Reclamation, Revitalization, and Indigenous Futurity Through Storytelling 

ILI Year 4 Fellows gathered together joyfully

(l to r) ILI Year 4 Fellows Sonia Erika, Loren Waters, and Arturo Mendez-Reyes

I had many special experiences during year 4 of the Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI) fellowship. One of the most memorable was undoubtedly our trip to the Big Island of Hawaii with the PA’I Foundation. We visited the Ke Kula o Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu Hawaiian Language Immersion School on the Big Island of Hawaii, where the kids only chanted and spoke in their Indigenous language.

Language is integral to who we are as Indigenous peoples and is the binding cord of our essence. It informs how we see the world, connects us to our ancestors, and guides us as we move into a future that is full of cultural promise and environmental uncertainty.

In the Cherokee language, we have a word: ᎦᏚᎩ (Gadugi). It means: “people coming together and working to help one another.” The Big Island of Hawaii is a long way from my Cherokee and Kiowa homelands. Even though our people are separated by a continent and ocean, I saw that same value at work in their immersion school, reminding me of the centrality of language to who we are as Indigenous peoples. Language, and the stories languages hold, bring our Indigenous people together across generations. For millennia, Indigenous peoples have shared knowledge through storytelling.

My ILI fellowship pod—pod 2—was focused on: “Where We Are.” Within our pod, we talked about understanding how our distinct geographies are connected to our communities as sources of pride as well as creative and spiritual nourishment. We talked about the connections between people, places, and cultures. We are not separate from the land we reside on, we learn to have a reciprocal relationship with it, knowing the names of all of our non-human relations. 

Loren Waters on Hilo Beach
Active Volcano

As Indigenous peoples, our culture, lands, waters, and places, have been discounted and taken from us. Indigenous people have been misrepresented as relics of the past. In modern society, we have been erased and made invisible. “[I]nvisibility is one of the biggest barriers Native peoples face in advocating for tribal sovereignty, equity & social justice,” from the “Reclaiming Native Truth” research project. “[I]nvisibility, erasure, stereotypes, and false narratives underlie the stories being told right now about Native people.”

Reclaiming stories aligns with the intrinsic right to self-determination as Indigenous people. Stories help us to actively imagine the future of our communities. I hope to bring more of my own people’s languages into my filmmaking practice.  I want to do that in a collaborative, intergenerational way, with elders, language keepers, ceremonial people, and youth—in a way that is true to the Kanaka Maoli and my own people. 

Language and stories also connect us to the places we come from. During the trip to the Big Island, we visited a number of special places. One was a restored ʻāina and heiau, a sacred site, that sits on Kamehameha school’s land. Not so long ago, this place of Indigenous prayer and worship was a keauhou beach resort open to tourists. But now, it has been protected and restored to its rightful First Peoples.

Another place we visited was Mauna Kea. Like many Indigenous peoples, I had, of course, heard about the movement to protect Mauna Kea from the desecration of a large construction project. But hearing about a place and struggle is not the same as putting your own two feet on a sacred mountain, closing your eyes, and feeling the connection to Kanaka Maoli creation, struggle, and love of the land. No matter where we are as Indigenous peoples, the elders are telling us the same thing: to protect this land for many generations to come.

My own Cherokee elders say that what happens to the water happens to all of us—and that it is our job to protect it. Our health, our way of life, and our non-human relations are all connected to the water. 

Pollution and deadly contaminants left behind by extractive industries disproportionately harm Indigenous communities. As those environments and ecosystems wither, we are not just losing ecosystems—we are losing sacred places, ceremonies, and the ways of life. There is a direct connection between the erasure of Indigenous peoples and the desecration of the places we are indigenous to.

But things are starting to change. The United Nations has declared the 2020s the decade of ecosystem restoration. Shows like Reservation Dogs, which I was fortunate to work on, are changing Hollywood and the culture by putting Native people in front of—and, equally important, behind—the camera. 

As I embark on my own journey as an emerging Indigenous storyteller, the Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI) gifted me with a beautiful, enriching, and unexpected experience that reminded me about the sacred and reciprocal relationship between humans, animals, culture, and the environment. All life, elements, and beings are interconnected, never separated or existing without one another. As Indigenous peoples, we have a responsibility to remember these values and teachings and carry them forward, because they matter—especially right now, as the world moves towards catastrophic ecological disasters. 

There is no better time to engage our communities in complex and pressing topics such as restoring clean water and cultural revitalization. As a filmmaker, I hope my films bring awareness to the issues my communities face, foster a more just and equitable society and inspire generations of young people to practice reciprocity with their environment, share their stories and strengthen their culture.