Keysa Parker has been learning the Cayuga language for six years and counting. This year, she got to work as a language advisor on her first film, Fancy Dance, where she taught the actors to speak the language.
Directed by Erica Treblay and starring Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson, the film spotlights the intricacies of Indigenous resilience and survival within colonial structures through the story of a family in crisis. “It’s got a lot of raw truth that was grounded in love. It’s very carefully made,” said Parker.
On Friday, January 20, Fancy Dance premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah at Eccles Theater – the festival’s largest venue, seating 2,500. “They were coming in by the bus loads, and there were still people who got turned away because it was a full show, and it’s just mind-blowing,” said Parker.
For her, watching the movie at the premiere alongside the attendees was a gratifying moment she won’t soon forget. “By the end of the film, everyone was in tears. It was amazing seeing everybody so engaged and so into it that they felt it too. It was really incredible. Such an amazing feeling knowing that you were a part of that,” she said.
Parker’s involvement in this production all began last summer, when she received a phone call from Tremblay, with whom she’d worked for three years.
“She said she finished the script and she asked me how I would feel about moving down to Oklahoma for a couple of months to help film,” Parker recalled.
By early August, Parker drove down to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the film was shot. And it was the beginning of something bigger than she’d imagined.
“I didn’t know what to expect. But I fully trusted her. I know she has great ideas and she’s an amazing director, so I just fully trusted her,” she said of Tremblay.
Over the next couple of months, Parker worked with the actors on set, teaching them the Cayuga language for the film, which is part Cayuga, part English. “We did sound charts, we did basic language and just talked about the importance of the language and how important it is to us as learners, because there’s fewer than 20 first-language Cayuga speakers left here. So we just really wanted to do this in the best, most respectful way,” said Parker.
Originally from Kahnawake, Parker grew up in a traditional family, and learning the language is something Parker took interest in from a young age. “When I was a kid, I always spent my time transcribing and really trying to learn as much language as I could,” she said.
She moved to Six Nations, Ontario, initially to learn Seneca, the language of her paternal lineage, but found herself more invested in the Cayuga language than she thought and is continuing to study it.
“It’s really surreal,” said Parker on bringing the Cayuga language to the festival. “I didn’t expect (the film) to be what it turned out to be. Just the fact that this is one of the first big movies with spoken Cayuga in it is just so meaningful and powerful.”
The months of coaching on the pronunciations and intricacies of the language paid off and Parker credited the actors for their unwavering dedication.
“They really put in 100 percent on learning the language and really wanted to sound like a real Cayuga speaker and everything that they did was with good intentions and done with poise,” said Parker. “They were so amazing in their performance.”
This edition of the festival saw the addition of its first “Indigenous House,” in collaboration with IllumiNative, providing a space dedicated to sharing Indigenous stories where all talents and creatives can gather. “It’s really amazing that they have that because Indigenous film is becoming so big now,” said Parker. “So it’s nice that they added a safe place for all of us to be.”