Native American writer-director Tai Leclaire joins IllumiNative’s Indigenous House launch at Sundance Film Festival

Headdress, by Tai Leclaire
Headdress, by Tai Leclaire

Native American writer-director Taietsarón:sere “Tai” Leclaire (Mohawk/Mi’kmaq) has several reasons to celebrate this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

For starters, he’ll be debuting his film Headdress in the short film program at the independent film festival, which runs through Jan. 29 in Park City, Utah. The film, written, directed and starring Leclaire, tackles the all-too-common theme of cultural appropriation, as seen through the humorous lens of an LGBTQ Native.

He’ll also join a panel organized by Native-led social justice organization IllumiNative for its inaugural Indigenous House gathering space to celebrate Native filmmakers at the festival.

“I was sort of always obsessed with this idea,” Leclaire tells In The Know by Yahoo about his film, “especially when this was happening a lot in terms of white folks wearing headdresses at music festivals.”

In Leclaire’s film, the main character (also named Tai) is stunned when he sees a non-Native person wearing a headdress. “He retreats into his mind where a roundtable of various versions of his identity meets to come up with the perfect thing to say,” reads the description on the film’s website.

Leclaire refers specifically to the feathered war bonnets worn by Native men during traditional ceremonies. While the headdress is considered sacred among Native tribes, it has often been seen on runways and at festivals atop people who can’t claim tribal citizenship — considered an egregious form of disrespect toward Native people.

Finding humor in pain

Instead of getting angry — at least outwardly — Leclaire injects humor into a subject that is a painful one among Natives.

“There’s a reason Natives are so f***ing funny because we deal with a lot of shit,” he says.

Leclaire chose to focus his film in a space where he could mull over the best comebacks for this offending headdress-wearer — his own head.

“I wanted to take a deep dive with it and really just explore the nuances in the internal debate that a BIPOC or LGBTQ person has when it comes to something like this,” he says.

The film features a “roundtable of five separate identities,” Leclaire explains, with the two heroes of the story being Goth Tai and Professional Tai, his oldest and newest identities. There’s also Queer Tai, a character that Leclaire says is “still in development.”

As someone who grew up as the “goth gay kid on a Res,” the queer element, Leclaire says, “plays out in the way that it’s something that I’m still personally figuring out, even though I’m in my 30s and dealing with my sexuality and pretty much married to a man.”

Leclaire comes to the film with a strong background in Native humor. In addition to being a standup comedian, Leclaire served as a writer and actor on sitcom Rutherford Falls, a TV series (2021-22) co-created by Mike Schur, Ed Helms and Sierra Teller Ornelas (Navajo) that explored modern Native life.

“It’s truly the greatest job I’ve ever had,” Leclaire shares about the now canceled show. “And it was so wonderful to be in a room with other Native coworkers.”

“It was just such a good time to digest, discuss and come up with Native humor,” he adds. “I always say props to Sierra Teller Ornelas. She really brought the people together that needed to get together and really blew the door open for comedians like myself.”

IllumiNative’s inaugural Indigenous House at Sundance

At IllumiNative’s Indigenous House this weekend, Leclaire will reunite with other Natives in the television and film industry, including fellow Rutherford Falls writer Tazbah Chavez (Bishop Paiute/Nüümü/Diné/San Carlos Apache), who also writes for another landmark Native series, Reservation Dogs, whose co-creator Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee) will also be in attendance.

“We are beyond thrilled to open the doors to the Indigenous House for the very first time at Sundance Film Festival,” Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee), founder and executive director of IllumiNative, said in a statement. “Storytelling is a powerful force for change, and we’ve seen firsthand how impactful Native representation is. The entertainment industry has always been one of the biggest perpetrators of our erasure, but Native peoples have flipped the script and are breaking barriers and making incredible strides in representation. The Indigenous House is a celebration of the contributions made by Native creatives, artists, filmmakers, and the creativity, beauty and strength of Native peoples.”

Leclaire’s panel on Jan. 22 will focus specifically on “Representing Joy.” Moderated by Adam Piron (Cáuigù/Kanienʼkehá꞉ka), director of the Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program, “the discussion will explore how filmmakers of color observe and celebrate the joys of existing within their communities and amplify it through their work.” Leclaire will join filmmakers Randall Park, Eugenio Derbez and Milisuthando Bongela on the panel.

Authentic Native representation

As Leclaire tackles issues of Native identity in Headdress and other projects that are in the works, he says he wants to do so in a way that shows all of its complexities.

“The best way to represent Native indigeneity is to just do it authentically. And sometimes the authentic thing is very messy,” Leclaire says. “But I think it’s in that honesty that we can find the true portrayals of what it is to be a modern Indigenous person. It’s in the mess where all the fun is.”

And if, in the midst of all that mess, you can’t think of something clever or quippy to say to a cultural offender, Leclaire offers the advice of a true comedian:

“I think, when in doubt, just blast them on Twitter.”

(Photo courtesy Headdress.)

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