As the Wheeler Opera House gears up to premiere its second Shining Mountains Film Festival on Saturday, upwards of 30 Native Americans will travel to the valley from across the West to be part of the three-day community event.

“We’re really opening up Aspen’s arms and welcoming folks in to have a platform to celebrate, to talk, to communicate,” said festival producer and Wheeler executive director Gena Buhler. “And for us here in Aspen, to really have the opportunity to learn from them and their stories and really understand that some of these things that we may have thought were happening in the past, and aren't happening today, are still happening.”

Buhler pointed to the documentary, “Blood Memory: A Story of Removal and Return,” which will screen on Indigenous Peoples’ Day (Oct. 14), as an example of showcasing issues that are still prevalent within indigenous societies. The film follows Sandy White Hawk’s adoption story, which begins at 18-months-old when she was taken from her family on South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation to live with missionaries. White Hawk later learns that her traumatic childhood experience is part of a federally funded assimilative movement that took nearly one-third of American Indian children from their tribal communities nationwide.

After the film, a panel discussion will take place with White Hawk, film director Drew Nicholas, Sheldon Spotted Elk of the Indian Child Welfare Program Office in Denver as well as others involved with the film.

“We’re really trying to present true content to what it means to be a Native American in the United States today,” Buhler said, “as well as reflecting back on the history and storytelling because that’s such a big part of the culture — the stories of the ancestors and how that is seen within the daily Native American life.”

Some of the content is “shocking,” she added, so while the festival is a celebration of Native American culture, it also aims to educate viewers and give a voice to indigenous people.

Produced by the Wheeler in partnership with the Aspen Ute Foundation and Aspen Film, the festival started last year after the city of Aspen in 2017 changed what was known as “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

“I think that instead of just changing a name of a holiday, this is really Aspen’s way of showing that this is important,” Buhler said. She expects folks from the Front Range, Utah, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana to participate in this year’s festival, which will also feature a number of free community events.

Contextually speaking, Buhler views Aspen as “on the cutting edge” in producing a film festival that is dedicated solely to telling stories of indigenous cultures. While a number of film institutes program native content as part of their festival, “what we’re not seeing is a lot of festivals really focused on it,” she said. The American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco is “really the big standout” as well as a source of inspiration for Shining Mountains, Buhler said.

For Aspen Ute Foundation, partnering with the film festival represents the nearly 15-year-old nonprofit’s efforts to ramp up its engagement with the local community, Deanne Vitrac-Kessler.

The foundation played a crucial role in advocating for the city government to change the name of the holiday. In April, the organization hosted its first-ever powwow in Aspen, with plans to host the all-day affair again in 2020.

“We are trying to have more [communal] interaction,” Vitrac-Kessler said. “We realized there was such a lack of knowledge, and communities on the reservations are so cut off from everything, [the powwow] was a good way to bring them out of the reservations so they can share their beautiful culture and knowledge and give them an opportunity to get [off] the reservation, because [the] conditions are so harsh … We’re hoping [these events] will grow.”

Erica Robbie is the arts and entertainment editor for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at or on Twitter @ericarobbie.