Film director Sande Zeig knew she had to make a movie about the Native American women before she even spoke to them. She was walking through Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport in 2006 when the bright yellow shirts in which they were all clad caught her eye. But it was the vibe they cast that drew her in.

“This was clearly a powerful group of women, and they stopped me in my tracks. The feeling I got being in the area where they were gathered was very powerful, and I got the message there was something there,” Zeig, who lives in Tucson, recalled. “They said they were firefighters from Fort Apache, and I said, ‘I want to make a movie about you.’ The words just fell out of my mouth.”

The result was “Apache 8,” a documentary about the first and longest-lasting all-woman, wildland firefighter crew from the White Mountain Apache Tribe. The team has been fighting fires in Arizona – including the Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow fires – throughout the United States for more than 30 years. 

It follows the lives of four extraordinary women from different generations of the Apache 8 crew, as they share their personal narratives with humor and tenderness. That includes the rejection they usually receive while trying to become female firefighters.

Apache 8 crew member Katy Aday experienced the struggle for acceptance the minute she signed up. As the then director of forestry told her, “Once you get all that (firefighting) equipment on you, that equipment is going to weigh more than you. You’re too small, you’re too thin, you can’t do it. You won’t be able to handle the job.”

His statement made Aday more determined than ever to work for Apache 8.

The 57-minute film is one of many that will be screened at the Native American Film Showcase, starting today through Dec. 4 at several locations in Tucson.

Zeig and Aday will be present when their film is screened starting at 7 p.m. on Dec. 2 at Grand Cinemas Crossroads, 4811 E. Grant Road, at Swan Road, in Tucson. Admission is $5.

Zeig obtained financing for the film from private sources as well as a grant from the Native American Public Telecommunications, Inc., a nonprofit 501(c)(3) that receives major funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It aired earlier this year locally on KUAT, Tucson’s PBS station.

The women of Apache 8 have all excelled and been honored with national recognition for community and military service, including Cheryl Bones. This Apache 8 crew boss was selected as the only woman model for the Wildland Firefighters Monument in Boise, Idaho, which pays homage to all firefighters with bronze statues.

Bones’ nephew, Rick Lupe, and his hotshot crew were instrumental in suppressing the Rodeo-Chediski fire. He died as a result of burns he suffered a year later while working on a prescribed fire.

“Apache 8” covers the state’s best known fires as they relate to the all-woman firefighting crew, but mostly, it’s about the women themselves, said Zeig.

“I thought I was just making a story about Apache 8, but once we started interviewing people, it turned out to follow four individuals. These people began standing out as wonderful, compelling stories,” she said. “In the process, we discovered who they really were.”

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