When I first heard Ernestine De Soto tell her family’s story I was certain that a film should be made. Ernestine was the daughter of the last native Chumash speaker; her great uncle was the last pure blood Chumash. She performed the story by speaking in the voices of her female ancestors, going back in an unbroken chain to her great-great-great grandmother who had been born in the village on the beach at Santa Barbara the year the Spanish arrived.

When she finished her performance (augmented by a slide show prepared by John Johnson, the curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History) I was stunned since she had taken me through 200 years of California history filled not only with violence, rape, dislocation, and disease, but also with heroism, good fortune, persistence, and miraculous strength.

When I finally got permission to start the film, about three years ago, I thought, “This will be easy.” I started out simply by filming Ernestine’s performance, adding in the stills, and trying to stay out of the way of the story. I knew one thing for certain; I wanted the audience to be assured that this was Ernestine’s story, unchanged and unfiltered, and not another white man’s version of Native American history. What made the story so unique was that Ernestine was like a living link to all the women in her past and because of fortuitous events she could tell us their life stories. This had happened principally because in 1913 the famous anthropologist, John Peabody Harrington, had come to her great grandmother to try to preserve the Chumash language. He had noted down family stories, and ultimately had spent 49 years in contact with generations of the family. As I worked on the film I came to realize that there is no other story like this one for its completeness, its first person immediacy, and its reach back to First Contact. The story was unique in America and I was determined to do it justice.

However, for the first year or so, every time I screened the film I got the same sort of reaction. People said, “What an extraordinary story”, or “Ernestine is a remarkable woman," but I could tell that they didn’t like the film, that they lost interest or got confused. I tried adding more re-creations, trying to make it more like a TV show. That only cheapened it and took away the best thing that it had, namely that it was the real McCoy. Since I was doing everything myself, with no real budget, I had to leave the project to do other, paying, work. This turned out to be a good thing when one of those projects was a series of 90-minute films about Native American History for WGBH/PBS (WE SHALL REMAIN). I was surprised to find that none of the films had major women characters, and when I mentioned this to the executive producer she was surprised as well. I realized then that the film I was working on was the forgotten side of history. None of the characters were rich, powerful, or famous, and all of them were women. It made sense that a story of survivors would be a woman’s story because when a culture faces something very like scorched earth genocide, the last stand is made by the women.

The film was beginning to come into focus. Ernestine had wanted to only work with a woman filmmaker initially, but we were becoming comfortable and it didn’t hurt that I had four daughters. Then one day, after Ernestine had returned from a conference of Native Americans working to preserve their languages, her usual reserve broke down and she showed how painful it was for her to talk of her history. Even as I was filming, she recovered from her tears to explain very directly and forcefully what it was like to have absorbed generations of damage. I won’t try to quote her since she says it best herself in the film, but it was a revelation for me, and I hope, for the audience as well. Before her breakdown I would have thought, “Yes, we’ve all had unhappy childhoods, but it’s time to move on.” For the first time I saw that for some people in some cultures the destruction has been so absolute, so much has been lost, that past injuries are alive today.

Although there is plenty of tragedy in this story, the final impression I’ve carried away is Ernestine’s steely determination to see that her family story is told and their legacy lives on.

_____________________

Six Generations

Written by Ernestine De Soto and John Johnson, Ph.D.

Edited by Jim Edwards, Music by Snuffy Walden

Executive producer John Johnson, Ph.D.

Produced, directed, and photographed by Paul Goldsmith, ASC

“Six Generations took my breath away, quite literally. If a video can be a page-turner, this is it. For decades now, anthropologists – of both scientific and humanistic persuasions – have railed about the importance of multiple perspectives and “Native voice,” but it rarely happens. In this elegant, hour-long film, that long-lauded goal has been achieved, and then some. This is history as autobiography, foregrounding the power of language and telling a checkered story of cultural survival under extreme conditions. The time-depth is simply astonishing, producing a narrative that is frank, true and sometimes stark. Six Generations is a homerun. I cannot recommend it highly enough.”

David Hurst Thomas (Curator of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York)

The project featured in the Los Angeles Times.

Available for purchase online

   

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