Ancestral guide Sammy Gensaw, of the Yurok Tribe, canoes on California's Klamath River in "Gather," a documentary by Sanjay Rawal. (Courtesy Renan Ozturk)
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In the opening scene of “Gather,” an older woman and a young girl walk into a sun-drenched Arizona field of pale golden grain plants. With a deft and gentle hand, the woman crushes the lambent tassels and winnows their tiny dark kernels onto a blanket.

She is Twila Cassadore, master forager and medicine woman of the San Carlos Apache Nation, and she is showing young May how to harvest quinoa. They used to gather this grain, she tells the girl, “before there was corn.” 

This ancient harvest is just one piece of the traditional food systems and larger identity that the Apache, like all Native American peoples, were robbed of through genocide, land theft, violent and culture-denying reeducation, and other colonialist crimes. But now, through both traditional and innovative practices, Cassadore and other Native leaders are successfully bringing ancient food traditions back to their people.

Master forager Twila Cassadore, right, medicine woman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, forages with Mae in “Gather.” (Courtesy Renan Ozturk)

Filmmaker Sanjay Rawal follows members of several tribes across the U.S. as they reclaim their ancestral identities by reclaiming food sovereignty, in the powerful and empowering “Gather,” which streams now through PMA Films. 

“Gather” interweaves the arcs of several stories:

Nephi Craig of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, who became a renowned haute cuisine chef before struggles with substance abuse took him back to the reservation, is opening a reservation café that will work with Native growers and foragers to serve Native foods.

In South Dakota, 17-year-old student scientist Elsie DuBray, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, is inspired by her father’s buffalo-restoration efforts to study the health benefits of wild buffalo meat compared to grain-fed beef.

And Sammy Gensaw, of the Yoruk Tribe in northern California, leads an endearingly Goonies-like group of tribal teens in relearning and preserving traditional practices like fishing for salmon, which are disappearing but considered crucial to the survival of their people.

Rawal, a New York-based filmmaker whose 2014 film “Food Chains,” about agricultural labor, received the James Beard Award for Documentary, has made people, food, landscape, and work a crux of his filmmaking. And we see this in the intimate character-, place-, and practice-driven approach of “Gather,” as its camera lingers lovingly on plains and river and draws us close into the camaraderie of its subjects.

We come along with Gensaw and his wonderfully goofy yet earnestly committed gang of boys – known as the Ancestral Guard – as he teaches them how to net for salmon in the Klamath River. “See these seals?” he says, pointing across to a spit in the river. “These are kind of our people too, so you got to respect these guys.”

Chef Craig harvests food and chats about Anasazi beans in the gardens of farmer Clayton Harvey, also of the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

Seventeen-year-old scientist Elsie DuBray, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, studies the health benefits of native buffalo meat, a staple of the traditional Lakota diet. (Courtesy Renan Ozturk)

We see Elsie DuBray both pipetting in her high school lab and out on the plains with her dad Fred, gazing at the buffalo.

And in one remarkable sequence, Cassadore stalks and kills a small desert rodent with a stick, then boils and picks it clean for Craig and Harvey, who sample and try to describe what it tastes like (“Chicken,” one says with a grin), amid much laughter and joshing.

To remind us of the colonialist atrocities that have ravaged indigenous cultures, Rawal also includes brief but unsettling archival glimpses into the past: a photo of a white man looking very small in the foreground of a huge pile of buffalo carcasses, news clips of federal authorities arresting and assaulting Native fishermen in the 1970s, and footage of uniformed children in the infamous “Indian Schools” where Native children were stripped of their culture. 

And many of the characters of “Gather” have experienced a legacy of that trauma and violence. In candid voiceovers and in talks they deliver out in the community – to a farmers’ conference, to a diabetes-prevention meeting – they speak candidly of alcoholism, drug addiction, and sexual assault. 

But the chief focus of “Gather” is the present and the future: how these individuals are healing themselves and each other through the medicine of their ancestors’ food. Scenes of community and joy are abundant in “Gather,” a film whose very title speaks of an act performed both with food sources and with each other.

“This is so cool!” squeals farmer Harvey gleefully on the opening day of Chef Craig’s cafe, as people converge for first tastes of his acorn stew and quinoa salad.

And fittingly, “Gather” spends much of its time among people eating together – whether just-foraged berries, boiled desert rat, or Chef Craig’s “Apache dip” steak sandwich – and in doing so conveys the profound communion and homage of the act.  

And of course, it’s not just Native people who will benefit from cultivating local and sustainable food systems. Food scarcity, poor nutrition, and environmentally destructive agriculture are endemic in how most of America eats. In the aftermath of the problematic holiday of Thanksgiving – and a Thanksgiving during which we’ve been experiencing the limits of several modern human systems that are at odds with nature – this film makes for important but also jubilant viewing.

In the creative models it presents for more intimate and sustainable relationships with food – and with each other – “Gather” is good medicine for all of us. 

Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.

“Gather,” a documentary feature directed by Sanjay Rawal; 74 minutes; streaming via PMA Films at https://bit.ly/37CwcCs.

Joel Leffert premiers his one-man adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” at Portland Stage Company.

Theater, live and at home: Dickens edition

The holidays will look different for most of us this year, but the season’s most time-loved theatrical tradition – Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – will be available in forms specially adapted for pandemic times.

One favored adaptation is the one-man show, which at least three area theater companies will present:

• Portland Stage Company’s version stars longtime actor Joel Leffert in the world premiere of his own one-man adaptation, with Foley by Nancy Nichols. The show runs on stage through Dec. 24 and streams online from Dec. 15-Jan. 7. Visit https://bit.ly/3mUPWYl.

• In an in-theater presentation at the Footlights Theatre in Falmouth, Michael J. Tobin stars in what’s billed as a multimedia production of the Dickens classic. The show runs through Dec. 23. Visit https://bit.ly/3lRv7M4

• And just a bit south in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Players’ Ring offers an online-only one-man production of “A Christmas Carol,” adapted by and starring Christopher Savage, who has been playing various roles in the show for more than 25 years. Visit https://playersring.org/

Another socially distant approach to Dickens comes from the Penobscot Theatre Company: A filmed “Christmas Carol,” presented with puppetry and stop-motion animation. Longtime PTC Scrooge Ken Stack adapted the show and created it in collaboration with Atlanta theatre/filmmakers The Object Group. The show streams from Dec. 12-27. Visit https://bit.ly/3n5Kfal

And don’t underestimate the power of the ribald in getting us through any holiday season, especially this one.

You can find it online, also at Penobscot Theatre Company, in the adults-only show “Deck the Balls,” performed live in real-time on Zoom by ImprovAcadia, Dec. 10-27. But do Santa’s elves monitor Zoom? Visit https://bit.ly/3qzC73O

— Megan Grumbling