Biennale of Sydney

Elle Máijá Tailfeathers

Elle Máijá Tailfeathers, Bihttoš, 2014 (film still). Commissioned by the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival. Courtesy of the artist. Copyright © Violator Films

Elle Máijá Tailfeathers

Born 1985 in Cardston, Canada / Kainai First Nation / Niitsitapi / Blackfoot Confederacy
Lives and Works in New York City, United States; Vancouver, Canada / Kainai First Nation; and throughout Sápmi

Elle Máijá Tailfeathers is a writer, director, producer, and actor from the Kainai First Nation (Niitsitapi / Blackfoot Confederacy, Canada / United States) and Uŋárga, Sápmi (Norway). She works in both documentary and narrative fiction. Her work is often collaborative and community focused with the intention of reclaiming narrative and visual sovereignty through film. Her process also focuses on building capacity within the Indigenous film community through training and employment for Indigenous crew in all key departments. 

Bihttoš is a personal memoir that recounts the story of Tailfeathers’ often difficult relationship with her father, a survivor of the Sámi Boarding School System in Norway. Bihttoš is an examination of memory – both lived and inherited – and love. Through mixed-media animation, archival family photos, re-enactments, and digital documentary footage, Tailfeathers recounts the story of her parents’ almost mythical love story, the ultimate dissolution of their marriage, and of unearthing the legacy of trauma that fractured their family. 

Her Blackfoot mother and Sámi father met at a World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) – an international body which advocated for recognition of Indigenous rights worldwide – gathering in Canberra, Australia in 1981. They were both political activists engaged in frontline struggles within their own communities and were also active within the WCIP. Her parents went on to live in Sápmi, Kainai territory in Canada, and the United States. Her father struggled with depression for much of her childhood and her parents’ marriage ultimately fell apart. It wasn’t until many years later that Tailfeathers’ father disclosed to her the abuse he suffered while in a Sámi Boarding School. The Sámi Boarding Schools were institutions designed to assimilate Sámi children and isolate them from their families and communities. Bihttoš was released at a time when the conversation around intergenerational trauma and the legacy of the Sámi Boarding School System was in its early stages in Norway, Sweden, and Finland. With her family’s support, Tailfeathers was able to tell their intimate story of the intergenerational legacy of colonial trauma and the radical love required to heal.

Bihttoš was commissioned by the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival as a part of the second iteration of the Embargo Collective – an anthology of short films by Indigenous Canadian women. The concept for the Embargo Collective is rooted in the idea that restrictions or obstructions provoke creativity. The second iteration of the Embargo Collective was led by Cree filmmaker Danis Goulet. Goulet invited three women from the first Embargo Collective – Lisa Jackson (Anishinaabe), Helen Haig-Brown (Tsilhqot'in) and Zoe Leigh Hopkins (Mohawk, Heiltsuk), along with three other women filmmakers: Caroline Monnet (Algonquin, French), Alethea Arnuquq-Baril (Inuk), and Elle Máijá Tailfeathers (Niitsitapi / Blackfoot, Sámi) – to participate. The six filmmakers gathered at the 2013 imagineNATIVE Festival to workshop ideas and gain familiarity with one another’s work. At the end of the workshop, each filmmaker walked away with a set of specific restrictions for creating a short film, within which Tailfeathers produced Bihttoš.