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2010 Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award

Finalist: Sandra Sunrising Osawa

By claiming and defining our own history, I believe we can more easily build a better life in all other areas. I think media has long been an overlooked part of our struggles and true sovereignty cannot exist until we are truly able to tell our own stories.
—Sandra Osawa, on Native Networks

Sandra Sunrising Osawa
Sandra Sunrising Osawa
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Sandra Sunrising Osawa (Makah Indian Nation) is an honored 2010 Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award finalist for her visionary work as an independent filmmaker. Osawa has spent her long, award-winning career giving voice to contemporary Native issues. She has created a stunning and large body of work out of her clear determination to provide, interpret and tell American Indian stories for her own community and the non-Native population as well. She has continuously advocated for the inclusion of Native American film technicians, writers, actors, producers and directors on projects that tell Native stories directly and from the indigenous point of view and was literally the first to do this. Sandra Sunrising Osawa continues to mentor and teach Native American students in the power and process of filmmaking to this day.

Osawa was raised in Washington State on the Olympic Peninsula. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Lewis and Clark College in Portland and was honored with the Distinguished Alumna Award from her alma mater in February 2010. Osawa began her independent film career in 1974, and has worked in that capacity longer than any other Indian filmmaker in the United States. Earlier in her career she worked in Washington State as an organizer for securing treaty fishing rights.

In the mid 1960s Sandra was the first Community Action Director for her tribe’s War on Poverty, launching the first Indian Head Start Program in the state of Washington. She developed programs to retain Makah culture and language by organizing summer classes for students in grades 1–12. She began a “movie night” on the reservation and the lack of good movies relevant to Indian people was an early impetus for her enrollment in UCLA’s graduate film program. For decades now, Sandy has produced films that are relevant and accurately portray Indian stories and history from an Indigenous point of view. To date, sixteen documentaries have been written and produced by Osawa and broadcast over both PBS and commercial television stations.

Sandra Osawa’s career in the independent film industry marked a key transition in media history: in the mid 1970s her efforts initiated the first 10-part national series entirely produced, acted, and written by Native Americans. The Native American series was broadcast on NBC and led to an “Outstanding Producer” award being given to Osawa by the producing station, KNBC in Los Angeles.
Sandra Osawa has aired many award winning documentaries nationally on PBS, including Lighting the 7th Fire (1995), about spear-fishing rights in Wisconsin, the first Indian produced program for the major PBS series, Point of View. For PBS, Sandy has also produced and aired films that explore contemporary images of Indian people, especially artists, including Pepper’s Pow Wow (1999) about jazz legend Jim Pepper, On & Off the Res’w/Charlie Hill (2000)about stand-up comedian Charlie Hil,; and Maria Tallchief (2007) about the woman who was America’s first prima ballerina and a founder of the New York City Ballet. Sandra’s work is studied at the college classroom level nationwide.

Sandra has also produced more than 50 videos for non-broadcast use for museums, tribes and organizations across the United States. In the Heart of Big Mountain (1980), a portrayal of the struggle to stay on ancestral lands by a Navaho matriarchal family, was taken to the United Nations to present the Navaho position. Osawa’s video work has been featured at national and international film festivals in France, Germany, Vienna, Taos, New Mexico, at the Sundance Film Festival, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Osawa has conducted workshops on filmmaking and has been a guest lecturer on campuses across the United States. She has been the sole writer on all of her 16 broadcast films, as well as for her non-broadcast work and is a member of the Writers Guild of America. She has taught script writing, Native American studies and video production at colleges in Washington state and is a published poet and essayist. Osawa has served as a panelist for the Ford Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Paul Robeson Funding Exchange. She was a Washington State Co-Coordinator for the National Indian Youth Council.

Sandra is currently at work on a comprehensive video depiction of the long struggle by Native leaders and communities to retain the treaty right to fish in the Northwest. She lives and works in Seattle, Washington and is the co-owner of Upstream Productions, the company she co-founded with Yasu Osawa in 1980 and continues to create work that explores American Indian political issues as well as the unique, positive cultural and artistic contributions of Indian people today.


2010 Honorees

Terry L. Cross

Jessie Housty

Kim Recalma-Clutesi

Sandra Sunrising Osawa



Astrid Scholz
tel: 503.467.0758
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Jason Pretty Boy
Indigenous Resilience Fellow
tel: 503.467.0803


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