One Word: Sawalmem – Healing our Relationship with the Earth – Interview with Michael "Pom” Preston, Winnemem Wintu, and Natasha Deganello Giraudi

By Dan Bacher | 

In his uplifting and internationally-acclaimed short film One Word Sawalmem, co-director Michael “Pom” Preston of the Winnemem Wintu tribe of Mt. Shasta, California gives us a rare look into the life of local Native cultural bearers – people who hold humanity’s most intimate knowledge about how to live in balance with the Earth and how to thrive with the natural world.

The film invites us to consider how the healing of the planet could be facilitated by shifting our relationship with the Earth – from the current mainstream economic one based in exploitation and domination, to the type of relationship that human beings have held dear for tens of thousands of years - a sacred one that is based in respect and reciprocity.

Released in March 2020, One Word Sawalmem was a finalist in the short film program of the Tribeca Film Institute, and has been selected for and won awards at 305+ festivals in Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Bhutan, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, India, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and the US.    

I recently did this interview with co-directors Michael “Pom” Preston and Natasha Deganello Giraudie via Zoom:

About the Directors

MICHAEL "POM" PRESTON is a member of the Winnemem Wintu tribe and the son of the current tribal chief, Caleen Sisk. He grew up in his tribal ceremonies and continues to advocate for sacred site protection along the McCloud River, which have been under threat of inundation from the Shasta Dam raise effort by the US Bureau of Reclamation.  He is a participant in the Run4Salmon, a 300-mile prayer run from the San Francisco Bay to the headwaters of the McCloud River. Runners make prayers at specific points along the waterways for the return of the Chinook salmon and the health of the water and lands.

NATASHA DEGANELLO GIRAUDIE is a mother, a filmmaker and a teacher of nature practice.  She helped to pioneer the micro-documentary genre for humanitarian movements, filming in more than 30 countries and reaching expansive audiences with her work. Her experiential nature meditation film, Inmanencia, released in 2019, was selected for festivals around the world from Boulder to Buenos Aires to Bhutan, where it won the Audience Choice Award.  Her series of short films, Let’s Get Street Smart, was seen organically online almost 800 thousand times and was broadcast to more than 100M households.

What was the inspiration for the film?

Natasha: I grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. My parents felt it was important for me to learn from indigenous people, including the Pemon people north of the Amazon and the Warao people in the Delta of Orinoco River. Those trips had a deep influence on me; I was struck by their relationship with the river versus the relationship of the people of the city with the river; it was very dirty.

So even as a child I felt like I came home to some place of normality when I could drink from a river on indigenous lands. It had a deep influence on me; so I have tried to stay close to indigenous wisdom keepers all my life. I have a 14-year-old daughter and I wanted her to have the same experience – to be able to learn traditional ecological knowledge from people who still remembered the ancestral ways. I wanted to do a film for her and her generation to learn directly from indigenous wisdom keepers.

I had the idea to invite a young native person to direct the film with me and to share one word from their ancestral language that had changed their life and which they could offer to humanity to heal our relationship with the Earth. I had an idea to transmit knowledge in an accessible way – one word at a time.

I had the idea there was one word from their ancestral language that had changed their life to offer for healing. I had an idea to transmit knowledge one word at a time.

I met Pom at Point Reyes where Pom was speaking at a Geography of Hope Conference. There were no local native people there and Pom felt a sense of responsibility to represent for California native people at the time and made an offering. I went to him to share my idea. And his response to me was. “I know my word.” That when the project went from idea to actuality.

Pom:  We wanted to get the word out for salmon and water issues happening in the North State. I wanted to tell the spiritual aspect, the spiritual rather than the political standpoint. There’s plenty of political documentaries, but not as many ones talking from a spiritual standpoint. The film portrays the spiritual aspect and ventures into politics in order to protect the spiritual. This is what my passion is and what drives those who venture into the political realm to protect our homeland.

Another reason for the film was to show an example of how a community is led by a prayer and how they are acting on that prayer to make change for their river and salmon. Another reason for the film was to reach out to people and provide an example of how the spiritual leads movements. It could also be viewed as an example of how young people, movers and shakers, are in a movement led by the spiritual.

Pom, explain the word Sawalmem.

It roughly a translates to “sacred water.” It speaks to the ancient waters before life was created; the original waters and calls them into the present.  

What is the outlook for the Shasta Dam raise at this time that a new administration has come into office.

Pom: In my personal opinion it’s probably going to be more of the same as any other president that’s been in office. It’s been the same agenda as usual. All of them have been for the Shasta Dam raise and I would be very surprised if Biden strays from the same agenda of providing more “water storage” for California.  

Where has this film been shown?

Natasha: The flim has been selected for 35 festivals in 15 different countries. We have also shown the film at different universities, including Cornell, UC Berkeley, Arizona State, and CSUS. The film has also been shown at high schools and middle schools around the country and at UN events.  

Pom, how many Native students did you go to school with
when you were at UC Berkeley?

Pom: In the class of 2013, there were not many people from California indigenous tribes. I felt like there was about 4 or 5 of us who were actively a part of the campus native community.

As the bad impacts of climate change move forward, what can we do about it?        

Natasha: The Run 4Salmon is a Native-led prayerful journey: it is an example of what is needed for humanity, to get us out of the unbalanced relationship with the earth. Not many people understand this. What is spiritual about it is an intimate relationship that is intentionally cultivated with the flow of life. Human beings have lost that. Native wisdom keepers maintain this experience of an intimate relationship with Earth. The reason why this is so infused with hope is because it paints a picture of the way out of the crisis.

Pom: I feel hopeful that the good will win out – it will always win out – and the sacred will always win. Even if we have to start over to do that the good will always win in the end. If capitalism has to collapse in the process then that’s what will happen. The prophecies say that us indigenous people will continue on into the future so we are not too worried about it. So far, pretty much, all that the prophecies have warned us about has already happened. However prophesies are always “most likelys.” If humans wanted to shift the future, we could do it tomorrow but most likely people will continue to allow the world to be exploited and destroyed so, most likely, this all will collapse like the prophesies say it will.

If people realize their power and the true situation we are in, I’d hope that massive change would happen so that we could save it all for the kids. Right now it seems that people don’t think things are as bad as they are. But if more people realize the true risk we are in, we could change it all tomorrow if we wanted through mass movement.

Things are shifting quickly – and can shift overnight. For example, because of COVID, whole countries have shut down and changed society on so many levels. Previously nobody might have ever thought that something like this could ever happen. Change can happen out of nowhere and shift society. It can be towards the good as well and this is what I’m saying; if people really wanted to and were committed to positive change they (we ) can make it happen. But there are blocks to this. Chief Caleen Sisk says we need to get ready for the good things coming. Once we set our hearts to it, we will be unstoppable in our aligned action. We will be aligned to highest aspirations of who we are.

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