'Hunting in Wartime': Vietnam War veterans from Hoonah tell their stories

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction: According to several Hoonah veterans, the number of soliders who served "on the ground" in Vietnam was 17. Update: The text has been modified to reflect a clarification between the number of men who served and the number of men who saw combat.


During the Vietnam War, 28 men from Hoonah — a community of less than 700 at that time — shipped out with the military; of the 17 who saw combat, 16 came back alive. “Hunting in Wartime” is a new documentary film depicting the reality of the human cost of war, told through candid interviews with many Tlingit veterans from Hoonah, and other community and family members whose lives were touched by the suffering, healing, and survival of those who endured the war.

“Hunting in Wartime” will be screened in Hoonah and Juneau this week, with subsequent shows in Homer and Anchorage later in the month.

The documentary has been in the works for the past five years. The concept for the film began during a conversation between Sonya Gray from Hoonah and New York-based filmmaker Samantha Farinella. When Farinella was visiting Hoonah, she heard the “incredible story” of the large percentage of men from the community who had gone to war, and the fact that all but one returned safely.

Although their service to their country’s military was well-known locally, many of the veterans’ stories remained untold. Gray was born and raised in Hoonah, and has worked for her community and culture as an advocate, educator, and volunteer. She said that there seemed to be a cultural disconnect between the veterans’ experiences in war and their return home, and a reticence stemming from a reluctance to burden anyone else.

“In the Tlingit culture, everything is based on balance,” she said. “They couldn’t reconcile what they experienced back to the community, so they didn’t.”

An initial screening of the documentary was held in Hoonah last year to gauge community feedback and garner any suggestions. The reaction was unanimously positive, Gray said — a remarkable feat in any setting, let alone one that’s potentially politically and emotionally charged — but even more surprising was how many viewers responded that they hadn’t known anything about their friends’ and family members’ wartime experiences.

“What came away from that was kind of amazing, the reactions from the families and the community,” she said. “They would say, ‘I didn’t know this about my uncle, all these years.’”

The process of making the film also created a venue for the veterans of Hoonah to be heard, Gray said, and she has witnessed a direct impact.

“To hear them tell their stories on film, it was kind of incredible … their experience, their suffering, and even their triumphs,” she said. “And now … a lot of these men are a different part of the community, they’re so much more involved and open.”

Gray served as producer and advisor during the filmmaking process. Director Farinella eschewed inserting her own narrative into the film or creating a reductive moralization, and instead has relied on interviews with veterans and other members of the community in Hoonah, who tell the stories in their own words, and from their own cultural perspective. Farinella gathered the interviews during a three week period in 2010, winding up with 63 hours of footage that was then edited down to make the feature-length film. In addition to the 20 or so interviewees, she also worked with Tlingit cultural advisors Marlene Johnson, board chair of the Huna Heritage Foundation, and James Lindoff, a decorated Vietnam veteran and commander of the Hoonah Veterans for the Southeast Alaskan Native Veterans Association. Juneau residents Lyle Kelly James and Kolene Elizabeth James worked as song composers for the documentary.

Besides telling the stories of the Tlingit veterans from Hoonah and the unique challenges they faced returning home after the war, the film also opens up a dialogue about the issues many veterans of all wars have to struggle with, such as substance abuse and the invisible scars of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“A lot of these guys hadn’t opened up about these situations in like 40 years,” Farinella said. “Someone … who has to endure PTSD in war, you know, 40 years down the road, we don’t have that perspective on Iraq and Afghanistan, but we do have it with Vietnam.”

More than just starting a dialogue, Farinella said that it’s very important to provide support to the veterans who are in the audience watching her film — with its stark and brutal depictions of the Vietnam War — and is arranging to have a mental health counselor volunteer at each of the screenings in Alaska.

“So the veterans know if they want to talk to somebody about their experiences and get support, they can go to a mental health counselor in their community,” she said.

Farinella, who has made six previous documentaries, funded the film with grants from groups including the Alaska Humanities Forum, the New York State Council on the Arts, and Rasmuson Foundation. She also started an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to acquire backing to support the grassroots tour of the film in Alaska, as well across the rest of the U.S. The goal is to make the film as accessible to veterans, Alaska Natives, and Native Americans as possible. There are also plans to screen “Hunting in Wartime” at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. for Veterans Day in November.

Although the subject matter of “Hunting in Wartime” deals with the realities of soldiers coming back from a war zone and the ensuing cultural and political conflicts, Farinella said that despite all that the veterans from Hoonah have had to deal with, she found it wonderful that so many she talked to have endured, living good lives and becoming providers to their families and community.

“The film to me, from beginning to end, is about survival,” Farinella said. “You know, surviving harsh Alaskan winters, learning how to hunt and fish, that in turn makes you a really good soldier … and then surviving the aftermath of war.”

“Hunting in Wartime” will be screening in Hoonah at the HIA Community Center on Friday, July 10 at 6 p.m. and Saturday, July 11 at 3 p.m. This will be followed up in Juneau with two shows at the Gold Town Nickelodeon on Monday, July 13 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., sponsored by the Juneau Tlingit and Haida Community Council. There will also be showings in Homer (6 p.m. July 16 at the Homer Theater) and in Anchorage (7 p.m. July 19 at the Alaska Native Heritage Center). For more information, go online at www.huntinginwartime.com or visit the film’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/huntinginwartime.

To watch a trailer for the film, visit https://vimeo.com/62627021

The Indiegogo fundraising campaign for the upcoming tour in the Lower 48 has ended, but tax-deductible donations can still be made on the Women Make Movies website at http://www.wmm.com/filmmakers/sponsored_projects.aspx?cmd=fm&id=1#1145.


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