After Jack Pettibone Riccobono filmed his 2007 documentary short The Sacred Food on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota, he realized the reservation had a darker story to tell.
He went back to film The Seventh Fire, which was shown at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 3, and will be again screened on Tuesday, Jan. 5.
The Seventh Fire follows two residents of White Earth, Rob Brown and Kevin Fineday—both of whom are Native American gang members. Brown is shown throughout the film using drugs, and the law eventually catches up to him to add three more years in jail to the 12 he’s already served throughout his life. Kevin, Brown’s 17-year-old protégé, is following in Brown’s footsteps.
Before Sunday’s screening at the Palm Canyon Theatre, Riccobono and Brown sat down for an interview.
The film lacks a back-story about the reservation and the Ojibwe tribe. Brown filled me in on some basic history.
“The tribe is actually the second-largest tribe in North America,” Brown said. “I’m enrolled in a Minnesota Chippewa tribe, which is a combination of bands of Chippewa Indians. We call ourselves the Ojibwe, but in our language, we’re referred to as the ‘first people.’ We migrated from the East Coast and settled around the Great Lakes. We had to fight the tribes that lived there before, because we were given this prophecy: This was our final place for living. That’s how we ended up all around the Great Lakes.”
As far as opportunity goes on the reservation, Brown said the situation is dire.
“I had the opportunity to grow up there sporadically,” Brown said. “(I was also) in 39 foster homes throughout the state of Minnesota. Occasionally, I would return to the reservation. The living conditions would vary. There would be some working families who were pretty well-established and financially established, but the majority of the homes had very limited income.
“People would come and tell us we were an impoverished community, and I didn’t know what that meant. Right now, I think it contributes to this mundane atmosphere, where people are just disgusted and repulsed by waking up, so they aren’t embracing the life as they should. There’s no love for life anymore, so it’s contributing to depression, crime, suicide, drug use and everything else. It’s ripe for problems, and now since heroin and meth came along, it’s out of control. The situation is critical and dire. It’s just insane.”
Riccobono noticed some of these problems when he went to the reservation to film The Sacred Food.
“It was about wild rice, which is a sacred food for the tribe and part of the Seven Fires prophecy,” Riccobono said. “When they were leaving in the northeast, they received a prophecy to migrate west and look for where food grows on the water. In the lakes region, in the upper U.S. and Canada, they found the wild rice, which they found to be a sacred food from the creator. I made that short, and two years after I made that, I read about the issue about inner-city gang culture and prison culture migrating out to these Native American communities. So I started to look into it, and there was very little out there in terms of films, books or journalistic pieces, so I said, ‘Let me go back to the place where I know people, and see people there who might be willing to talk about it.’
“In October of 2010, I went back and visited the tribal college and played the short. Rob was in the class that day, and we first met. We agreed to move forward on the project and did 14 shoots over two years.”
Riccobono said he had to earn the trust of both Rob Brown and Kevin Fineday in order to film them doing drugs, dealing drugs, or in the midst of chaos.
“It was a long journey making the film, and it’s a huge leap of faith and trust you build up with your main subjects,” Riccobono said. “We always thought of Rob and Kevin as collaborators on the film, and they shot footage on their own. Rob contributed numerous writings of his own to the film, and we feature one of his poems.
“It was an interesting artistic process. For the community where we shot the majority of the film, the fact we kept coming back meant something, because a lot of people don’t go back again. We did 14 shoots over two years. I think the only way you can build trust is by being serious, keeping coming and respecting people’s wishes. If people didn’t want to be filmed, we didn’t film them. We tried to discuss the project and what we were making.”
Brown is shown in the film surrendering to go to jail for three years. It also includes scenes from a party that was thrown for him the night before, and Brown is shown doing drugs in the morning before making a phone call to his father—and breaking down. At the end of the documentary, Brown explains that again being in jail gave him a different perspective—after the drugs were out of his system.
“I served 37 months,” Brown said. “I took a full inventory of what I’ve been in my life … owning everything, and making no excuses for it, then seriously sitting down and choosing to live in a different way.
“I were to put it on one concept, it would be that I had to stop being reactive and start being proactive. I finally understood that. Now I’m learning different things and appropriating them by how I think and how I act. I base these things on respect, good nature, cheer and meaning the things I’m talking about. I’m finding a lot of success with that.”
Brown conceded it’s hard to watch what he does in the film.
“It’s hard for me to watch it now,” Brown said. “I don’t recognize that person, even though I was that person, and I am that person. My speech is different. I was so under the influence, and I had no idea it was that bad. I never want to go back to that. I can’t.”
Brown is currently unemployed.
“I do have a trailer house on the reservation, and right now, I’m not working, but I do plan to start working when I get back,” he said. “It’s hard for me, because it’s hard to tell an employer that I need a full-time job—and I might have to leave for about a week and go to a film festival or whatnot. There are things that are piggybacking from this film, and I have no idea where that’s going, but all I know is I want to be available whenever the opportunity presents itself.”
While Brown is doing better, the status of Kevin Fineday is up in the air.
“Kevin is back on the reservation, and Rob has had some contact with him on social media. The last I heard from him was about a month ago,” Riccobono said. “We reiterated that he has an open invitation to go to the La Plazita Institute in New Mexico, which is our main outreach partner that does amazing work connecting Native American youth to their indigenous culture. In the film, we see that he has a chance to go there, but he’s not really willing to take that leap. I don’t think he’s in that place yet to change his life. We tried to show him the film a couple of times now, and unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet. We’ll keep trying, and we’re going to be doing outreach campaigns in Minnesota and screenings there, so I think he’ll have a chance to see it. Maybe seeing it will have an impact on him.”
Brown is the father of six children, and he’s hoping that he can make an impact on the reservation in a positive way.
“There are upstanding members of our community doing things that they never thought they’d be doing, and trying to raise their kids to go to school,” Brown said. “There are so many problems. I have six children, and I’m anxiety-based about their future, but I take into consideration what I’ve been through, and I know what I’ve passed on to my kids. All my kids have shown me they’re resilient, and they’re tough. I know they’ll be OK, because they’re strong, and they’re showing me that. … They’re all considering moving in with me, and three years ago, they wouldn’t have considered that.”
During the interview, Brown had a book of his poetry that is combined with stills from The Seventh Fire. He’s actually a talented writer.
“All I know is when I share my writings that it draws a lot of emotion out of people,” he said. “What I can write and put on paper can make people cry, and I know that’s a gift. It’s not something everybody can’t do.”
The Seventh Fire will again be screened at 12:30 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 5, as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival. For more information, visit the festival website.