by Taylor Hensel
Indigenous peoples and communities have long used stories to understand the world and our place in it. Seedcast is a story-centered podcast by Nia Tero and a special monthly column produced in partnership with the South Seattle Emerald about nurturing and rooting stories of the Indigenous experience.
We have always been storytellers. By “we” I mean Cherokee people, and when I say “always” I mean since the beginning of time. Our stories are woven into the very fabric of our being and hold the language, medicine, and values that have sustained our people through genocide, pandemic, and colonization. They remind us of how to be good relatives to all beings and ground us to our place in the world. The stories of our past are just as important today as they were centuries ago. New and old alike, stories are a gift, a way to share and even more so a means of honoring who we are and where we come from. We raise our voices and uplift our people through creating.
One of my favorite Cherokee creatives happens to be my sister. Brit Hensel is a writer and director who tells Cherokee stories and works as a producer with Osiyo: Voices of the Cherokee People. Storytelling for Brit is a pathway to embracing the responsibility she carries with her of honoring our people. She does this with great intention by listening, learning, and building relationships. In the third episode of Seedcast, a podcast by Seattle-based nonprofit Nia Tero, Brit shares that there is never a final destination when it comes to learning. This rings especially true when participating in culture each and every day. She discusses the value of ᏙᎯ – tohi, which is central to not only her life but also to the current film she is directing alongside Cherokee artist Keli Gonzales as part of a short film series, the Reciprocity Project.
The Reciprocity Project, another Nia Tero storytelling project, explores how reciprocity is embodied in diverse communities and how it contributes to the health of us all. Reciprocity can be understood as the way of life centered in the mutual exchange and sharing between the Earth and all beings, seen and unseen. This Reciprocity Project is led by Indigenous storytellers from various regions across the world with the intention of reframing relationships to land, animals, and each other. Rooted in this project is the understanding that Indigenous peoples have sustained many of the healthiest ecosystems on the planet, places vital to us all. In this current time of environmental crisis and global unrest, it is critical to turn to the value systems that have bolstered my own community and many others. In order to heal, we must recognize that we are guests on this earth, a place that was already in balance before we arrived. It is our job to find our place in an already functioning whole and our duty to choose to maintain its balance each day. This is a choice for every human being.
As a co-director and a producer on the series, it has been an incredible experience to connect with other people and places who embody values like reciprocity. While the focus of this series is global, some of the most fulfilling aspects for me have been closer to home, and it has been special to collaborate with Brit. Her film examines ᏙᎯ – tohi, or balance, and its place within Cherokee wellness. For many, ᏙᎯ – tohi is the ideal state of being, but it can be difficult to maintain.
In this Seedcast episode, in addition to discussing ᏙᎯ – tohi, Brit shares about booger masks. They are made from gourds, hornets nests or wood with exaggerated human features. In Cherokee culture, boogers can represent an individual, a group of people, a sickness, an animal, or a spirit, but their purpose is for medicine. They have a place within Cherokee social and ceremonial life and can be seen as a reminder of the kind of chaos that can occur when we have fallen out of balance. Brit and a team of all-Cherokee creatives are bringing this film to life with an emphasis that maintaining balance is a personal choice greater than the individual and fundamental to all of our existence.
The first season of the Reciprocity Project is set to be completed in 2021. However, as COVID continues to be a threat, we are remaining extremely cautious and have paused production for the series until the new year. The safety of the filmmakers and the communities remain at the heart of this project. As we look toward the future with hope, the Reciprocity Project has already brought inspiration and good medicine to our team and all those involved. While times are trying, it reminds us that now more than ever we must amplify the voices and the stories that help bring us back to balance.
Taylor Hensel is a journalist, photographer, and award-winning filmmaker. She is a citizen of Cherokee Nation. Her work has highlighted stories of animal justice, environmental conservation, as well as Indigenous identity and relationship to the land. She is a Producer with Nia Tero Foundation.
Featured image: Brit Hensel filming the short documentary Zibi Yajdan, which she made with Taylor Hensel. The vast majority of the film was shot from inside a boat on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan (photo: Taylor Hensel, Cherokee Nation).