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Documentary Arts

Quinn Smith ’23: They Never Left: Indigenous Return and Reclamation in the Southeast

Project Date:
Project Date: Summer 2023

In partnership with the Alabama Rivers Alliance and Southern Exposure Films, I used the Benenson Award in the Arts to create a documentary with Indigenous advocates about Indigenous land issues in the American Southeast.

About the Project

Narrative is vital for the advancement of Indigenous peoples because many non-Indigenous individuals in settler-colonial nations are kept ignorant to contemporary Indigenous experiences. Because of this, uninformed voters and social actors legitimize systems of oppression, sometimes unknowingly. Therefore, documentaries can serve as a vital narrative tool to fight prevalent misconceptions about Indigenous peoples, aided by their perception of “objectivity” and resulting social capital. Documentaries have proven to be crucial in revealing important Indigenous policy issues to the broader settler-colonial society and mobilizing Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities around them. Unfortunately, rural geographies, technology access, and even government censorship prevent many Indigenous advocates from accessing a platform large enough to build support for their movements. Thus, many Indigenous communities could benefit from respectful, community-entrenched documentarians (preferably Indigenous themselves) offering their services for free.

In partnership with the Alabama Rivers Alliance and Southern Exposure Films, I used the Benenson Award in the Arts to create a documentary with Indigenous advocates about Indigenous land issues in the American Southeast. To my knowledge, this is the first documentary that has ever been created about this topic. They Never Left is not only a resource intended to benefit Indian Country but also for my own Tribal Nation. The lands today known as Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee contain our sacred Chickasaw and Choctaw homelands.

During the creation of the documentary, I traveled across the state of Alabama to interview Indigenous advocates who were working on a variety of Indigenous land issues. I centered the documentary around three specific warriors from distinct Tribal communities in Alabama. This included the only Chickasaw elder who lives in our Alabama homelands and his efforts to memorialize ancestors who died on the Trail of Tears through a large ceremony in northwestern Alabama. I also featured a Mvskoke matriarch who was running an Indigenous farm in southeastern Alabama to provide Indigenous community members with free access to traditional plants and cultural workshops, with plans to create a completely self-sustaining traditional Mvskoke village. Last, I featured a Northeastern Cherokee warrior who advocates about environmental issues on behalf of his Tribal Nation and many others throughout the state of Alabama. Because all issues are ultimately connected to land, my documentary explores much more than common “environmental” issues. This includes a discussion of the appropriation of Cherokee identity by white people in the South, the operation of illegitimate Tribal Nations in Alabama, and the importance of coalition building with BIPOC communities to achieve systemic change.
The title “They Never Left,” refers to the notion that although some Indigenous peoples were forced to leave their traditional lands in Alabama, our ancestors and nonhuman relatives remained. We must return to our homelands to reclaim the relationships that colonialism attempted to obliterate.

This does not only affect Indigenous peoples. Ensuring that Indigenous peoples can protect and steward the lands their ancestors have known for millennia is essential to ensuring that the world survives climate chaos for the next seven generations and beyond.

Link to documentary: https://vimeo.com/866061860