Dr. Joshua B. Nelson is a native Oklahoman who acquired his undergraduate degree in Psychology at Yale University, then returned home to OU to study American Indian Literature. An accomplished academic, he additionally obtained his MA and PhD in English from Cornell. Dr. Nelson is now a professor of English and is an affiliated faculty member with Native American Studies and Film & Media Studies. He has recently published a book on Cherokee literature, identity, and culture called Progressive Traditions and is currently at work on a book called Skin Flicks: Indigenous Cinema and the Politic Body. In addition, Dr. Nelson is working on a documentary film about American Indian Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, the Thunderbirds.
Tell us about yourself.
“I’m a Cherokee Oklahoman—grew up in Tuttle, went to Yale for my BA in Psychology, came back home to study American Indian Literature here at OU and during this time married my wonderful wife Tiffany (also from Tuttle—who I didn’t know growing up there. It’s an awfully big town), and left again to get my PhD in English from Cornell. I wrote my dissertation out in Cherokee country, south of Tahlequah where my wife and dogs (Omar the adopted golden doodle and Alfredo the rescued standard poodle) spend our summers. When I’m not professing, I play punk rock and classic country guitar, float around and fish on Lake Tenkiller, and watch Jim Jarmusch movies. Ideally, all at once.”
What got you interested in the Crossroads Film Festival?
“Going way back, I remember how big a deal it was for me when I first found Sherman Alexie’s characters who spoke to a realistic American Indian experience in literature, and then saw them portrayed on the big screen in Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals. Moments like that helped make me a professor, and now I can do work I absolutely love.
For several years I’ve been teaching American Indian film, and in reading and writing about it, it became clear how hard it is to see some of the out-of-the-way work Native people have made, because the viewing and distribution options of mainstream material just don’t make it their way.
So several of us—especially Associate Dean Vicki Sturtevant, who was director of FMS at the time, and Kristin Dowell in Anthropology, unfortunately no longer with us—decided we’d see if we could drum up enough support to put on a festival and get these films in front of Native people who might also find them meaningful. Since then, we’ve gotten support from all over campus: the College of Arts and Sciences, the Provost’s office, private donors like the Chickasaw Nation and others have been incredibly generous.
So have many more faculty, like Laurel Smith (from the Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability, who has been instrumental in expanding our programming to include Indigenous films from Mexico) and Sunrise Tippeconnie, and staff members like Karl Schmidt and Jen Dubois in FMS, who have basically taken on an extra unpaid job to handle all the organizational work that goes on with the event.”
How can students get involved with you and your efforts?
“We can use volunteers in a number of ways during the big event in the spring (April 7-9 this year, at the Sam Noble Museum), and in the smaller ones we have started doing in the fall. Where we could really use help from students is in making new films. That’s the major goal of the festival, to increase the number and quality of Indigenous films, so we’re now linking up classes like Sunrise Tippeconnie’s with the event and coordinating with FMS and NAS to train a new generation of Native storytellers. Students who want to get involved in film—as directors, actors, scholars, editors, programmers, and more—can reach out to us and we’ll find a way to get them going.”
What is the biggest thing you want the OU community, especially students, to know about Native Identity, Crossroads Film Festival, and your work?
“I’d most like for students to have a sense of how valuable their intellectual and artistic contributions can be. Coming to creatively-inflected intellectual work relatively late in life and finding out how rewarding it is, I wish someone had told me about it years ago. So I’d like to tell students now how fantastic it is for them and the world that they get out what they’ve got in them.”
Ashley Jeffalone is a junior at OU. She is majoring in psychology and minoring in criminology and writing.