A little girl clad in a pink, fringed Native American outfit with two long braids draping down over her shoulders spins around and around. Her face is one of focused concentration, totally oblivious to the audience watching her, as she steps in and out of the six hoops in her hands. This is Kayla Briët — the young award-winning, self-taught filmmaker — as a child in her personal documentary short film, Smoke That Travels. It has screened at festivals all over the world and earned her multiple fellowships. And she’s only 20.
In the film, that old home video footage of her dancing is juxtaposed with a clip of then-President Reagan in 1988, giving a speech about Native Americans. “Maybe we made a mistake,” Reagan says. “Maybe we should not have humored them in that wanting to stay in that primitive state, and said, ‘You know, come join us, be citizens.'”
The clip has a particular resonance for Briët. “When I was young, I was talking to my dad about why it feels like many people aren’t taught about Native culture in their education,” she says, “and my dad told me about the first time he saw that clip of Reagan when he was a young man. He heard this beloved president saying words like ‘primitive,’ and it made my dad feel — for the first time — ‘Perhaps I am an outsider.’ It haunts him to this day.”
Read more: LA Weekly