Connection Through Creativity: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers Debuts a Career in Filmmaking
“I just discovered that creativity could be this really amazing way to connect with people and to tell stories, and it's also just really fun,” recounts Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is Blackfoot and Sámi from Northern Norway. She lives on the Blood reserve with her mom and their two dogs. She’s a filmmaker, writing, directing, producing and acting in movies.
She got her start after watching plays in the language of the Sámi people at the national theater in their Northern Norway homelands. She would come home and recruit her friends to act in the plays she came up with for family and friends in her living room. Those experiences inspired Tailfeathers to pursue the creative arts.
Growing up, Tailfeathers watched her mom make her way through medical school. That example inspired her to go to the University of Lethbridge for a year after graduation so she could stay close to home. She was diagnosed as an adult with ADHD which is why school was easy when she was interested in what she was learning and hard when she wasn’t. She was overwhelmed by the idea of going away to university, so her mom strongly encouraged her to apply to Katimavik, a Canadian youth volunteer program that changed her life.
Being part of Katimavik gave her the idea to move to attend Vancouver Film School for acting. Tailfeathers didn’t think filmmaking was a possibility for her because she hadn’t really seen many Indigenous women filmmakers. After graduating from film school, she was frustrated with the industry. “We're in a very exciting time for Indigenous storytelling on screen but back when I first started, there was still a lot of really problematic stuff being written and directed by non Indigenous people telling stories about Indigenous people,” she recalls.
“Within these stories are kind of harmful representations of who we are, and also just total misrepresentations of who we are. I got really frustrated going out for these auditions and just feeling like I didn't recognize these characters as being real people that I know in our communities, because they're being written by non Indigenous people,” Tailfeathers continues.
“Education is a way for us to be okay and to be healthy.”
Moving forward from that place of frustration, Tailfeathers’ Blackfoot grandparents, who were both residential school survivors, saw education as a way to succeed and gain stability and encouraged her to go back to school. She went to UBC for Indigenous studies, with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies and found community among other Indigenous students. She had access to film gear and editing software and taught herself to use them. One class allowed her to submit a media project instead of a paper and she made her first documentary.
She didn’t think it was very good but it changed everything for her. “That experience of actually having power over the story that was being told, and actually being able to express myself and my thoughts, all of that was a very empowering and transformative experience for me,” Tailfeathers recalls. That planted the seed that she could do this. She started making her own films and has done so for twelve years.
“I just find my way through the industry, telling stories and collaborating in ways that feel exciting and so that's how I came to where I am today.”
After having those experiences, her advice for students thinking about leaving their home community and going to university is sympathetic. “It's really scary. I get that it's definitely hard to leave home for the first time. It's also really exciting,” she shares. She recommends making friends with others going through the same thing, which can force you to step out of your comfort zone, but the payoff is worth it, she asserts. “You never know how these people are going to change your life,” she confides. She would offer her younger self the same advice.
“It's so important to lift each other up and celebrate other people when they accomplish exciting things because the success of one person is the success of all of us.”
Community helps her through the challenges of the work she does. “I think working in the film industry is very hard… you have to grow thick skin, because rejection is such a common thing in the industry, and you have to work very hard to get your work made. It's just a constant hustle and sometimes it feels like an uphill battle. But I think something that's really helped is just knowing that I just have to, every time I fail or fall down, all I have to do is pick myself up and dust myself off and keep moving forward,” she recounts.
“If we're open with each other about our pain, it's a way that we can move forward together.”
To support her mental health, Tailfeathers surrounds herself with good people and opens up to others when she needs to talk. She makes space for joyful things, watching a funny show or a comforting movie and suggests accessing mental health resources as needed. Practicing good self care with healthy food, exercise and adequate rest also helps her stay on track.
“You need a healthy body and a healthy mind and a healthy spirit in order to be able to move through the difficult stuff.”
When she needs inspiration, she looks to her friends and family and everything they’ve overcome.
She’s inspired by the young people she’s met through her work and the cool things they are doing. “It's really amazing to see Indigenous youth be proud of who they are and where they come from,” she beams. Other artists, writers and filmmakers inspire her, too.
Led by the example of her family’s values around education, she built a strong foundation of knowledge and a community that rallies around her when she went to school to pursue her passion. She discovered that creativity could be this really amazing way to connect with people and to tell stories, and it's also just really fun. Now, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is making movies and her own way through the film industry that used to frustrate her so much. Once upon a time she couldn’t see herself in the media that surrounded her and now she’s making films that fill the gap and her creative cup at the same time.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.