National Museum of the American Indian

Native Film Advocate Michael Smith (1951–2018)—An Appreciation

Michael Smith, founder and director of the American Indian Film Institute, at the 42nd annual American Indian Film Festival. November 2017, San Francisco. (Courtesy of the American Indian Film Festival)
Michael Smith, founder and director of the American Indian Film Institute, at the 42nd annual American Indian Film Festival. November 2017, San Francisco. (Courtesy of the American Indian Film Festival)

Michael Smith (Fort Peck Sioux Tribe), founder and director of the American Indian Film Institute (AIFI) and American Indian Film Festival, passed away suddenly on February 14, 2018. He was an advocate for Native people and a leader in bringing their voices to mainstream media through film. His dedication to showcasing films by or about American Indians and First Nations people was tireless. Michael Smith could be seen at conventions, film festivals, tribal communities—even at local diners—where he would chat with anyone about his loves: AIFI’s American Indian Film Festival and his family.

First presented in 1975 in Seattle, relocated to San Francisco in 1979, the American Indian Film Festival is the oldest film festival in North America dedicated to Native cinema. Michael Smith created the festival as a haven where Native artists and filmmakers could freely showcase their work. Generations of Native talent flowed in and out of the festival throughout the decades. Its coveted American Indian Motion Picture Awards brought filmmakers and performers from all over the world, artists like Will Sampson, John Trudell, Irene Bedard, Charlie Hill, Tantoo Cardinal, Zacharias Kunuk, and many others. What was universal, for established participants and newcomers alike, is that everyone at the festival felt like they were part of a family.

The festival felt like family because it was family. You would see Mike's wife, Cindy Spencer, staffing the box office, smiling and cracking jokes alongside her brothers and sisters, who were also working the festival. You would see his daughter, Mytia, backstage running cues for the screenings or editing a last-minute trailer. You would see his son, Sebastian, talking to filmmakers and artists in the lobby. You would see Mike's pride and joy, his granddaughter, Mayeux Red Eagle, whom he carried in his arms and proudly showed off to anyone who came by. If the San Francisco Giants had won the World Series that season, you would see grandpa and granddaughter proudly wearing Giants colors. That’s the core of the American Indian Film Festival—family through and through.

I was fortunate enough to be included in that family 13 years ago. Mike took a chance on me, fresh out of college with my public relations degree, and asked me to create a promotions campaign for the 30th annual American Indian Film Festival. That leap of faith has given me opportunities I would never have had if not for him.

There must be thousands of people thinking exactly the same thing during the last several days. I bet if you played six degrees of Michael Smith, you would quickly find a connection to him and to the American Indian Film Festival. That’s how much larger than life his contribution is. His passing leaves a large hole in the film community. There was no greater defender of Native film than Michael Smith. He was a mentor and friend for many, and his creative spirit will be missed. He leaves behind a legacy that will be felt for generations to come.


Cynthia Benitez is the film and video programmer for the National Museum of American Indian in New York. Before joining the museum staff, she worked as a publicist for international film festivals and Native media organizations, including the American Indian Film Institute, Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum and World Competition, and the Native American Film and Video Festival. She has an M.S. in Media Studies from Brooklyn College.