Sage Romero, who is Paiute and Taos Pueblo, remembers buying a copy of the Japanese animated film “Daggers of Kamui” at a now-defunct Hastings store in Albuquerque as a teenager. The film’s Japanese protagonist finds himself in the Americas and connects with the indigenous peoples.

Romero said the film had stereotypical portrayals of Indigenous people. Ultimately, the movie had a lasting effect on him because of the animation and storytelling. This inspired him to consume more and more anime and manga. Soon after, he carried a sketchbook everywhere he went and spent hours sketching in it. This was the first step in his lifelong passion for working in animation.

“I always thought it would be so amazing to bring some of our native legends or some of our native stories to life using this tool. Because it’s something you don’t really see. Of course, we had stereotypical stuff everywhere, like Disney…or it was really hokey,” Romero said.

Through hard work and endless days of self-study, Romero is getting closer to his animation goals. Recently, Romero received a five-day fellowship program with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Native Media Lab Alliance. Eight fellows, including Romero, will not only attend seminars and coaching, but will also have the opportunity to present a final project. He is excited to connect with other Indigenous animators and industry leaders.

“It will be a great learning opportunity,” Romero said.

Romero said that growing up, there weren’t many opportunities or resources for natives like him to encourage him in animation.

“When I spoke to Indigenous programs that had animation…I thought they would have had Indigenous artists, but they would still contract with non-Indigenous media companies, and they would provide the ‘animation,” Romero said.

Native Media Lab Alliance’s third annual Native American Animation Lab aims to boost the careers of the eight fellows.

“We have a talented community that needs exposure, access and opportunity. This company puts more Native Americans in front of the right people who can grow their animation projects and build their animation careers,” said Ian Skorodin (Choctaw), Chief Strategy Officer of the Native American Media Alliance, in a statement. .

Romero will also soon release his own animated film, “Woven Hoops,” online. This is a hand-drawn 2D digital animation short film about the hoop dance he created himself.

“Everything was drawn by me, everything edited by me and it’s me who narrates it all. And it’s my music playing in the background,” Romero said.

Whenever Romero isn’t hosting, he runs a nonprofit center called the Aka-Mya Cultural Group in Big Pine, California. Aka-Mya grew out of a hoop dance group that Romero was involved in, and then became a safe space for indigenous youth and community to gather and practice their culture.

Within the center, he named a studio in honor of his mother, whom he lost to COVID-19. The center also has a dance floor, a physical well-being room and a soundproof recording and computer room for animation and recording of language, songs and stories.

He hopes to one day animate longer stories with mature themes like “Daggers of Kamui” as well as traditional Aboriginal stories and legends.

“I can draw the giant snake that created our hot springs here. Or I can draw the legend of the coyote who runs the storm, without it looking too hokey with bad graphics,” Romero said.

Aka-Mya and Romero’s work can be followed on his YouTube channel, DigitalNdn. The scholarship ended on Friday, December 10.

“If we have access to our own hands and our own drawing skills, then we can bring these things to life,” Romero said.