Student filmmakers ask: Can ‘Indigenous stewardship’ help the Great Salt Lake?

A documentary, ‘Diverted,’ brings Indigenous voices into the conversation about saving the lake.

(Valene Peratrovich) Chris Kirkham, editor for the student documentary “Diverted,” captures footage of a demonstration at the Great Salt Lake on Oct. 28, 2023.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

In Darren Parry’s home one Sunday afternoon, five Salt Lake Community College students circled the former Northwestern Shoshone Nation chairman for a conversation about the crisis facing the Great Salt Lake.

Parry’s gaze remained fixed on the camera in front of him. Visible over his shoulder, in the frame of the camera, were three framed photographs of his ancestral family. They were Shoshone people, survivors of the 1863 Bear River Massacre and their descendants, who were later baptized by Latter-day Saints in the same river.

Parry’s ancestral history serves as an example of how westward colonizers pushed Indigenous people from their homes. When Utah eventually was awarded statehood, Parry pointed out, Indigenous people “were not given a seat at the table,” here in Utah or anywhere else.

That omission informs Parry’s views on current efforts to help the dwindling Great Salt Lake, and it’s why the crew of students visited his home for an interview.

“We’ve scienced this [Great Salt Lake] problem to death,” Parry said. “We have to start looking at the problem from a … different view. Why not maybe an Indigenous view?”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation Darren Parry speaks at a "Rally to Save Our Great Salt Lake" at the Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023.

This conversation with Parry was one of several interviews the student group conducted for a new documentary covering the lake. They decided that the film should focus on “Indigenous stewardship,” a term that refers to the notion of Native people being at the helm of environmental decision-making.

The 30-minute documentary, “Diverted: Indigenous Stewardship and Saving the Great Salt Lake,” premiered in December at Salt Lake Community College’s South City campus. (The students now are working to secure distribution for the documentary.)The premiere came after months of work, carried out by the student group for a course at the college. Those involved in the project – seven students in all – said they wanted to tackle an urgent subject matter.

‘Our lives are on the line’

McCaulee Blackburn, 27, a student and a co-producer on the film, said they first learned about the climate crisis at age 11 and subsequently wondered what lay in store for the planet.

Blackburn said growing up and moving through life was accompanied by “constant climate anxiety” over their future – a future they felt had been stolen from new generations. So, when a SLCC film student pitched the idea of a documentary tackling Great Salt Lake to Blackburn in January 2023, it seemed like a no-brainer to hop on board.

At the time, Blackburn had just finished an internship with the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a group of media and education organizations — including The Salt Lake Tribune — that joined forces in 2022 with the goal of informing the public about the lake and its declining water levels.

During their internship, Blackburn spoke with water experts and wrote articles communicating ways to help the lake. However, they noticed that talks about solutions almost always tended to omit Indigenous perspectives.

“I knew that if I was going to work on a project about the lake, I wanted to make sure Indigenous people were being centered,” Blackburn said.

Of particular interest to Blackburn was the notion of Indigenous stewardship. They aimed to explore the science of the lake as well as how a different set of hands – those with a link to the land – would manage Utah’s water resources, in contrast to the Utah Legislature.

Blackburn initially recruited two fellow SLCC students to work on the project. One of them was a friend, Valene Peratrovich, a film student and an alternating host of KRCL radio’s Sunday morning program, “Living the Circle of Life,” a show dedicated to the Indigenous people of Utah.

Born in Alaska with ancestry from three separate tribes, Peratrovich said she has experienced firsthand the connection that Indigenous people have with nature and the earth. Blackburn’s sentiments were much the same: “Impassioned,” Peratrovich said.

“As an Indigenous woman, it was crazy and relieving to know other people care; that I don’t have to be the only one … trying to push things forward,” Peratrovich said. “Someone sees me, and I see them.”

The three-student group began producing their documentary outside of a class or work setting, relying solely on personal equipment. Then, last fall, Peratrovich enrolled in a documentary production course at SLCC and pitched their idea to the class as a potential pursuit for the semester. Much to Peratrovich’s surprise, the class selected her pitch.

Student Kolby Butts, the film’s co-director, had also pitched an idea to make a film about the lake. Butts said reading about the lake’s lowest recorded point more than a year ago prompted him to bring this pitch forward over other ideas he had been considering.

“Our lives are on the line,” Butts said. “We’re now trying to preserve our spot in the future, so we can continue for more generations. But in the current state of the world, we can’t do that.”

Besides Parry, the film features interviews with water and climate professors, Carl Moore of the Indigenous advocacy group PANDOS, and Elizabeth Kronk Warner, dean of the University of Utah’s law school.

Butts said he hopes the documentary, which juxtaposes expert voices and images of the lake, can help more people connect with the issue — and influence audiences to consider the perspective of Indigenous stewardship.

“The biggest goal of this was to bring this story into a new medium,” Butts said. “We’ve seen dozens upon dozens of articles. … Reading stuff like that works, but I don’t think it gets the point across.”

After the December premiere, the students said they planned not to move on but to expand what they had already created — with the possibility of creating a feature-length documentary.

“We’re going to the wisdom keepers, scholars and community members, and bringing them all together to find the commonality,” Peratrovich said.

Cristian Martinez wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.