Reclaiming Native Health and Heritage

Disturbed by their community’s declining health, Native American women reclaim ancient traditions leading toward better foodways and spiritual awakening.


Rulan Tangen and Roxanne Swentzell

While many Native Americans have survived contact with Western Civilization, today scores suffer from its legacy.  American Indians across the country are responding by encouraging their communities to reestablish healthy, traditional lifestyles. New Mexican Puebloan Indian Roxanne Swentzell encourages her community to eat pre-contact foods. Echoing her efforts, five other Native women from Alaska to New York, encourage their communities to reclaim traditional ways.

Together, these stories inspire indigenous Americans to develop healthy eating habits and reclaim their cultural identities. They beg us to ponder, “What happens when cultural perspectives are both welcomed at a community table and given the rightful opportunity to truly be heard?”

At the Santa Clara Pueblo, an Indigenous woman from Guatemala teaches how to harvest amaranth

At the Santa Clara Pueblo, an Indigenous woman from Guatemala teaches how to harvest amaranth

This short (<30 minute) character-driven documentary  features female American Indian activists. The central narrative of the film follows Roxanne Swentzell as she introduces a pre-contact diet to her Santa Clara Pueblo community. This narrative is echoed by the experiences of several other Native American women who serve as a “Greek chorus.”  Three nutritionists, an exercise specialist, and community organizer partner with government entities to make a difference. Kibbe Conti is making gardens happen in her Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota. Valerie Segrest, a Native Foods Educator from the Muckleshoot tribe of Washington State, is reviving fishing and berry-picking endeavors, and Desiree Bergeron Jackson, Tlingit, uses an on-line video series called “The Store Outside Your Door,” to teach her community how to prepare healthy, traditional foods using contemporary methods. Andrea John of the Seneca Nation in New York uses her training as an Exercise Science professional to encourage her community to be more active and eat a diet rich in fruits, grains, and vegetables.  Jennifer Gauthier on the Menominee Reservation works with children to increase valuing their heritages through vegetable gardening and language proficiency.

Interweaving these stories, RETURN emphasizes what it takes to engage communities, spreads the word about nutritionally sound eating, highlights the advantages of traditional ways, encourages more active life styles, and ushers in the return to healthy foodways. The documentary’s pacing, score, and color palette reflect a narrative of positive change. RETURN knits together verité footage, scenic shots, archival clips, and interviews to reveal the complex and nuanced experience of communities rediscovering their roots. A host of other filmic elements draw audiences in and introduce the viewer to the diversity and complexity of the Native American experience.



Rulan Tangen is welcomed and honored with food by Roxanne Swentzell

Today, there are an estimated 3.7 million Native Americans and Alaskan Natives living in the United States, belonging to 566+ tribes. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Native American and Alaskan Natives have a lower life expectancy and a disproportionate disease burden in comparison to other Americans. The causes for this are unclear, but research often attributes health disparities in American Indian communities to poor education, poverty, inadequate access to health services, cultural differences, and economic adversity. Many Native Americans feel that “the lack of a sense of community built on traditions, values, and cultural pride was at the root of the […] health difficulties experienced by both youth and adults.”[1]

Roxanne Swentzell speaks at FUZE.SW 2014

Roxanne Swentzell speaks at FUZE.SW 2014

>RETURN raises these critically important issues by exploring community-based initiatives to restore health, wellbeing, and cultural heritage in five different American Indian and Alaskan Native communities in the United States. The film offers alternative pathways to health and wellness for American Indians who endeavor to overcome health disparities and restore wellness and cultural pride in their communities. The film highlights a return to ancestral practices as the means to achieve this goal. Medical professionals and social workers working with Indian communities will find the film invaluable as it holds important lessons about the inevitable challenges that arise in the midst of social transformation within socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. RETURN is also an important learning tool for courses in women’s studies. It provides concrete examples of how women activists affect change in disadvantaged communities. Anthropology departments will also find value in the film as it shows how traditional values and practices can be used in the contemporary world to enrich the lives of cultural minorities. By glimpsing into the daily lives of Native Americans across the country, RETURN breaks monolithic narratives of what it means to be an American Indian. It also calls attention to Native Americans’ continuous struggles to overcome the negative impacts of cultural disruption and loss of ancestral heritage.

To quote from HOT DOCS, the premier Canadian documentary film festival, “Documentary cinema is one of the most vibrant and engaging media in which we can galvanize discussion, solidarity, debate, and opinion on the key issues of our times. Documentaries tell us about the world, make the past come alive, are windows into hidden worlds, help humanize complex stories, and show what can’t be seen by the human eye.” Indeed, RETURN is a documentary film that will generate grassroots support for American Indian tribes around the country. It can influence government leaders to adopt policies in support of Native American cultural heritage, health, and wellness. It potentially has the power to attract and inform the media about often overlooked minority groups in the United States, and it is positioned to inspire a broad public commitment to the advancement of health, wellness, and heritage within the 560+ American Indian tribes in the United States.

[1] UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities (2009). “Building Partnerships: Conversations with Native Americans about mental health needs and community strengths.”


Roxanne Swentzell at work in the fields

Roxanne Swentzell at work in the fields

Karen Cantor, Producer/Director/Writer has been at the helm of three acclaimed documentary films over the last 15 years: The Danish Solution (2003) about the rescue of the Danish Jews in 1943; Last Rights: Facing End-of-Life Choices (2009) follows four families as they recount grappling with the final days of beloved family members; and Invitation to the Muse (2011) looks at artists’ inner journeys.

Mary Paganelli Votto, Associate Producer, is an author, food stylist, photographer and editor. She is the Founder and Editorial Director of Native Foodways Magazine, the first consumer magazine dedicated to showcasing Native American foodways and is the author of From I’itoi’s Garden: Tohono O’odham Food Tradition.

Carrie House (Navajo), Associate Producer, utilizes her well-honed skills in film production, literature, and geographic information systems. Having worked with state, county, federal and tribal organizations, she is also experienced in general building construction, natural resources conservation, farming and ranching.

Casey Callister, Executive Producer, is the Chief Operating Officer of Garden Thieves Pictures that independently produces, markets and distributes documentary films.

Fernanda Rossi, Story Editor, is an internationally renowned author, speaker and story analyst. She has collaborated on more than 500 fiction scripts, documentaries and fundraising samples, including two documentaries nominated for the Academy Award® and many that received funding.

Tristan Love, DP and Editor,is an award winning filmmaker and editor based in New York City and New Mexico.  He received his BA cum laude in film from the College of Santa Fe, and studied at the prestigious Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU) in Prague.

Giacomo Lampariello, is an award-winning editor.  Trained in Italy, he brings perspective and skill to bringing this project to life.

Dylan McLaughlin, (Navajo), Associate DP, is a digital media artist and filmmaker, primarily focusing on documentary, narrative video and photography. His work ranges from co-organization of the Attention Span 30 Second Film Festival, documentary style artist and community portraits, narrative short filmmaking, to more experimental interactive works and video installation. He received his BFA in New Media Arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2011.

John Rangel, Scoreis a multi-facetted active musician, composer, and producer who has written over 400 compositions. Having studied Film Scoring with Charles Bernstein and Mark Isham he has worked on a variety of films: “Psyche,” “Invitation to the Muse,” “Ira,” “Appaloosa,” “Cold Mountain,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Levity,” “Time Inside A Memory,” “Heartbreakers,” and “The Best is Yet to Come.”  In creating the soundtrack for RETURN John will be working with Native American musicians Shelley Morningsong (N. Cheyenne/Dutch) and Fabian Fontenelle. Winner of the Native American Record of the Year 2011.

Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Chippewas of Rama First Nation), Assistant Director, is a graphic designer, photographer and an artist. She is a contributor to First American Art Magazine, where she writes a column on native-made graphic design.

Tony Estrada (Navajo), Assistant Producer, is a writer/director/producer who directs and produces documentaries and broadcast television programs through his New Mexico-based documentary company, Wild Horse Films.

Rose Simpson, Marian Naranjo, and Roxanne Swentzell joyously dancing after harvesting salt

Rose Simpson, Marian Naranjo, and Roxanne Swentzell joyously dancing after harvesting salt


2013 – Pre-Production

2013–2017 – Production

2018 – Post-production

May 2018 – Release


A hoop dancer participates in the Dancing Earth Company’s visit to the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market
A hoop dancer participates in the Dancing Earth Company’s visit to the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market


Partnerships will assure this documentary is widely screened and can fulfill its potential of being transformational to people’s lives.

An in-depth proposal for RETURN is available upon request.