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Rising Through The Ranks: Maya Rose Dittloff

October 21, 2020
6 min read time

Photo Credit: Cole McCarthy

It's no surprise that Maya Rose Dittloff went into a storytelling profession; since she was a little girl, as a Native American and member of the Blackfeet tribe, she's been immersed in the art and education of the spoken and written word.

 Today, Dittloff is working on several projects as a screenwriter, including a feature akin to Brokeback Mountain, but featuring the complexities of love and homosexuality in Native communities.

Her journey here began years ago, growing up on the land of Glacier National Park in Montana.

Dittloff, 23, says as a child she was an active reader and heavily involved in theater.

"I was obsessed with books and started casually reading until three a.m. in the fifth grade," she said.

"I was always in the theater. I was an awful actor  childhood asthma left me with chronically incapable lungs  but loved the camaraderie of coming together to make something.

When she wasn't reading or preparing for the next school production, Dittloff was hiking, fishing and camping on the land where her family had lived for hundreds of years. She often stopped to think about how the incredible beauty represented her past, present and future.

"But, how to record it?" she would say.

She finally got that chance when her grandfather, an elder and advocate for the Blackfeet Nation, gave her her first camera. From there, Dittloff would always have that camera in hand. It began a journey of storytelling, inspired by the stories she had heard from her elders.

"He [her grandfather] told me the stories that had been passed down about certain places, people, plants and animals," she explained.

"I realized at a young age that stories always surround us, should we choose to be curious."

For many years, Dittloff believed she would become an archaeologist and then a book editor. Although she loved reading and writing, she didn't always consider herself a writer, something she blames on standardized testing in schools.

"I would always score lowest in writing, and for years this confused me," she said.

"But I am Indigenous, and I do think differently, and I do write differently. This creativity is not valued by standardized tests, nor is it quantifiable.”

This is the unseen and unknown contributions of many BIPOC — our viewpoints have been sculpted by our lived experience, and therefore are fundamentally different in ways I can't explain in words."

After hustling in high school as the editor for the school's literary magazine and student director of the theater department, Dittloff found herself choosing whether to attend UCLA or NYU for college. Ultimately, she decided on UCLA; it seemed like a better fit for this small-town Montana girl who wasn't quite interested in the hustle and bustle of New York City. Here, she would become a writer, majoring in screenwriting and directing. She wanted to tell Native stories; she wanted to tell her story.

At 18, Dittloff moved across the country, away from her family, the mountains, and everything she had ever known.

"I am very fortunate that I come from a family of academics, and that I was prepared my whole life for college," Dittloff said.

"I recognize this immense privilege. It was still jarring the first year I didn't experience the flow of seasons in Los Angeles, and unsettling to hear, 'Wow! You're the first Native I've ever met!' coming from peers and professors."

But Dittloff said this would be invaluable training for her career as she found executives would ask the same questions and often make the same comments.

While at UCLA, Dittloff took every opportunity available to write, direct and produce. Besides her academic and creative goals, she also dove into activism, working as an ambassador, traveling the country, and raising awareness for the American Indian College Fund.

During her final year of schooling, the Sovereign Bodies Institute, an organization dedicated to addressing the epidemic in Indian Country of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, honored her with the Emerging Leader Award.

And although she was finding success in her college career, Dittloff found herself having to confront something unique to her: She was a Native person in a predominantly white field, and often it was quite lonely.

She wants to change this reality.

"Now, much of my activism is involved in creating community and providing access to a very unwelcoming field," Dittloff said.

"I learned that if I wanted something, it was up to me."

In 2016, after seeing the movie Moonlight, written by Barry Jenkins, she knew she was meant to create art to change the world.

"As the credits were rolling, I turned to the person next to me and said, "That's the kind of movie I want to make," Dittloff said.

"I felt somehow that maybe it was actually possible to write and direct movies. Maybe it wasn't outlandish anymore to think that I, a young Native girl from Montana, could make movies. And maybe I could get you to feel something, make millions of people feel something."

After college, Dittloff decided not to go the typical Hollywood route; she had no interest in working at an agency or being an assistant. Instead, she found herself working a "hodgepodge" of jobs, including a clerk at a movie theater, and doing social media for a Native non-profit. All the while, she was writing 40 hours a week, too.

Then, in 2019, the LA Skins Fest Feature Writing Lab selected Dittloff as a fellow. This opportunity allowed her to take general meetings across town while developing her material.

"For the first time, I was able to work with other Native writers," Dittloff said.

Her first job in the industry was when she worked on an indie feature as a co-writer. She helped them rewrite parts of the script, speaking to her experience as a Native woman. In the project, she was able to intertwine some of Hidatsa and Blackfeet languages (she's recently been learning both). This film is expected to go into production next summer.

She is also working on many other projects, including a show in development with a premium cable outlet and a video series about National Parks and the LANDBACK movement. This summer, she also worked on photography for a feature documentary in Montana.

"Much of my work is self-generated," Dittloff said.

"But as I look to the future, I would like to staff as well as continue to work in the world of features."

Dittloff's ultimate goal for the work she creates is to change the narrative surrounding Native and Indigenous people.

"Too much content around Native people is 'poverty porn' or focused on stereotypes," she said.

"It is a long journey to come into your power as a writer, as a unique voice. For too long Native people have been erased, torn down, ignored, or forgotten. With time, this becomes internalized.

I never thought I could become a writer. And then one day I was forced to reckon with the fact that if I don't tell my stories, if I don't write about my life and stories as a Native woman, as Blackfeet and Mandan Hidatsa person, then who will?"

As Dittloff currently works on the Brokeback Mountain-like feature, she is also working on finding representation. Dittloff's ultimate dream is to have a thriving Indigenous cinema in the United States.

"I want to be able to hire a Native grip, a Native sound mixer. These people exist in the world, but we exist in isolation, fighting for the next job. The dream is a community that can exist as we always have  telling stories," she said.

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