Indigenous Art and Narrative in Pandemic Times

“Always tell the story of indigenous justice in racial justice, and land is always connected to that.”

This, from Gaby Strong, is what I’m taking to heart from spending time with the artists/strategists/organizers of NDN Collective. I’m so grateful to GIA and to indigenous leaders themselves for centering this struggle, which is so vibrant, urgent and crucial to the grand reckoning of white supremacy that 2020 has turned out to be.

On July 3 this year, more than 200 indigenous people blockaded a highway in the Black Hills of South Dakota to challenge Donald Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore. Watch the short film by NDN’s Willi White; I got chills from the power and beauty of it, and have not been able to stop thinking about the #LANDBACK movement. As I write this, it occurs to me that this effect is exactly the kind of power that art and narrative intertwined with organizing has for winning hearts and minds in such a radical, profound struggle for change. In the film NDN’s president and CEO Nick Tilsen says, “Our goal is not just to resist, but to radically, radically transform this country so that it works for everybody.”

A deep bow to the NDN Collective, which has such a sophisticated organizational approach to integrating media activism with direct action organizing, transformative campaigns, philanthropy, and community building on multiple levels. In their words, #LANDBACK is a mechanism to politicize frontline communities and connect them in a meta-narrative about reclaiming indigenous stewardship of public lands. Shutting down Mount Rushmore, that monument of white supremacy and colonization carved into the face of indigenous sacred hills, is the first target for that campaign.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the escalating ecological crisis, at the same time, provide another mega-moment for resetting on a large scale. When I can pause long enough between the scrambling for survival and success within this destructive system, I sense the hunger in my spirit for a different way to live—and I believe most people feel the same. This is where we have a huge opportunity in amplifying the leadership of indigenous peoples. As Gaby said, “Our whole systems of indigenous knowledge are being renewed and reclaimed for ecological renewal. The COVID pandemic has forced a reset button, and the storytellers of the reset are the poets, writers, photographers, artists who capture the moment and give it meaning.”

NDN Collective is funding the NDN COVID-19 Response Project focused on community solutions for transition and resilience. Jade Begay, NDN’s creative director, shared examples of the cultural work being created such as decolonizing community care through disrupting fear-based, toxic individualism and sharing traditional medicine, healing and grounding practices. As NDN’s communications director Sarah Sunshine Manning said, “We’re relying upon our ancestral memory and respect for storytelling as a mechanism for change. It was always a tool to ground us, connect us to our surroundings, inform us of our connection to life and a way to express ourselves.”

This was the advice offered by Sarah at the close of the session, acuerdos that I will incorporate into my practice going forward:

  • Recognize whose homelands you are on.
  • Have conversations with children in your life, and with their teachers and schools.
  • Incorporate elements of decolonization into your workspace.
  • Lean into the #LANDBACK campaign; recognize if what you inherited was stolen and think about what reparations could look like.