SAN FRANCISCO – (aifisf.comMichael Smith, the Relocation-era Sioux man who founded the American Indian Film Institute and the American Indian Film Festival, passed away on Wed., Feb. 14, 2018 in San Francisco. He was 66.
Growing up watching non-Natives play Natives, perpetuating stereotypes and disseminating inaccurate, often offensive portrayals of American Indians onscreen, a 20-something Smith started the American Indian Film Institute in 1975, in Seattle. It took zero persuasion on Smith’s part to recruit two of his heroes – Mvskokee actor Will Sampson (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), and Canada’s Coast Salish actor and tribal leader, Chief Dan George (“The Outlaw Josey Wales;) “Little Big Man”) – to become founding board members of AIFI. A couple of years later, Smith helmed the first-ever American Indian Film Festival; and, in November 2017, AIFF marked its 42nd year of creating countless filmmakers, screening hundreds of films by, for and about Native peoples, and shattering stereotypes around the globe.
In marking its milestone 40 years, the American Indian Film Festival naturally reflects on the themes, forces and faces who inspired new generations, broke through barriers and set the bar for cinematic achievement, against the dramatic backdrop of civil and American Indian rights, a cultural revolution, and cutting-edge films. Will Sampson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Buffalo Bill) , and Coastal Salish actor Chief Dan George (The Outlaw Josey Wales; Little Big Man) broke into mainstream feature films, forging their future as icons, and inspiring a young Sioux visionary to establish a forum and showcase from an indigenous perspective. From relocated urban Indians to rural reservations storytellers, new filmmakers from all corners of Indian country stepped up and spoke up, made movies, and shared them with the American Indian Film Festival.
“Both Chief Dan George and Will Sampson were my heroes, and ultimately became founding board members of the American Indian Film Institute,” Smith said in 2015, as AIFF marked its 40th anniversary. “Seeing these formidable, funny Indian actors onscreen illuminated the void of authentic portrayals, complex characters, and three-dimensional Native life, in the movies. They were unforgettable presences in my life, and at the festival. The American Indian Film Festival gave us a voice, 40 years has flown by, and we’re looking forward to the next 40.”
As tributes pour in for Michael Smith – the visionary Sioux man who changed audiences’ POV of America’s indigenous people and their culture – his family vows to continue his work and honor his legacy.
“The impact of my father’s work, and the American Indian Film Institute’s history will remain immeasurable,” noted Smith’s daughter, Mytia Zavala – who grew up with a second, extended family in the tight-knit community of Native cinema, and has continued in her father’s footsteps. “My Dad would want us to carry on the institute’s vision and mission, and in his honor, we will.”

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The Smith/Spencer family is trying to raise funds to help with medical costs, funeral arrangements, and funds to bring his family and remains back to Poplar, MT. where he will be laid to rest. All funds go to his daughter Mytia Zavala who is in charge of the arrangements.

Friends and family are welcome to attend the funeral services for Michael which will be held in Poplar, Montana or join us in celebrating his life in a Memorial Celebration which will be held in San Francisco Bay Area.
The family is currently in the process of arranging the details and will return with an update with dates, locations and time.
Any amount is greatly appreciated and know that any contribution makes a huge difference.
Thank you for your continuous prayers and support.
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