, he isn’t completely fluent, so he writes the script in English and then translates to Iñupiaq, often with the help of his mother, Edna (Ahgeak) MacLean – who happens to be a renowned Iñupiaq linguist. Preserving the nuances and the flavor of certain idioms requires an even deeper level of engagement. Along the way, however, MacLean ends up learning things about his language he might never have anticipated.

The Navajo Nation Museum’s dubbing efforts have been a similar exercise, Wheeler said. His work on the projects showed him that voice actors don’t have to be completely fluent in Navajo to deliver a performance – that they can be coached on pronunciation. That’s made them more comfortable speaking and signals that it’s not too late to learn the language.

“With these movies, I feel I have that ability now – an understanding that there’s some psychological thing going on that is preventing me from having that confidence to jump in and start learning and start speaking,” he said.

These films are just a starting point

For DesRosier, the language consultant on “Sooyii,” film is not so much a means of preserving Indigenous tongues in a moment in time but more so a way of showing how those languages are relevant and necessary in modern life.

“This is a living language,” he said. “In any language, it grows. It takes new forms with every generation, new slang, new dialect. It has a heartbeat. It can’t be captured in one film. It can’t be captured in a series of films. It has to be among living people, spoken every day.”

There are already more stories to look forward to. Wheeler’s Navajo Nation Museum is following up on the success of its popular movie dubs with an animated series of Navajo coyote stories. Kunuk’s stop-motion animated film “Angakusajaujuq” (“The Shaman’s Apprentice”) has recently garnered praise at festivals. MacLean has written a script for a new Iñupiaq language film “Qimmit.” And a new crop of Indigenous filmmakers has both Native and non-Native audiences taking notice.

Still, the growing canon of Indigenous language films is just a starting point, DesRosier added. It might not be the answer to saving at risk languages, but it just might inspire the next generation of Indigenous viewers to learn more about a language and perhaps embark on further study.