PERRIS, Calif. — Gary Sherwood Rhine, known for his award-winning
documentaries on contemporary Native issues, died Jan. 9 when his Cirrus
SR20 aircraft crashed in Lancaster, Calif. He was 54.
Since 1990, Rhine has filmed and produced six documentary films that embody
issues that stir up a cauldron of emotions for many in Indian country, yet
convey footsteps already taken to foster healing and hope.
Friends said he was known for his signature Pendleton vests, sense of humor
and passion for life. His online blog gave him a platform to critique and
examine a variety of hotbed issues of the day. “He was excellent at
everything he did … he was a true renaissance man,” said his spouse,
Rhine, CEO of Kifaru Productions, worked closely with his wife of 10 years.
His childhood nickname of “Rhino” influenced him to name the company
“Kifaru,” which means “rhino” in Swahili.
Romero-Rhine said her husband’s humble attitude and yearning for Natives to
share their passions and life experiences was paramount in his decision to
make documentaries about American Indians. “His idea was to let Indians
tell their own stories from their perspective,” she said. “Not one
documentary was released without elder approval.”
A visit to Israel inspired Rhine to pursue Native issues. As a Jew, he not
only pondered the Holocaust. He wondered why the barbaric treatment of
American Indians by European settlers was kept under a tight lid. He was
disturbed that “America had never documented the American holocaust,”
Instead of digging into the injustices of the past, Rhine wanted to focus
on contemporary issues and events that affect Indian country.
The release of “Peyote Road” captured a historical national movement by
Indian and non-Indian activists in pursuit of religious freedom protection
under the First Amendment. In 1994, Congress overturned the U.S. Supreme
Court’s 1990 Smith decision, which denied the sacramental use of peyote —
a major victory for Indian country.
During the filming, Rhine met Native American Rights Fund Attorney Walter
Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, who represented the Native American Church of North
America in its quest to use peyote during ceremonies.
“His work should serve as a model for others in Hollywood and the mass
media on how to empower Native Americans by giving them a voice on human
rights issues,” he said. “He will be missed in Indian country.”
In his last documentary, “A Seat at the Table: Struggling for American
Indian Religious Freedom” (2004), he drew upon eight Native leaders to
discuss the obstacles Natives face to practice their spiritual ways and
preserve sacred sites. The panelists, including Echo-Hawk, attended the
Third Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa.
Lenny Foster, Dine’ director/spiritual adviser for the Navajo Nation
Corrections Project, was a featured panelist in the film. Foster visits
prisons throughout the southwestern United States, fighting obstacles that
prevent incarcerated Natives from practicing their spirituality. “He was
very friendly, professional and genuine,” he said. “We lost a good person,
a good human being, and a friend and relative to Indian country.”
Documentaries weren’t Rhine’s only projects. As an indigenous activist,
Rhine formed DreamCatchers Inc. as a platform to focus on various
philanthropic causes related to education, film, writing, sobriety, health,
language preservation and religious freedom, his wife said.
Under the DreamCatchers umbrella, teams of volunteers were able to provide
and administer antibiotics to numerous survivors of the Indian Ocean
tsunami that reportedly killed more than 200,000 people in December 2004.
Additionally, with the help of sponsors, tribes that lost dwellings in
Hurricane Katrina were donated labor and building supplies.
Pam Belgarde, Chippewa, Rhine’s friend and collaborator on the “Rez Robics”
exercise videos, fought tears as she reflected on a man she proudly called
“Everyone is feeling a total unfairness of losing Gary,” she said. “He
really inspired people to be a better person by just being the person he
Both Belgarde and Rhine were compelled to educate Indian country on
diabetes prevention after the 1993 death of activist Rueben Snake,
Winnebago. The “Rez Robics” videos combine Native humor with martial arts
and pow wow dance moves.
“He supported the project and my passion for what I wanted to do. He was a
positive influence in my life,” she said.
Rhine, a fifth-generation San Franciscan, was born June 26, 1951 to Gerard
and Sherlee Rhine. His father owned a chain of tire stores and his mother
runs a salon and day spa in San Francisco. He is survived by his mother,
wife and six children.
Before his filmmaking career took off, in 1970 Rhine left college with a
group of “hippies” to form a commune in Tennessee known as The Farm. He
lived there for 13 years. Trained as a paramedic, he became “the butler for
midwifes” and eventually taught Natives about midwifery, his wife said.
Prior to his death, Rhine was working on a documentary featuring the late
Lakota scholar and activist Vine Deloria Jr. Romero-Rhine plans on keeping
Kifaru Productions moving forward, but has made no solid plans on what to