Wrong place, wrong time.
That's how N. Bird Runningwater describes turning points in
a life that traversed three cultures and put him at the center of
racial tensions as a University of Oklahoma student twenty years
ago. Instead of setbacks, the wrongs added up to the right path
for Runningwater to give voice to others as director of the Sundance
Institute's Native American and Indigenous Program.
Damphousse, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, congratulates
Bird Runningwater, left, on being honored as a Distinguished
Graduate during ceremonies last spring. (Photo by Jawanza
As the first graduate of OU's Native American Studies program,
Runningwater returned to Norman earlier this year to be honored
as a distinguished alumnus of the College of Arts and Sciences and
to celebrate the elevation of NAS to department status. He shared
candid stories of his childhood a blended heritage that began
when a Cheyenne prom queen at Chilocco Indian High School met a
Mescalero Apache "bad boy." His family tree is ringed with his ancestors'
sacred titles: chief, Sundance priest, keeper of arrows.
"I don't know how many of your grandparents wore matching outfits,
but mine did," says Runningwater, offering a faded portrait of a
handsome couple with a distinct style. "I was about two when we
left New Mexico and my parents started college in Oklahoma. I went
to live with my maternal grandparents in Clinton. My grandfather
was a Cheyenne chief, so we lived a very ceremonial life."
Runningwater remembers bumping along to tribal meetings and
social gatherings in his grandfather's pickup. Cheyenne was spoken
in the home. Preserving native culture was not an academic pursuit
to his grandparents; it was everyday life. When his parents completed
their college educationhis mom with an OU nursing degreethey
retrieved Runningwater on their way back to New Mexico, to "reintroduce
me to the wild Apaches of the Mescalero Reservation."
"I was about six and I remember going onto the playground and
everybody was speaking Apache. I thought, 'Oh, my God, I have to
figure this out! I should have been here when everyone else was
His first feelings of "wrong place, wrong time" were mitigated
by a loving family with blended traditions, languages and cultures.
"I learned that some people only spoke one language, whether it
was English or Cheyenne or Apache, but I had this fortune of having
a home that spoke all three."
Runningwater grew up assuming there were three different ways
of saying things, three different ways of doing things, three different
ways to consider before a taking step forward to honor whatever
protocol might be in place at the time.
Embrace those moments when
you think you're in the wrong place at the wrong time ...
There are so many great stories yet to be told. Bird
In 1988, he entered OU as a 17-year-old freshman wondering what
to do with his life. After a trial and error of majors, he decidedto
look objectively at his strengths. "In fourth grade, we had to write
books, and I was always telling stories about my grandparents in
Oklahoma, about my horses and my cousins. My teacher loved them,"
he recalls. "So I thought, yeah, journalism."
During college, Runningwater worked as a writer and columnist
for The Oklahoma Daily. He also took every Native American course
he could find in any department, including literature, history,
aesthetics and cross-cultural communication.
"I wasn't alone. Native students are so hungry for exposure
to our own sense of being. No matter what the theme or subject,
we were taking every native course possible," he says.
Runningwater took so many native courses that shortly before
he was to graduate he was approached by Barbara Hobson, coordinator
of Native American Studies. She told him that NAS was about to become
a degree-granting program and added, "You're going to be our first
"Ok," said Runningwater. "What does that mean?"
It meant the fifth-year senior would have to postpone graduation
another year to finish requirements. This "wrong place, wrong time"
moment was life-changing, he says.
"If I hadn't stayed, I wouldn't have been a columnist for the
OU paper when something quite definitive happened to our native
community on campus," he recalls.
The year was 1994, and Runningwater had nothing more on his
mind than finishing up, accepting his Woodrow Wilson Fellowship
and starting grad school in Texas when a tepee on the south oval
was vandalized and its occupants harassed by members of a fraternity.
"Had we had cellphones back then, we might have been able to
capture it and justice might have been more swift," says Runningwater.
"But the incident was barely mentioned even though our students
had filed complaints about being attacked."
That week the journalist used his column to explore the vandalism
and its aftermath. And that's when "a nuclear bomb kind of went
off." The column sparked a debate among students, faculty and administration,
both supporters and opponents. For the first time, Runningwater
discovered the power of his voice.
"I began to use my column week after week to document what was
happening," he says.
"There was no Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. I started to
authenticate my own voice as a writer. I also learned speaking a
truth can put you in danger."
Runningwater started receiving hate mail at the Daily office,
death threats on his voice mail at home. While unnerving, it was
also gratifying that people were listening. Justice "somewhat" prevailed,
he says. Although criminal charges were never filed, native students
began having meetings with the administration and other groups on
campus. Acrimony gave way to inspiration.
"I left for Austin with a feeling of relief," he says. "So much
had been happening emotionally and spiritually."
After earning his master's in public policy, he moved to New
York for a job at the Ford Foundation, where he helped build its
arts and culture program. He noticed during the '90s that Native
American directors had yet to make feature films. The paperwork,
non-profit status and legal requirements precluded many aspiring
filmmakers from applying for available grants.
In 1998, the Sundance Institute invited top-ranking executives
at the Ford Foundation to attend its annual film festival in Park
City, Utah. None of them could go. "I was sent against my will,"
he says. "I was whining that it was winter; it was Utah; it would
That was the year "Smoke Signals" premiered at Sundance. Runningwater
had met director Chris Eyre in New York when Eyre and screenwriter
Sherman Alexie were struggling to make their first feature film.
"I had witnessed their struggle and then I was there at the
world premiere and it won all the top awards," recalls Runningwater.
"Miramax bought it and it ended up being the second highest-grossing
independent film of that year. Sundance had supported Chris and
Sherman and helped them through."
Back in New York, Runningwater had taken a new job with the
Rockefeller Foundation, but was growing restless in the city. He
was packing his office when the phone rang. It was Heather Rae,
director of the Native American program at Sundance, offering him
a job in Los Angeles. His response: "I'll be right there."
The job in native programming suited Runningwater as much as
the California sun. Every wrong place and time coalesced into precisely
the right background for someone who wanted to help others tell
their stories from a native persepctive.
"It reminds me of writing for the Daily at OU," he says. "I
had this story that I needed to tell and that I was trying to articulate.
Trying to convey these intriciacies and nuances in a scenario that
was unfortunate, but still trying to reach the broadest audience
possible and strike a common chord. It's very much what we do at
The institute, founded by actor Robert Redford, has supported
many native filmmakers, including Sterlin Harjo (Seminole-Muscogee),
Randi LeClair (Pawnee) and Blake Pickens (Chickasaw). All attended
"OU's Crossroads Film Festival is a great supporter of our work,
as is deadCenter in Oklahoma City. I attended the premiere of Sterlin's
film 'Mekko' at deadCenter, which was the only experience I've ever
had sitting in an audience of 99.9% Creek people," he says.
"You could have heard a pin drop. You could also feel the pride
and emotion. I think that was one of the highlights of any world
premiere ever attended."
Runningwater has long worked to support native filmmakers on
a global scale, including New Zealand, Hawaii, the Arctic Circle
and British Columbia. He is also turning his attention to what he
calls the "fourth generation" of native filmmakers, those in the
18- to 24-year-old range. Who will they be? How will they work?
Will they make films on their iPhones?
No matter the medium, Runningwater offers a piece of advice
to those starting out in film: "Embrace those moments when you think
you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. You just have to stay
open. There are so many great stories yet to be told."