MVSKOKE RESERVATION- Kiowa filmmaker Jeffrey Palmer’s short film “Ghosts” is grounded in oral history. “Ghosts” is based on the true story of three boys who ran away from a boarding school in Anadarko, Okla. in 1891. On Sept 18, he sat down with Mvskoke Media’s LiveWire to talk about his short film, his feature documentary “Words from a Bear,” and working with Native language.
Palmer, an Associate Professor in Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University, grew up in Norman. He also grew up hearing the story “Ghosts” is based on.
“I grew up with this story. I had heard this story when I was younger, my dad told this story to me when I was a child. It’s always sat in the back of my mind as something that I wanted to explore as a story and it’s happened in different iterations. N. Scott Mamaday wrote a story called “The Indolent boys” and there’s a play based on this story. I wanted to make this film for a long time.”
Kiowa oral history and historic documentation both tell a story of three boys who escape a government boarding school to their winter encampment. Perishing on the journey home, the three boys succumb to hypothermia during a blizzard. However, Palmer’s film focuses on the triumphant agency of escape, leaving their fate open. He stated,
“I think that we [screen-writing partner Austin Bunn] wanted to create a story that reached everybody. We wanted to open the doors to a wider audience to people who could find something within the narrative arc of this particular story, and we were also making a short film, so we didn’t have a lot of time. By the end of the film, it ends on the escape. We don’t know exactly what happened to these boys, but that story is for another time and we’ll talk about it later.”
Those familiar with the Oklahoma-based show “Reservation Dogs” will quickly recognize one of the film’s leads. Lane Factor, who plays the beloved character Cheese Williams on the FX show, was cast as one of the boys. Factor plays Charles, a boarding school student we first see after being physically disciplined off screen.
“We had a pretty amazing casting call that went out early in the summer of 2022…My dream for the character I wanted to cast for the film was Lane Factor. I had been watching ‘Reservation Dogs’ as everyone else has been doing and so I called and talked to his agent, talked to him, he’s wonderful. And before I knew it he was in the film. Once he was in the film, the flood gates just basically opened and everybody started coming in from all over so it was really that domino effect to get everybody in the film.”
On “Words from a Bear”
While “Ghosts” is a work of historical fiction, Palmer considers himself first and foremost a documentary director. His 2019 feature documentary on N. Scott Momaday profiled the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa author for PBS’s “American Masters” series. The profile earned Palmer an Emmy nomination. The long-running series highlights American artists and cultural icons. The project was initially a bit of a surprise for Palmer. He stated,
“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, you get yourself into situations and you run with them. I didn’t know it was going to be on national television and the money involved because I was making films for nothing… If there was any film that was made for me to do, it was that film. And so it really, the stars aligned and before I knew it I was in his living room talking with him about what he wanted to do… It was a three year journey. There were a lot of ups and downs and I learned a hell of a lot on that film, and it ended up premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019 and it went on a journey that I just can’t believe still. It kind of changed my life…It was a great project and a really fun project. It’s one of those films you dream about getting in your lifetime and they don’t come around much, so I was really fortunate to get that opportunity.”
Centering Indigenous language
Centering Kiowa language in Palmer’s work is a very thoughtful decision for the director, whose father is a Kiowa linguist and started the Native Language Program at the University of Oklahoma. It shows up in his feature documentary, “Words from a Bear,”, but is enfolded into every scene in “Ghosts.” From the opening, Kiowa language is first and foremost what the audience hears and sees. Explaining his motivation and choices, Palmer said,
“I knew Kiowa was going to be in the film, most of my films have Indigenous language if not all of them and a good portion have Kiowa, so I knew Kiowa was always going to be in the film… we begin the film with a Kiowa elder basically telling you the story during the winter time at night and so, we enter with that… I put in subtitles, instead of the dominant subtitles of English, I put the dominant subtitles as Kiowa with English subtitles underneath. It’s good to hear the language and we’re still fighting to keep it alive and we just have to continue to try to immerse ourselves someway and I guess that’s part of my job as a filmmaker is to make sure the language is there so that we continue to teach our young folks what that means.”
The short film, Ghosts is currently streaming on PBS online.