Documentary Chronicles Native American Gang Leader’s Story of Survival

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“The Seventh Fire” examines the gang and drug culture afflicting the White Earth Indian Reservation in Northern Minnesota. (Photo: Film Movement)
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Jack Riccobono, director, “The Seventh Fire.” (Photo: Film Movement)

In a few days, millions of Americans will gather with loved ones to watch football and eat themselves into a gluttonous stupor, marking the 395th anniversary of the original Thanksgiving harvest celebration that occurred at Plymouth Plantation.

While he doesn’t object to such annual rituals, director Jack Riccobono hopes that Americans will educate themselves about the truth surrounding Native Americans and the early settlers and the resulting challenges that continue to haunt various Native communities nationwide.

That’s one of the reasons why Riccobono, 35, decided to chronicle the lives of Rob Brown, a Native American gang leader, and his teen protégé, Kevin Fineday, for his 2015 film, “The Seventh Fire.” Through these men’s lives, the documentary examines gang culture and drug addiction plaguing the White Earth Indian Reservation in Northern Minnesota.

“It is an interesting moment to see this film with Native American Heritage Month, Thanksgiving, the Election and also with the [Dakota Access Pipeline] protests happening in North Dakota. I hope it helps people understand more about the Native American community,” Riccobono said.

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The New York native said he doesn’t have any Native American ancestry and didn’t have any exposure to Native American culture before directing “The Sacred Food,” a 2007 short film also about the Ojibwe Native Americans of Northern Minnesota and the wild rice they revere as sacred.

Riccobono said it took four years to complete “The Seventh Fire” and that he included various voices to add to the film’s authenticity such as background interviews with activists, politicians and law enforcement officials familiar with the issues. Chris Eyer, considered to be the preeminent Native American filmmaker of this time, joined the team early on and served as an executive producer on the film. Riccobono hopes “The Seventh Fire” is met with the same success that Eyre’s 1998 film “Smoke Signals” experienced.

“That’s something that we hope this film will do as well: break out to a more mainstream audience. [They] may not ordinarily watch a documentary but might be interested in gang issues or have interest in some of our other executive producers,” Riccobono said.

I continued my conversation with Riccobono, discussing the gang and drug culture on Native American reservations, why the Native American plight should be a concern for all Americans and his thoughts about Thanksgiving.

Be sure to celebrate Native American Heritage Month by watching XFINITY’s film collection featuring Native American filmmakers online or at home with XFINITY On Demand.

WATCH: “The Seventh Fire” trailer

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This film is very intense. Why did you decided to tell this story?

JACK RICCOBONO: I made a historic film, a short documentary on the same reservation nine years ago. It was about wild rice, which is a sacred food for this tribe. And a couple of years into making that film, my producing partner read of this phenomena of gang culture operating from cities and inner cities out to remote Native American communities across the country. So we started to look into it and there was very little information about what was going on. Eventually, I said let me go back to the community where I made this earlier film and see if it’s happening there and whether people will talk with me about it.

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What surprised you about the reservations when you worked on both projects?

RICCOBONO: The subject matter was very different for the two films. The reservation is a really beautiful place and their oral tradition is very important to them. The wild rice is part of a prophecy that they received called the Seventh Fires Prophecy* and that’s what brought them from the Northeast of the U.S. to the upper Midwest, and in Canada to the Lakes Region. They were told to go and look for the place where food grows on the water and they found the wild rice living in the Lakes Region. So, it’s very important to them. It was really beautiful to see that part of their oral tradition, which is hundreds of years old, still having tremendous significance for the people. Every year in the late summer and early fall, they go out in canoes and hand-harvest this wild rice in the lakes on the reservation. My first exposure to life and culture on the reservation was through seeing this part of their tradition and heritage, which is still very much alive. When I returned to make “The Seventh Fire,” that film is about gang culture migrating out to this very remote community. It’s about gang culture in this rural community. It’s really kind of surreal to see that because, of course, most people associate gangs with the inner city and the urban environment. Here, you have this beautiful landscape and these pockets of intense poverty and drug culture and violence going on. It’s really pretty shocking. What interested me about it, in part, was how the gang culture was being interpreted and taken in by the Native community. Native American gangs incorporate certain symbols and tribal structure into the gangs and they use the idea of what it is to be a warrior as something to kind of hook the younger kids into participating in the gang activity. Of course, being a warrior in the gang context is very different from how an elder would define being a warrior. But it is part of a serious trend in Native communities and I think it’s something that a lot of Americans haven’t heard anything about.

A scene from “The Seventh Fire.” (Photo: Film Movement)

Native Americans and Alaskan Natives only comprise 5.4 million, or 2 percent, of the U.S. population. Many people aren’t familiar with the gang culture taking place on reservations.

RICCOBONO: It is a very small percentage of the population. But, of course, when you look at the foundational sins of this country, most people know about slavery and think of that as one of the main sins. There also is the genocide of the Native Americans. The legacy of U.S. policies toward Native peoples is pretty dark and a lot of those policies continue in different ways even to this day. You have this reservation system that is administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and all of our taxpayer dollars as Americans go to supporting that structure and it’s very much out of site and out of mind by design.

How did the gang culture on reservations get so bad? 

RICCOBONO: As is the case with other communities, the drug and violence are symptoms of other much more complex social problems. Native Americans are dealing with decades and generations of institutional neglect, abuse, lack of infrastructure and lack of economic opportunities. They’re also dealing with very serious identity issues. If you look at sort of population imagination, you have an NFL team called the Redskins. I think it would be hard for any other ethnic group facing that kind of broad racial discrimination in 2016 and it’s in our nation’s capital. I think the symbolism of that can’t be overlooked or underplayed. This is still part of a long tradition of trying to keep these people down.

What happened with Rob, the central figure in the film, and his family?

RICCOBONO: Rob was released from prison last September and he has been touring with the film at festivals and outreach events across the country. Last October he came with us to Santa Fe, New Mexico for the North American premiere of the film, and that was his first time on an airplane and his first time outside Minnesota. Rob has been on a journey looking for different kinds of solutions. In the film, you see how he goes through something of a transformation from being this OG gang leader to facing the reality of his life and trying to make a change and return to his culture. He’s still on that journey of trying to figure out he can heal himself as someone who went through 39 foster families as a child, the juvenile facility and the correctional system. He’s also looking at how he can ultimately heal his community and hopefully bring some solutions back to the reservation. It was an incredible thing in March, when we were able to show that film at the White House, Rob and our younger subject, Kevin, came with us and spoke on a panel with high level government officials, journalists and academics. They shared their personal stories and their own journey directly to our nation’s capital at the most powerful spot on Earth. That was a pretty incredible moment.

Is the gang culture and drug addiction that “The Seventh Fire” showed common issues for many reservations?

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Rob Brown from “The Seventh Fire.” (Photo: Film Movement)

RICCOBONO: I wouldn’t be able to give you a hard statistic on it. The film is about these two men in particular and their personal journeys. I can tell you that we brought the film to Native communities across the country and we heard from Native activists and Native people that what you saw in the film resonates with them and the things that they’re dealing with in their own communities. It’s definitely a widespread problem that many Native communities are facing right now. It’s something that we’re hoping to bring more attention to.

Criminal justice reform is something that’s being talked about a lot these days and the way our country looks people up. You don’t often hear how the criminal justice system is affecting the Native American population. We were the first independent film crew to ever be allowed to film inside the Minnesota Department of Corrections and that was a very important part of the story. When we were about 50 percent into production, our main subject, Rob, was sentenced to go back to prison for a fifth time. That was a really challenging moment because we felt it was important to follow his story behind bars and give people a look at what that’s like because institutions played such as major role in his life. A big part of what we tried to do with the film is humanize some of the issues you read about in the news. But, hopefully, through the film you get closer to our main subjects Rob and Kevin through their personal stories and understand a little bit better the struggles and complications that are inherent to these issues and just not see things as black and white. Convict and gang member are some of the labels that can get attached to people and very often those people are easily dismissed and that can kind of strip away their humanity. We’re hoping with the film, that will open up viewers’ eyes and have them take a second look to see more of the complexity.

Did working on this documentary change your thoughts about the Thanksgiving holiday and its celebrated history?

RICCOBONO: I think the spirit of Thanksgiving is a beautiful thing, and I think that is something that can be channeled in a great way. We all have to look at our lives and see what we can be thankful for and celebrate that. But, I also think Americans should take a hard look at the history of this country and the role that that the U.S. government has played in the oppression of Native American people. And certainly in November, which is Native American Heritage Month and celebrates Thanksgiving, it’s the time to reflect on the original sins of this country and hopefully think about ways to make amends for that.

What do you want to people to take away from this documentary?

RICCOBONO: I would like “The Seventh Fire” to serve as something of a gateway. If you’re someone who knows about some of the U.S. policies toward Native Americans that have contributed to the situation like the influence of Christian missionaries on the reservations, certain policies that eroded Native control of their own land and the boarding school era when Native Children were sent away to live with other families — If you know about these things and I think you can see the echoes of that in the film. If you don’t know some of that history, I hope the film will pique your interest and raise your level of awareness about what’s going on in contemporary Native American communities today. Then, hopefully, you’ll know a little bit more about it, because one of the biggest obstacles facing the Native American community is that they have been kept very out of sight and out of mind. If you look at the statistics for all sorts of things, Native Americans are facing huge obstacles. These aren’t Native issues, these are American issues. All of us should have a higher level of awareness about it.