Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship: Jennifer Heuson

Wenner-Gren is proud to present the following blog post and trailer from Jennifer Heuson who in 2016 received a Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship to aid filming on Sounding Western: Aural Sovereignty in a Sacred Land.

Sounding Western: Aural Sovereignty in a Sacred Land

Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship

This is a film about listening, hearing and, ultimately, about not being heard. It is about what happens when an entire people are protected as silence makers for others. It is about what it sounds, looks and feels like to be colonized by frontier myth. For centuries, the Black Hills of western South Dakota have been held sacred to Lakota peoples. Today, the Hills are at the heart of a billion-dollar industry that uses Lakota presence to create frontier experiences for tourists. This film tells the story of Lakota attempts to negotiate and resist cultural and spiritual appropriation through sounds, noises and even silence.

Sounding Western focuses on three Lakota stories. Paul Summers/LaRoche is Lower Brulé Lakota and founder of the contemporary Native American rock band Brulé. With his daughter Nicole on flute and son Shane on drums, Paul uses keyboards, Lakota-inspired vocals and oral storytelling to share his personal tale of adoption, heritage recovery and reconciliation. Mary Bordeaux is Sigancu Lakota; she is former curator at Crazy Horse Memorial and founder of the Native art collective Racing Magpie. Mary uses visual art and advocacy to make noise and resist the silent, spirituality central to tourist appropriations of Lakota identity in the Black Hills. Nicole LaRoche, along with her father Paul and brother Shane, performs in Brulé, negotiating her roles as an award-winning Native female performer, daughter, and mother with her conflicting hope and skepticism for the future of Native empowerment through music.

Sounding Western is based on field research conducted in South Dakota’s Black Hills from 2008–2014 and supported by a Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant and dissertation writing funds through the Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fund. Over the course of visiting and living in South Dakota, I conducted dozens of interviews, collected hundreds of field observations – including sound recordings and mappings and local folklore related to aurality – and completed historical research that collectively enabled me to make a case for the consistent role of aural colonization in contemporary regional tourism. In my resulting dissertation “Sounding Western: Frontier Aurality, Tourism and Heritage Production in South Dakota’s Black Hills,” I argue that “aural sovereignty” is a crucial new framing for understanding how contemporary tourism impacts Indigenous communities. I feel very fortunate to have received a Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship for 2017–2018 to explore visual modalities for telling this aural tale.

Over the course of the fellowship year, I reconnected with subjects from my research and reimagined the film’s aesthetic approach based on collaborative conversations with Mary Bordeaux and Paul and Nicole LaRoche. I created a new film treatment that approaches the 20-minute film as a triptych. The film opens with a sequence of audio archival recordings, moving into three distinct Lakota approaches to tourism and life, and closes with a super-8mm montage overlaid with sound designed from key field recordings. The fellowship year enabled me to work through nearly 200 of my field recordings to select and edit those most essential to my argument. I also conducted archival sound research for the film’s opening and created a super-8mm montage for its closing sequence. I made trips to the Black Hills to film three portraits using a Canon Mark III DLSR camera; these visits allowed me to learn a new workflow and camera, but also provided wonderful opportunities to reevaluate my work and local relationships.

In 2017 and 2018, I shared raw excerpts from the film and edited field recordings at two public workshops on sound ethnography at UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art in Brooklyn. I also shared sounds from the film and discussed its core methods and arguments at a public presentation on Stone Tape Theories at UnionDocs in 2016. And, I have begun work on an audiobook version of the dissertation, which I hope will provide the research in form more accessible to local communities in South Dakota. During the last week of October 2018, I returned to the Black Hills to complete final interviews. I will return again in late spring 2019 to share rough cuts with my collaborators and others in the tourist production communities of the Black Hills. I expect to complete the final cut of the film for application to film festivals in the summer of 2019.

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