Now she parlaying her experience into filmmaking.
Lightning, 45, directed and stars in "Older Than America," a drama about a woman who tries to speak out about church-driven atrocities that took place at her Native American boarding school.
The film is part of the fifth annual Native Eyes Film Showcase, a festival produced by the Arizona State Museum and Hanson Film Institute in collaboration with the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. It starts Friday and goes through Sunday.
"It's good and bad. It's positive in the way that there are a million white, blond-haired women. I got an agent in a second, but my friend worked her butt off for three years, submitting her information everywhere. She acted in all sorts of plays, just trying to get noticed. There are a lot of trained, professional actors. A lot of people trying to get in. That helped in getting an agent right away, but there are only two or three auditions a year (for American Indian roles)."
Is it tough to choose between turning down a demeaning role or taking it for the money?
"There's a lot of bad stuff out there. . . . There's been no change. Nobody is being offered a spot as a series regular on any (TV) pilot. Once in a blue moon there's a movie with Native American roles like 'Flags of Our Fathers.' We don't get to play normal human beings. I'm hoping my integrity pays off one day and there will be decent roles out there. You've got to hang on. I became a producer out of being frustrated."
For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.
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