Children of the Setting Sun Productions (CSSP) is known for amplifying Indigenous voices through storytelling — but its newest offering is unlike anything the nonprofit has ever produced.
“The Sound” is a 10-episode TV drama, and its pilot episode premieres on Saturday, Jan. 20 during CSSP’s Treaty Day Film Festival (TDFF) at the Pickford Film Center. CSSP is actively pitching “The Sound” to distribution platforms and fundraising to film the remaining nine episodes.
This coming-of-age tale highlights a group of Coast Salish teens on a canoe journey through their ancestral waterways. According to a news release, “Their journey starts as an escape from hurt and trauma, but soon becomes a purposeful route to transformation and self-discovery.”
Native youth were involved in every stage of the project’s development, ensuring that “The Sound” authentically portrays issues that affect them. But these stories aren’t meant for Indigenous audiences only. Screenwriter and producer Noelani Auguston said the issues characters face — identity, mental health and self-discovery — are relevant to everyone.
Auguston brought a mix of professional and lived experience to the making of “The Sound.” Born and raised in Whatcom County, she is a member of the Shxhwa:y Village of the Stol:o Nation and Kanaka Maoli. She also holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing with a focus in screenwriting from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is now a full-time screenwriter and producer at CSSP.
“We want to share these stories with everyone because they’re beautiful stories, they’re compelling stories — and they might just teach you a thing or two,” she said.
The making of ‘The Sound’
The idea for “The Sound” originated from a partnership with the organization North Sound Accountable Community of Health (NSACH), one of CSSP’s major funders.
“They gave us the reins to do what we wanted, but we had to address mental health issues that Indigenous youth face today,” Auguston said. “[Director Jordan Riber] was like, ‘Why don’t we do this dramatic narrative form, in order to reach our youth in a more compelling and entertaining way?’”
In the earliest stages, Riber worked with young tribal leaders and Darrell Hillaire, CSSP’s owner and executive producer, to workshop story and character ideas.
“They had a draft of a script, but they needed a local trained writer in screenwriting,” Auguston said. “So that’s when a cousin reached out to a cousin of mine and was like, ‘Hey, we really need you here.’”
Auguston finalized the script, and the pilot was filmed over the course of nine days. Audiences are sure to recognize at least a few filming locations, including Lummi Nation, Bellingham, Nooksack and even Camp Kirby in Skagit County.
Honoring Indigenous voices
During initial storyboarding and scripting, Auguston made it a priority to honor the young people who “[brought] their realities to the page.”
“Many of the characters are examples from their own lives or experiences, brought into these characters and what they’re going through in the storyline,” she said.
The final story touches on a variety of issues relevant to young people today. Protagonist Tisiphone (or Tiss for short, played by Ta’Kaiya Blaney) is a “rebel looking for a cause,” navigating family dysfunction, substance abuse and the loss of her father.
“She thinks she wants to run away, but really, all she wants to do is connect and really find home,” Auguston said.
Through the stories of Ray and Frog (played by Stormy Kipp and Benairen Kane), “The Sound” also examines the effects of the U.S. foster care and adoption system on Indigenous youth.
Other major themes include identity, belonging and intergenerational trauma — but at its core, this story is one of transformation and self-discovery. Kane believes it will strike a chord with Native and non-Native audiences alike.
“It’s hard to stand up there and talk about trauma,” Kane said. “Specifically the kind of trauma that the protagonists are going through, which I believe is un-unique to the community that the story takes place in … Hopefully the viewer feels like they can identify with someone up there, even if we don’t look alike.”
Native youth were also heavily involved throughout the production process, from early-stage development to post-production and audio mixing. During filming, Auguston said local young people worked as production assistants, helped with hair and makeup and acted as background extras. Several of the show’s co-producers were even recruited from CSSP’s Young Tribal Leaders program.
“The media always made it feel like we didn’t belong,” said Isabella James, a youth production assistant for The Sound. “With this project, though, I got to experience an Indigenous-led production and sat front and center while learning from mentors and professionals who have been doing this work for many years.”
On a similar note, Kane said “The Sound” is the biggest project he’s worked on so far, and he described his experience on set as “perspective-shifting.”
“I felt like I had space to try new things because they made me feel safe enough to fail, which I will be forever grateful [for], regardless of what comes next,” he said.
Storytelling as medicine
With nine episodes left to film, Auguston said fundraising looks “hopeful.” Her ultimate goal is to find a distribution platform that allows CSSP to retain creative control.
“People have seen the pilot and conversations are threading and evolving, and we’re really hopeful that it will get picked up,” Auguston said. “We’re hoping that we get to produce the remaining parts of this series and get it to a distribution platform for everyone to see.”
In the meantime, CSSP has a variety of other projects in the works. The feature documentary for CSSP’s ongoing Salmon People Project is in the final stages of editing, and additional short films are in post-production. The short “Jason LaClair: Story Pole” will be showing at TDFF, and another short about the power of song will debut later in 2024.
But whether she’s working on a documentary or a dramatic narrative like “The Sound,” Auguston said she believes in the power of storytelling to change minds. She frequently quotes a phrase by Charene Alexander of the Native Transformations Project: “Storytelling is medicine.”
“I get inspiration from my people, my family, my son,” Auguston said. “I want my kid to live in a world that better understands him and will treat him well, and the rest of our children well. I just think storytelling brings people together.”
“The Sound” is part of the Pickford Film Center’s sixth annual Treaty Day Film Festival, presented by CSSP in honor of the 1855 Point Elliot Treaty. This year’s sold-out festival takes place on Saturday, Jan. 20, in advance of Treaty Day on Monday, Jan. 22. Visit the Pickford’s website (pickfordfilmcenter.org) to see a full list of programming.
The story was updated to clarify the name of CSSP’s funder, North Sound Accountable Community of Health, at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 19.