Synopsis: Into the Circle tells the story of a resilient Indigenous family, their journey through life-altering tragedy, and the community that helped them reconnect with their Lakota heritage.
We meet the Hollow Horn family – grandmother Sally, her daughter Alice, and her grandson Andrew – at the start of Andrew’s senior year of high school in the fall of 2019. Andrew, soon to be the first male in the family to attain a high school diploma, excitedly explores college options and anticipates senior year milestones like his last basketball season and Feast Day, an annual festival at which Andrew and the other seniors will be honored for their achievements. The family’s journey to this happy inflection point has been long and fraught with difficulty.
Andrew was an elementary student when his grandfather, the patriarch of the Hollow Horn household, drank himself to death, leaving Andrew’s single mother and widowed grandmother to raise him. Estranged from their Indigenous roots by a history of aggressive Christian proselytizing and filled with grief, the Hollow Horns turned to an upstart charter school with a radical education model. The Native American Community Academy operates at the site of the former Albuquerque Indian School which was originally part of a nationwide system designed to assimilate Indigenous students and eradicate their cultures. Today the school serves students from over 60 tribes with an emphasis on language, culture, wellness, community and academic rigor.
At NACA, the Hollow Horns found more than a supportive environment for Andrew – they found an extended family of tribal affiliations from across the country. Under these conditions Andrew’s confidence and sense of identity developed rapidly. In his Indigenous male instructors, he discovered the role models he lacked as a child, and when a fateful school-sponsored trip to South Dakota gave Andrew insight into his tribal history, his experience profoundly affected his entire family, helping them find closure and a sense of peace in their loss.
As the Hollow Horns prepare for the conclusion of Andrew’s eventful journey at NACA, they have no idea that their best-laid plans are about to be upended by a once-in-a-century pandemic that will bring the world to a halt. Once more, they seek shelter in the community they have found through Andrew’s high school, making the best of a world transformed by quarantine and distance learning. Like the buffalo that played a central role in ancestral Lakota life, they face the storm with quiet strength and determination.
American education is at a crossroads – factions promoting universal teaching standards ignore the specific cultural touchstones that students bring to the classroom, and successful national charter management organizations aggressively scale learning models that fail to take local context into account. This on top of a system that has historically underrepresented the perspectives of Indigenous peoples and other communities of color.
Into the Circle demonstrates the significant, personal impact that education models based on developing whole children can produce. Through the intimate account of a family courageous enough to share their struggles with a broad audience, the film offers an alternative to our contemporary schooling model by illustrating that physical and mental wellness are meaningfully connected to learning, that a child’s culture and language can be used to unlock profound growth in understanding and maturity, and that a school should be a true community for students and their families rather than simply a place children go to acquire knowledge. This is a story that can spur necessary conversations about the evolution of public education in the 21st century. Since 2013, the Native American Community Academy has operated at the site of the former Albuquerque Indian Boarding School, educating students from over 60 tribes.
Most importantly, Into the Circle is a testament to the virtues of a family from a region of the country – South Dakota’s reservations – that is characterized almost exclusively by narratives of poverty, alcoholism, and victimization. Though the Hollow Horns are touched by these issues, the film makes a deliberate effort to frame their story through an asset-based lens, showing how they found agency through their culture and history. This, too, should encourage dialogue and corrective action around the stories our society promotes to define Indigenous groups and the places they’re from.
Meg Griffiths and Scott Faris (co-directors) are the documentary filmmakers behind Universe Creative, a storytelling agency committed to social impact video storytelling. Former journalists, teachers, and nonprofit leaders, Meg and Scott have collaborated on short films for the past 10 years with an emphasis on education, rural communities, and Indigenous issues. They frequently collaborate with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other national foundations and nonprofits, and are currently in production on their first feature-length film set in southern West Virginia.