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Vancouver Island youth living his storytelling dreams through Indigenous films

Emerging talent wants to share Indigenous stories in a responsible and respectful way
Isaiah Harris, at Ladysmith Secondary School on Saturday, May 28, for a showing of the film Tzouhalem — which he narrated —presented by the school’s land and language program. (Duck Paterson photo)

Philip McLachlan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter THE DISCOURSE

Isaiah Harris has always been fascinated by Indigenous stories. Some are the backbone of how communities came to be. Others shed light on the significance of local landmarks and places in nature. He dreamed of a career telling stories, and now, he’s living it.

Right now, the 20-year-old is making waves in the film industry. But he hopes to expand his storytelling through a variety of mediums: be that books, films or video games. He’s passionate about the idea of getting more people excited about Indigenous history and important historical figures. His goal is to tell these tales in a responsible and respectful way.

“To feature stories that are from an Indigenous perspective, that get to respectfully show a bit of what we’re about,” he explained.

As he talks, Isaiah sits on a large piece of driftwood and looks out into the ocean from Thuq’mi’n (Shell Beach) — across the street from where he grew up in Stz’uminus First Nation. Around him, sand, stones, seaweed and beach glass cause the ground to shimmer in the high afternoon sun.

Isaiah points to a spit of land that juts out from the bay, where he and his siblings used to play growing up. He tells a story from his childhood of when a large storm broke apart the nearby wooden dock, causing its pieces to spread throughout the bay.

Along with his siblings, Isaiah would play games swimming from one piece to the other. Sometimes, they swam out with fishing rods and spent time trying to catch fish. Once, they caught a dogfish. The ocean was as much a part of his upbringing as the ground beneath him.

When he wasn’t playing at the beach, Isaiah recalls he was usually indoors, glued to thrilling stories of science fiction, or learning about historical figures and local legends. All of these things have informed his practice as a storyteller.

As much as he loved the fantasy genre in writing and in video games, he noticed there was no representation of coastal cultures.

Around this same time, he became involved in the Land and Language program at Ladysmith Secondary School, which helped fuel his interest in storytelling, specifically involving important figures in Indigenous history who lived during the past 200 years. With encouragement from his teachers, he started to write about them.

During the past two years, Isaiah has brought his storytelling skills into the same circles as members of the film industry, and scored a role on the recently-released, Indigenous-led documentary film, Tzouhalem, directed by Harold Joe and Leslie Bland of Orca Cove Media.

Isaiah was connected with the project after his high school teacher introduced him to Brian Thom, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Victoria. When Thom was approached by Bland and Joe to be interviewed on camera for Tzouhalem, he invited Isaiah to sit in on the interview. This was the first time Isaiah had sat in behind the scenes during a film shoot, and he ended up playing a large role in the film, influencing the script and also helping to narrate.

“That day I remember pretty well, because I remember just being so blown away by the whole thing,” Isaiah said.

Looking back on that day, Bland recalled how evident Isaiah’s talent was.

“We discovered very quickly how intelligent he is, and how passionate he is about telling stories telling authentic Indigenous stories that are based in the storytelling traditions of his community,” said Bland.

“It’s doing really well, we’re really happy with the reaction that we’ve received from everyone to it,” said Bland of the documentary.

The film toured film festivals around the continent before starting its theatrical run, which sold out numerous theatres on Vancouver Island and in Vancouver, according to Bland, and it’s soon to be distributed internationally on television.

During the filmmaking process, Bland told Isaiah — who was attending Vancouver Film School at the time — to contact him when he finished school for a possible internship opportunity.

Earlier this month, Isaiah received word that he had secured the role of assistant script supervisor in another upcoming film, The Reclamation of Steve Joe, again directed by Bland. This is part of a 20-week internship with the production company.

The heist feature film will focus around the character of an Indigenous archeologist who is going through a difficult time, and teams up with a group of misfits from the rez to break into a museum and reclaim sacred artifacts that rightfully belong to their people.

“Indigenous storytelling is coming to the forefront of what we do in Canada, and there’s certainly a wealth of stories to be explored and told,” said Bland. “Stories that really haven’t … received the attention or exposure that they’re worth.”

Isaiah said he feels a great deal of responsibility to tell these Indigenous stories in the right way.

“These are real people, who were so important to our history. And they were alive not even that long ago,” Isaiah said.

“Getting all the necessary information and the permission alone is going to take years. And you know I think it should take that long because of how close the history is, and how important it is.”

Isaiah is inspired by the people around him and the work he’s gotten to do so far — and said he has great hope for the future.

“I think we’re just right on the brink of seeing this huge explosion of Indigenous storytelling through filmmaking.”

RELATED: ‘Tzouhalem’ tells story of chief’s rise, fall and legacy

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