Alumni Spotlight—Erik Sanchez (Shoalwater Bay, Chinook, and Chicano) ’22
Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Alum Erik Sanchez (Shoalwater Bay, Chinook, and Chicano) ’22 just started his first semester at CalArts in Southern California, where he is working towards a master’s degree, following on the heels of walking in the IAIA commencement ceremony this past May with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Cinematic Arts and Technology. Sanchez decided to study film as an extension of photography, his “first love.” “The photography is what started everything,” says Sanchez. “I always think of myself as a photographer first.” He studied photography at a junior college, which he continued to pursue despite discouragement from an instructor. “I think after I did photography in my junior college and got my associates, I was like, ‘Okay, let’s make these pictures move now,’” he shares. “And I felt like I just wanted to see more. So, I was like, ‘Okay, let’s add dialogue to it now,’ and because I love the picture, but I wanted to learn more about Cinematic Arts. I think I always knew right from graduating my junior colleges. ‘Okay, I want to do film now.’ I didn’t even think about applying for photography at IA. I was like, ‘No, let’s go straight for Cinematic Arts—that one sounds fun.’”
Sanchez’s photographic oeuvre is both conceptual and documentary. “A lot of the stuff I do is street photography, but then I do know how to construct reality in front of the lens,” he says. With his camera in hand, he often comes across surreal vignettes. “I love to capture those odd moments,” he says. “It’s weird. It’s like, it happens, specifically, when I have a camera on me.” Sanchez values the feedback he’s received from submitting his photography to publications. “And one time, I got someone to critique my work back. I didn’t win anything. But the critique was an amazing experience of who they consider I look like or imitate. That was great because I love the reference they gave me.” He has shown work in a variety of exhibitions. For example, Sanchez’s Savage in the Studio (2018) was mentioned by Pasatiempo. Photographs from Savage in the Studio and another series were shown in a traveling exhibition, yəhaw̓, curated by Tracy Rector, which went to museums such as the Shoalwater Bay Heritage Museum and Suquamish Museum. His photographs have been shown at Old Dirty Design, a design firm in Marseille, France, among other localities.
Sanchez’s short films have also received notice, making rounds on the film circuit, and playing at events and exhibitions. Sanchez was included in Rocky Mountain PBS’s Native Lens mini-documentary initiative featuring viewpoints from Indigenous storytellers. The Santa Fe Reporter’s Alex De Vore wrote about Sanchez and his film Sage Me Not in “The Creeps: Filmmaker Erik Sanchez brings horror to the concept of Land Back.” Site Sante Fe included The Last White Man in the Young Curators Exhibition Private Eye, presented digitally in a 3D space during the pandemic. His animation Longhouse was included in the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management’s Monthly Film Series Quintessentially Indigenous, presented by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Recently, Sanchez had two films at the Santa Fe International Film Festival. His senior project, Tyee—Messenger of the Void, was included in the IAIA Student Shorts showcase; the film was a 2023 IAIA Student Filmmaker CINE Award Winner for Outstanding Actor and Outstanding Screenwriting. Frybread Jesus, which also previously played at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, was shown in the New Mexico Shorts 1 program.
Sanchez was surprised by Frybread Jesus’s reception. “I never heard an audience laugh that much, and that blew my mind. And I realized because I started school in 2019—and then the pandemic, right—so I didn’t get my first experience of, here’s my film in front of an audience. Let’s see what happens,’ until later on. So now that I’m getting the full like, ‘Whoa, we’re in a packed theater. This is wild. A lot of eyes are about to watch this.’ I didn’t know how loud the laughter was gonna be. And now, that became something I want to chase. I want to make people laugh. … I’m here to make the world a little bit softer, I guess.”
Sanchez acknowledges his IAIA Cinematic Arts mentors’ contributions to his creative pathway. A sound class with Anthony Dieter (Peepeekisis Cree Nation) first came to mind. “He would assign a project, ‘Okay, find some visuals and add sounds to it, and make it a little Native.’ And I love that. I love how easy and soft he would say that, but that’s what I wanted to hear from my teachers.” Other teachers were also particularly influential. “Lujan, James Lujan—he definitely was the one to show me how much I love screenwriting. Sharon Ross made me feel like my imagination is limitless, and I thank her for just showing me that possibility of how to be a writer. … we had a pretty good bond that whole way through. I thank her a lot for just believing in me.” She provided Sanchez with many resources. “Dude, they’re all great—Khalil. Liam.” It doesn’t stop there. “Now that I think about it—the whole department. Right, just the whole Cinematics department. The fact that they bring Chris Eyre (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes) to speak with us and look at our work. That’s huge. I think that was the coolest thing that they did.” While at IAIA, Sanchez also interned with the Stagecoach Foundation in 2021. Sanchez asks, “If you could just put how incredibly grateful I am for being at IA and everything they’ve done for me, that’d be perfect.”
Scholarships proved vital to Sanchez’s success. “So, I’ve been on a tribal scholarship with my tribe since my junior college,” explains Sanchez. The Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe offers multiple scholarships for their members and helped put Sanchez through school. “It’s a little nerve-wracking when everyone’s like, ‘We all believe in you, Erik.’ And being able to study storytelling of all things, it’s such a huge deal,” he says. “… I know I got my tribe’s back. What am I gonna make?” While at IAIA, Sanchez was awarded the prestigious 2021 George R.R. Martin Master Storyteller Scholarship. When asked how IAIA helped his career, Sanchez responds, “After I got the George R.R. Martin scholarship—dude, that saved me so much time, and like, I didn’t stress out about ‘Am I going to eat? Am I going to pay rent?’ So now that the money situation got taken care of, I was able to dedicate so much time to school, and I’m glad and grateful I did because what I put into it, I got back out. And I met cool people. I got great opportunities and had time to think of funny films to make. Even just saying, ‘Oh, yeah, I go to school at IAIA,’ that opens doors. That put smiles on people’s faces. I’m second generation to come to the school. My uncle went back in ’68, and he’s been trying to get everyone to go, and I’ve been the next one to go. And I’m trying to convince my cousins and my nephew and nieces to go next, because he knows how it helped him. … he said it was the best years of his life. And I agree. This was my first tribal school experience. And I loved it. I loved it so much.”
A full-ride scholarship enabled Erik Sanchez to attend CalArts, where he hoped to study as a youth. “I grew up in the Imperial Valley, Southern California, part-time. It’s like I did the school things here, but then went to the rez for the summers,” he explains. “And I did that for like, up ‘til I was like 15, 16, 17, and by the time I was graduating high school, I knew about Cal Arts because of a TV show called Six Feet Under.” When Sanchez attended a Digital Dome class at IAIA, a guest from CalArts came to visit. And I was like, ‘Whoa, I remember that school.’ So that was a full-circle moment for me. I really wanted to go when I was out of high school, but financially there was absolutely no chance. So when CalArts came to campus, I thought, ‘Is this finally my chance?’ So, I just kept asking everybody—I was like, ‘Hey, what’s CalArts doing here? I want to go to CalArts. How do I go to CalArts?’ And I asked the right people, and then they said they have a scholarship, and I applied for it. And I prayed real hard, and I got in.” There, he is directly learning from experts in the film industry. “We get people who are working professionals come in and talk to us,” he shares. Gina Prince-Bythewood, who recently directed The Woman King, will be visiting CalArts. “I’m excited for that, because I remember Love & Basketball—when that came out.” He is also expanding his education of film history at the school. “Well, I guess this is what I’ve been seeing from CalArts more, CalArts is more like, ‘Hey, have you seen this? No? Let’s watch it right now.’”
Sanchez talks with his former IAIA classmates weekly. “I tell them what I’m learning, and I show them videos that CalArts is showing me,” he notes. “So, I’m just transferring the knowledge. I’m like ‘Hey, have you seen this one? They showed us this today.’ Yeah, we’re all still talking. I definitely built a good crew.” He has them in mind for future collaborations. “When I first got to IAIA, I didn’t know who I was bumping elbows with at school until we finally started making work, making films. And then it became like, ‘Whoa, I can’t believe I’m in the same class with Rayne Kingfisher or Juliana Brown Eyes.’ They make great films. I want them to be my friends; I want them to be part of my crew. You meet really great people at school. And then for me, I just want them to do what they do best on my films. I try not to be like, ‘No, it needs to be 100% my way.’ It’s like, ‘No dude, I picked you because I love your work.’”
The international student body at CalArts has Sanchez thinking about new possibilities. “Because I’m in such an international campus now, I’m not, you know, categorized as a Native filmmaker anymore. Now they’re putting me as an American filmmaker, and that’s trippy.” Noting the diverse student body, he wants to make films that tap into that.
“As a millennial, as a Native American, I have this pressure on my back that I have to save the world. That one’s a hard one. I don’t know how to do it other than tell a story.” Sanchez has climate change stories he would like to tell in the future, and he has a fantasy dramedy in mind about Indigenous global connections. “Oh, this is a new one I’m thinking about—the globalization of America. If I’m an American, and I’m thinking about my international classmates, it’s like, ‘What do you know about America? Do you know about Indians? Oh, you do? All right.’ … So, I’m trying to make this web that wherever America is, that on the globe—which is basically everywhere because of colonization—then all those people around the world know about Indians.” There are still those who could benefit from further education. “I got to travel to France and Turkey. And it’s always like, there’s always a guy who’s like, ‘What are you?’ And I tell them, ‘I’m Native American—Indian.’ And then they, of course, the first thing—’ I thought you’re all dead.’ ‘Surprise!’ So, I know that people in Europe, people in Asia, they have a concept, they know something—there’s something about American Indians there. So, I’m going to play on that. Especially now that there’s actors from all over the world at my school. So, it’s like, ‘Okay, how do I work with this person from Bangladesh?’”
Sanchez notes that his interest in comedy contrasts with a focus on drama films at CalArts. “There’s a preference for the dramatic films, and I’m coming in like, I’m silly, and I’m making comedy. And it’s hard to joke around sometimes. But I think they’re starting to understand that I’m more of a trickster character than whatever they were expecting.” Still, he is open to new experiences. “I want to give drama a shot. I’ll probably do a couple shorts of that. I would love to come out with a pilot episode of a sketch TV show.”
“Talking about the funny things on big subjects, I watched a lot of Michael Guess, and Spinal Tap I was obsessed with as a kid, and anything satirical. I just loved it,” he reveals. “And I was probably too young to really know all the jokes, but I knew something was going on … So that’s the funny thing about satire and comedy, it’s like, well, I could say big things in a funny way. And it’s all about being simple—and that’s what I noticed is, the more simple the joke is, the bigger of an impact it has. And I think IAIA helped me figure out who my audience is, who I want to make films for. And that’s big, because that’s what the whole identity thing is like, ‘What artist am I? Who am I making art for?’”
Sanchez muses, “I keep saying that I’m a mirror, that I’m water, and I reflect a lot of things. And that happens a lot to me on a daily, personal, one-on-one interaction. And I could do it with film too. So, I reflect and show back things that I’ve experienced—a lot of injustices—I feel like a lot of people see me and have their own idea of who I am, and they treat me a certain way because of that. And I’m lucky I’m a funny person; otherwise, I’d be a very angry person.”
Who is Sanchez’s audience? “I’m making art for other Natives,” he asserts. “…I had a teacher tell me that I should make it more accessible to non-Native folks. I was like, ‘I ain’t doing that. It’s not for you.’ So no, I know who I want to make art for, because that’s what I wanted—or that’s what I needed. When I was in a hard place trying to figure out ‘Who am I?’, identity and art really is the way that helped me express myself and helped me figure out who I am.”
“It’s like, recently I heard the more specific something is, the more original it becomes,” he shares. “So it’s like, well, the more specific I get about being Shoalwater Bay and Chinook and Chicano, the more original this art’s going to become.”
Learn more about Erik Sanchez’s work at www.sanchez-creative.com
Quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity.
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Neebinnaukzhik Southall is the IAIA Communications Writer. They are a graphic designer, artist, photographer, and writer specializing in covering and promoting Native cultures, arts, and design.