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Home » Rockies » New Mexico » At Sundance, Tradition Meets Modern World in Billy Luther’s ‘Grab’
Four years ago, filmmaker Billy Luther premiered at Sundance Film Festival with Miss Navajo, a documentary about contemporary Navajo life glimpsed through a Navajo beauty pageant. Luther returns this year with Grab, a documentary that chronicles an ancient tradition with a contemporary twist. On saints’ name days, the Catholic Laguna people take to their roofs with laundry baskets full of items and toss them down to people below. Luther, whose heritage includes Navajo, Hopi and Laguna roots, grew up celebrating Grab Days. He tells the story of this little-known tradition celebrated by a very private people.

At Sundance, Tradition Meets Modern World in Billy Luther’s ‘Grab’

Four years ago, filmmaker Billy Luther premiered at Sundance Film Festival with Miss Navajo, a documentary about contemporary Navajo life glimpsed through a Navajo beauty pageant.

Luther returns this year with Grab, a documentary that chronicles an ancient tradition with a contemporary twist. On saints’ name days, the Catholic Laguna people take to their roofs with laundry baskets full of items and toss them down to people below.

Luther, whose heritage includes Navajo, Hopi and Laguna roots, grew up celebrating Grab Days. He tells the story of this little-known tradition celebrated by a very private people.

NEW WEST: This is a film that chronicles Grab Day, a ceremony you describe as standing at the intersection of traditional native and contemporary Western cultures. Tell me about that.

BILLY LUTHER; Grab explores this evolution of this tradition, this 300-year-old tradition, and it follows three families on the Laguna Pueblo that celebrate this, sometimes annually. We follow three families. One family is a family of six, with kids that range from age 8 to 17 or 18. Another family is a widow who lives with her teenage daughter. The other family is a man who lives off the reservation in the city and comes home every year for different traditional ceremonies and celebrations. I follow these families for about two years. I knew these people in and around the community. It’s a very small community. It was really important to me to see how this community lives together, works together and celebrates together.

This is really a film about the people who live in Laguna Pueblo as much as it is about Grab Day.

The film doesn’t really say, “Day One, Grab Day is this.” I tell a lot about the community and these people through this event. You get a sense of the economy and employment and health issues. All these threads are combined together as we’re exploring this Grab Day celebration.

Why did you chose Grab Days as your focus?

Being Laguna, on my Dad’s side, this was something I took part in every summer at my grandparents’ house growing up. It was an experience that was unlike anything else. But also what drew me to it was community. I love Laguna land. I love Laguna people. The doors were always open to us. There were always people trying to feed us. We’d be driving down the road and stopping to ask people for directions. They’d say, “Come in. Are you guys hungry?” That’s very characteristic of Laguna people, and Pueblo people in general.

So what is a Grab Day?

When the Spanish came to the area, they brought Catholicism with them. The Pueblos were pretty much inviting and welcoming and lived together with the Spaniards, but then the Spaniards started to ban a lot of the culture and tradition of the native people, thinking it was witchcraft or wasn’t their beliefs.

The Grab Days honor the saints of the specific days. St. John. St. Peter. St. Anne. These pueblos have feasts, celebrations, traditional dances. They would honor their family members, but also honor saints on the day. There are many Grab Days that happen for different saints’ names.

Grab Days came about because many of these pueblos were a sharing culture.

Usually about sundown, family members will start to put laundry baskets of items on rooftops. They can throw anything from toilet paper, boxes of sugar, Cracker Jacks. When I was making this film, I really wanted to see the origins of it and what people throw. That’s something that I would ask my grandfather. Everything was homegrown when he was growing up. The Lagunas were farming people. What they had that year in their harvest people would share. Bakery items. Cookies. Bread. And they’d make items like aprons and things like that.

I really wanted to see what other people’s experiences with Grab Days were. People were telling me that they used to throw chickens or tires or whatever they had.

What was really interesting to me was seeing how this evolved, from homegrown to now it’s a trip to Costco. It was just fascinating to me, because the era I grew up in, it was Cracker Jack boxes and soda cans.

Grab Days were a part of your growing up?

Yeah. We’d just go get a plastic grocery bag and go from home to home. Sometimes you’d jut get a wet sponge. Sometimes you’d get a bunch of items. I’d give it to my grandmother and say, “Here’s sugar,” or “Here’s flour.” Everything that’s given to you at a Grab, you know there’s love put into it. People give you what they have. You respect that. You’re told never to complain about what you get.

How different was it for you coming in as part Laguna than if you were coming in as an outsider?

The access was a huge part of it. The Pueblo community has been very private. You drive through this reservation and there’s signs posted, “no filming, no photographs, no sketching.” I went to the tribal government, I went to village leaders and just told them, this is the story I want to tell. I know the protocols and I will adhere to them. I think my being Laguna, they totally understood and acknowledged that and knew that I went in with that in mind. I wasn’t going to tell a story that was going to exploit my own people.

Also, the families I followed, many of them are family on my grandfather’s side. I think knowing that I wasn’t going to exploit them made it easier for them.

What do you hope audiences come away with?

Growing up, I had never seen contemporary native films. They were always historical films about native people. When I got to Sundance and bring audiences into these lives of Native American people today, these modern stories of native people, I think that’s something that people don’t see. I’m really fortunate to be telling these stories and showing the world these stories. I don’t want to teach these people a history lesson. I want people to be told a story that is entertaining and humorous. I want people to walk away saying, “Wow! I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“Grab” premieres at 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22, at the Temple Theatre in Park City. Here’s a complete list of showtimes for the film.

Follow David Frey at www.davidmfrey.com and on Twitter.


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