Kelli Morning Bull

A photo of Kelli Morning Bull
Kelli Morning Bull | Photo: Courtesy of Kelli Morning Bull

Kelli Morning Bull

Original Peoples Investment Program showcases FNMI artists in our community

Here in Calgary/Mohkinstsis we have many Indigenous artists who are both dedicated to their creative profession as well as dedicated to community development and making this city a better place to live for Indigenous people. One of those artists is Kelli Morning Bull.

Morning Bull is a Piikani filmmaker of exceptional skill and talent, trained at SAIT’s Cinema, Television, Stage and Radio Arts Program (Now the Radio, Television and Broadcast News Program).

She is a mother and activist who has been directly involved in important movements such as Idle No More and working hard as a board member for organizations such as EMMEDIA and Making Treaty 7. She has helped many Indigenous students navigate their way through Mount Royal University as a Student Success Coordinator at the Iniskim Centre and now, as an Indigenous Service Design Lead at the Calgary Public Library, she continues her work for the greater good of the community.

Her recent film, Treaty Money, examines the annual payment of $5 that the Indigenous people of Treaty 7 receive from the Government of Canada since the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877. In 2019 Morning Bull applied to the Original Peoples Investment Program to make her film Treaty Money and was successful in getting the grant.

I got to speak with her recently to learn more about her journey as a filmmaker, the challenges she has faced and her ongoing community work in Calgary/Mohkinstsis.

Kelli Morning Bull: Oki! Nitanikowa Pohkaaki, my name is Kelli Morning Bull. My Blackfoot name is Little Woman. I’m from Piikani Nation which is located in Southern Alberta. On the map, it’s called Brockett. My mom is from Piikani and my dad is from Siksika. I’m a filmmaker and I work at the Calgary Public Library.

Sable Sweetgrass: How long have you been here in Calgary?

Kelli Morning Bull: In September, it was 15 years since I have been living in Calgary. On Child Tax day! I always remember that because when I moved here, I had money in my bank account.

Sable Sweetgrass: Did you come here to go to school or to work? What was it that brought you here to Calgary?

Kelli Morning Bull: Well, I was living in Fort McLeod. I was going to school at the Lethbridge Off Campus satellite campus through Lethbridge Community College. I had completed my program and I was wondering what my next steps were. I had no intentions of moving to Calgary, ever! But my sister had recently moved back from New Zealand and she just had her baby. She got a job in Calgary and needed somebody to take care of her daughter. So, I followed along and became a nanny.

I realized that taking care of kids isn’t really what I enjoy. I liked and needed to work. I like to do something productive so I worked with the federal government for a few months through a youth exchange program. Then I did some landscaping, and then, I worked at Tim Hortons. Tim Hortons was sort of my “I need to go back to school job.” This wasn’t something that I want to do for the rest of my life.

I enrolled into SAIT shortly after and that’s where I took the Television Program. Since then, I have been doing films here and there. More now because people are really wanting that Indigenous content but people are also wanting to work with more female-minded directors and producers.  

Sable Sweetgrass: Was filmmaking something that you fell into or was it something that you aspired to when you were younger? And what has film been for you?

Kelli Morning Bull: When I was a kid, I used to write a lot. I would write almost daily. Whether it was a daily journal or stories that I would make up on my own. I’d always write about animals for some reason. Particularly dogs, I don’t know why. I started writing these stories for my son so that I could read to him. Stories of being on the reserve. They were no more than five pages long.

When I was home a lot, my younger sister, who was 15 or 16 at the time, and my parents had bought a video camera, and so my sister and I started to make music videos in the basement. We would do like Marilyn Manson music videos. We would do Eminem videos. Just like all different ranges because it gave us something to do. I never thought of it as this is something I want to do for the rest of my life. It was just something to pass the time and to laugh because we would share them with our families after we were done. We’d all sit in the living room and my sister and I would play the videos and we would all just be laughing because they were hilarious.

And then I moved to Calgary. I was slowly introduced into the art community by going to different gallery shows. That really piqued my interest because I always thought of myself as a creative person. These places that I was going to reflected that identity in me. But I still wasn’t sure. How am I going to pursue this? How am I going to be an artist? I never thought of being an “artist.”

I just wanted to be creative and make stuff and be paid for it because that would be amazing! I knew a person and we were having a conversation when they suggested, “Oh, you like writing. You should try the film program.”

They said, “Technical work is really important and it’s highly needed in Indigenous sort of film communities.” So, I went to SAIT and inquired about it. I wanted to take the journalism program because I liked the writing aspect of it but journalism was already full. The film program at SAIT was already full. My last option was television so I jumped into it and it was probably one of the greatest things that I ever experienced.

It really helped me to come out who I was, as a person, as an artist and as an Indigenous woman. It gave me that clarity of who I am and how I identify. Because it wasn’t until that program that I actually wanted to be Indigenous, or that I wanted to identify as Indigenous. I wanted to be proud of being Indigenous because leading up until then, I always had this shame. Ashamed to be Indigenous just because of the discrimination that we face as a people.

That’s when I learned about Residential Schools. I didn’t even know it was a thing. That really opened up and made a lot of things that I was feeling make sense. Since that moment, I have just been on this path of finding myself. And, I think I know who I am. I’m constantly growing and shifting and learning and changing but that just comes with life in general. I really did something for me. It made me want to be a positive role model for my son, for my people, to show them that you can pursue your dreams.

It takes a lot of work and it doesn’t come as quickly as you want it to, but, at the end of the day, when you are trying really hard, even if you’re not there, you still feel proud of yourself because you are working towards a goal. And, for me, it’s not always about the end product. It’s that journey in between. I like that journey aspect. And so, it’s been a real journey for me in the city and this is my home. Calgary is my home. Piikani is my home. I’m a Blackfoot in Blackfoot Territory. I feel very connected here.

Sable Sweetgrass: You’ve done a lot of work in the community even outside of being an artist. You were involved in Idle No More. Tell me about that. Tell me how that is an important part of who you are.

Kelli Morning Bull: I think when I was a kid, I used to dream and reflect. I didn’t quite understand the world just yet. But I knew that there was a lot of work that needed to be done. And, so helping people, helping to educate people is my real passion because I want people to have a good life. Especially Indigenous people because we are faced with so many barriers.

It’s so challenging for us and I just want to make life easier for our people. Being involved in Idle No More was the start to that journey. I always knew I wanted to be an activist and Idle No More was perfect. There were a lot of like-minded women, strong women, yourself included, were a part of that. We were walking in solidarity with each other. You know, that energy that comes when our people come together. It’s so powerful.

That’s what I thrive on but I also understand that there needs to be a lot of work done behind the scenes, behind these institutions, and these systems. Protesting is very much a part of that awareness piece but a lot of that real work comes from changing systems and educating people so that they can understand who we are as human beings, as Indigenous people, and why our communities are so traumatized. So that they can have a better understanding and compassion because we walk down the street and people already judge us for the colour of our skin.

When I was 24, I was walking down Olympic Plaza and a homeless guy, a white homeless guy, spit in my face for no reason. I was just walking to work. That traumatized me. There’s a lot of work to be done. That is why I position myself in specific spaces, like EMMEDIA. I saw a lack of representation for Indigenous filmmakers so I positioned myself to sit on that board to create programs or to bring ideas to the staff to say this is what we need to do. And, it takes time. I’ve been with them for eight years now and a lot of things have grown. We’ve worked in a lot of Treaty 7 communities to help them bring their own voice forward, and to show them that they matter, that their stories matter, and people want to hear them. Providing platforms for Indigenous people is just something that I want to do and continuously do.

I think a lot of it comes from my grandparents. Both sides of my family—a lot of my grandparents were Chiefs of these nations, Piikani and Siksika. My grandfather from Siksika, Clarence McHugh Sr., did a lot of groundwork. He built the Friendship Centre here with my granny and I didn’t know that. Those are pieces of history that are a part of me that is so important.

When I worked at the Friendship Centre, that’s when I found out because I was doing research for them. I said, “This guy looks familiar. He looks like my dad,” and, then underneath, there was a tagline. “This is my grandpa!” I saw their signatures on the documents. I think a lot of it is ingrained in me already. I want to keep that legacy going for my grandparents because they’ve done a lot. As Indigenous people, it is our job to do these things. And, for me it’s second nature and it’s just something that I always knew that I wanted to make change.

Sable Sweetgrass: What are your goals as a filmmaker, and what are your hopes and dreams?

Kelli Morning Bull: Last year I completed two films which was really awesome. I was very exhausted at the end of the year and COVID came at a good time because it helped me to chill out, but I miss it. I’ve been doing film panels and interviews in the last six months, and I miss it! I miss creating. I miss being with other people and working together. Again, it’s about that journey and then seeing that end product of what you create and what comes out of your ideas. I want to continue that and I want to continue to be a filmmaker. I’m torn because I love my job at the library and I love being a filmmaker. I know I don’t have to choose but sometimes I’m like, I should be a full-time filmmaker. I could do it but then, I like the library. So, I’m going to stay at the library. I’ll just do it on the side and I’ll be tired, but whatever.

My dream is to make a comedy, a full feature comedy about our people, about our humour. I watch it a lot on Tik Tok videos with Indigenous humour. It brings people into our world, from our perspective. You always hear about Indigenous women laughing and “that’s so beautiful” or “that’s crazy.” And it is. It’s intense when Indigenous women get together, laugh, and cackle.

But we don’t hear that anymore. I’m noticing I’m not laughing as much as I used to. It’s always good to be with people and I want to focus on that. Everything just seems so dark sometimes. All these dark films, they’re super important, and we need to have more of those but we also need something light and fluffy that takes us out of those spaces every once in a while, and to remind us of who we actually are.

We’re not our trauma. I have to keep telling myself that. We are a collective people and we have an identity. Trauma is just a piece of it. That’s what I want to focus on is humour. Allowing people to say, “I’m going to take a break from where I’m at and I’m going to sit down and take it into a different time or space through film.” That’s what film and television does. It takes us away from those spaces. It allows us to be somewhere else even if it’s just for a brief moment.

I am working on a script. I don’t want to give my idea up because it’s pretty awesome!

Sable Sweetgrass: Hang on to those ideas!

Kelli Morning Bull: I’m working with one of my friends. We’re writing this comedy together and, hopefully when it’s done, I would like to pitch it and then start working on it.

Sable Sweetgrass: Right on! So, tell me about the project that you did when you applied for Calgary Arts Development in 2019. It was called Treaty Money.

Kelli Morning Bull: Treaty Money started with a conversation that I had with this guy that I just met. We were paired together to work on another film. He was asking about Treaty Day. And I said, “Oh, that’s the day we get our five bucks.” He was like, “What!?” I said “Yeah, we get our five dollars as Treaty Status Indians. We get five dollars a year as our allowance from our “mother” the Queen.” He couldn’t grasp the concept around it so we sat there and we had this conversation.

In that conversation, he pulled out a lot of information that I was sharing, that I thought was common knowledge. We were talking about it for two years then there was an opportunity with TELUS STORYHIVE and I jumped on that. I got a grant from them through their inaugural Indigenous Storytellers Program. It was for $20,000. That’s quite a bit of money but when you are making a film, it’s not enough. I needed extra money so I could hire people and I could pay Elders and do all of these things that we need to do when you’re on a set. I wanted to do that because we are always like “Volunteer, volunteer.” I don’t want people to volunteer. I want to pay people especially our own people and our youth specifically. Give them that experience of working on a production. To me that’s really important.

We didn’t have these opportunities when we were young because they weren’t there and now they’re here, now people are willing to give grants.

Going back to Treaty Money, it was just one of those things where, as Indigenous people, we are always having to explain ourselves over and over and over again. And people are always like, “well, my tax dollars…” and “oh, drunken Indians” and all the misconceptions, especially on social media.

So, I wanted to do a satire with me explaining these things but being open and crass and not even caring about how the delivery of the message is. That was key to it. It was me being annoyed that I have to give out this information. It’s my last conversation that I’m having with people. When people come at me on social media, I tag it and then say, “Here watch this. It’s 10 minutes long and it’ll explain what you need to know.”

For me it’s like a calling card and I can just hand it off to somebody and I don’t have to have that conversation if I choose not to.

Sable Sweetgrass: What were the challenges in making your film Treaty Money?

Kelli Morning Bull: With STORYHIVE we had mentors. My mentor was Alex Lazarowich. She’s a great filmmaker. For me, trying to be an asshole was my most challenging thing because I’m so nice. And I’m so kind. And I’m like, “Yay! Everybody is great!” So, I’d try to give off this message and be like stern about it. That was hard for me to be that person because I’m not that person. I don’t believe in being unkind to teach or to prove a point but it was part of the film.

So, I had to take myself out of that and I had to create “alter-ego Kelli.” That was really challenging, but Alex would help me through it. I’d send her my script and she’d be like, “You’re not mean enough!” and I’d be like, “Okay!” and then eventually, it took a lot of coaching to get to that point.

The second piece was working with my own community. I reached out a few times and I wanted to let them know. It’s an educational video. Youth can watch it. Kids can watch it. There’s no swear words or anything. Working with my own community was a bit challenging just trying to get through the red tape. We actually didn’t get to tape us getting our five dollars. We taped us going into the building and we taped us coming out and so that piece is still missing because people still don’t get it. That part of the concept wasn’t in there, but I tried to explain it in the film and I hope I did it justice. There are still things that when I watch it and I think I could have said this or I could have done that or why does your face look like that? I didn’t realize when I talk, I have a lot of expressions. So, watching myself after it was done, it was very cringe worthy.

Sable Sweetgrass: So, as an Indigenous woman and as a filmmaker, what have the challenges been? We’ve been through the Me Too Movement. We’re going into this anti-racism/Black Lives Matter/ Indigenous Lives Matter now. We are trying to deal with institutional racism, lateral violence. What have the challenges been for you as an Indigenous woman here in Mohkinstsis or Treaty 7 Territory as a filmmaker?

Kelli Morning Bull: I think part of it is my gender being a filmmaker. I went to school and, in the beginning, it was really challenging for me to get a job especially as a technical person.

One of my first experiences, (I won’t say who or when) I worked on a set and I was the camera operator assistant. I was to be mentored by this other camera operator. They cared for me as a person and were, “Congratulations for being a woman in the industry. It’s hard,” but that mentorship piece didn’t go to me. It went to a guy. I called them out on it. I was upset because I had to move to a different province. I had to leave my son. I made all these sacrifices only to get looked over in the end.

So now I’m very selective of who I work with because I don’t want that to happen to me again. I’m also very protective of other people and making sure that they are working with good people who aren’t going to use them. I feel like I have been used a lot in the industry too even for just my connections. It’s like “We have this idea. Yeah, we should do it. Oh, we should get this person involved,” and then I get pushed out of the project. That’s just the way that the industry is.

I’m not jaded. I’m just selective now. It’s a choice that I make and I try to share that with others who are coming into the industry because it can be quite toxic at times. There is a lot of lateral violence. Not just in the film community but within our own Indigenous communities. That ‘crab in the bucket syndrome,’ it’s hard. It’s hard to navigate through your own trauma and dealing with other people’s trauma that isn’t necessarily yours but because you are linked to that person, somehow you get sucked into it. Even though you are far away, they’ll still bring you in and that’s tragic.

Making films and working should be normal. But Indigenous people don’t live normal lives. We always have things that we need to worry about and that’s sad. Sometimes that takes away from what you’re trying to do and what you’re trying to build. You’re constantly being thrown under the bus or left out of conversations. That’s never a nice feeling to have to walk through that. So, I try when I work with people to give them the respect that they deserve and to teach. It’s a tough industry and that could partly be why I work at the library, because it’s challenging.

But I also really like getting my two-week paychecks and my benefits!

Sable Sweetgrass: At this present moment, thinking about everything that has been happening, about the changes, the shifts that are happening, do you feel like things are getting better?

Kelli Morning Bull: I think they have to get worse before they get better. I think we are in the thick of the worst of it. I think it’s going to be awhile before we are going to get out of it but I think it’s really opening up people’s eyes to the racism that lives and breathes in these streets. I want things to get better right away but I think we have to take it slow and we need to really think about the change that we are trying to make with ourselves.

I think that’s where it starts with checking our biases. We all have biases. I have my own biases and I have to always constantly check my biases. That’s challenging. It’s super tough for a lot of people. I am not saying it is easy. I think that is where it starts initially. Especially Reconciliation. We all have to reconcile with our past and with things that we have done to people and things that people have done to us before we can start to make those positive changes. Because if you are a trauma-ed person, you are going to continue to spread your trauma and it might be unknowingly too. Sometimes we have learned behaviours and we need to unlearn because it is damaging to our families, the people that we work with, and the people that we just coincide with.

For me, that’s where I think it needs to start. We have to all get on the same page before we can make those next steps to systemic change.

Sable Sweetgrass: What are your hopes going into 2021 and after the pandemic is finished?

Kelli Morning Bull: Well, after the pandemic, I’d like to give everybody a big hug! And have a big round dance! Because I’ve been round dancing in my kitchen alone and it’s not fun. I miss Pow Wow. I just really want to be with family and friends and not be scared of going outside or just being out. So, after COVID, that’s what I want to do. I just want to hug everybody and maybe start another film. And, hopefully the film script I am working on is done so I can start looking for funding opportunities and do this big production. That’s part of my hopes and goals for 2021.

I really want to see more stories, more youth, more filmmakers coming up. We have so many stories to tell and there is room for everybody to tell their story and to share and to really build up our own libraries. We have a lot of knowledge and expertise to offer our communities. I just want to see more youth rising to take on these roles and to step in. Education is key though. You have to get education. It helps and it enhances what you are trying to do. So, tech school is really great and IT programs. Now we’re in a Zoom world and we need our own Indigenous Zoom platform that is built to what we need as Indigenous people and the ways that we connect.

In the library, there is a committee and we call it the ‘Brady Bunch Style’ with all the little video heads. If there was an application where we are all in a circle having a little smudge bowl in the middle, like a virtual smudge, I think that would be really cool. Those are the things we’ve been talking about and dreaming about. I think now is the time for our Indigenous youth to step up and to work towards these things because we can only do so much. We’ve opened a lot of gates, and the people before us. So now it’s just a little bit easier for the youth, and I’m glad. But we’re not done yet.

Sable Sweetgrass: What would your advice be to young Indigenous women wanting to be a filmmaker?

Kelli Morning Bull: I say, just do it! Don’t be scared. Look up a program within an institution either where you are residing or dreaming of going. Anywhere! You can do anything. Find your support. Find your network of support because those people are going to be the ones to help you through those tough times. Post-secondary is challenging. It’s been hard for our people especially when we have to relocate.

Surround yourself with good people that are going to support you in everything you are going to do, pick you up when you fall, and be that shoulder to cry on. Support is the number one thing that helps us to succeed. We are a very community minded people and we need to have healthy support. Just go for it. Go for it and think big. Think big and just do it!  

Sable Sweetgrass: Right on. Thanks Kelli!

Kelli Morning Bull: You’re welcome!

About the Original Peoples Investment Program Showcase

The Original Peoples Investment Program (OPIP) supports the preservation and revitalization of First Nation/Métis/Inuit (FNMI) art through art-based projects and activities that are supported and validated by FNMI artists, community, Elders, and Knowledge Keepers.

Reflecting on the 143rd anniversary of the signing of Treaty 7—signed on September 22, 1877—and our ongoing journey of Reconciliation, Calgary Arts Development is pleased to highlight a handful of projects that were funded through the program in 2019.

Check back each day this week for a new profile.

Original Peoples Investment Program Showcase graphic