Indigenizing Towards Co-Liberation Joy Through BIPOC Film Festivals and Sovereign Media Making

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Image Credit: Courtesy of 4th World Media Lab, the 2021 fellows pictured left to right include: Ajuawak Kapashesit, Lucía Ortega Toledo, Brit Hensel, Erin Lau, Morningstar Angeline, and Theola Ross

Michelle Y. Hurtubise

Introductory Groundwork

 

In seeking to theorize a concept brought up in practice, that of co-liberation joy through contemporary media making, this discussion draws on interdisciplinary Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) scholarship and Indigenous media practices of narrative sovereignty. These ideas have the potential to activate many communities, so while imperfect, this article utilizes the term BIPOC when referring to the distinct but sometimes overlapping struggles and experiences of historically underrepresented media artists. Where ideas and theories originated is noted, as their unique contexts shape their ongoing implementation.

 

Indigenizing industry interventions (on and off screen) encountered by the author at North American film festivals and enacted through narrative sovereignty inspired this work, as has the creation of Kin Theory, an Indigenous media makers database. Developed with the Nia Tero foundation, the author (Chinese/Irish/French) has been involved with Kin Theory as a strategist since its inception in 2019. The author weaves together their academic and industry work by helping organize panels, aiding in database development, and fostering collaborations alongside their visual anthropology doctoral research. The diverse Kin Theory team are highly influential co-creators and include Tracy Rector (Executive Director), Jessica Ramirez (Project Lead), Eleni Ledesma (Associate Producer), and Julie Keck (Consulting Producer).

 

This article sprang from experiences when the film industry made huge shifts online during the COVID-19 global pandemic and many media outlets explored the language and structures surrounding historically oppressed peoples and ongoing systematic racism. Looking forward, this article first explores the meaning and context of co-liberation joy and narrative sovereignty. The power and potential of diverse peoples seeking liberation together through practices of joy came to the author’s attention during a Seattle International Film Festival forum panel co-hosted by Kin Theory on April 10, 2021, which was later shared online (https://youtu.be/34qR7yiKvqs). Jesse Wente spoke about the concept of narrative sovereignty, where one authors their story and controls the media-making process, in a 2018 recorded Hot Docs Industry Conference keynote (https://vimeo.com/282370224). Together, these concepts form the foundation of media making on new terms.

 

The question of how (and if) media can liberate is addressed through Latin American theorists’ and practitioners’ work on literacy education (Paulo Freire), theatre (Augusto Boal), and media making (Clemencia Rodríguez). With a through-line of storytelling, the discussion deepens with an analysis of Indigenous scholars breaking free from colonial constraints (Glen Coulthard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson) and possible ways to work together through Indigenized frameworks (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Sonya Atalay, Albert and Murdena Marshall). Audre Lorde (African-Caribbean American) also adds to the discussion about liberation, embracing difference, and draws in the powerful concept and practice of Black joy. Together, these works and scholars foster abundance, weaving together powerful ways to enact co-liberation joy and expand cracks in the hegemonic film industry.

Context for Co-Liberation Joy and Narrative Sovereignty

 

In a rapidly changing world, the film industry must not only be decolonized but Indigenized. Recent turmoil has increased the visibility of BIPOC-led initiatives and expanded digital access to their media. Old systems are breaking apart, allowing room for new seats at the table and different systems of support for diverse creatives. This is inspiring a robust resurgence of narrative sovereignty, a concept Ojibwe Executive Director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office Jesse Wente defines as making and controlling one’s own media.[1] Wente said, “When I talk about narrative sovereignty, what I’m really talking about is the ability of the nations to have some measure of control over the stories that are told about themselves” (Nickerson 2019, 7). Telling one’s own story stands in stark contrast to an industry that has largely built itself on cultural appropriation. Rather than media made about Indigenous peoples, it must be made by them. During a 2018 Hot Docs Industry Conference keynote address, Wente expressed how the impact of narrative sovereignty could extend to other political areas such as land, body, and spiritual sovereignty. The Nia Tero foundation also bridges the power of media storytelling and Indigenous land by supporting Indigenous storytellers while also helping secure Indigenous guardianship of vital ecosystems (https://www.niatero.org/). To further support these storytellers and strengthen reciprocal relationships, Nia Tero developed Kin Theory, “an Indigenous media makers database designed to showcase and uplift Indigenous media creators while creating opportunities for industry connections and for working in solidarity with diverse creatives” (Kin Theory 2021).

Throughout 2021, Kin Theory hosted a variety of virtual panels to “share efforts within and outside of the film industry to create Indigenous and BIPOC solidarity” (Kin Theory 2021). At the Seattle International Film Festival in April, SIFF Programmer Dustin Kaspar facilitated one such panel entitled “Kin Theory: Indigenizing Film Industry Spaces.” Moderator and Executive Director of Storytelling at Nia Tero Tracy Rector (Black/Choctaw/Jewish) robustly discussed co-liberation and joy with the panelists from the Indigenous Program at the Sundance Institute, Associate Director Adam Piron (Kiowa/Mohawk)[2] and Senior Manager Ianeta Le'i (Japanese/Portuguese/Samoan). Their frank and insightful conversation inspired many of the connections made in this article, as did their sustainable solidarity and gestures towards joy, which often stemmed from Indigenous media makers finding each other at film festivals and building long term relationships. In these spaces they would laugh, remember fondly how they met, be inspired by similar works and artists, and grow in their careers alongside one another. Throughout the SIFF conversation, it was apparent that they had been Indigenizing industry spaces with their work and physical presence, coming together over phenomenal films, good food, and the talented community they were forming. Woven throughout, joy seemed to build resilience, as did coming together to collaborate and co-liberate. Building on the foundation and potential of co-liberation joy, the SIFF film forum panel also incorporated the next generation when asking in the panel description, “What will the future of solidarity connections look like for safe, radically supportive, and innovative Indigenous filmmaking?” (https://www.siff.net/festival/kin-theory). The panelists discussed how this moment of fracture in the status quo due to COVID-19 opened opportunities to foster online spaces, cultivate broader access for Indigenous communities, get more eyes on innovative work, and challenge the industry playing field.

 

When Rector asked Piron if BIPOC solidarity looks different than white allyship, he replied that sometimes there is a lot less explaining to do around identity, historical traumas, and community issues. BIPOC creatives who relate to each other’s lived experiences can often move more quickly past oppressions into spaces of future dreaming and creativity. Piron said, “I think about conversations [that] I’ve been part of, and moving past, thru, and acknowledging historical traumas in different ways, and what that looks like in storytelling. And [how] in BIPOC spaces… that looks and feels very different. And there’s this joy aspect too that I’m hearing. I think that’s a huge part of it too” (SIFF 2021). While each situation is different, Piron also shared a question he sometimes poses to filmmakers and Indigenous Sundance Fellows to encourage moving beyond the oppressor’s grip to cultivate and strengthen individual, thriving voices. Piron explained:

I don’t ask this in a confrontational way, it’s more like a prompt that I’ve used with some stuff with Sundance—the idea of what would it look like, what kind of film or what kind of story would you tell if tomorrow, all of a sudden, all of the issues, both historical and societal and cultural were already taken care of or they were solved or something. And that’s not to say to ignore any of that, but it’s more just, what is your voice outside of trying to process trauma or are you able to move away from trauma, what does that look like, and kind of opening that door. (SIFF 2021)

Piron further used filmmaker Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians) as an example of someone who has been working this way throughout their career, making the films they want, rather than what industry standards have historically dictated, to amplify their distinct voice. Rector reinforced the importance of supporting artists as they tell their own stories, and on a 2021 Kin Theory panel at New York University, Rector spoke about uplifting artists and opening doors for Nia Tero fellows, creators of color, and emerging Indigenous media makers.[3] Rector has also noted how important it is that once you walk through a door, leave it open. There are incredible Indigenous filmmakers and industry leaders making more space for BIPOC creatives who are working from and for places of abundance. On the SIFF panel, Le'i said, “a lot of the talks that we have with our filmmakers [is] to let them know, it’s okay to express your joy, it’s okay to not have to explain yourself. So, to me that’s exciting and it reflects the hard work that was done in the past, where filmmakers can actually feel comfortable with exploring new formats and new stories and not being so worried about having to address a lot of the hardships that go with it” (SIFF 2021, Le'i).

 

The panelists also spoke of growing support for narrative sovereignty and the current generosity of many organizations, such as Marcia Smith’s Firelight Media, a longstanding producer of and advocate for non-fiction filmmakers of color. Efforts to bolster underrepresented media makers in this moment can be strengthened through joy, sharing, collaboration, and coalition building. Fellowships specifically designed to support BIPOC filmmakers can incubate talent and create space for systematic change, fostering networks of diverse creatives who can lend support to one another outside of hegemonic systems. Piron, Le'i, and Rector shared examples of innovative Indigenous filmmakers and fellows who were taking advantage of this digital moment, some of whom were screening their work at SIFF. Piron pointed out how in Toronto, the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, the world’s largest presenter of Indigenous screen content, is using the festival’s temporary move online (during the COVID-19 pandemic) to reach Indigenous communities in new ways. Rector also brought up the bold work that Maori Karmael Holmes’s BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia is doing while prioritizing Black, Brown, and Indigenous artists. BlackStar’s mission states: “We elevate artists who are overlooked, invisibilized or misunderstood and celebrate the wide spectrum of aesthetics, storytelling and experiences that they bring… we curate every aspect of our events to be intentional community building efforts, connecting diverse audiences in a Black-led space centered on joy and thriving” (https://www.blackstarfest.org/about#mission). Rector asked how this “collaboration, co-organizing” work can continue to be manifested in industry spaces.

 

Rector helped create the 4th World Media Lab, which sends an annual cohort of emerging Indigenous filmmakers to three festivals: SIFF, Camden International Film Festival (CIFF) in Maine, and the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival (Big Sky) in Montana. The 4th World Media Lab’s festival collaboration is unique, and Sean Flynn and Mara Bresnahan from CIFF pointed out that they hope that it can be a model for other industry initiatives and artist fellowships (personal communication, August 2, 2021). Rachel Gregg from Big Sky also reinforced how unique and special their collaboration is (personal communication, April 24, 2022). In another Indigenizing industry space, Nia Tero partnered with SIFF on their cINeDIGENOUS programming (Kaspar 2021). Rector recounted how an entire classroom from Fiji was able to join the virtual master class “Raising Our Voices” with filmmaker Ciara Lacy (Kanaka Maoli) because it was held online (https://www.siff.net/programs/classes/raising-our-voices). While those students may not have all been able to travel to Seattle, they could participate online. Access shifted in that digital moment and empowered young filmmakers across the globe. Rector said, “It was just kind of mind-blowing but I’m seeing more of those types of relationships form” (SIFF 2021). Le'i also celebrated these crucial connections and the groundbreaking work unfolding. Framing this groundswell of change, Le'i said, “It’s super exciting to think that even though we’re from different places in the world and we’re working on different films and different languages, we’re all still working towards the same thing, having more representation in film and media and [helping] filmmakers develop and teach filmmaking skills. Seeing the fresh and new creative work coming out of these communities is amazing” (SIFF 2021).

 

There are additional initiatives and BIPOC databases that extend beyond this conversation, and a growing list on the Kin Theory website includes Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY CREW, Iyabo Boyd’s Brown Girls Doc Mafia (BGDM), and Jennifer Podemski’s Shine Network (https://www.kintheory.org/resources/). These BIPOC women are bringing people together in innovative ways during this often-difficult moment of change, making cracks in the still predominately white male film industry in which “74.6 percent of the directors for top Hollywood films were White” in 2020 (Hunt and Ramón 2021, 23). UCLA’s “2021 Hollywood Diversity Report: Part 1 examines the top 185 English-language films released in 2020 via theaters and/or streaming subscription platforms” that were “ranked by global box office and total household ratings” (Hunt and Ramón 2021, 7, 2). The report found that while women and people of color are gaining ground in the industry, they remain underrepresented. Unfortunately, “decisions about which film projects will be greenlighted—and which stories will be told—are still overwhelming made by (White) men” (Hunt and Ramón 2021, 16). However, “minority” audiences were found to be the largest, films with “minority” casts were viewed the most, and perhaps unsurprisingly, female and “minority” directors have the most diverse casts (Hunt and Ramón 2021; Wolf 2021).

BIPOC industry leaders are supporting diverse media creatives and amplifying alternatives to dominant narratives that have the potential to shift how industry systems operate. Indigenous media makers are leaning into critical social issues while expanding what is possible through narrative sovereignty, online distribution, and capacity building within and beyond their communities. Prioritizing narrative sovereignty changes how stories are made and shared, which may impact other sovereignty movements. BIPOC solidarity and collaboration, alongside a rise in online streaming and hybrid film festivals during the COVID-19 pandemic, is getting films to new communities. Audiences are responding positively to these Indigenized online spaces and are hungry for stories made by BIPOC creatives, as “diverse audiences prefer diverse content” (Hunt and Ramón 2021, 44). In academia, BIPOC scholars also lead the way and guide this article deeper into theoretical potentials of this industry work. To explore the practices and potential of co-liberation joy through media making, this article examines BIPOC scholarship to first ask how can media liberate? Second, Indigenous alternatives to hegemony are discussed. Finally, the space for joy that the panelists discussed is revisited, uplifted by BIPOC scholars, industry leaders, and media makers.

Co-Liberation, How Can Media Liberate?

 

Storytelling can play a powerful role in liberation, as many Latin American movements have demonstrated. The interdisciplinary theories of Paulo Freire (1968), Augusto Boal (1974), and Clemencia Rodríguez (2001) use media and civic literacy in efforts to lift oppression through education, theatre, and citizens’ media, often during times of state-sanctioned violence and colonial oppression. Radical Brazilian educator Freire focused on education and literacy to activate one’s voice. Brazilian theatre practitioner and one-time politician Boal trained audiences and actors to take charge of their lives and to physically practice confronting their oppressors. Colombian media and communications scholar Rodríguez brings these theories and practices together and adds a crucial element to this discussion, media, to reshape public and personal narratives and empower communities.

 

Freire lays important groundwork for these theories through reclaiming voice from the dominant society and oppressor. Rodríguez contextualizes Freire’s ideas, explaining that “People without access to power lose their own voices and learn to mimic the voice of the powerful; internalize negative notions of themselves and their environment; and adopt stigmatized versions of their neighborhoods and communities” (2021, 81). To combat this, Freire draws out the desire in people to learn how to read and author their own narratives. Reclaiming voice clarifies understanding and empowers the building of one’s world. Rodríguez explains how “Freire proposed communication and dialogue as critical tools to break through the culture of silence; he argued that people can overcome processes of alienation, isolation and silence by appropriating their own languages and using this new fluency to speak the world in their own terms” (2021, 81). Voice and power are inherently tied together in this context of world-building. Boal and Rodríguez build on this and weave together crucial threads towards a liberated voice through different mediums to empower historically oppressed and marginalized communities.

When people tell their own stories, the power of the voice appears through writing, speaking, or making media. Activating one’s voice has the potential to shatter the oppressor’s narrative. Appropriation in this context (re)takes the tools of the oppressor to use for alternative ends. It makes an intervention into hegemonic technological, media, communication, and education systems to upend what is oppressive and make it personally useful for local communities. Rather than learning to digest uncontested state doctrine, Freire taught people how to read critically and defend their rights through critical consciousness (1968). This paralleled an important liberation framework in the United States during the Civil Rights era with American educator Myles Horton’s Highlander Folk School. Freire and Horton discuss their journeys and liberatory pedagogy in We Make the Road by Walking (1990). Rosa Parks attended Highlander shortly before becoming a cornerstone figure in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat to a white man (Horton and Freire 1990, xxiv). Parks is one example of many who find their voice through literacy and education, leading directly to actions that bring about social change and liberation.

Freire’s theories and practices are utilized worldwide. However, the liberation movements in Latin America relate to literacy and the arts with specific resonances and theoretical threads that spread directly from education to the arts and the creation of media. Influenced by Freire’s literacy techniques, Boal worked in the theatre to transform people from passive to active subjects in manifesting their liberation. Rodríguez’s work in community-made media expanded these systems of liberation through comunicación popular and citizens’ media. Rodríguez explains, “According to Freire, popular communication can transform people from passive objects of others into self-determining subjects, individuals with agency. The ultimate goal of comunicación popular is conscientization, a consciousness-raising process that begins with language and ends in action” (2021, 81). In other words, by activating one’s voice, language is taken out of hegemonic hands and liberated locally. Personal and community identities are re-appropriated through self-directed narratives, and then a path to liberation is laid out with one’s own hands and direct action.

Freire also explained how personal liberation impacts the larger oppressive social system in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), pointing out that oppressors also need liberating because everyone in an oppressive system inherently suffers. People are not always aware of the harms they perpetuate on others and, consequently, themselves. By liberating oneself from the system, a person can break the mold and liberate others in the process. Liberation materializes through critical consciousness and taking control of the things one reads and takes in, reshaping narratives. Reclaiming one’s voice and making one’s own media can liberate. By actively participating in these transformations and authoring one’s story, agency and self-determination are cultivated.

Freire inspired Boal’s work Theatre of the Oppressed (1974), and both advocated for people “to develop their [own] desire for change” (Boal 1998, 20). Whereas Freire was an educator, Boal used the tools of theatre and performance as an active “rehearsal for revolution” in which people use their bodies to act out liberation in situations drawn specifically from their lives (Boal 1974, 122). The transformative power of physically practicing liberation also trained people to (re)take control and embody their freedom and happiness. Joy became an important part of healing and changing public narratives. In 1992, Boal ran for Rio de Janeiro’s city council and won with the campaign slogan, “Have the courage to be happy” (Coragem de ser feliz) (Boal 1998, 14). However, this hard work was not without sacrifice, and both Freire and Boal were exiled for a time due to their radical liberatory practices. Boal taught actors and audiences to become spect-actors by bringing spectators into action with performers (Boal 1974). Together, they learned to physicalize actions that confronted oppressors and changed oppressive situations. This exercised possibilities for personal liberation, changing relationships, and coming together in a space with their community to not only talk about oppression, but embody ways to be liberated from it.

Rodríguez extends these practices to media making through the theoretical framework of citizens’ media, which she coined in Fissures in the Mediascape (2001). Rodríguez specifies the political potential of appropriating media to activate citizens on their own terms, not those solely determined by the state, and uses this term to distinguish these actions from other communication discourse. Citizens’ media also incorporates Freire’s foundational ideas around critical consciousness through concientization. Rodríguez elaborates on this consciousness-raising process and defines citizens’ media:

My idea was to render visible the metamorphic transformation of alternative media participants (or community

media, or participatory media, or radical media, or alternative media) into active citizens. That is, “citizens’ media”

is a concept that accounts for the processes of empowerment, concientization, and fragmentation of power that

result when men, women, and children gain access to and re-claim their own media. (2003, 24)

Through this community-driven process of reclaiming voice and media, Rodríguez’s work highlights many successful examples of citizens’ media empowering and liberating communities from mainstream media and hegemonic doctrines in Latin American communities. These citizens’ media efforts are vast and include the development of community-led radio stations (2001), communication efforts interwoven with liberation theology movements (2003), and the Zapatistas’ use of the internet during revolution (2019). Rodríguez writes about the processes and peoples emboldened by these efforts, “As they disrupt established power relationships and cultural codes, citizens’ media participants exercise their own agency in re-shaping their own lives, futures, and cultures” (2003, 24–25). Whether through literacy, performance, or media making, the strength of these liberatory approaches lies in the transformative power of reclaiming narratives, learning to be critical of larger systems, understanding one’s place within it, and changing from the story they tell, to the story you tell.

These practices echo Wente’s calls for narrative sovereignty in what is now called Canada and across Turtle Island (North America). Wente has been making interventions in mainstream media for decades, advocating for Indigenous peoples to be able to tell their own stories and receive the funding and support to do so in the film industry. As Freire did, Wente notes how reclaiming voice through narrative sovereignty not only empowers historically marginalized peoples, but also challenges the larger system and society around them in “an industry used to appropriation, unaware of the harm it causes and dismissive of those it excludes” (2019, 42). How stories are made, shared, and embodied by communities impacts social realities and can lead to transformations. As Wente writes, “Not only do Indigenous peoples need a vibrant screen sector, one that employs them, and allows for the telling of our own stories; such a sector is also deeply important for non-Indigenous peoples—so that they may hear our stories from us, so that we may learn together, so that we may build a better future for us all” (2019, 42).

Whether through employing Freire’s critical consciousness, becoming a Boalian spect-actor, empowering oneself through Rodríguez’s citizens’ media, or stepping into Wente’s narrative sovereignty, creating and controlling the stories told about oneself has the potential to foster change and sovereignty. Such critical practices have been specific to times, places, peoples, and revolutions that, while applicable elsewhere, also contain multitudes of possibilities and a robust depth that is only touched upon in this article. What is apparent is that many diverse peoples have been working for liberation in distinct community-driven ways. When their efforts align and support one another, co-liberation can strengthen these efforts. With these practices and the SIFF panelists’ embodiment of joy, co-liberation joy becomes another tool for liberation. As co-liberation joy through media making was highlighted at a Turtle Island film festival, several Indigenous theorists specific to this time and place also offer critical insight into potentials for co-liberation and Indigenizing pathways forward.

Indigenizing Systems Towards Liberation and Joy

The use of the term Indigenization in this article is intentional but does not aim to exclude seminal work done in decolonizing fields. Nor does it seek to amalgamate the many distinct global Indigenous nations and individual voices. Celebrated Māori education scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith offered the world an Indigenous alternative to approaching knowledge sharing and production in Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (1999), and her work continues to be highly influential. Decolonization is still needed and has often been used in critically important ways to acknowledge, confront, and change hegemonic systems, scholarship, and social institutions. Nevertheless, it has been a colonizing tactic to be prescriptive with language and opportunities, to divide and conquer communities, and to force the oppressed to engage in hegemonic systems of identity, capital, and knowledge production. Often, the only pathways to freedom within these systems remain tied to colonial versions of autonomy (George 2019). However, this is not the only form of agency nor the primary route to liberation, as Freire, Boal, Rodríguez, and the following Indigenous theorists illuminate. This discussion utilizes the term Indigenizing rather than decolonizing to engage the potential to move past systems of harm into spaces of Indigenous design that are not linked to vestiges of tearing down.

Radical resurgence is a theory of Indigenous liberation that Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer, academic, and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson began writing about in Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence (2011). Simpson explains, “I set out to explore the idea of turning inward and rebuilding Indigenous nations on Indigenous terms using our intelligence and political thought” (2016, 28). Indigenous resurgence is a departure from settler-colonialism and focuses on “Indigenous internationalism,” world-building by grounding oneself in the power of Indigenous communities, and “land as pedagogy” to reclaim voice, power, and lifeways (Simpson 2017). While this relates to Freire empowering the voice, Boal embodying the physical, and Rodríguez reclaiming media making, Simpson’s approach and theories remain distinct. Simpson is Indigenizing approaches through Nishnaabeg intelligence and the methodological embodiment of being kwe—of being a “woman within the spectrum of genders in Nishnaabemowin, or the Nishnaabe language” (Simpson 2017, 29). This fluid womanhood is a living method of heteropatriarchal refusal and generative theory grounded in the land. It is a reclamation of being that is set apart from the colonial project. Simpson writes that “Indigenous peoples standing up on our lands in a principled, strategic, and articulate way, embodying change, is a fundamentally different approach than begging the colonizer for their pity, or centering whiteness in solidarity or in allyship” (2016, 31).

Often a collaborator with Simpson (Ritskes, Simpson and Coulthard 2014; Coulthard and Simpson 2016; SJRI Brock 2018), Yellowknives Dene First Nations political theorist Glen Coulthard further discusses in Red Skin White Masks (2014) how to de-center whiteness, capitalism, and contemporary notions of reconciliation that facilitate relationships still bounded by colonial mentalities. Marginalizing systems, such as reconciliation, often serve to placate white guilt rather than recognize Indigenous sovereignty (Coulthard 2014). Coulthard draws on contemporary activists’ movements (which Simpson also references) while grounding his “resurgent politics of recognition” in non-exploitative terms, Indigenous identities, reciprocal relationships, and the land itself through place-based practices of “grounded normativity” (2014). Coulthard defines grounded normativity as an ethical framework in which “Our relationships to the land itself generates the processes, practices, and knowledge that inform our political systems, and through which we practice solidarity” (Coulthard and Simpson 2016, 254). Simpson further explains that “grounded normativity has no space for exploitation, heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, or antiblackness” (2016, 31).

By returning to the land and Indigenous lifeways, Simpson and Coulthard do not feed and empower the colonizer to heal Indigenous subjects as “the primary object of repair,” but rather focus on Indigenous ways forward and remind the colonizer to focus on their own relationships (Coulthard 2014, 127). Coulthard writes, “It is only by privileging and grounding ourselves in these normative lifeways and resurgent practices that we have a hope of surviving our strategic engagements with the colonial state with integrity as Indigenous peoples” (2014, 179, emphasis added). Simpson expands Kahnawake Mohawk anthropologist Audra Simpson’s (2014) notion of ethnographic refusal (where silence intentionally withholds information) into a “generative refusal” that creates a way of living and being that is inherently different from settler-colonial ontologies (2017, 242).

These Indigenous frameworks also resonate with the Black, lesbian, warrior, poet, Caribbean immigrant daughter Audre Lorde’s departure from the settler state when she points out that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984). However, Simpson’s work is an even further departure from decolonizing and dismantling. Simpson articulates, “I am not so concerned with how we dismantle the master’s house, that is, which sets of theories we use to critique colonialism; but I am very concerned with how we (re)build our own house, or our own houses. I have spent enough time taking down the master’s house, and now I want most of my energy to go into visioning and building our new house” (2011, 32). Healing can be a generative act of creation and a rebellious departure at the same time. As Lorde expressed, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (1984). Through an internal gaze, Lorde drew on the deep, dark reserves of femme creativity and power that have existed throughout time but are not supported by a heteropatriarchal society. Simpson echoes this compassionate strength through Nishnaabemowin as she explains:

Kina Gchi Nishnaabeg-ogamig is an ecology of intimacy. It is an ecology of relationships in the absence of coercion, hierarchy, or authoritarian power. Kina Gchi Nishnaabeg-ogamig is connectivity based on the sanctity of the land,

the love we have for our families, our language, our way of life. It is relationships based on deep reciprocity, respect, noninterference, self-determination, and freedom. (2017, 8)

Self-care and opportunities for healing can make joy a powerful rebellion. Alongside recent Black Lives Matter movements, there have been Afro-Indigenous, Blasian, and additional solidarity movements that speak not only to the profoundly non-colonial categorization of people and their communities, but also to BIPOC people coming together in new ways that contrast with how they have historically often been forcefully pitted against one another. Lorde and Simpson are creators, writers, mothers, and radical change-makers that embrace their respective and inherently powerful selfhoods. These diverse, celebrated thinkers offer pathways through oppression into radically different presents that are not bound by genocidal pasts and ongoing colonial extractive systems. Their writings speak to the scholars’ distinct communities, disciplines, liberation projects, and sovereignty in ways that draw strength from their specific cultural contexts. Viewed together, they offer the possibility for co-liberation joy that is not confined to colonial languages and categorizations. Simpson writes about building “constellations of co-resistance” (2016, 2017), and Lorde aptly warns and inspires, saying, “the failure of academic feminists to recognize difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower” (1984, 112). By embracing the strength of difference, perhaps we can co-resist and co-liberate together with healing joy.

The abovementioned theorists and creatives offer a radical departure from colonial systems. There are also thinkers who disrupt while working within seemingly disparate worlds. Utilizing different approaches to Indigenizing pathways, the following theorists offer ideas and values not found at the forefront of colonial systems. Through an interdisciplinary integration of difference, these Indigenous scholars offer ways forward through the concepts of braiding and Etuaptumumk (Two-Eyed Seeing). Potawatomi environmental biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer utilizes the concept of braiding to heal. She writes about how different scientific theories, ecological views, Western knowledge, and Traditional knowledge can support each other through supportive systems and stories in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants (2013).Through her work, Kimmerer offers “a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world. The braid is woven of three strands: indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinabekwe scientist trying to bring them together in service to what matters most. It is an intertwining of science, spirit, and story” (2013, x). Kimmerer utilizes story as a powerful vehicle to transmit knowledge and allow different worldviews to co-exist.

Anishinaabe-Ojibwe archaeologist Sonya Atalay also advocates for working with multiple knowledge systems while not muting or overstepping any component part through “braiding knowledge,” a concept her ancestors called for and which she puts into practice through participatory research (2012). Her long-term participatory methodology is grounded in sustainable community-based work. Atalay also theorizes about how knowledge production, classrooms, and communities benefit from holistic views and an embrace of traditional Anishinabe systems and practices (Atalay 2019, 82). Braiding different knowledge systems together also lends itself to co-liberation community practices. Atalay writes, “Joining these forms of knowledge can increase our strength as a society. Our spiritual leaders tell us we have reached the time to choose paths. The challenge for our generation is to work cooperatively—to use diverse knowledge of all to build strength on the path to mutual success and peace” (Atalay 2012, x). From knowledge to people, Atalay incorporates the healing power of hearing and telling stories to do repatriation, or rematriation work, and to show how the reclamation of archeological objects combined with sharing stories allows for individual and community transformations (2019). Narrative, story, and voice are again finding their way into the material world and are propelling powerful social transformations.

Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall offers a weaving of different worldviews together to help balance knowledge systems as well as physical and spiritual realms, and to help youth living in complicated and often divided worlds. Marshall does this through co-learning and integrated research systems that embrace Etuaptumumk—Two-Eyed Seeing, which Marshall defines in the co-authored article as follows:

Albert indicates that Two-Eyed Seeing is the gift of multiple perspectives treasured by many aboriginal peoples and

explains that it refers to learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of

knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing, and to using both

these eyes together, for the benefit of all. (Bartlett, Marshall, and Marshall 2012)

Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars are utilizing this approach in transdisciplinary settings, in science, environmental studies, education, music, and health. Etuaptumumk—Two-Eyed Seeing offers practical steppingstones towards healing in the academy and could also be applied to media productions. Foundational to this approach is valuing lived experience and Indigenous knowledge systems. This results in collective stewardship and creating more seats at the table, which is another arena where co-liberation resonates. Some scholars are already making moves beyond Two-Eyed Seeing and towards “multiple-eyed” seeing as communities deepen and expand alongside Indigenous, BIPOC, and Western knowledge systems (Bartlett, Marshall, and Marshall 2012; Newhook 2019).

Whether creating one’s own table or adding seats to what is there, the Western value of individuality is faltering. Difference is a strength that does not always have to divide. Mi’kmaq Elder and spiritual leader from Eskasoni First Nation Murdena Marshall (Albert Marshall’s wife) speaks about the integration of knowledge, community, and individuals as “we are, therefore I am” (Marshall and Bartlett 2018, as quoted in Newhook 2019, 10). This concept of being is also found across the globe in South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s explanation of ubuntu: “To recast the Cartesian proposition ‘I think, therefore I am,’ ubuntu would phrase it, ‘I am human because I belong.’ Put another way, ‘a person is a person through other people,’ a concept perfectly captured by the phrase ‘me we’” (Tutu 2007, 3). I and me, becomes us and we, and vice-versa. If this were embraced more often, the tools of co-liberation would not be rare, but inherent to how societies operate. Who we are, how we relate, and the systems that support us can exist without the categories or divisive values that colonization has spread and prioritized.

Concluding with Joy

People telling their own stories on their own terms celebrates difference and creates stories with and for communities, strengthening we. Reclaiming voice, body, community, and media technologies weaves stories into tools of social transformation. BIPOC scholarship is abundant with opportunities for how co-resistance can lead to co-liberation and joy that looks beyond healing. Another Indigenous value and practice found across disciplines and communities that rests on we is the cornerstone of reciprocity

Comanche activist and politician La Donna Harris embraces reciprocity as belonging to what she describes as the four R’s: “relationship, responsibility, reciprocity, redistribution” (Harris and Wasilewski 2004). Unique for a foundation, Nia Tero also prioritizes reciprocity, defining it as “the way of life that centers mutual exchange and sharing amongst all beings, past, present and future, seen and unseen, and the Earth” (Nia Tero 2020, 59). Whether in the academy, non-profits, the film industry, or community, reciprocity may be another way to celebrate difference while working together towards co-liberation joy.

 

Communities are finding mutual strength and effecting social change in this moment through Indigenizing systems, BIPOC theories of liberation, and practices of joy in media making. BIPOC creatives are making narrative changes in distinct, self-determined ways that are being celebrated by growing audiences. Within this paradigm shift, systems that support people telling their own stories through narrative sovereignty are changing what has previously been allowed or seen as possible in the film industry. The SIFF panelists, Nia Tero, and Wente’s Indigenous Screen Office in Canada are already doing this. Indigenizing the film industry transforms individuals and communities, shapes public discourse, and has the potential to impact a variety of sovereignty movements, on the screen and off. As the conversations and research surrounding these movements deepen, reciprocal BIPOC collaborations and co-liberations are making room for healing, joy, and new voices and media stories.

The scholars and practitioners quoted throughout are moving towards resurgent hope in a variety of ways and are weaving together diverse systems that support ontologies not prescribed by colonization. Throughout, joy resonates. People are celebrating narrative sovereignty while coming together and telling stories on their own terms. One of Nia Tero’s first Storytelling Fellows, Tongan musician Mia Kami, released their music video for “rooted” on August 20, 2021, and this powerful work is the current theme song for Nia Tero’s Seedcast podcast (https://seedcast.buzzsprout.com/). Kami began writing this song when her cousin said they needed an anthem for their anti-logging campaign in the Oro Province of Papua New Guinea. Kami said this was a powerful decision, as “Art communicates and motivates in a way that data and speeches do not, merging the heart and the head” (2021). What she created is a powerful song with global reverberations. The “rooted” music video embodies resilience and the strength of Indigenous communities, where together, the concept of “we” liberates with positive and powerful resonance. Kami graciously allowed for a selection of it to be shared here, with hopes that it can be listened to at length with joy and shared strength.

“rooted” by Mia Kami

https://youtu.be/Bg9TcCkOClI

 

No staying quiet

We stand united

We are rooted to the ground

Can’t tear us down

We’re here to stay

 

There is hope

There is strength

There is power

There is change

In you and I (you and I)

Notes

[1]The author has written more about Wente’s concept of narrative sovereignty in relation to possibilities surrounding Indigenous national cinemas in the 2021 publication “Celebrating Indigenous National Cinemas and Narrative Sovereignty through the Creation of Kin Theory, an Indigenous Media Makers Database” in New Horizons in English Studies, no. 6: 160-174. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17951/nh.2021.6.160-174.

 

[2] At the time of the panel, Piron was Associate Director of the Indigenous Program at Sundance, but has since been named Director, following in the footsteps of Bird Runningwater: https://www.sundance.org/blogs/news/farewell-reflections-bird-runningwater (posted September 22, 2021); https://indiancountrytoday.com/the-press-pool/adam-piron-to-lead-sundance-institutes-indigenous-program (posted March 4, 2022).

 

[3] This NYU panel on September 24, 2021, was co-hosted with the Center for Media, Culture and History and was entitled “KIN THEORY: New Work in Indigenous Media.” It was moderated by Rector and included works from several Nia Tero fellows, including Ivy MacDonald (Blackfeet), Raven Two Feathers (Cherokee/Seneca/Cayuga/Comanche), and Alex Sallee (Iñupiaq/ Mexican). More on the event can be found at: https://wp.nyu.edu/cmch/september-24-5pm-kin-theory-new-work-in-indigenous-media/. An archived recording of the event can be found here: https://wp.nyu.edu/cmch/nyu-stream/ (accessed March 15, 2022).

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