Telling Stories From the Heart
Each month, over on Instagram, I chat one-on-one with talented creative professionals across various industries and communities to engage in uplifting conversations around creativity, entrepreneurship, mental health, and how we can show up in our work as our authentic selves.
Today I want to share highlights from my conversation with Seneca–Cayuga writer and director Erica Tremblay. Inspired by her own family storytelling, Erica has gone on to become a seasoned storyteller who has worked on a variety of documentary and narrative film projects that have been recognized by film institutions such as IFC and Sundance. Erica has even written and directed an episode of FX's Reservation Dogs and an episode of AMC’s Dark Winds.
Erica is committed to her culture. She moved to a reserve in Canada called Six Nations and enrolled in a three-year-long language immersion program. There are less than 20 speakers of the language of the Seneca–Cayuga tribe. Her hope is to help keep the language alive by authentically incorporating it into her film projects.
My and Erica’s paths first crossed in the world of journalism when I was working as an intern at Bustle, where she was the director of video and an amazing boss!
In this conversation, I chat with Erica about rewriting cultural narratives and telling stories from the heart.
Lo Harris: Can you tell us more about yourself and the trajectory of your career?
Erica Tremblay: I am a member of the Seneca-Cayuga nation. I grew up near our reservation lands in Southwest Missouri and Oklahoma. I was always interested in storytelling. I loved listening to my aunties and uncles and my mom tell stories. I was always deeply impressed by people in my community that were able to hold the court and have everyone listening to them.
I think it was around junior high age that I convinced my mom to buy me a VHS recorder at a local Goodwill, and I became the bossy neighbor girl that was forcing all of the neighborhood kids and my friends to be at my place and I was famous for recording trampoline routines.
Then I fell in love with television. We didn't have cable as I was growing up. But we had a family friend that would record MTV or record television shows on VHS tapes and then mail them to us. I would watch those videos for hours and hours. I would watch a certain music video and just dissect it.
I was always really enamored by the art of telling a story through that visual format. I was lucky enough to get a full ride scholarship to Southwest Missouri State University. I got a Media Studies degree. I thought maybe I was going to be a journalist. But I realized I want to be the person that gets to change the truth to suit my needs. And so, I quickly realized that I'm not a great documentary filmmaker and I'm not a great journalist. And that's okay. I'm more interested in how you can take characters and create stories. I want to make things up!
I moved out to LA with like, $2,000. I started working as a production assistant. I've always struggled with autoimmune disease, and I realized that I needed healthcare coverage. So, I got an entry level position in a production capacity at an advertising agency in El Segundo. And it was really there over the next several years that I built a career in production. So I was working in digital production and video production at various advertising agencies working for Kia Motors and Bank of America and some really large clients.
And then I ended up on the East Coast and there was still this nagging dream in the back of my head that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I kind of thought maybe if I made a jump from advertising to publishing that would maybe get me a little bit closer. I moved to New York City. I worked at the Hearst Corporation helping run a large team for all the digital output of Marie Claire, Harper's Bazaar, Esquire. I made my way over to Bustle where I ran the video team there.
While I was at Bustle, I wrote a short film, I submitted it to the Sundance Native Lab, and I got in. When I got that fellowship I just took a chance on myself and also wanted to immerse myself back in culture. I wrote a feature film right after Little Chief had premiered at Sundance, and I got a manager and then things really just kind of like started to explode at that point.
LH: What would you say is the secret sauce to being a good storyteller?
ET: I don't know what it is. I think it's partially just trying to connect with someone and finding a way to do that, whether it's in changing your voice or mannerisms or the way to create intrigue or build tension. My uncle would come back from the grocery store and tell a story that just happened at the grocery store and you're sitting there on the edge of your seat.
I think a lot of it also comes down to what you're trying to pass on or what your goal is to communicate with someone.
People ask me sometimes where my ideas come from, and I have this Google Doc that I keep and I write down all the stories that I tell at cocktail parties and when out with friends. Then sometimes when I have writer's block, I'll go to that. My short film Little Chief is two of those stories connected together.
So I don't know what the secret sauce is. But I think everyone has stories to tell.
LH: When you have a lot of ideas, how do you focus and prioritize which to work on?
ET: It's really hard to compartmentalize the projects and compartmentalize your brain. I'm a very unorganized person most of the time, but one of the things that I've been really forcing myself to do lately is creating calendars for myself, where these three days I'm allotting to Reservation Dogs, these three days I'm allotting to my feature. And I make sure to take days off because you can start to just be so busy that everything blends in and you actually do need a day to let your brain just watch The Bachelor.
So I think it's all about organizing, but then there are some days where I'm sitting and working on something and the other project just keeps knocking and keeps coming back. And so I'll be like, okay, I'm going to swap days because clearly my brain only wants to go write on this thing.
LH: Could you talk a bit about what your work aims to contribute culturally, specifically with respect to your identity as a member of the Seneca–Cayuga tribe?
ET: I think honestly all of my practice comes back to community and comes back to where I'm from. I was raised by just an incredible matriarch. She's my muse. She's the person I love most in this world. I just really am incredibly inspired by the matriarchs that are in my community. They're the hardest women to impress. They're constantly on you to do better, be better. And I've just spent my entire life wanting to impress my mother, wanting to impress my aunties, wanting to do right by what they've taught me over the years.
What they've struggled through to be able to see all of their hard work and to keep me alive and on track has truly been the guiding light for me my entire life. I think it's the reason why I'm constantly getting in trouble for raising my hand to say that's not right. I’ve worked in these spaces that are sometimes just so toxic and steeped with racism and with patriarchy, and misogyny and I just can't stand it. I’m constantly trying to be better myself and make spaces better.
I live here on my traditional ancestral lands in upstate New York on Cayuga Lake and daily I go on my walk and try to consider what it means to be on this land when most of my relatives don't have the privilege of being here.
I would be cheating myself and cheating my community if culture and community weren't the cornerstone of my craft and practice.
LH: Do you have any tips for folks who are looking to figure out how they can fully express themselves in their art but are holding back because they're scared of stepping out, scared of making mistakes, or scared of being different?
ET: It’s hard. I think a lot of times we're fed this idea of the American dream like it just appears in front of you if you work hard enough, but it’s actually really difficult to break through when the world is kind of against what you're trying to do.
If you're trying to tell an Indigenous story in the Cayuga language nobody really wants to make that. It's not a project that's going to make a bunch of money.
That little voice that's inside of you, that nagging feeling that this is something that you want to do -- just keep doing it. When I give that piece of advice, I also always want to follow it up by saying that oftentimes, it's a great privilege to just keep doing something because it costs money for supplies.
If it's possible to find anything that tangentially bumps up against the thing that is your dream, just keep pushing toward that.
Continue to work on your craft. If it's writing, you just sit down and keep writing and share things on Reddit.
Find a group of like-minded people that you can share your work with. I think that the answer to everything for me is always community. Find people around you that are interested in the same things. When I was coming up I had a group of friends and we would volunteer for each other on the weekends. And we would do my little video project one weekend and someone else's video project the next weekend.
Whether you're a painter or a graphic designer or you want to make video content, find other people who are in the same spot and you support each other. And maybe someone breaks and then you have this contact or maybe no one ever breaks, but at least you have the space where you get to go and authentically create the thing that your heart is telling you to create.
Follow Erica Tremblay on Instagram @ericajtremblay.