An emerging filmmaker of Tongan and Navajo descent, Kymon Palau uses short film and photo sets to challenge the genocide and dehumanization of his peoples. Currently in his first year of college at the University of New Mexico, Kymon is already making waves with his short film ‘Two Spirit’ recently being accepted into the Navajo Film Festival. We have no doubt Kymon Palau is a name to remember.
Kymon, when we first spoke you begun by offering an introduction in your Navajo language. Although I didn’t understand the words in language, when you translated it for me I was struck by the similarities to my own introduction as a Tokelauan Fijian woman despite our geographical and cultural differences. Would you be able to share the meaning behind your introduction and the importance of sharing lineage when doing so?
In Navajo culture, every person has four clans. You have the mother’s first clan, the father’s first clan, the maternal grandfather’s first clan, and the paternal grandfather’s first clan. And at the end of your introduction you describe where you are from. Clans play a huge role in identifying yourself to others to let them know who you are and where you are from. Lastly, you always want to introduce yourself in a positive attitude and good energy.
I first discovered you through Instagram (via Pati Tyrell, actually) and immediately fell in love with how you frame the re-telling of histories of Tongan and Navajo peoples. What are your storytelling mediums and why did you chose them?
I enjoy using photos and film for my mediums. Today’s society’s attention span is very short and in order to get a message across it needs to be short and sweet with enough information to get the viewer thinking. So when I create my short film or photo sets I try to make it fast and quick- you catch their attention, and then they go on with their day.
And you’re in your first year of college, what’s college life like? Are there many support systems available for Indigenous youth at your college?
I was so incredibly nervous for college. I was expecting to walk into unfamiliar territory and was very anxious all the time thinking about it. The summer prior to my first year in college I heard about this five week summer program for indigenous youth called AISB American Indian Summer Bridge Program and I was very hesitant to sign up. I guess I felt disconnected from my roots and, in a way, felt as if I wasn’t going to fit in with the others.
My mother pushed me outside of my comfort zone so I signed up. Earning college credit while establishing a competitive GPA of a 4.2 I was able to let loose and really create friendships with the other youth that I know will last a lifetime. As cliché as that sounds it’s quite true. The friends I have made all have the same motive. Making ourselves better for ourselves first, and our people second.
I learned that having the privilege to be in college and slowly making my way towards my degree I am already pushing down walls and breaking boundaries.
On campus we have American Indian Student Services (AISS) which is an office that allows free printing, counseling, computer usage, and even a nice quite place to study. The staff of AISS was also the staff for the summer program so it was much easier to form a bond with them as well. I always feel comfortable to let them know if I have a problem or need help. We have coordinators that help bring indigenous events to life such as the annual powwow, and even some game nights as well. Finding friends and role models to help me go through college made it that much easier and now I am no longer nervous to be in college.
For many Indigenous diaspora, storytelling is a form of cultural preservation. Why did you become a storyteller?
It’s in my blood, both on my Tongan side and my Navajo side. Stories are important in helping us understand why we are here in the first place. Without documentation we have nothing to base off of. No inspiration. No motivation. No reason. Story telling helps us define the indefinable. We don’t have all the answers. But we can make note of things that don’t make sense and relate it to things that do.
I know that my purpose on this earth is to help the world see me and my resilience against the genocide and dehumanization of my people and I am able to do this through storytelling.
The first piece of yours that I saw was ’Tonga (extended photo collection). Your use of imagery, video and archival narration is incredibly powerful in such a short clip. Can you share more about this piece, what initiated this work for you?
I stumbled upon this 1950s film “Pagan Love Song.” This film romanticized and sexualized the Polynesian culture into some type of fantasy, almost making it seem like they were not real people, but a “get away vacation spot” for tourists to come and enjoy as they pleased. I rarely hear from the Polynesian perspective of colonialism because we are such a loving and welcoming people. But I knew deep down that there had to be some type of internal frustration against the settlers just like my Navajo people.
I was looking at archived footage and documentaries of the Pacific. I came across this little snippet that talked about how the missionaries, the church, almost destroyed the beautiful traditions of the islands. I was a little shocked to finally hear someone say it, because I hadn’t heard it from anyone I knew. Most of my family on my dads side (Tongan) are Mormon. Not to offend anyone, but I always thought it was weird to be affiliated with white people telling us to stop what we’re doing and worship this unknown person named Jesus Christ.
Anyway, I took that snippet and pasted it on a slide show of my senior pictures and posted it to get a reaction out of people.
And that’s exactly what I got.
In that work you are the muse, whereas in ‘Chambreigh Onesalt Short Docmentary Film’ you take a more objective role as the vessel through which Chambreigh is telling her story. How did this work unfold and how long did it take to make?
In one of my film courses we had a documentary assignment. The professor asked for a short film on a person, place, or thing. I remember he said, “keep it interesting something fresh” My mind immediately went to Chambreigh. She is a friend I made during my five week summer program for indigenous youth. Ever since the first day I met her she has always intrigued me because of how in touch she was with her traditional ways. She inspired me to dig deeper in myself and my connection to my people, our ways.
I began to bless myself with sage and sweet grass whenever I felt uneasy or needed to focus and pull myself back down to reality. I began to realize the importance of maintaining our traditional ways and keeping the culture alive. Chambreigh always told me stories of her family back home and the things she wished for her Navajo people on the reservation. She is studying architecture as she wants to go back home and make it a better place.
I knew this was it.
I contacted her and her family and set a date to come down and catch some footage. My friend Aaron came down with me he was in charge of capturing the audio and some of the shots. We made the 3 hour trip down to Oak Springs, Arizona and back in the same day. It took us about 4ish hours to capture everything; the interviews, the b-roll, and the sound. Her family was so kind and invited Aaron and I for dinner. I created a friendship with her family. We laughed and talked for a couple hours.
As soon as we returned back home I began slowly editing little pieces here and there trying to figure out the look and feel I was going for. I wanted it to look and feel like archived footage and something very close to home no matter who was watching. I spent hours and hours editing, some days till 3:00AM. But in the end it was all worth it. I sent over the video to Chambreigh and her family and they loved it.
What emotions or thoughts do you hope your work incites in people?
I want my work to trigger my audience. I want a reaction. I want to bring attention to taboo topics that society tries to crumble up and forget. I want to bring attention and shine a light on the underrepresented alienated groups in society. I hope to bring awareness to the fact that being “different” is good and that it should never be feared.
My main goal is to invoke, inspire, empower, and support my people and others.
Your mum, Jolena, comes from a Matriarchal culture which has led her to be a strong figure of nurturing encouragement in your life. What are some things she has taught you that you carry into your practice?
My mother has been my main inspiration to go to college. She grew up on the Navajo reservation surrounded by poverty and alcoholism. She is the only one in her family that is not an alcoholic or a drug abuser. Somehow, she managed to understand that there was more to life than a suppressed and solemn future.
My mother is my biggest supporter.
My mother, throughout this process, is there by my side to always encourage me. She has taught me to love myself. She has taught me to value myself. She has taught me confidence. She has taught me to take risks and believe in yourself when others might not. She is one crazy powerful woman and I wouldn’t want her any other way. I love her.
How do your two ancestral identities – Tongan & Navajo – speak to one another? Do you find it difficult to navigate traditions and obligations from both communities?
I find it difficult already trying to feel like I fit in both as a descendent of my Navajo and Tongan people. My mother always hid the ugliness of my Navajo family and their struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction. I wasn’t exposed to much of my Navajo traditions and ways of life because of this. On my dads side he never taught me the Tongan traditions and language. I don’t think he saw the importance of teaching me those things.
At the age of five my parents got divorced. My father used to abuse me when I would go and visit him during the summers. This is another reason of my lack of knowledge with my Tongan side, the absence of a father-to-son relationship.
I sometimes feel a little helpless at times trying to find my identity and where I am in all of this. I am the “city” cousin in both sides of my family.
I would visit my cousins on the reservation and had no common ground, no common interests. When I would visit my cousins in Utah I couldn’t relate to how they carried themselves and spoke with each other. Overall, I do think this constant struggle with self identity has made me crave knowledge of my people and has inspired me to make art that taps into both.
‘Boys Beware’ is a fictional piece that meets us somewhere in the middle between your pieces about Tonga & Chambreigh, speaking to false pre-conceptions of LGBTIA+ peoples. Can you tell us about why you wanted to make this work and how the story developed?
Today many people don’t see LGBTQIA+ peoples as fully human. Some see us as defiers of God and others see us as an infectious disease preying on the youth. I was so sick and tired of hearing hate crimes against people who identified as two spirit all over social media and the news. I wanted to reclaim the power by making this short experimental film.
I began to put my thoughts in my phone. I knew I wanted to make something creepy and out of context. I wanted the viewer to feel uncomfortable and/or confused. I wanted to overdramatize how hateful people view two spirits; a killer, a villain, a negative being. I wanted to portray a 70s vintage retro grunge look with colorful lighting and lots of pastel colors. I reached out to my friends telling them my ideas of filming on a dirt road, in a hotel room, and messing around with my lights. I did research on different hair styles and styles of drag makeup. And they both helped me bring it all to life. I didn’t necessarily want the makeup or the costumes to be “beautiful” but almost ugly in a sense that it had beauty.
Once I had all of this figured out I was originally going to film a short “look book” type of film consisting of close up shots of the outfits and jewelry while 50s homemaker type of music played in the background. This seemed boring to me. There was no motive. So, I then created the idea that they kidnapped an unknown person duct taped in a bed sheet. This way the audience had a reason to keep watching. Overall I am happy with the outcome of my short film and even had the chance to score my own original music.
You mentioned that people have likened your work to that of Quentin Tarantino but prior to being told that you had no idea who he is – love that – whose work do you look up to?
My favorite artist is Nadia Lee Cohen. I have always been obsessed with her aesthetic of creating a false reality, something more animated and less human. This idea of taking something real and altering it a little bit to what you like, I think makes self identity in the world that much more fun. It’s almost like an escape to let your creative juices flow.
I also enjoy the horror movies by James Wan. I appreciate how he focuses on the horror aspect and not the sexual aspect. By this I mean he doesn’t include all the explicit stereotypical teenage love scenes that are prominent in a lot of iconic slasher films like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc. Wan is very straight to the point and is the master of creating suspense and anxiety in the movie theater. I look up to both these artists for inspiration and motivation when I carry out my own projects.
What hopes do you have for the film industry for your peoples in the coming years?
I hope to see more First Nations and Polynesian creatives making films wether that be in pre-production, production, or post-production. I think it’s very important to see yourself on the big screen and see your self in the behind the scenes of the film industry. I hope to see more diversity and the normalization of people of color winning awards and being recognized for their artistry.
And how do you hope to contribute to that?
I hope to make films that speak on issues that people of color face and that tell stories of people of color by people of color.
Where to catch Kymon’s work
Kymon’s film “Two Spirit” (Nádleehí) Film was accepted into the Navajo Film Festival that will take place at the Phil Thomas Performing Arts Center in Shiprock, New Mexico at 1:00pm Saturday, June 22, 2019. It will be judged by the audience and a panel of judges.