by Tracy Rector
Since time immemorial, Indigenous people have celebrated storytelling as a way to connect the present to past lessons and future dreaming. Narrative sovereignty is a form of land guardianship, and Nia Tero supports this work through its storytelling initiatives, including the Seedcast podcast, as well as in this column for media partner the South Seattle Emerald.
Many of us have known for quite a while that climate change, accelerated by human decisions and behaviors, is not only real but a direct threat to life as we know it. While the findings of the IPCC report released in August of 2021 might not have been a surprise, that didn’t make them less alarming. The report inspired urgent conversations not only at planet-focused nonprofits like the one I work at, Nia Tero, but on a global scale and in individual homes: What can we do to heal the planet? What role can we play? Where are the solutions?
The good news is that human decisions and behaviors can also heal the planet, as evidenced by the land guardianship carried out by Indigenous peoples around the world in the form of tending to the land with fire, seed saving, or not taking more than you need. Indigenous land stewardship shows us not only the ways of the past and present but also the ways of the future. As an extension of that work, Indigenous storytelling links a millennium of knowledge with current day action. This is why Indigenous storytelling is an integral part of climate justice today.
Nia Tero Storytelling Fellow Jonathan Luna (Huila) connects Indigenous land sovereignty and narrative sovereignty in this way: “As part of creating the world, a place with more justice and liberation for all, historically oppressed and marginalized people, which include Indigenous peoples, need to create our own narratives regarding our lived experiences, be it historical or contemporary. The role of storytelling in these struggles, in all of its multiple forms and media, is fundamental and necessary; there are no imitations, fast-forwards, or shortcuts. The narratives of the people who dedicate their lives on the frontlines of defending the most biodiverse, water-rich yet fragile ecosystems that contribute to help sustain the world’s climate are the stories that policymakers need to be seeing and hearing.”
Amplifying Indigenous voices means bringing solutions to light, not only in the policy realm but also in creative and journalistic spaces. This is not an either-or situation; policy work and storytelling go hand in hand. Thus, in an effort to create understanding related to climate action, Nia Tero invests in storytellers. The ultimate goal is to provide the artists with space and time to create the stories our world needs, while also providing skill-building and peer-networking opportunities that enrich their craft and their perspective.
What is gained when you support Indigenous artists? The benefits ripple outward as well as forward. Nia Tero Storytelling Fellow Katsitsionni Fox (member of the Mohawk Community of Akwesasne) said this: “(It’s) not just an investment in me but in future generations, because if I’m building myself up as an artist and creating these works, that benefits people that are coming behind me.”
Indigenous creators take their storytelling as seriously as their land stewardship, because both are part of the same conversation, the same cycles of life. Narrative sovereignty, described by Jesse Wente, executive director of the Canadian Indigenous Screen Office, is not only having control over the stories told about oneself, correcting misrepresentation and shifting public narratives, but also connecting to other types of sovereignty, including spiritual, physical, body, and land. It’s about transforming a millennium of knowledge not just into policies on paper but into art and stories that hold lessons for every human and, in turn, every being on the planet that we are in relationship with our kin.
As Storytelling Fellowship alum, television writer, and Reciprocity Project producer Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neet’saii Gwich’in) puts it, “I can only pray that with the right intention and guidance, all of our stories will reach the non-Indigenous audience in profound ways — meaningful ways that lead to action and change … This was the Universe speaking to the need for us to move forward — each of us in our own ways of speaking truth to power and doing what we can to shift the paradigm here.” Eleni Ledesma (Indigenous Mexican descent), an associate producer at Nia Tero, put it more succinctly: “Storytelling is guardianship.”
Indigenous stories are neither niche, nor an acquired taste, nor to be confined to a special shelf in the library. Instead, Indigenous stories are life, meant to be shared, absorbed, and spun into new energy and action. Let’s work together in this effort, making space for reflection on the past, contemplation of the present, and dreaming for the future.
This piece was supported by interviews and analysis conducted by Michelle Hurtubise, a strategist for Nia Tero’s Kin Theory and a visual anthropology Ph.D. candidate at Temple University.
Tracy Rector is a filmmaker, curator, community organizer, and programmer. She is the managing director, storytelling, for Nia Tero and has directed and produced over 400 films. Tracy is a board member of Mize Foundation and Working Films and a proud mother to two young adults.
📸 Featured Image: Writer, producer, and filmmaker Princess Daazhraii Johnson with her collaborator on the Reciprocity Project, Alisha Carlson. Photo courtesy of Princess Daazhraii Johnson.
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