The Women's Issue

How Tracy Rector Uses Art to Empower Indigenous Communities

The filmmaker, curator, and community activist has helped thousands of young, budding documentary filmmakers get their start.

By Ciara O'Rourke January 31, 2018 Published in the February 2018 issue of Seattle Met

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Image: Amber Fouts

Two years ago, as refugees of the Syrian Civil War sought shelter in the United States, Americans who balked at helping the weary, displaced Middle Easterners dismayed Tracy Rector.

“Who has the right to refuse safety to these people?” wondered the documentary filmmaker, when nearly everyone is an immigrant, or the descendant of one. She decided we needed a reminder—and it wasn’t exactly subtle. “You Are on Indigenous Land,” declared posters she plastered around Seattle in support of a gallery exhibit she curated around the theme. 

Choctaw and Seminole, Rector has long harnessed art to empower indigenous communities. She recalls saying aloud in fourth grade that she wanted to be a Native American advocate. But as a girl growing up in Edmonds in the 1970s, she was shy and quiet, with thick glasses and braids. “I was a listener for most of my life,” she says. “It was filmmaking that I think really helped me come out of my shell, because I realized that listening was an asset.”

Now 46, she boosts other Native filmmakers in part by partnering with Northwest Film Forum to show their work (the next film, Through the Repellent Fence by Sam Wainwright Douglas, screens February 18). She’s helped about 3,000 indigenous youth make more than 400 short films. Her fifth feature-length film, Clearwater, premieres this spring and documents tribal relationships to the Salish Sea.

These days, the president’s trying to block Syrian refugees from reaching our shores. But Rector senses that we’re on the cusp of something even stronger than an executive order. 

“It’s time to turn the tables, whether it be on racism or sexism or homophobia,” she says. “Art is pivotal in helping to get those voices out there.”

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