Finding Passion Through Culture: The Albert Chacon Story

Documentarian Albert Chacon delves into his journey both personally and professionally when it comes to making WE ARE BIRDS and spreads some wise words for aspiring artists.

Albert Chacon was raised in Los Angeles, believing most of his life that he was Hispanic. As he came to discover his Native American roots, he relished in the culture that led to eventually making the breakout documentary WE ARE BIRDS. 

Chacon explains how he got started doing video editing and production and delves deep into the topic of which We Are Birds is based: bird singing.

Editing and Production 

Lyric: What does video editing and production entail? Can you go through the process with us?

Albert: I have to gather all the information myself. All the footage and everything. I don’t usually plan that because I usually do documentary style. I use that process, I use my DSLR, and when I’m through with that, I dump it on my computer. I use Sony Vegas, Pro 14, almost on 16 right now. And I use that primarily and I use after effects for other things I do.

As far as video production itself, it takes me anywhere from–depending on if I have all the information and everything–it could take me an hour or it could take me up to 12 hours depending on how long I’m doing it. Before it would take me days because of the way technology was but it’s sped up now. 

L: What made you want to tap into that? Video production and editing? 

A: My wife’s an anthropologist here in Moreno Valley, she’s the chair of her department. She does Cultural Anthro, Physical Anthro, and archeology sometimes so I figured I could help out with some of that stuff. So, I had a camera and I started shooting–at first–people that were doing their languages and preserving artifacts and basketry. I started there first, with a person named Alvino Siva (Cahuilla/Cupeño); he was the first one. The second one was Ernest Siva (Cahuilla/Serrano). They’re pros on their own, what they were doing, they’re people that are kind of untouchable. They don’t let people get near them but they asked me to help because I had cameras and I just had this knack for doing video which, to me, was really bad then compared to now. 

When you’re starting out with tape, you’re limited to what you can do. The whole thing was getting it down. For instance, with Ernest Siva, I had three hundred stories to film and was able to complete 189, with Ernest Siva reading them in Serrano for future descendants to be able to hear what the words and the language sound like.  That’s a story on its own. But that’s why I started doing it. People would ask me to help them with their preservation projects because I wanted to learn and I had my own skill with the camera and recording, so I just started doing it.

Taking Classes

L: I saw you went to DeVry and you went to Moreno Valley College. How did that help you in your career? 

A: DeVry was a long time ago. I was going there to study engineering at the time. But I didn’t finish, I decided to go to work. That’s a whole other story. I decided to go to Moreno Valley College because I had a career-ending injury when I was 27, right now, I’m 51. So, what happened was that I had to redefine what I do. It took me a while. I started to do this videography thing back in ‘97 which is when I met my wife. 

I took one class and I was afraid to take photoshop after all these years of having a cheap, little camera. But I said, it’s time to get over being afraid of something new and just get out there and learn! It went from there because at first, (I couldn’t do) any of these programs but I just (learned) another and another and another. I learned Adobe, Premier, After Effects, Illustrator, you know, I learned how to do it on my own. What school did was it jump-started me to get the confidence to know that I can do this on my own. 

What we did at the end of me filming, was my wife would teach (it) in class and share information with them about the work we were doing. She would use my photographs and some of the stories. The subject that we have that’s unique is Bird Singing. And that’s not known all over the world, at least not until we made our movie (We Are Birds). When Powwows.com, which is the major site for Native American powwow information and calendars as well as cultural happenings around the United States, got ahold of it and started sharing it, there was no WE ARE anywhere. Due to the powwows.com exposure, my movie started getting a lot of hits on Vimeo, and then “We Are” started showing up everywhere as a form of empowerment, especially for Native causes.

The Genesis of We Are Birds 

We Are Birds, a California Indian Story
We Are Birds, a California Indian Story

L: Well, touch a little more on We Are Birds the Documentary. 

A: The documentary basically entails me going into a world that I didn’t come from. I came from East Los Angeles, I was born out there. As far as I was concerned, I was Latino but I didn’t know–I have a Latino last name but we don’t speak Spanish. I was like, “Why does everyone in our neighborhood speak Spanish and we don’t?” My family couldn’t answer that at the time. 

My family was Native and did not know it.  All we had were stories that had come down that we were once connected to “rich people” and came from a place in Mexico called “Pregar” – I’m not sure how that would be spelled.  We were referred to as “Indios” (Indians) by everyone around. Some early research into my family proved to me that we were Native American but I had no idea of the details and set out to learn.  That’s one of the reasons I was going to Powwows with my wife – to try and learn more about my own heritage.  

All of the different projects I did, like the ones with Alvino Siva and Ernest Siva, were attempts to help with critical preservation efforts on their part while also learning more about my own culture.  I didn’t know how connected I was until I started doing the We are Birds project. I found out that I was related to people I had been working with! I found out that “Pregar” was actually “Pa-la” – the Pala Reservation – and that my great grandmother came from there and moved to Los Angeles after having gone to two government boarding schools.  I also learned that she, her family, and many other people were not even originally from Pala, but from the Warner Springs area – they were Cupeño people who were forcibly removed from their village there in 1903 and made to move to Pala. That is one of the reasons she ended up going away to school, and also a major reason she later lived in Los Angeles and other places.  

In the last few years, I also have learned that my family is descended from Pio Pico, who was the original governor of California and who had businesses and land in what is now Los Angeles and throughout the region.  That is the “rich family” we had heard about! My family history, like all Native histories, is a complicated one. I grew up as an urban Indian and so was disconnected from all of the culture. As an adult, I wanted to learn as much as I could. 

I met my wife in 1997 and we started going to Powwows and things then – my first Powwow was at UC Riverside, where she was a grad student. I started learning about the Native culture. When I came across Bird Singing it was very unique because no one’s heard of it outside of the cultures that practice it, and the language is still intact within it. These things have been around longer than the Bible’s been around or any formal religion. And the practice is still going even through these occupations. 

There was another set of people who came before us and they created the first set of songs.  The modern-day people created a second set of songs, and both languages are contained within the songs.  We don’t know all of the language contained in the first set, but we can recognize words that are still carried down today. I can’t believe that no one knows about this. That these things are actually still existing and people on the outside don’t know so I decided to show them. Many people don’t know anything about Bird Singing.  They assume that it is literally us mimicking the chirping and calling of actual birds! Bird Singing is a style of singing where a group harmonizes to the rhythmic shaking of gourd rattles. Both men and women dance, though in different ways, and there are many protocols surrounding the practice. 

I inadvertently started to create a catalog of singing and dancing videos online. When people were sharing entire songs on YouTube, young people would copy the songs and learn that way.  They were learning the wrong way because they had bypassed the elders almost entirely in some cases. The whole point of (We Are Birds) was to get the elders to talk and tell me why it’s wrong for the young people to learn that way. Instead of me trying to talk for the elders like everybody else (researchers, academics, the press)–they meet one Native and they think that’s how it goes–I decided to go to the source and to the elders and say, “Hey, what are the rules? What is protocol? Why are these people doing it wrong?” 

To clarify, I was asking about people “doing it wrong” only because the elders themselves would say that frequently, and sometimes even in public. I wanted to know what they meant so I could learn from them.  This was not me making a judgement about anyone doing anything “wrong” – remember, I was brand new and just learning everything! In this movie, you’re learning directly from these elders and other cultural practitioners in their own words.  That’s the most important part – I’m not speaking for them and I’m not “teaching” Bird Singing protocols. I am creating a forum for these people to share what they themselves wanted to teach and share.  

So, you’re learning from a Head Bird Singer’s perspective and not from that of a person who’s just walking in from the public with an outsider’s perspective. A person unfamiliar with Bird Singing already may find it hard to understand everything they are seeing or hearing about in the film, but the information that is shared is very rare.  Why? Because it is rare that these people will say anything at all this personal in public, let alone recorded in a film. I got more than 20 Head Bird Singers, Elders, and cultural practitioners to share what they thought was most important in interviews that were at minimum about an hour in length! In the film, only about an hour of their recorded words could be included due to time constraints, so I have about twenty more hours I haven’t shared yet. 

Basically, the film showcases these people sharing their own stories about themselves, what they do, and why it is so important.  They talk about what Bird Singing is through their own words, not mine. I make an appearance now and then but that’s it. I made this movie all by myself, learning along the way – making sure the fonts and titling were correct, making everything look the way that it is, but because the film was done documentary style, the movie was shaped by the people who were in it.  

The movie’s storyline and message was very dependent on them and what they chose to share. So, I did the best I could. I made sure to learn about music licensing and properly paid for the music used in the film. I was essentially a one-man band with my wife editing to make sure I spelled all the words right. There’s one that’s misspelled in the whole thing but I doubt anybody can catch that. 

L: I sure wouldn’t be able to catch it! 

A: Yeah, it’s my baby and it’s hard to let it go sometimes but that’s the only way you get it out there.

 Representation

L: Yeah, that’s all pretty interesting. I had never heard of bird singing either. Which touches on my next question. I think it’s very important to hear from voices that don’t often get the representation they deserve.

How do you feel about the lack of representation for Native voices and what are you doing to combat that? 

A: Obviously making a movie to combat that. People – researchers, YouTubers, etc. – come out to events or to interview people and they try to record us with just the microphone on the camera, which you and I both know is the wrong thing to do if you want a quality result. So, I decided instead of bitching about it, I’d do it myself. But that’s not the only issue. I don’t like the way outside people represent us. They get one story and they think that the one story represents all Native peoples and all their cultures but that’s what social media is about right now.  

Sharing these stories through film is a very complicated experience culturally and socially.  It gets hard after a while. You’re making content for the outside people – who are exposed to it online and through colleges, museums, libraries – to learn from.  But then the inside people start telling you off and fighting against you because they’re upset that the elders shared with YOU and not them. Some talk to me and want to do something like this but they aren’t brave enough to approach the elders to do this on their own, or they find the camera and movie-making process too intimidating.  At least these folks appreciate what I do because they know how hard it really can be.  

There are others who, for their own reasons, don’t want the project to be successful and sometimes the negativity is hard to deal with.  But the end result is worth it because I’m doing my part to preserve what is happening in MY time. The reward is worth any pain. That’s what I say to those who are critics of the project, I say that you had all these years to cover the elders and highlight the culture the way that I have. You are lucky to have your family members and others that you can learn from. 

I had to learn this way, by building relationships with people and highlighting what they want to share with everyone. I’ve been doing it for years now and (most) won’t take the time and do it. They could talk to their father or uncle but they’d rather get jealous. This kind of jealousy and negativity doesn’t belong in the Native community–that’s what I believe.  

L: Be the spokesperson. 

A: Yeah, they (Natives) have a voice. Just ask them. If they ignore you it’s because they want you to be around longer to see if you’re worth telling it to. Because there’s people that come up and want a one-answer thing and then that is the extent of what they’ve learned. It’s not their fault; they have an assignment to do or something. But sometimes just explain yourself and they’ll help you out. They helped me. 20 years into it now, I have a lot more respect for the process of the old way, meaning the old way of learning, directly from elders and taking that time to learn and grow.

Albert’s Production Group 

L: Tell us about Native Images Production Group. 

A: Well, the group is just me and my wife, and a few other people who have helped here and there.  That’s it! We do photography, videography, and film making. That’s where it started. Basically, what I just put together. Sometimes I volunteer for an event or people ask me for help in highlighting the work they are doing in the community. I volunteer my time because I know their funds are limited and their work absolutely needs to be showcased. So, for example, I do projects for TORRES MARTINES TANF (Tribal “Temporary Aid for Needy Families”). 

The TM TANF participated in a contest where they wanted to highlight Natives in the TANF program and their successes, so I helped them do that.  I volunteer for a lot of events and to help people out, but I also do have jobs that I do and I am paid well for that work. For example, I have worked for San Manuel, for the Tamit Enanqa (“Learning Day”) at Agua Caliente in Palm Springs, photographing Native baskets in the collection of the Museum of Riverside, and filming Domestic Violence awareness and Wellness-related events around the region.  A highlight of my year is working with SWIWC – the Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition – to document their annual “Young Women are Sacred” conferences which educates and empowers young Native women from the ages of 12-19. 

L: What’s next? What are you trying to work on next? 

A: What I want to do next is complete some of the footage we have with Alvino Siva. It’s about bird singing and I’m not sure if I’ll get to finish it. My next big project is probably going to be We Are Birds 2. That’s what people want. They want me to go and talk to additional elders in other areas. A lot of them got hurt because they were left out of We are Birds, not realizing that I couldn’t afford to travel everywhere to interview all of the people I wish I could have.  It’s just me and my budget. So I’ve got to cover more people. Or whatever else comes my way.

L: Right. Staying open. What do you wish you would have known starting out doing videos and starting in the production game? Any advice for up and comers? 

A: Well, just the technical side, I guess. Because I enjoy what I’ve done, so far I can say this: there’s nothing that I regret. One thing is I wish I hadn’t over-prepared and bought too much crap before an event. It gets expensive but that’s about it. You do get the shots you want and the lighting you need and that’s what it’s for. But, then you have all this leftover stuff. That’s all. Go with what you’ve got and just start!

Final Thoughts 

L: Anything else that we didn’t touch on that you would like to add? 

A: Basically, the voice that we try to get out there. You asked that earlier; that’s really the reason why I want the public to know what I do. I’m not a narcissistic person where I want everyone to know about Mr. Chacon, I’m really kind of shy about that. I put myself out there to learn about this culture that no one outside of the tribes knew existed but has existed for thousands of years. Only in a certain area (do they know). And it’s not something I take lightly because what we also learned is how to exist through all the adversity. Through all those years and all those occupations, we still survive and I am still learning from them. 

I learned how not to take things so literally and what things are important. These songs are important to pass on just how some people’s religions are that way. I’ve gotten ahold of it that way where I’ve been taught by three elders and one young person who taught me how to sing these Bird Songs and I owe it to them to not forget to take that back and teach it one day. Or do it the way I’m doing it, through video. So that’s why I wanted to do it; to give back. Also, like this conversation is really to give back, not really to brag about the guy who did the video. So that’s about it. 

L: Respect. I want to thank you for having this interview with me. It’s been pretty enlightening and I think it’ll be enlightening for other people as well. Representation is important, you know, we’ve seen it become broader recently but not so much in the Native community. 

A: Authenticity, I guarantee they have it here because there’s nothing like it! So when I saw that there is a need for representation and speak with these words, they’re authentic. They’re not written down somewhere for someone to make a blurb on a video. But, then again, that’s where I use them, too. It’s for the kids to learn about themselves and see themselves dancing and singing. But that’s it. I hope I helped you out. 

L: For sure! I enjoyed hearing this new information and thanks again!

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