Welcome to this Halloween edition of Geek Girl Authority Indigenerd Wire, as we continue our discussion about Indigenous People in pop culture. This column features the people, shows, movies, art, books and general discussions that celebrate the progress of Indigenous perspectives in mainstream pop culture.
“I don’t know what it is about Indian people. Whenever we get together, we just started telling ghost stories. We’re more than just paranormal enthusiasts, we’re storytellers. I just happened to have a camera when we tell these stories.” – Mark Williams
THE SPIRIT WORLD
The mainstream media has always portrayed Indigenous People as spiritual in nature. But they have a funny idea about what that means. For some reason, mainstream people think that means Natives are magic and can talk to spirits and animals. Spirits are a touchy subject for some Natives. There are a lot of scary stories in Indian Country. It’s hard to find a Native who doesn’t have a ghost story. I spoke to the Native American Paranormal Project (NAPP) team about their investigations of the paranormal. And to give our readers a Native perspective about the spiritual realm.
Mark Williams is a Choctaw writer, producer, and director from Oklahoma. He co-founded NAPP with Happy Frejo, Seminole and Pawnee. Happy is also the host of the documentaries. The team is made up of Native American members, all from different Oklahoma tribes. Including Steve Jacob, Choctaw, and Brian Frejo, Happy’s brother. Williams, Jacobs and Brian Frejo spoke with us about the project and some of the philosophies behind the project.
Noetta Harjo: Hello, Thank you for joining me. Let’s get started with Mark. How did the Native American Paranormal Project come about?
Mark Williams: Around the time these cable shows started coming out with paranormal groups. Me and Happy were watching TV one night and we just kind of thought, how cool would it be to see Natives doing the exact same thing, but go into Native sites and really kind of approaching it differently than the way they were doing on the show.
The following year I had that in mind and I wanted to try and do something different. I called Happy and said, “Hey, let’s do something for Halloween.” And so I went on Facebook and put a post to recruit people. People started messaging me and Steve was one of the first ones. Steve has a background in media. So I knew he was familiar with camera work and that would be a good addition to the team. There was about maybe eight or nine of us at the very beginning.
NH: Steve, as a NAPP team member, what attracted you to the project?
Steve Jacobs: I had some audio equipment that I could bring to the group, things like that. And when I first went, I think it was the Concho location, I helped out a lot with the camera work there. Then we went to Wheelock and that’s when I was behind the camera and a lot was going on at Wheelock. Ever since then, things have been happening to me. So that’s how I got involved. I still set up and break down all the equipment and stuff. It’s been fulfilling, as Mark said, it’s not the most haunted things we do. It’s just like, it’s a good history lessons. And sometimes we have a little backup that we catch on film or on an EVP session.
NH: Brian, how did you get involved with the Native American Paranormal Project and what was your experience like?
Brian Frejo: I connected with Mark and Happy when they were filming Mark’s movie, Violet. They did the horror film and then started some of the paranormal work. It’s all connected, that paranormal and spiritual ghost realm. We were told stories and just kind of bring it into a digital platform. We had a lot of stories that were passed down in our family, always hearing stories from our aunts, uncles, from both sides of the family.
NH: How did you choose the locations for investigating?
MW: It usually comes down to the backstory, to the history. Everyone’s got a story, everyone’s got a location, whether it be a home, or the school, or where they work. I try to think of the big picture … what’s a good story and what are some unknown stories that we could tell? We’re trying to expose some truth and things that you just don’t read about in history books. A lot of that comes back to boarding schools and that’s not really taught in Oklahoma history, but we hear about it from our grandmas and grandpas who went to these schools.
And if we don’t capture anything, if nothing happens, if it’s a slow night, at least the audience that comes to our screenings could have learned something because we talked about the history of that place. Places like Fort Washita and Wheelock Academy has a lot of unknown stuff.
PREPARATION AND PRAYER
NH: Is there anything you do or say to try and get things going? Something that works to get the spirits manifesting?
MW: Yeah, I’m thinking about when we went to Wheelock Academy, an old Choctaw boarding school. And so me and Steve, and others, we were speaking a little bit in Choctaw. And when we went to Grisso mansion in Seminole, the Frejos, they’re Pawnee and Seminole. They’re able to speak in Seminole and that helps.
When we go to these places, there’s more of a heavy sense because we know our grandparents probably went here and what they went through. So we’re kind of already sensitive to the place. And so we approach it differently. I think it’s more inviting to .. whatever’s out there to want to communicate with us.
NH: Was there anything specific that you did to protect yourself before going into an investigation?
BF: We used our medicine, we use tobacco, put that tobacco down, out of respect for wherever we were. We use these medicines as protection to put around us and to let whatever’s there know that we’re there. We understand these medicines and these teachings. We’re not there to exploit anything, but to tell good history and stories.
We had a lot of different people from different tribes involved and everyone kind of had their own beliefs. Some of us were raised traditional and in the church. Some of us were raised in other ways and weren’t around it much at all. I think everybody kind of brought their own beliefs into it.
SJ: The one time it didn’t work was when we did it before an investigation. At Ft. Washita, we smoked off beforehand.
MW: Yeah, We did all that before going in to Ft. Washita. That was the one documentary where hardly anything happened. Someone told us not to smoke off before if we wanted anything to happen. Ever since then, we’d pray after we were finished and were about to head home. We do medicine, we just say a prayer. And just even something like saying out loud, “you can’t follow me home” to something like that. When we’re leaving each room, say “stay here,” or “you can’t follow me,” those type of things to keep us safe.
BF: Yeah. And that’s some of the things that, in our family, our grandmas and aunts used to tell us. If something’s bothering you, you just go out there and tell it to leave you alone. If you can say it in your traditional language, say it in traditional language.
NH: I’ve seen some of the Native American Paranormal Project films and I know there’s a lot that happened in most of them. What is something that happened that stands out the most when you think about those investigations?
MW: Steve captured something at Rock Springs church in Sasakwa, in front of the camp house. Steve was just setting up his camera. He the camera on a tripod. He wasn’t even doing any kind of investigating yet. And as he’s sitting there setting up, you see the shadow pop up on the screen for about nine seconds and it’s moving. Like it was trying to figure out what’s going on and then it kind of whimpers. And it just takes off.
I remember of going through the footage, it was maybe almost midnight, maybe one o’clock in the morning. I remember jumping back and saying, “Oh, we got something right here.” I called Steve and said, Hey, Steve, look at file two, three, one, whatever. Then tell me if that’s you or what is that? Call me back.” He called me back literally a few minutes later, like “Dude that was not me. We got something.”
Whenever the church agreed to let us film there, they wanted to watch the film first before we screened it at a public event. At the screening with the congregation, when it was over, I turned on the lights and I asked them, “what’d you guys think?” One of the elder women stood up, teary-eyed and she said “that part with the shadow in front of the camp house … I know who that is.” It was her niece who passed away about maybe five or six years prior and she’s buried there on the church grounds.
The aunt said she always loved playing in that area right there by the camp house. And whenever they would take family photos, she would always do that. She would jump in front of the camera and just do that same motion. They would say her name and tell her to get out of the way. She would always make that whimper sound and turn away. And that’s what we captured in that moment. The aunt was sitting there just teary-eyed saying, it was a lot to see that she’s still there. She’s still playing in that spot, even though she’s passed on.
NH: In these paranormal shows, we see things like temperature drops and orbs that represent a presence. Do things like that really happen?
MW: Temperature drops happen. It happens every now and then. One thing I think that’s been consistent that we’ve noticed is our battery levels on our devices or cameras seem to be effected. At Wheelock, we were all in the attic and I do remember it getting really cold, really fast. And when I reviewed the footage, we got a response. It was a whisper that asked us, “are you cold?” It was as if the spirit purposely made it cold in that room.
BF: Wasn’t someone pushed out of a closet or something?
MW: Albert was pushed at Wheelock. He was in the punishment room and something pushed him.
NH: What is the typical audience reaction at your screenings?
MW: We tried to have a screening around Halloween time. In Oklahoma City, the place was packed. We had to turn people away at the door. I think people like coming to our screenings because they can see things that they would probably be doing themselves, but they’re safe at the screening. And so there’s kind of an entertainment factor to it as well.
One of the things too is, we always hear from our audiences that they appreciate, that we’re telling the stories about the history of some of these locations. And how we do our investigations. We’re not trying to scream at something and not trying to instigate anything. We we approach it in a respectful way. One of the things that I always kind of compare to these non-native groups and why I think we get a lot of activity is that we come in a sincere way.
NH: What have you learned from these experiences?
SJ: Well, for me, I was expecting to be scared. But the majority of the times that we went to these boarding schools, you don’t feel scared. You felt like, I guess it’s empathy and sympathy at the same time for these kids that are there. We already knew the history of who we’re going to be dealing with when we went there. Even at the Concho boarding school, I didn’t feel scared, I felt this heaviness. The impact these people felt when they first got there, it impacts it on the land so much that you feel it. I got grandkids now, when they get older, I’ll tell them the history and repeat all the stories. Hopefully they’ll see these videos.
MW: I guess for me, I learned that it’s okay to tell somebody stories and not everything is scary. I attended services at Rock Spring Church. The church members would see images and apparitions at night services. They could hear them singing with them. I asked them, who do you think you think that is? And that a lot of them knew who it was. I ask if they were scared and they said no, they welcomed them. They knew it was family members who wanted to sing with them again and fellowship with them. So whenever they would see these things, it kind of gives them a sense of comfort that everything’s okay. And so that is one of my favorite films to show that not everything is bad, not everything is scary. It doesn’t have to be a tragic event that, you know, why they passed on.
NH: Is there a location in Oklahoma or anywhere in the US that you’d like to investigate?
MW: For me, I’d like to explore Chilocco Boarding School in Newkirk, Oklahoma. I’ve heard a lot of stories about that place. The thing that makes that boarding school different from other school in Oklahoma is a lot of the buildings are still up. There are a lot of rooms to explore. That campus is huge. From a filmmaker’s point of view, there’s so much to cover. I would need two or there days to shoot images. I get excited thinking about that one.
Outside of Oklahoma, Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. Half our team went to Haskell, so everybody knows the stories. It used to be a boarding school too.
SJ: I went to school at Haskell. Things were happening there before I even cared about anything paranormal. A lot of stuff happens there. They have a cemetery out there and I heard stories of kids playing around at the basketball games. Most people think it could be the kids from the cemetery.
BF: Haskell a good spot that hasn’t been fully filmed or investigated with tons of stories. I’d like to go to the Ouachita Mountains for a full night. They had a lot of Bigfoot activity and sightings and other things.
NH: What projects do you have coming up Mark?
MW: I’m working on is a short documentary about renowned Bigfoot researcher Troy Hudson who is also Choctaw. Even though I go with him on his explorations it’s not an investigation type of film like the NAPP projects but will be telling of his life work and some old stories the Choctaws had about Bigfoot and their beliefs of it being more than just a creature.
NH: Thank you guys for your time today! Tell me where people can find you on social media:
WATCH AND BELIEVE
The Native American Paranormal Project produced six feature films and a handful of short films that you can watch on YouTube. The only feature that is not available is the Wheelock investigation. The Choctaw Nation collaborated with NAPP on that investigation and the feature is only available on DVD. You can watch the Wheelock teaser trailer below.
Yakoke to the team for talking about this project and for the care and respect they show the subjects of their films.
This article was originally published 10/30/20
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