By Alec Clayton
Olympia, the city of natural abundance, award-winning culture and celebrated diversity, is home to a video production that was founded by and is run by an indigenous filmmaker — Sky Bear Media. The company is housed in the Steamplant Building in the heart of downtown, described by company founder Jeff Barehand as “nestled next to and just under the metallic clanging of Ziegler’s welding.”
Barehand says of Sky Bear’s space, “The rustic open-concept industrial office features high ceilings, editing workstations, a grand board room table, and most proudly, a ping pong table, that is referred to as “the non-bored room table.”
Barehand is locally celebrated not only as a filmmaker but as an actor who has appeared in many shows on area stages — including “Hair” and “The Full Monty” at Capital Playhouse; Olympia Family Theater’s premiere show “Busytown”; “Evita” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse; and “The Stardust Christmas Fandango” at Harlequin Productions. Barehand, a Gila River/Navajo, moved to Olympia with his wife and five children 10 years ago. Straight out of the Institute of American Indian Arts of Santa Fe, where he spent time making six short films in six weeks as a part of a summer intensive filmmaking program sponsored by ABC/Disney and where he wrote short scripts to exercise his screenwriting skills.
Shortly after relocating to Olympia, Barehand was introduced to Russell Brooks, a Southern Cheyenne who had recently come here from Montana. Their native heritage brought them together, but their love of filmmaking solidified their friendship, Barehand says. Brooks unearthed a short script Barehand had written, and together they set off to make their first short film together, “The Sweet Sorrow,” 2012. The script was only a few pages and required two actors and three locations. The actors were Mac Proctor and Stela Diaz. “It was doable in one weekend,” Barehand notes.
Barehand searched Craigslist to find help with the film. He serendipitously came across a post: “Looking to find people to make movies with” and contacted the poster, Riley Gibson, also a new arrival to Olympia and a fresh-out-of-film school graduate. The Craigslist post additionally unearthed Dylan Glockler, a film school graduate of cinematography living in Montesano at the time.
The three initially met at the Café Vita coffeehouse in downtown Olympia. They bonded over development and had such a great time filming “The Sweet Sorrow” during a cold December shoot, that they vowed to do it again. Simultaneously, Barehand was deciding a production company was in order to begin using his filmmaking skills to make ends meet. “Filmmaking, in general, is not a lucrative field,” he says. “If anything, it is equivalent to setting money on fire.”
He had a vision for a major production company and knew that choosing the right partner would be key to this effort. There was only one person who Barehand felt could be trusted, who had the personality, skills and experience to complement his own. Gibson had already been working as a film producer and acquiring gigs through a local marketer, Mike Williams, of the Williams Group Marketing. Barehand was impressed that Gibson was already out and about making things happen. “He was also a nice guy and easy to work with,” Barehand says.
Barehand asked if Gibson would work with him, and Sky Bear Media was born.
It was slow going for many years. They were unknown, and untested. They had some local business contacts, but nothing that generated large projects. Equipment was expensive, and they had very little to work with. But they stuck with it and used the one niche they had going for them: Barehand’s Native network.
Shana Greenberg-Barehand is a lawyer and spent many years in Washington DC working at the EPA and FCC, developing environmental policies, and increasing broadband access in Indian country. Through a brief law school stint, Jeff Barehand also had access to the turnstile of Indian lawyers that would come through DC. He got to know many Native leaders too, who would lobby congress on behalf of their tribes.
“Indian country is very small, and you get to know most people very fast,” Barehand says. Through both Gibson’s local contacts and Barehand’s national Native network, Sky Bear Media became known as one of the go-to companies for video production.
The company eventually attracted the attention of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, the largest and oldest business organization in Indian country. The Center asked Sky Bear to put in a video production bid for its Las Vegas conference in 2018. Barehand and Gibson won that bid, and have been asked to come back every year since, in addition to creating all of the National Center’s video production.
Since partnering with the National Center, Sky Bear has grown exponentially. It’s now searching for a second employee to help increase the capacity to service the clients that keep calling — even without marketing.
“We’ve been competing with large Seattle and Portland-based firms since the beginning. It’s been a hard road for a small business to measure up, despite being just as capable,” says Barehand, who now sits on the Washington State FilmWorks’ Film Leadership Council. “The Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises’ certifications have been helpful in getting us considered for state contracts. Our experience and capability have been key to helping us win some of those opportunities,” says Barehand.
“The support of our life partners (Shana Barehand and Valerie Brandt) has also been key to making our business a success, especially during the early stages of development,” proclaims Gibson. “We’ve had to reinvest everything back into our company and take home very little pay for a long time. It’s our wives that got us through those rougher years.”
Sky Bear is a brand that cares about people and community. It hires locally, especially from the Olympia Film Collective, a filmmaker non-profit started after Barehand and Gibson had to resort to Craigslist to find others like them. “We support OlyFilm’s mission to increase the role of BIPOC and women in the film industry by donating our time, space and money to their programming,” says Barehand proudly.
The company is a regular supporter of Pizza Klatch, Ballet Northwest, The Bridge Music Project and Red Eagle Soaring Native Youth Theatre and has an arts nonprofit discount, depending on the organization’s annual revenue. “As we become more and more able to give, we have a goal of donating ten percent of our annual revenue to causes we care about,” says Gibson.
Sky Bear is an indigenous-led business motivated to promote Indian sovereignty and elevate positive Native stories. Barehand notes, “We have a couple of letters from incarcerated teens that we made films with a few years back. They got to get out of juvie for a few days to help us make a film. Those thank-you letters mean a lot to us.” Sky Bear also attempts to hire Native whenever reasonably possible, to provide opportunity, and representation.
The company’s bread and butter is corporate videos. The most prominent ad it has produced was for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign “America the Beautiful,” with sound track by Ray Charles. Sky Bear contributed camera work to that project which aired nationally on the day Biden won.
Currently, Sky Bear is in talks with local author Ned Hayes to produce his book “The Eagle Tree” to film.
Sky Bear Media
113 Thurston Ave NE Olympia WA 98501