Award-winning filmmaker, photographer, author, and artist Keri Pickett often finds herself observing. In college, she became involved with a group that supported John Trudell, who at the time was on trial for his participation in the 1973 occupation at Wounded Knee.
Inspired by John Trudell's voice, Keri ended up volunteering at the 1980 Black Hills Survival Gathering. As a twenty-one-year-old, Keri felt first-hand how empowering it was to witness Native Americans taking back their power to say no to uranium mining and a community of over 10,000 people from over forty countries convening in the rolling hills of South Dakota.
“I got a firsthand look at this community by being the invisible white girl in the room on the side working the switchboard,” she remembers. “Nobody paid any attention to me, but I paid all kinds of attention to them.”
Images from the 1980 Black Hills Survival Gathering | Ellen Shub for the Sojourner
When Keri saw a fellow on-campus student running around with a “two-and-a-quarter camera” (120 film), she immediately knew that she wanted one too. She later found out that students could rent cameras if they took a class in mass communications. She enrolled straight away.
“All I wanted to do was be in the darkroom and make pictures,” she says. “I was able to get a pretty good camera early on - a Nikon and a Nikkormat - and it made me feel very professional right away.”
She graduated college out of the art department with her studio arts major in Photography and a minor in Women’s Studies. She then moved to New York City and interned at the Village Voice newspaper, where she’d end up working at throughout the 1980s.
She also did a lot of personal work in her twenties. In fact, she’d documented the emerging art and music scene in New York City, at a legendary bar within Times Square called Tin Pan Alley. Plenty of artists from that scene ended up finding success later on in their careers.
“Nan Goldin was the bartender,” Keri remembers. “We shared a hangout spot in New York and a mentor in the amazing woman who ran the bar.”
At the same time, Keri continued her work of spotlighting Native American activists. That’s when she first met Winona LaDuke in the early 1980s.
“I was looking for Indigenous people in my own region of Minnesota to connect with when I first met Winona,” she relates. “We were both the same age and I photographed her around the reservation.”
A legendary and highly-accomplished Native American activist, economist, and author, Winona LaDuke would go on to found organizations dedicated to protecting and advocating for Native American women, lands, and sustainable environments.
Keri photographed Winona for much of her career, including when Winona ran for Vice President with Presidential Candidate Ralph Nader on the Green Party ticket in 1996 and again when Winona ran in 2000. Keri also documented Winona for People Magazine and when Winona won the Woman of the Year award from Ms. magazine.
“Over the years, I’ve also been photographing her family,” Keri relates. “I’ve since become a part of the LaDuke household.”
"How I Met Winona LaDuke" | Keri Pickett
Later on, Keri also began pursuing filmmaking.
“My uncle was another one of my mentors in photography,” Keri relates, “and before he was a professional photographer in New York, he used to be a professional ice skater and he also had the largest collection (of posters, programs, photographs, films, costumes and souvenirs) in the history of theatrical ice skating.”
Keri would often tell filmmakers about her uncle’s amazing collection and the fact that his life would make a fascinating documentary, but no one had ever followed up on the idea. So, she decided to teach herself how to become a filmmaker.
“I hired a grad student at the University of Minnesota to come to my studio and help me learn how to edit,” Keri recalls. “When she left, I would try and make short films and when I’d get stuck, I’d call her. That film (about my uncle) took me almost eight years to complete.”
When The Fabulous Ice Age was released, the film went on to get Best of Fest at its premiere in Minneapolis. It was then selected for its first out-of-state festival at the Napa Valley Film Festival and was distributed by Netflix two months later in ten different languages.
“She (Winona LaDuke) started to fight the pipeline and I saw the pipeline was going through her territory in 2013,” Keri reminisces. “So, I just attached myself to her hip for two and a half years. By the end of it, I had over 800 hours of footage.”
Winona had a dream that she would fight the “black snake”, as predicted in Indigenous prophecy to bring the earth's destruction. The “black snake”, she believes, is the fossil fuel industry. Winona would then confront the new disruption to her home by riding her horse against the direction that the oil current would flow in the Enbridge Sandpiper Pipeline, which came from North Dakota and traversed Minnesota.
For the better part of the last decade, Winona's taken that ride (with the exception of the past year). Keri’s footage, which captures Winona’s journey with her family, her struggle, and her people, all came to fruition in her film First Daughter and the Black Snake, which documents when the Enbridge Corporation announced the Line 3 Replacement Project.
“One programmer at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival called First Daughter and the Black Snake ‘the beginning of the water protector movement’,” Keri explains.
A still from First Daughter and the Black Snake, from producer, director, and cinematographer Keri Pickett | Keri Pickett
“But, when Line Three started construction almost a year ago, I documented the Indigenous women leading the fight and setting up resistance camps all along the 330 miles of the Minnesota portion of the pipeline,” says Keri.
Hundreds of people, even during the pandemic, would show up for events against the aquifer breaches and “frac-outs”, an event where the pipeline hit a natural pocket of underground water that’s never been pierced before. When the aquifer is breached, the water mixes with the drill fluids. The waterways then shift, resulting in permanent damage.
In Keri’s new project, she tells the story of the many Indigenous women who spearheaded the Line Three effort as leaders in their community and leaders in the water protector movement.
“I think the water protector movement is continuing to go very strong, and it's really been Indigenous-led all along,” Keri concludes.
Keri Pickett's short documentary/music video No More Pipeline Blues (On This Land Where We Belong), which pushes back against a new toxic, highly polluting tar sands oil pipeline | Keri Pickett
A big question that creators must contend with is the recognition of who’s telling what story. Keri Pickett, a white woman oftentimes documenting Indigenous communities, had built her trust with communities after a long period of time. Her relationships with the people in her stories run deep. But, that’s not to say that Keri hadn’t struggled with the question of authorship.
“I felt it as an issue at Standing Rock because this issue of Indigenous people telling Indigenous stories really emerged very strongly at that time, so I supported in other ways,” Keri notes. “But, I was comforted by the words of Alanis Obomsawin, who is one of Canada's top documentary filmmakers.”
“When Alanis saw my film at the Minneapolis Film Festival in 2017,” Keri continues, “she acknowledged to me that it is incredibly important to have allies that can be trusted to tell the story from an Indigenous perspective and to not put their colonial perspective on the story.”
Keri comes from what she describes as the “old school in journalism”, which believes that every story can be told by anyone. While she’s created films and books for her own family, she also feels that she has enough space to hold for spotlighting other people’s stories as well.
That’s not to say, however, that she’s completely free of a colonist mindset. She admits to holding both privilege and trauma, but she doesn’t want to make that her narrative.
“I'm interested in lifting up and finding the commonalities that we share,” Keri explains, “and linking us together as humans through those commonalities.”
“I guess, the theme of everything we’ve talked about here,” she concludes, “is to tell stories that your gut tells you are important, as well as the importance of learning more about one another through the arts.”
An image of the annual Lakota Pony Races by Keri Pickett | Keri Pickett
If you’d like to learn more about the Native American artists creating and advocating for Indigenous Environmental issues, check out our list:
Keith Secola is a legendary singer-songwriter and award-winning musician who supports the work of Honor the Earth.
Rabbett Strickland is an artist whose paintings are deeply rooted in Anishinabe culture and who supports Honor the Earth.
Sarah Little RedFeather is an Innovative Marketing & Graphic Design Artist who has been on the Line 3 front lines for years and had some of her work included in No More Pipeline Blues.