Melrose director documents 9-year tipi project
The Arapaho Buffalo Hide Tipi of St. Stephens Indian School. Courtesy photo
Melrose director George Giglio helped bring the Arapaho Indian culture to life by recording a more than 100-year-old process of constructing a buffalo hide tipi.
His documentary of the nine-year endeavor, “Listening for a New Day,” is set to premiere at the Red Nation Film Festival in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Nov. 11.
The awards show was founded in 2003 and honors independent motion pictures and documentaries that are produced, directed, written and star American Indians.
“Listening for a New Day” is nominated for best feature documentary, along with 10 others, including one produced by Johnny Depp.
“The number of submissions that these film festivals receive is just staggering,” Giglio said. “It’s really quite an honor to be screened.”
Giglio’s 45-minute movie details the journey the St. Stephens Indian School in Wyoming took to replicate an Arapaho buffalo hide tipi the way it had been done by students’ ancestors.
Arapahos are Native Americans who live on the plains in multiple states including Wyoming. Many years ago, the nomadic tribe followed buffalo herds from place to place in their portable tipis.
Today, the newly constructed 16-foot by 14-foot buffalo hide tipi is on display at St. Stephens – making them the only reservation and only school to have ever made a buffalo hide tipi.
Their creation will likely make an appearance at the film festival to complement the documentary.
The birth of an idea
When Dara Weller — program director of the gifted and talented at St. Stephens and co-writer/producer of the film — learned that the Arapaho reservation in Wyoming no longer had any tipis, she immediately wanted to do something about it.
“When I first said to my colleagues, who are Arapaho, ‘let’s make this buffalo hide tipi,’ they said it cannot be done,” Weller recalled. “I didn’t realize why. If I had known what I know now, I would have said, ‘you’re right.’”
Determined, Weller set out to make it happen. Because the reservation is no longer home to any buffalos, she contacted 200 bison ranches across the U.S. and Canada to see if they’d donate any hides.
The response was overwhelming. The school received so many calls and offers they eventually had to turn down donations.
With the materials secured, Weller knew the experience needed to be recorded, so she reached out to her brother.
“I got a call from Dara saying, ‘we want to do this. Can you come out?’” Giglio said. “Little did I know the scope of the project at the time.”
Making it happen
In 2009, Giglio arrived at the reservation to teach some of the school’s 250 students in grades kindergarten through 12 how to record video, interview and take still photography.
The children were tasked with speaking to their elders and documenting the history of the buffalo hide tipi, as one hadn’t been duplicated in more than a century.
“They actually gained real skills from the project,” Giglio said of the children. “And I incorporated a lot of their footage into the final piece.”
The project was also a learning experience for Giglio, who was given a glance into the Arapaho way of life, including the meaning behind their buffalo hide tipis.
“They face east, facing the rising sun,” Giglio said. “And the reason it faces to the east is because the tipi is always listening. Listening for something better. It’s listening for that new day. As soon as I heard it, Dara and I both looked at each other and we knew instantly that was the title.”
Giglio, along with a group of students and adults, also traveled to Washington, D.C. to visit the Smithsonian museum, where the only remaining Arapaho tipi exists.
“It is in perfect condition,” Weller said. “I think it was taken from this reservation and put in the Smithsonian back in the 1870s.”
Students and the elders were able to trace the tipi, photograph parts and videotape it to ensure they’d be able to create an exact replica.
Then it came time to actually make the tipi. They enlisted Larry Belitz, an expert in making buffalo hide tipis (and who worked as a technical advisor on the film “Dances with Wolves”) to advise in the process.
The hides were first soaked in a river to loosen the material. Then students used elk horn scrappers to remove the fat before they were brain-tanned.
From there, the sinews from the buffalo were used to make the thread needed to sew the hides together, which took a full week of morning to night stitching.
“We were sewing that tipi until all hours of the night,” Giglio laughed. “It was hard. What work. I don’t know how they did it in the old days. People had so many cuts on their fingers, [but] everybody stuck with it. It was really quite a thing.”
To complete the process, the school held a ceremony on the reservation, where warriors (in this case the veteran elders who served in various wars) blessed and walked across the tipi, which was then smoked as a preservation method.
“This tipi could last, outside, 150 years,” said Weller, who elders gave the Arapaho name Heeneeceesei or “Buffalo Woman” for her contribution to the project. “You can actually see right through it. It’s like looking through a stained glass chandelier.”
Putting the film together
After two 10-day trips to Wyoming (once at the start of the project and again at the very end), along with his visit to the Smithsonian, Giglio had more than 100 hours of footage he needed to edit.
In fact, there was so much to go through, it took him years before he was able to complete the documentary.
“That raw footage had to be distilled to about 45 minutes,” he explained. “It took a long time. A lot of painstaking work.”
The film chronicles the tipi construction process from start to finish. It stars Arapaho elder William C’Hair and is narrated by tribe member Sergio Maldonado.
“He has a wonderful baritone voice,” Giglio said of Maldonado. “As soon as I heard him, I thought, we found our narrator.”
American composer Tim Janis’ songs are also featured in the film. After struggling to find the right music for the movie, Giglio stumbled upon one of Janis’ CDs and knew it would be perfect before even hearing it.
In a few weeks, students and elders, along with Weller and Giglio will travel to California for the festival. The pair knows the screening of “Listening for a New Day” will be a magical moment for the Arapaho people.
“To see their story on the big screen in Hollywood will be so empowering,” Weller said. “It was a very long time coming.”