You’re Not the Indian I Had in Mind

It’s August. I recently wrapped up shoots and interviews with the ninth film crew to visit this season. Don’t get me wrong – I live in a stunning place, I’m blessed to do work that interests the wider world, and there is a value in telling the stories that make this place powerful. But so far, every film crew has been mostly white, mostly men, and they’ve all come crashing into my reality in such problematic ways that I feel compelled to throw down some pointers for y’all.

Disclaimer: I do not speak for all Indigenous peoples. This is not an official memo in my political or non-profit capacities. This is a series of questions and requests from a storyteller who is tired of how these scenarios play out. But there is room for hope and change.

. . .

 

  1. Are you centring Indigenous voices and perspectives?

Indigenous voices are marginalized in society as a whole, and they are also often marginalized within film projects where they occur alongside white voices. For example, a film with an Indigenous focus might be narrated by a white person – which gives the audience a red story through a white lens. If the issue being discussed is multi-faceted, Indigenous views are often insubstantial or tokenized. And even if the primary story is about Indigenous work, many films still bring in “expert” white voices that give the appearance of “legitimizing” Indigenous viewpoints.

Interrogate your own motives about whether and how you include white voices and perspectives in your film. Consider the amount of space Indigenous voices take up on the national or global stage. Consider how much space they take up in the film industry. Recognize that in both instances, the answer is “They are wildly underrepresented.” And then consider centring and amplifying them in your work to help correct the imbalance and honour the power of Indigenous voices – in and of themselves.

  1. Do you expect Indigenous people to stage their culture for you?

I can’t speak for all Indigenous people. We are incredibly diverse and also autonomous. But I can tell you very clearly that it is offensive to me when film crews ask me to play-act my culture to add to their story. Without exception, when I have been asked to stage “traditional activities,” the result is glaringly inauthentic. The counter-argument from film crews is usually “But this is what the audience expects to see!” If that’s the case, wow! You, my friend, are in a position to challenge and shift your audience’s expectations by creatively capturing something real. And that is an exciting opportunity that I hope you appreciate and work hard to maximize.

We know you need good visuals. We know you need to shoot b-roll and have your bases covered before you leave the field. Trust me, for most of us, you’re not our first film crew. But come at your work with respect for the boundaries we communicate around cultural activities and protocols. If we tell you that something is not possible or appropriate, do not push. And know that your behavior in this regard can help to build a relationship of trust that just might get you an invitation to witness and document something truly authentic and special.

  1. Have you done your homework?

There is a principle of social justice education that is so important to reiterate: Do not expect free education or emotional labour from marginalized people.

If you need to get up to speed on the colonial history of this country, on the Potlatch Ban, residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and all the other traumas that are a backdrop to Indigenous lives – do it before you come. Even if you think the story you want to tell has nothing to do with those things. As Indigenous people, we are the products of our personal and collective histories. You cannot understand who we are without trying to understand our lived experiences. We are (sadly, and without our consent) the victims and products of a long colonial legacy, and many of us are actively working to fight the ongoing colonization of our peoples. That reality cannot be absent from your storytelling even if it is not explicit in your film.

Reconciliation is everyone’s responsibility. Beginning to educate yourself is a key first step. The resources are out there and the journey will be shared with many who are on the same path. But do not expect us, as Indigenous people, to perform the service of educating you; we’re too busy surviving.

  1. Are you clear on ownership and intellectual property?

The system of values and permissions around ownership and transmission of knowledge may not be the same for me as it is for you. Every song, dance, story, name, and ceremony has an owner in my system of law. There is no centralized authority to give permissions. You have to seek them from each of the individual holders of that intellectual property and live with their decisions, which are often based heavily on the level of trust they have in you. You cannot assume your interviewee will do the legwork of getting the permissions for you; you need to own that task yourself and ask for guidance where you need it. Our protocols around intellectual property are sacred.

Sometimes a film crew will ask me for “background music.” They’ll insist they want to use a children’s paddle song in their film when the film is about bears, because they like the way the paddle song sounds more than the bear song. The incongruity matters, to us if not to you, and that is reason enough to amend your approach. Or sometimes interviewers will ask me to recount portions of our oral history, and act like I’m being obtuse when I say I can’t do that without permission of the owners of those stories. There are many potential stumbling blocks of this nature for crews who do not take the time to understand how knowledge is organized and transmitted in the community they’re visiting.

This is a good place to remind people that Western systems of knowledge, thought, laws, and values are typically not the dominant systems for our peoples. Take the time to learn our systems and our protocols, and then respect them – from the outset.

  1. Have you thought critically about compensation and benefits?

What is the tangible benefit to the Indigenous people whose time you are taking? It doesn’t have to be financial, but you should have a clear answer. If you don’t, please ask yourself why you expect them to participate. “For the cause” or “to raise awareness” is not an answer. Trickle-down benefits are not enough. Indigenous people don’t owe you anything.

We have big goals of our own and we are doing hard work for our communities. Often, the work we are doing is beneficial to non-Indigenous communities too. At a bare minimum, hold yourself to the standard that participating in your project should not cost Indigenous people anything. Better yet, challenge yourself to develop a project that is clearly beneficial to Indigenous people and their goals. Develop a relationship that is equal and reciprocal.

Getting down to the finer details, here is a fact: When film crews come into my community, I am often asked to spend my time doing work that looks a lot like writing, producing, and directing, or assisting with logistics like arranging interviews, transportation, and permissions. And I’m expected to do it for free.

Do not expect Indigenous people to do things for free that you would pay a white person to do. Do not expect Indigenous people to do things for free that, in another context, would be paid work for a member of your crew. If you’re going to ask that of us, be up front, have an excellent rationale, get our informed consent, and give us credit where it’s due.

To reiterate a point from section 3, don’t expect marginalized people to do free labour.

  1. Are you building capacity or just extracting resources?

It is important to understand that filmmaking can be understood as an extractive industry. The resource you are extracting – stories, knowledge, images – is intangible, but no less precious than the fish, raw logs, precious metals, and other resources that other industries remove. You are coming into our homelands with the intent of taking something away, and fashioning it into something that benefits you. It is only natural that we would exercise the same prudence and scrutiny when it comes to your project that we exercise with proposals from logging companies or sports fishing operations.

The same principles apply to you that apply to a mining company. You should seek free, prior, and informed consent. The burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that adverse impacts of your project will be mitigated or avoided. The rights and autonomy of the Indigenous communities and individuals you engage should be respected without exception. And you should not derive your profits on the backs of people who are focused on survival.

When you’ve challenged yourself to fully think those things through, ask yourself what you’re leaving behind. We’ve already talked about the importance of being able to clearly demonstrate the benefits for Indigenous people of participating in your project. We’ve already talked about the importance of compensating Indigenous people for their labour if they are taking on work that a white person would be paid to do. So what’s next? Ask yourself whether you can actually leave a positive legacy behind.

Can you spend an extra few days in community teaching kids to make videos? Can you volunteer a little time to film interviews with elders for the local cultural centre? Can you make yourself available to capture footage and stills for a side project that is solely for the community’s benefit? If you can, be at least as generous with what you leave behind as your Indigenous interviewees are generous with their time and energy. Build capacity. Build relationships.

  1. How do you feel about leaving final approvals or ownership of footage with us?

This is a point most film crews balk at. But look at it from our perspective. Unless we have a relationship with you, why would we trust you to tell our stories? What sets you apart from Edward S. Curtis? Why should we be comfortable with our stories and images and words being an asset you benefit from?

There is a long legacy of white people – be they writers, filmmakers, anthropologists, etc. – coming into communities, extracting knowledge and stories, and then interpreting them and deriving benefits from them. Often this has happened with no accountability back to the communities and Indigenous contributors. And often those communities and individuals have not been asked to provide informed consent to the spin that’s been put on what they’ve shared. It’s not enough to ask us to buy into the premise; from our perspective, I hope you can see why it’s important for us to protect ourselves by also asking to approve the resulting product.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Indigenous communities and individuals have been tokenized and harshly exploited by many industries, including the film industry. Know that you’re coming in on the heels of contemporary colleagues or historical industry “pioneers” who broke our trust. You may not feel it’s yours to repair, but the situation you’re walking into is a reality you need to confront – and without blaming Indigenous communities and individuals for our skepticism and the cautions we exercise as a result of our lived experience.

Have these conversations about approvals and ownership at the outset of your project. As I said in section 6, it may be that you can gesture your respect by offering opportunities that dovetail with your work, like running workshops or sharing raw footage to be re-purposed for solely Indigenous goals. Or maybe the level of trust and the anticipated benefits of the project will be enough to make the conversation a simple one – that’s up to the communities and individuals you approach. But do right by your Indigenous collaborators by ensuring that consent and ownership are discussed at the outset, not at the end when the pressure is on to complete your film.

  1. Are you playing up stereotypes or open to authenticity?

The pan-Indigenous myth is cheap and tacky. We are not monolithic. We are distinct and diverse, both across and within our Nations and communities. Our cultures are dynamic and evolving, and that does not invalidate them. Our Indigenous languages, values, spirituality, ceremonies, and identities may have more in common with one another than they do with their Western parallels – but that does not mean Indigenous people can be generalized or conglomerated to simplify your narrative.

I often hear a sentiment from film crews that I will sum up with a phrase borrowed from Thomas King: “You’re not the Indian I had in mind.”

If you’re looking for an Indian maiden with earthy skin and long black braids, gazing at her reflection in still water while woodland creatures nestle against the curves of her buckskin dress – keep looking. It’s not me.

I know filmmaking is a visual medium and it’s hard to challenge your assumptions that our appearance should communicate our identity. But every time someone makes a film about bears, and insists that they need to depict our Indigenous field technicians wearing ceremonial garb – I choke on my coffee. And this sort of thing happens more often than you’d think. We don’t wear button blankets and ermine skin headpieces when we collect samples from our grizzly bear hair snags to send away for genetic analysis. To link it back to section 2, don’t ask us to play-act. Work with what’s in front of you to tell an authentic story, even if it’s not an easy story to visually capture.

You have an opportunity, in challenging yourself to be authentic and creative, to also challenge the assumptions of your audience and shift their attitudes toward Indigenous people. That’s an opportunity worth taking.

 

. . .

 

Do you think all of this sounds unfeasible? Then adjust your timelines, your fundraising goals, and anything else you need to adjust to make it feasible. Do you think you shouldn’t have to think about these things? Then take a big step back, do some heavy reading on white privilege, and read this piece again. If you still don’t get it and you’re called out on your ignorance by Indigenous communities and individuals, have the self-awareness to mark those moments as opportunities to further educate yourself.

Reconciliation isn’t about federal apologies or one-time marches in the street. It’s about re-evaluating how you carry yourself in the world in relation to Indigenous peoples. There’s a great deal of learning (and unlearning) to do and I hope you intuit how important and transformative the journey can be.

 

. . .

 

This is shared with a good heart and high hopes of meaningful, respectful collaborations in the future.

Stand with our Paiute relatives

Recently, I was contacted by a Heiltsuk member living in Oregon for a response to the crisis on Paiute lands. It doesn’t take much digging to familiarize yourself with the conflict: An armed white militia is occupying a federal wildlife sanctuary to protest the US federal government’s “tyranny” and issue a call to arms to “patriots” everywhere.

There are many layers to unpack, but one is not yet getting the attention it deserves. Let’s start with this question: Who is the victim of land theft here?

The area being occupied by this white militia is sacred to the Paiute people. Paiute leadership has made clear statements that the militia is desecrating their ancestral lands. This is where Paiute people gather medicines, hold ceremony, and live their identity as people who are inseparable from the lands where their people have lived for thousands of years.

Tell me how this armed standoff, at its heart, an not issue of colonialism. Too many people are responding to the Bundy militia by tagging them with joke names or just ignoring the issue because they think it’s unimportant. If you think this is humorous or irrelevant, I can only assume you’ve never suffered the grief of displacement and land theft.

One criticism I keep seeing is that Bundy and his followers benefit from the very federal government they’re protesting in the form of federal loan guarantees. People can’t get enough of the irony. Frankly, I don’t care about that. Let’s talk about how they’re also benefitting from colonialism, white supremacy, and the deep pain of Indigenous peoples whose lands were stolen from them from the US federal government.

To all my Indigenous brothers and sisters, and everyone who purports to stand with us:

The absolute least you could do right now is lift up the voices of Paiute people and recognize that ignoring or undermining the seriousness of this issue is totally antithetical behaviour in anyone who claims to care about Indigenous sovereignty or to practice allyship to Indigenous people and causes.

Bundy, the militia’s leader, is preaching to the Paiute about oppression and co-opting their concerns to spin media for his standoff. How can people stand by while a white militia not only fails to acknowledge how they benefit from a society that oppresses Indigenous people – but also desecrates Indigenous land and appropriates the messages of Paiute leadership to bolster their own support?

I can tell you right now, if someone did this in Heiltsuk homelands, I’d be the first one lining up to deliver them a big, fat reality check.

This issue is simple. In the words of 11 year old Ashlin Begay, quoted in The Guardian yesterday, “If people are giving away land here, they should give it to us,” she said. “It’s ours. It’s always been ours.

Stop letting Bundy and everyone like him get away with their oppressive tactics. Lift up the voices of the Paiute people who are tied to this land in every aspect of their being.

This Heiltsuk is standing with our Paiute relatives. I hope you are too.

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Here are just a few things you should be elevating in your newsfeed right now instead of cracking jokes or just scrolling by:

Oregon “Militia” Says Feds Stole Their Land – Turns Out It Was Stolen from Paiute Tribe

How the Oregon militia standoff became a battle with a Native American tribe

Oregon’s Paiute Tribe Just Told Bundy Militia to Stop “Desecrating” Sacred Land and Go Home (VIDEO)

Oregon Native Americans Say Armed Militia Is “Desecrating” Land

Oregon standoff: Militia group has ‘no right to this land,’ native tribe says

 

Ossuaries (poem)

i.

My love,
I want to braid your bones like rivers,
I want to weave them close
like the branches of a sapling
that is glutted with the green blood
of spring.

ii.

My love,
give me your bones.

This is the body that your mother unearthed
with her sweet, brown hands.
This is the flesh that your father pulled up
like a stubborn root.

It will return someday, this body,
to the ground and to the grasses;
it will burrow into the rich earth
and your bones will seem a fitting gift
to one who knew the story of the hands of your father,
of your mother’s knuckles like knots
in hard wood.

iii.

My love,
I love your bones with the certainty of winter
which makes stories and birdsong visible,
hanging suspended as fog in the cold air.

I love your bones, your definite bones,
with the same implacable love reserved for the invisible made definite:
stories, and birdsong.

iv.

My love,
your sweetness lies between the flesh and the bone;
your sweetness is written in the marrow.

v.

My love,
let me gather up your crooked bones
a build a story-shelter,
a house of sweetness;
let me gather up your crooked bones
and build the story of your sweetness
from the sudden tangible language
of winter birdsong.

Love, and Bill C-51

Friends,
Recently, I received an email from the Secretary of the House of Commons Committee on National Security and Public Safety. It included an invitation to provide testimony outlining my concerns regarding Bill C-51.

Although I had a thousand changes of heart between initially accepting that invitation and actually delivering my testimony this afternoon, I am grateful to have had such an opportunity. It is so rare for the people on the front lines to have a voice in these processes.

Much of my testimony related to transparency and accountability. For that reason, I’d like to share my speaking notes with you. If you track down the transcript from the committee meeting which includes the cross-examination, you’ll find that somehow, in hearings about terrorism and national security, I found myself talking about love.

Thank you to every single one of you who walks beside me in the work we do on the ground. I believe it is good work done with a good heart. Remembering the strength of the community that surrounds me gave me bravery I didn’t feel in my bones until I thought of all of you.

xo,
Jess

Jessie Housty, Submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security
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Photo tour of the new Koeye Sanctuary

Hello friends,
At this time of year, we at Qqs are wrapping up our busy season and reflecting on all the work we’ve undertaken with our partners and our community. This year, one of our highlights was hosting a blessing ceremony for the new facility in Koeye, and having an opportunity to show our friends and supporters what we’re working toward.

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For those of you who weren’t able to join us in person last August, we’ve prepared an informal photo presentation that you can find by following this link. It includes a walk-through of the property with stories and notes about our 2014 season, and what we plan to accomplish in 2015.

On behalf of everyone at Qqs (Eyes) Projects Society, please accept my profound gratitude for sticking by us during this time of growth and transitions. We’re heading toward something beautiful!

Jess

Vows

Two weeks ago, I married my love.

I got married in my grandmother’s wedding dress, 71 years after she exchanged vows with my grandfather. I wore her wedding pearls, and a delicate gold bracelet that belonged to my great-grandmother. The head table was covered with a lovely white tablecloth that both women used on their wedding days. I’m blessed to have love in my life that goes back generations before I was even born.

In lieu of wedding gifts, we invited our loved ones to make a donation to RAVEN Trust to support the Nations who are fighting Enbridge Northern Gateway in the courts. Through the generosity of family, friends, and even strangers, we raised $5,705. When RAVEN announced a matching donor for all monetary gifts, the total impact of our fundraiser rose to $11,410. We are so grateful for the support shown to a cause close to our hearts.

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We chose to write our own vows, which we recited in unison before exchanging a pair of wedding rings engraved with a beautiful albatross design.

Here they are –

I pledge today
in the presence of our loved ones
to be honest, patient, and kind.
I pledge to stand by your actions
because I know you are a person of integrity.
I pledge to honour your causes
because I know you are a person of principle.
I pledge to support your beliefs
because I know you are a person of conviction.
In the course of our lives
I will trust and respect you,
I will uplift you,
and I will let your love make me brave.
I promise these things
in tenderness and joy,
in wellness and grief,
in beauty and in resistance
for as long as we work side by side.
I make this pledge
with consent and a good heart
because I know you are a person of your word.

With love.

Why I signed the Let BC Vote pledge

Last week I signed the Let BC Vote pledge. You could say I’m late to the party. More than 200,000 British Columbians signed before me. I’ve been aware of the Dogwood Initiative-led campaign since it launched, and I’ve watched the numbers grow. But I wanted to reason it through before deciding with conviction that it is part of my path forward.

For the last few years I’ve worked in my community and beyond to help build the momentum we need to stop Enbridge Northern Gateway. I’m not trained as a leader or organizer. I came to this work before I felt ready, and I learned on my feet. I’ve made my share of gut decisions in the heat of battle, and learned to be grateful when I have the luxury of examining every angle of a campaign before I commit to it.

Now that the federal government has approved this project, we could be in for a long fight. I believe pipeline opponents have been laying the groundwork for sustained action since day one, but what carries us through will be smart strategies, high levels of organization, and commitment. I may have taken my time, but Let BC Vote has my commitment. Because this is more than a drive to build a list and collect signatures. It’s an opportunity to build capacity, demand accountability, and strengthen alliances – and all of those actions are critical at this stage of the fight.

Two systems of law and governance
Smart organizers invest in a diversity of tactics, and lead with the strongest in any situation. The tactics available to us in this fight are complex, because the communities who are organizing are interacting with two very different systems of law and governance.

Let me explain: I am Indigenous, and I am Heiltsuk. The Heiltsuk have a set of laws and customs that goes back to our First Generation, and that system is the one that primarily guides my actions. Heiltsuk people also maintain an original system of government that organizes how we function as a society. I’m not talking about the federally-imposed system of Indian Act governments; I’m talking about our hereditary chiefs who are groomed from birth to be rights-holders who uphold the ways of our people.

More broadly, Canada has a set of federal and provincial laws and governance that is primary to my Settler allies. I respond to it as well, but for me, it comes second.

Those two systems of law and governance make three sets of tactics available to us. Think of them as two circles. I want to talk about those circles, and the space where they overlap.

In one circle, you have the Indigenous system. This system is what empowers our hereditary chiefs to say no – no, on the basis that this project is inconsistent with our laws and customs. No, on the strength of their authority as chiefs. In the other circle, you have the Settler system. This system includes federal and provincial legislation that is meant to impartially vet and regulate projects like Northern Gateway.

Let’s be frank. My laws and customs as an Indigenous person are my highest truth, but I live in a country that sidesteps the power of that truth. And Canadians are living under a regime – at least federally – that systematically dismantles inconvenient legislation and regulations so projects like Northern Gateway can barrel ahead.

So what is possible where the Indigenous and Settler circles overlap? One clear example is in the courts. As the recent Tsilhqot’in decision reinforced, Indigenous rights and title hold real, tangible power within the Canadian legal system.

This is the battle plan that pipeline opponents have had in their back pocket since day one: Indigenous people fighting and stopping Northern Gateway in Canadian court, on the basis that this project would intrude onto territories to which we hold title, and infringe on our rights. As these cases proceed there is a supportive role for Settler allies to play in areas like fundraising and communications, but with this tactic the burden of leadership rests with Indigenous people.

Where is the burden of leadership for Settler people? A majority of Indigenous groups in British Columbia have rejected Enbridge Northern Gateway under their own systems of law, while a majority of British Columbians reject this plan for their home province too. Based on those two facts, what power can non-Indigenous people seize? I believe the answer lies in the citizens’ initiative.

By organizing in ridings across the province, by stepping up as leaders within their own communities, and by drafting and proposing legislation that fits their values, citizens have a powerful opportunity – available only in British Columbia – to hold their provincial government to account. For as Ottawa acknowledged the day it approved the pipeline, B.C. still has the power to stop it. Without 60 permits from Premier Clark, Enbridge may not proceed.

I don’t want my Settler brothers and sisters to point to the Indigenous legal battle and say “We believe you’re going to win.” I want to hear them say they’re ready to work shoulder-to-shoulder, with each of us seizing the power that best enables us to win together. If diverse tactics are available, let’s be wise enough to consider all of them. Preparing for a citizens’ initiative does not undermine title or rights. Rather, it builds our collective political power.

Final thoughts
For me, the core of this issue is simple: leaders must be accountable to their people, regardless of the scale of leadership. If leaders forget who they represent, then the people need to organize. I know this truth from my own leadership in a community that is not afraid to correct my course if there is a better way for me to carry their interests forward.

Scale that spirit up to the provincial level. Elections are not our only opportunity to remind leaders whose interests they’re meant to represent in office. Trooping to the ballot box every four years is not enough to hold Christy Clark accountable. Let’s use every means available to hold her to the truth that her mandate comes from the people of B.C., and the people of B.C. expect her to join us in stopping Enbridge.

When it comes to being allies, let’s remember we are in this fight together. It is no longer enough to show solidarity. I am humbly asking my Settler allies to be solidary. It’s the difference between a finite action and a way of being. We need to work strategically in the space where our values and power overlap. I am committed to upholding the truth of my laws and stories, to helping my chiefs defend our rights and title in the courts. And I am committed to supporting my Settler brothers and sisters who choose to organize around an action that puts power back in their hands too.

By signing the Let BC Vote pledge, I am gesturing my willingness to be solidary with my Settler brothers and sisters. It’s time for all of us to rise up, build our organizing capacity, and exercise it in actions that advance us toward our goal of stopping this pipeline. I’m with you until we win.

I came into my role as a leader and community organizer because of Enbridge Northern Gateway. My elders taught me that you don’t get to choose the moment when you’re called to leadership; the only thing that’s up to you is courage and conviction. That teaching has guided me through many moments of uncertainty, and it’s the message I’ve most often shared with Indigenous and Settler people alike: respond to what this moment is asking of you. This fight is too big for us to do otherwise.