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Stunt Nations takes reins for Indigenous representation in film

“My reward is getting to see other people get their foot in the door and get that experience. At the end of the day, if another Indigenous person, or better yet, someone from my own community can get their name on the big screen, that means a lot.”

ÎYÂRHE NAKODA – A stunt company with Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda roots is giving more Indigenous peoples a chance to fall head over heels for the province’s in-demand film industry.

Stunt Nations, launched in 2021, is churning out set-ready stunt actors to meet an increasing amount of filming opportunities, but more importantly, to add more Indigenous names to a growing list of credits in Alberta.

“My reward is getting to see other people get their foot in the door and get that experience,” said Stunt Nations co-founder Marty Wildman. “At the end of the day, if another Indigenous person, or better yet, someone from my own community can get their name on the big screen, that means a lot.”

The stunt school, which hosted a workshop at Chiniki Ranch last week (March 27-31), has trained hundreds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in recent years. Many have found work in recent Alberta-based productions including Wind River: The Next Chapter, Hulu’s Prey, and CBC’s Heartland, now going into its 17th season.

Nextflix’s outlaw western series, The Abandons, is also set to begin filming its first season in the Calgary area in June. Wildman said the production has already reached out to scout from the Stunt Nations talent pool for trained professionals.

“They’ve asked me if I can send them our roster, people who have been through training,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity and I think they’ll be able to find work on that.”

Wildman, of Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation, grew up around the Mînî Thnî (Morley) area. He said it was mostly by chance that he was able to break into film in the 1990s while CBC was filming the television series North of 60 in Bragg Creek, but it’s been a rewarding career that he hopes other Indigenous peoples have the opportunity to pursue.

His other film credits include Lonesome Dove (2004), Heartland (2015-16 & 2018), Outlander (2017, 2019 and 2021) Invasions (2021) and Makings of a Murder (2022).

Opportunities for Indigenous up-and-comers should no longer be left to chance, Wildman said. Especially at a time when so many productions are capitalizing on the province’s film and tax credit, and many films shooting on Indigenous lands – with permission. 

“At the end of the day, we have X number of people that are willing and able to go and work on these productions. There’s no reason to not have Indigenous representation. These people understand what it means to hit your mark, how to fall down and sell it to the camera,” he said.

The economic impact of film and television production in the Calgary area alone soared to a record $522 million in 2021 because of improvements to the province’s tax credit program, according to the City of Calgary’s economic development agency.

In January 2020, the Screen-based Production Grant was replaced by Alberta's Film and Television Tax Credit, enabling the province to better compete with other regions such as B.C., Manitoba, and Ontario in attracting film productions.

Alberta's 2022-23 budget also includes an increase of 40 per cent from 2021 to the Film and Television Tax Credit program for a total of $70 million in 2022-23 and $225 million through 2024-25.

“It’s a growing business with the amount of films coming into Alberta and we’re trying to make sure there’s space for everyone at the table,” Wildman said.

It is films like Prey, released in 2022 as the latest sequel to the Predator series, that are driving change in Indigenous representation in film, he noted.

The production was largely filmed on Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation and the cast was about 95 per cent Indigenous, including its producer, Jhane Myers, who is Comanche and Blackfoot.

“The best thing about having a First Nations or Indigenous producer, stunt coordinator, director … is that we know the protocols of our cultures and how to not culturally appropriate – how to do things properly,” said Wildman.

While that representation may be happening in “baby steps,” Wildman said he’s also recognized positive change over the years.

“It’s becoming great to see, actually. From where we were before, with portraying this stereotypical stoic Indian character over and over again, to now actually showing real emotions and other character traits – it’s a great feeling.”

Tom Eirikson, a facilitator in Stunt Nations’ workshops and stunt coordinator for Heartland, has worked in the province’s film sector since the 1980s.

While the industry has experienced highs and lows from then to now, Eirikson said one theme that will likely always carry in the province is its idyllic backdrop for westerns.

“This has always been the perfect spot for shooting westerns because of the mountains and the landscape, but also for the availability of horses and talented riders,” he said. “I’ve been able to recruit a number of people through workshops here to work on Heartland.”

Equestrian handling is a large part of Stunt Nations’ teachings. Participants learn horse etiquette, and how to ride and fall safely from horseback in a way that also works for the camera.

Wright Bruisedhead, an Indian National Finals Rodeo champion who has been involved with stunt acting for over 15 years, facilitates workshops alongside Eirikson. Bruisedhead is best known for his work on Brokeback Mountain (2005), Texas Rangers (2001) and The Last Rites of Ransom Pride (2010).

Nathaniel Arcand, of Alexander First Nation, is co-founder of the stunt company and has more than 30 years of experience in the film industry as a director and stunt actor. It was during filming North of 60 that he and Wildman met and first discussed the idea of how to get more Indigenous peoples into stunt work.

Their vision for Stunt Nations is to eventually expand into a facility with equipment for people to safely learn how to do backflips or fall down stairs, for example, in addition to the equestrian, hand-to-hand combat and weapons training they currently give.

“We want to get to that level where people can do a scene where they’re jumping off a building, parachuting out of a plane, riding motorcycles off ramps and around cars – that’s the growth for us, that’s the future,” Arcand said.

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.

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