Reaghan Tarbell and Paul Rickard

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Reaghan Tarbell and Paul Rickard

The purchase of Manhattan Island from America’s original inhabitants has become a well-known fact in the average American’s trivia arsenal. What is likely lesser known about Native peoples in The Big Apple is the existence of a small community of Kahnawake Mohawk Indians from a nearby Canadian Reserve that has thrived within 10 square blocks of the city even into today.

In her first ever documentary, Reaghan Tarbell tells the story of her tribe, many traveling back and forth from Canada to New York City, through the eyes of women in her family. This small community, called Little Caughnawaga, has thrived since the early 1900s when many Kahnawake Mohawk came seeking work in the city. Many of the men in the community were ironworkers, building some of the bridges and skyscrapers in the most populous city in the country as well as other cities.

Then tragedy struck.

While constructing a new bridge in Quebec, 72 men died when the structure collapsed – 33 were from the reserve. The day lives in infamy for the tribe. In To Brooklyn and Back: A Mohawk Journey, which airs November 2 on PBS stations, Tarbell touches on the tragedy and looks at its effects today, the story of the Kahnawake Mohawk in New York City and her family’s own history between the small Canadian reserve and big city life in New York City’s Brooklyn borough.

“It’s shown in New York now at the Native American Film Video Festival and I’ve had a lot of people come up to me after the screening and some people say ‘Well I’ve always heard about the Mohawk community here and I’m so glad I saw this film,’ and then there’s people that say I live two blocks or three blocks away from there and I’ve never heard anything about this,” Tarbell, 34, said of the film. “I’m glad I got to bring that perspective and history to them.

The story did not start out in the first person.

“It was never my desire to be on camera, to be a part of this story,” said Tarbell, who lives in Brooklyn near the Little Caughnawaga Mohawk community. “I think that had a lot to do both with my filmmaking and with being shy.”

With the guidance of her mentor Paul Rickard, who runs Mushkeg Media Inc. in Montreal which produced the film, Tarbell began to develop the story through her own experiences and family’s stories.

Even prior to shooting, Rickard could see that telling the story through Tarbell's experiences would be important to the story. An outside narration, he said, would not have the same affect of personalizing the story for the audience.

“It was kind of a natural progression to actually have her tracing her own roots and learning, just like the audience, about the history of her community.” said Rickard, a longtime Canadian producer of the Cree Nation.

Tarbell, who is a Program Assistant for the National Museum of the American Indian's Film and Video Center, came up with the idea for the film, proposed it to her mentor and applied for a research grant to develop the idea before she applied for funding to film – a process she recommends to other aspiring filmmakers. She applied to the Canada Council and Quebec Arts Council grants.

“It just grew from there. It was a long process, maybe three years of development and writing,” she said. Using her research grant seed money, she did a few documentary how-to workshops that helped her with filming.

Rickard added that he advised her to “do some research in regard to what kinds of stories are out there, what can you collect in terms of photographs. And think about the project in terms of how you want to film it and what do you want to tell in it.”

Initially, Tarbell wanted to do a small and shorter film, something very low-budget, Rickard said. But he saw potential to get more funding and develop a longer story.

“From there my producer mode took over. I started approaching other government funders like National Film Board of CanadaAboriginal Peoples Television Network and through whole series of other means I had access with broadcasters here in Canada,” he said. Then they began applying in the United States, which led them to funding from Native American Public Telecommunications.

The road to funding was long, Tarbell said, and at times very frustrating.

Being a first-time filmmaker I never had really grasped how long it takes to get funding secure and into place," she said. “There were times we were re-writing treatments or synopses and I guess could never see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. I guess I was being impatient.”

In the end, telling the story of her community was worth the effort especially since the passing of two of the elders interviewed in the film – including her aunt – put into perspective for her how important it is to capture these stories now, she said. And she has plans to continue telling them through film. Tarbell is planning to apply for research funding for another project.

Written by Nancy Kelsey.

Interviews conducted by Nancy Kelsey. Edited by Ben Kreimer.

 
 

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