Reconnecting to land, language and culture: Indigenous filmmakers at work, part 2

by Gabby McMann
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This is the second in a two-part series highlighting works done by the next generation of Indigenous filmmakers, who are blazing their own path in the industry and bringing Indigenous ways of knowing, being and storytelling to the forefront.
A movie poster of All Sacred Things by Derek Sands. With a close up of a brown horses face.
Film poster for the short documentary called All Sacred Things by Derek Sands. (Photo provided by Derek Sands)

“I think the early part of the process, coming up with the idea for the film came at different parts of my life. Some of it when I was young, maybe two to three-years old,” said Derek Sands.

Sands is the producer and director of All Sacred Things, a narrative documentary about the history of the Ojibway spirit horses, and how they ended up at TJ’s Stables in Chatham, Ontario. The film also features the voices of a group of Indigenous college students, who are visiting TJ’s stables as a part of their reconnection journeys. The documentary premiered earlier this year at the Doc Now documentary media festival hosted at the Imagine Carlton Cinema. 

Sands, who is Ojibway, Potawatomi and Miami, was referencing a story from his childhood that he told me earlier this year at his movie premier. At that time he said, “I was playing outside with my sibling when my mother came rushing out, and picked us up and ran to the house with us. When we got inside, you could feel the ground shaking and a wild herd of Ojibway spirit horses came running by our house. This was a memory that I hung onto.”

The Ojibway spirit horses were hunted nearly to extinction by settlers, and in 1977 the last known free-running Ojibway horses were killed by Canadian authorities. Sands said this was around the time that he was growing up, and that he very well could have witnessed one of the last gatherings of wild Ojibway spirit horses. 

Sands said Canada’s treatment of the horses, reminded him of the Anishinaabe People and Indigenous nations across Turtle Island:

“The spirit horses almost went extinct, but they persevere and now they are growing in numbers, and I thought that was a resilient and powerful story,” said Sands. 

A mediator standing in front of a cinema screen interviewing two documentary filmmakers
Photo of Gabrielle McMann, Derek Sands and Carrie Davis at the Docs Now Documentary and Media Festival, on June 4, 2023. (Photo taken by Pablo Rincon Diaz)

Sands solidified the idea to do a film surrounding the story of the Ojibway spirit horses when he started Toronto Metropolitan University’s Documentary Media MFA program. Part of his inspiration was his childhood connection to the Ojibway spirit horses, but he also recalled a day around five years ago when he was introduced to Terry Jenkins and Adrea Dyer. 

Jenkins is the owner and founder of TJ Stables, which is home to a therapeutic riding program and the Ojibway spirit horses. Adrea Dyer, who is one of the storytellers featured in the film, works at TJ’s Stables as a spiritual healer. 

The group of First Nation college students who were visiting TJ’s Stables in the film were there to build connections with the Ojibway spirit horses as part of their own independent healing and reconnection journeys. And they share parts of their stories throughout the film. 

“The college students were so vulnerable when we would film, and they were just honest. And they all had different gifts and they were unique,” said Sands. 

The relationship between the college students and Sands was based on mutual trust and respect. Sands believes that this built a strong foundation for Indigenous storytelling within the film. And he shared how important it was for the film to showcase each participant’s authentic voice and perspective:

“Throughout the filming process we had discussions about identity, representation and reconciliation, and how we fit into the landscape of what today is,” said Sands. 

While filming All Scared Things,  friendship formed between the college students and Sands, as they started to open up with one another and support each other on their healing journeys. 

 “We’re all Indigenous but we come from all different directions, but we can all identify with, understand and support each other,” said Sands. 

Sands said that the gift of friendship is one of the most precious things that came out of the production of All Sacred Things. Another unforgettable part of the filming process for Sands was working with the Ojibway spirit horses. 

“There were so many amazing moments, especially when I first started working with the horses. I didn’t have a camera, but I was walking around and I was in their space. I would walk up to them, put my hand on them and say hello. Letting them know that I was there in their space, and giving them a lot of respect,” said Sands. 

Over the film’s production period, Sands made sure that he was building his own relationship with the horses, instead of just filming them. This relationship of trust and respect illuminates Indigenous ways of knowing and being. 

“I felt the emotional connection immediately. Time stops when you are with them in that moment, your inner thoughts are amplified and everything outside of that stops. You can see why everyone calls them spirit horses, because their eyes reflect life,” said Sands. 

The story of the Ojibway spirit horses and the voices of the film’s storytellers, are interwoven into a groundbreaking narrative of resiliency, connection, culture and revitalization. 

When Sands reflected back on the experience he had while filming All Sacred Things, he said it was full of important lessons and memories that he will be taking with him, as he continues his journey in the film industry.   

“We have moments in life that we will always remember and we don’t understand why, but that is one of the moments of my life” said Sands.  “You’re always chasing that moment, like catching lightning in a bottle.” 

All Sacred Things is available for viewing from October 17 to the 22  during the 24th annual ImagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival.

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