Steven Judd, Renaissance Native
The Last Full Blood Powwow, as it is tentatively titled, is the first book by Steven Judd, Kiowa/Choctaw. An unconventional work, it will be a collection of short stories by Native writers, tied together in one main narrative that Judd himself will compose.
Sounds pretty interesting. But The Last Full Blood Powwow is merely the latest in a series of endeavors by one of the busiest Native creative types you are ever likely to meet. Over the course of just a few years, Judd has been an actor, a respected painter, and a filmmaker. He has directed the music video for “The Storm,” by Doc and Spencer Battiest, Seminole, and is working on a project with the band Godsmack.
As we said, he’s busy.
A native of Lawton, Oklahoma, Judd studied at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. His working life began with small acting parts, like a shooting victim on the TV show America’s Most Wanted. But he soon realized he wanted to make movies. So Judd and his high school friend Tvli Jacob—now his partner in other projects—wrote and shot a drama on video. Set in their native Oklahoma, American Indian Graffiti is a story about the intertwined lives of four Natives.
At that point, serendipity entered the picture. “Chris Eyre was traveling with his movie Skins at the time, he appeared at the University of Oklahoma,” Judd recalls. “We just gave him a copy of American Indian Graffiti, like ‘Here, dude, we made a movie.’ A couple of weeks later he called me up and said we had some talent. That was pretty much validation for us. Eyre is like the Native American Spike Lee. His film, Smoke Signals was a big influence on me.”
Judd acknowledges that at that stage, he still had a lot to learn. “American Indian Graffiti was my film school; that’s where I learned what works and what doesn’t work. But it has so many problems, I would never want to watch it now. That’s something to pull out for a retrospective one day.”
Judd and Jacob traveled around to festivals and screenings with the film for a while. But Judd’s life changed when he heard about the Disney/ABC Writing Program, in which aspiring writers compete to become salaried television writers. Judd won with a script for the sitcom My Name Is Earl, and moved to Los Angeles to become a staff writer on Disney XD’s Zeke and Luther.
“I went from working at a bingo hall one minute to working in a writers’ room in L.A.” he recalls. “It was so surreal.”
After Zeke and Luther ended, Judd and Jacob won a contest for their script “Search for the World’s Best Indian Taco”; the short was made with money from a friend. It went on to win best narrative at the Santa Fe Indian Market and was named the North American Indigenous Image Award’s 2011 outstanding short.
Judd premiered “Neil Discovers the Moon,” a very different sort of short, at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in October. The film is a one-minute claymation re-imagining of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing; in Judd’s version, Armstrong encounters a Native girl as he’s making his famous statement about one giant leap for mankind. “I had a digital camera I bought off of Craigslist, and I wanted to see if I could make something in the living room,” Judd recalls.
More than an experiment, the film was intended to educate. “I do a lot of workshops for kids, and I thought, What can I make right now without any money? ... I made it to show kids that you could make a movie with just a digital camera.”
But Judd’s biggest recent film project has been a feature; back in January 2010, he got a call from first-time director Korinna Sehringer. “She had a script based on a play, and she asked if Tvli and I wanted to rewrite it and make it a Native family,” he says. “So we did, and it started shooting by the end of April. It was super fast. The cast is like the Ocean’s Twelve of Native film: Tantoo Cardinal and Rodney Grant from Dances With Wolves; Gil Birmingham and Chaske Spencer from The Twilight Saga; and Q’orianka Kilcher from The New World. It’s about a writer from a reservation who goes to L.A. and writes a tell-all book about his family and it’s a best-seller; 10 years later his mother gets sick and he has to come back home and repair his relationships.”
The film, Shouting Secrets, premiered at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco in November, and won the award for best feature.
Judd has always loved film and television, he says, but with a proviso: He has always wanted to see more Indian people on the screen. “I was at Haskell when Pulp Fiction came out, and we loved it—but I wish we could have had Indian people in that movie. They would have cool lines, and we would be repeating stuff they were saying.”
Pulp Fiction and other Tarantino films—as well as the films that inspired Tarantino—are clear influences on Judd’s latest film venture, A Six Pack and Gas Money. The trailer, which can be seen at YouTube.com, depicts a tough guy in a suit cornered by a gang of thugs; after a few words to the Creator delivered in Pawnee, he shoots his way out, firing off so many bullets that the cases pile up on the floor.
“While I was in Oklahoma waiting for Shouting Secrets, I remembered an early script that Tvli and I wrote because we wanted to do Pulp Fiction for Indians,” Judd says. “I didn’t necessarily take a scene from the script; I just wanted to show the vibe of it.” Aside from gas money to drive to a location, Judd only spent $40 on the trailer. Already, he has received responses from Hollywood over the YouTube posting.
And then there is his painting: Judd’s work blurs the line between the tradition of Fritz Scholder and pop art. His images include Native superheroes on authentic ledger paper and portraits of famous Indian chiefs on canvases made out of toast. His new series, "LEGO My Land," shows Indian figures in LEGO form.
Judd’s artwork was in a recent exhibition honoring the Kiowa Five at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary; this month he is the featured artist at the Jacobson House, on the University of Oklahoma campus. It is a particular honor for a Kiowa artist because of the house’s association with the Kiowa Five.
“Painting is relatively new for me, and it’s definitely got some pop art influence in it—I’m like ‘Andy Warrior-hol,’?” he jokes. “I never really started doing it heavily until the past two years. When I first started out I was thinking, This is very simple art. But it’s about the ideas that you are coming up with—are they fresh ideas? Original ideas? That’s more important than the technical side, and that spurred me on a little. You can’t just sit down and make a movie, but you can sit down and make a piece of art real quick.”