Native American turns bingo to budgets

Independent filmmakers are notoriously creative when it comes to finding financing for their projects. But Valerie Red-Horse may be the first to turn to American Indian casinos for coin.

No, she didn’t hit it big at the tables. The Native American actor-writer-producer — “I think of myself as the Indian Billy Bob Thornton” — took her script, with actor Irene Bedard (“Lakota Woman”) attached, to tribal entities and asked for help. “And an Indian woman, with money from the casinos, (agreed with me) and said, ‘It’s time we told our own stories, and I’ll fund the movie for you.’

“Hollywood operates on what was formerly California Indian land,” she says, “and yet we’ve had no stories about them. Most Indian stories have been historical, about the Sioux and the Cherokee.”

Red-Horse hopes to change that with her $1 million film, “Naturally Native.” The semi-autobiographical tale is about three sisters trying to start a business selling cosmetics for Native American women.

“It’s the story of my life trying to sell film, produce film, but I changed the product,” Red-Horse explains. “All people can identify with this story, but at some points (non-Indians) are definitely going to say, ‘I didn’t realize Indian people had to deal with that.’ But (their problems are depicted) in a non-confrontational, non-angry way.”

The pic will be not only close to her life, but close to home. “We’re planning to go into production in September,” Red-Horse says, “and we’re going to shoot in the San Fernando Valley. I live there — my bedroom will be one of the locations — and we’re using as much as we can from my friends and family, since it’s a very low-budget film.”

Red-Horse, who started as an actress, also will appear in the pic. Early in her acting career, as Valerie Redding, her exotic looks won her parts as Italians, Hispanics or non-Indian ethnics. She felt uncomfortable using a stage name and changed it back, but then the offers began to dry up. That motivated her to take charge of her destiny as a writer and producer.

Then, like many aspiring writers, she got a leg up from the Sundance Institute’s Writers Lab, to which she submitted her feature screenplay “Lozen,” based on the life of an Apache woman warrior in the 1800s.

“I owe most of what has happened in my career to Robert Redford and (Institute Film Program director) Michelle Satter at Sundance,” Red-Horse declares. “I didn’t have connections, I didn’t have family in the industry, I was just an Indian trying to write my stories, and by Sundance accepting my stories, it really caught the attention of the industry and gave me some credibility; it got the ball rolling.”

The ball rolled to CBS, which wanted to do “something with a Native American storyline.” She created the story and was a cultural/producing consultant for the special “My Indian Summer.” The experience, while not unpleasant, taught her the importance of being in control of the story and the funding.

Red-Horse is a proud role model, and has created a non-profit organization to sponsor Native American students from reservations interested in learning about filmmaking, beginning with “Naturally Native.”

“I’m considered a celebrity among my people because of the work I’ve done,” Red-Horse says. “I’ve been asked to travel to reservations all over the country to speak and to work with the youth. I see incredible potential, and they say to me, with this look in their eyes, ‘How can I ever get to Hollywood?,’ like it’s the moon.”

Red-Horse says she’ll draw on that experience to find students from high schools and drama festivals for the various production apprenticeships and internships.

Red-Horse reports that she has received early support from Disney, Warner Bros. and KTLA, in the form of offers to interview graduates of HAPN (Hollywood Access Program for Natives).

For Red-Horse, that access is the key. “Why have we not seen American Indian stories? Because we don’t have enough people in the industry; it’s access, breaking down cultural barriers, getting people into positions where they can have an impact. This is my goal, to create future generations of actors, writers, talent, to become part of the industry.”

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