A mural of a boy

Indigenous Youth Use Storytelling to Empower Others to Find their Voice

Storytelling is a universal connector that transcends time and distance. It is the basis of culture—providing insight to where traditions, ceremonies, and rituals began. And it allows people to connect with the history of their heritage, to understand who they are and where they came from. Indigenous youth rely on storytelling to foster connection with their ancestors and carry on the legacy of their people at a time when contemporary education often excludes Indigenous narratives. 

Through National Geographic Photo Camp, we encourage youth to use photography to tell their own stories and develop deep connections with others. Last fall, we gathered 25 Indigenous youth from around the world for Virtual Photo Camp: Earth Stories. Included in the group was Fall 2020 Young Explorer Markus Martinez Burman—of the Juchitec Indigenous people—who uses storytelling to help others understand socio-ecological relationships and how we can coexist with nature. He was joined by artist Tehatsistahawi (Tsista) Kennedy—of the Anishnaabe, Onyota’aka nation—who uses woodland-style art to share his perspective of being an Indigenous young man in a colonial world. We asked Markus and Tsista to share their experiences navigating their Indigenous heritage and what steps we can take to celebrate and respect Indigenous stories. 

Markus Martinez Burman: As a National Geographic Young Explorer, I’m passionate about empowering young people to find their voice and to search for that connection to what makes them feel unique on this planet. I grew up in Mexico City and I always felt very disconnected from my own community and origin.

Throughout my years living in Sweden, I’ve been able to reconnect with my culture both through photography and most recently, through my grandfather’s poetry in his native Zapotec language. I found that by learning the Zapotec language, he was able to reconnect with his own culture and continue writing in Zapotec, both as a form of protest to preserve his language, but also as a way to tell us that we have to keep reconnecting with our ancestors in a way. Tsista, during Photo Camp Earth Stories, you told the story of your braids and their significance. You said, “My long hair served to be one of my only connections to my culture and pride for the majority of my childhood.” Tell us more about this and how, in times you felt without a path, you reconnected with your culture and your ancestors.

Tehatsistahawi (Tsista) Kennedy: I grew up in an urban environment. I didn’t grow up in a reserve or integrated in my culture and my hair was something that I had ever since I could remember because I started growing it when I was probably two years old. During elementary school, I knew who I was. I knew I was Anishnaabe, Onyota’aka but I didn’t have access to my culture in my everyday life as an Indigenous kid. We would go through history textbooks and I’d be learning about my people through pieces of text and educational literature that didn’t accurately talk about who we were and the truth about how Canada came to be.

For me, I kind of stumbled upon my traditional ceremonies because when I talk about my connections with my culture the foundation is the ceremonies and tradition. My family ended up getting connected to ceremonies on both sides of who I am and we started going frequently. From there, I started being able to navigate my everyday life more from a traditional perspective and a cultural perspective. Being an Indigenous person with cultural knowledge but still navigating colonial life every single day was certainly a struggle. I definitely give thanks to the fact that I had my teachings to kind of guide me through the craziness of it all.

Markus: There are very powerful forms of storytelling that connect us to our roots. My grandfather through his writings, you through your woodland style art, and I use a lot of photography to document my life—and the ways I view my culture in Mexico and Sweden. My project that is funded through the Young Explorers grant and Indigenous Sustainable Development (INDIS), focuses on youth from the Monkox Indigenous Nation in Lomerio, Bolivia. At INDIS, we aim to create spaces for dialogue among Indigenous Peoples, like the Monkox, and connect them with researchers, and policymakers to develop a shared vision for sustainable development. My project aims to empower youth from the Monkox Indigenous nation to use photography and storytelling to build a platform where they can share their own stories from their communities and their sustainable ways of living while also trying to strengthen young leaders within their community. I’d like to hear about what you hope to communicate through your art and how does it help bring awareness to Indigenous forms of storytelling?

Tsista: For me, in its most basic form, I just want to communicate my perspective as an Indigenous young man, a father, and an artist navigating through traditional life and colonial life. When you look at my artwork you might see a bunch of animals with political stances but at the end of the day it’s not what’s right or wrong, it’s from my perspective. Even if the subject of the artwork is rooted in history, it’s still my perspective. That’s what I’m communicating and I like to acknowledge that since it’s from my perspective, it’s not the truth. Some people’s perspective resonates with other folks. I hope it simply inspires folks to share their own stories.

At the end of the day, it’s not always about a ceremony or a tradition, it’s about how you feel as a person in this colonial system and overcoming it and navigating it. It’s important for our youth to hear our teachings but it’s just as important for our youth to hear our experiences. Canadian education doesn’t necessarily nurture our traditional ways of learning. We sit in classrooms with no windows and we’re all sitting forward, staring straight at the white board or a screen. When I think about ceremonies when we’re teaching our youth, we’re sitting in a circle. And usually we’re integrated with the land and we’re not separated where you can’t see outside. Sharing perspectives like that is equally as important as learning traditional stories. That’s what I hope to instill in youth. 

Markus: I feel like so many of our perspectives get lost in translation. We go through this entire system thinking we are going to be integrated into our society but they never ask for the opinions of Indigenous people. The forms of communication are different and it opens up a different dialogue–a different way of communicating and trusting each other and feeling that you have a place that you can tell your story where you aren’t judged for who you are and what you want to achieve. Myself, for example, I moved to Sweden when I was 14 or 15 and it was kind of this disconnection from my own culture, and my only language with the rest of the world was photography. I think your art tries to communicate that through a very creative way of saying “look, this is my perspective of the world and it shouldn’t be ignored. We’re here to listen.”

At National Geographic, we are #GenGeo, a global community of young people who are helping to drive progress by mobilizing our peers to make a difference in their communities. I found through my Young Explorers grant that mobilizing and fostering communities is one of the strongest, most important ways in which we can come together to solve some of the toughest challenges we face today, like climate change or food and health security. Community is what helps us overcome challenges because together our voices are stronger. But youth can sometimes be left out of the conversation. How did the Photo Camp experience help build a community for you where you were able to connect with Indigenous youth from around the world and tell your story alongside theirs? And what advice would you give young people looking for ways to share and form their own stories?

Tsista: One thing I’ve realized is that you don’t have to be in person to have a community. Even sitting here right now, in a Zoom call, we’re having a good conversation and there is still a strong sense of community. That’s something I felt with the National Geographic Photo Camp because we shared our artwork with each other, our photography. When we’re sharing and discussing with each other and building each other up, I feel like that’s a good foundation for a safe space and Photo Camp provided that. When we were sitting together sharing our pictures, I felt like a lot of people were applying their photography in life in very personal ways and that was a powerful thing to experience. I feel like art helps people open up and be vulnerable and share with each other. For me, I was a shy kid especially in high school and middle school. I used to get bullied a lot for my long hair and I kind of backed into a corner where I didn’t talk to people for quite a while. I threw myself into uncomfortable situations and slowly became better at being open to folks and my willingness to do that led me to where I am today. Being open and sharing those things is a gradual process. It’s about finding the strength within yourself and I know that sounds corny but it was for me; constantly throwing myself into uncomfortable situations and building up that resilience and I’m glad I did. If it wasn’t for social media then I don’t know if I would have the audience that I have today. It’s definitely a tool to take advantage of and connect with other Indigenous artists or Indigenous activists and storytellers. That’s what I’ve done and that’s what I can speak to confidently. 

Markus: There’s something about art that makes us able to share our own experiences and our own thoughts. I’ve been in three Photo Camps already and each one has inspired me to continue projects like my own National Geographic Young Explorer project. But also, like you said, community doesn’t necessarily need to be present. We live in a very global world and we can communicate easily through social media, through different platforms online, through Photo Camp even, and create friendships in a way that last forever. Photo Camp gives you an idea of how powerful storytelling can be, to create that sense of community, to create connections, and foster new ways of thinking between each other. For Indigenous people sometimes they get isolated and sometimes they don’t have that medium of communication. How can we break down that isolation and ensure that society celebrates Indigenous stories? How can we make sure that Indigenous people feel identified, honored, respected, both locally and globally?

Tsista: We have to unload and unpack the history of what’s happened in North and South America, how Indigenous people were colonized and what our ancestors experienced. I think that’s the root of our problem. I can speak for my community and say that the history of my grandmother is she never had a history. Our community was rounded up and told, “alright, you guys are going to be farmers now and will raise livestock and that’s how you’re going to live.” There were no police and there was only a church. My grandma saw peace and a safe community in the church. There is this divide in our communities as Indigenous people where those who follow more strongly traditional values criticize those who follow Christian values and unfortunately there is a lot of arrogance to that. If you understand my grandmother’s Indigenous story completely, you would come to see why she goes to church because for her, church on the reserve was the only safe space she had.

You can’t change your beliefs if it has been your lifelong upbringing. When we look at problems in our communities; a lot of it can be traced back to the trauma from colonization and all of the things that have stemmed from that. Trauma trickles down into the generations. How can you understand our struggles as Indigenous people if you aren’t listening? For society to take in Indigenous stories in a respectful way, we got to make sure that the history is told in a truthful way, in a way that doesn’t sugarcoat anything or ensure people’s comfortability because there isn’t anything about what’s happened that’s comfortable. 

Markus: I’m thinking about rewriting history so it’s from the perspective of Indigenous people because a lot of it is lost in translation. We need to be thinking about our history and what we tell our kids and how exactly we ended up here. It’s a lot about justice, allowing equal opportunities for young kids to develop their own ways of storytelling where they don’t feel afraid of speaking out. And ensuring they have the same opportunities that I did when I was young, to grab a camera and tell their story in their own way, or speak their own language, or create their own art. I believe it’s a lot about giving them the right opportunities and the same opportunities that we have. I think that’s what we need to do. 

A common thread throughout Markus and Tsista’s conversation is encouraging youth to find their voice. But we must ensure that we’re listening—so there’s little to be lost in translation. Let’s find opportunities to celebrate our differences and unique perspectives. Consider Tsista’s recommendation to gather your students, colleagues, or friends in a socially distanced circle outdoors—where they can feel grounded and open to sharing their stories. Through our Young Explorer and Photo Camp programs we amplify young voices because they have the power to inspire change. We’re proud to give young people the opportunity to take charge of their own stories. To learn more about the #GenGeo movement visit NatGeo.org/GenGeo and join the #GenGeo conversation. And for more storytelling, visit @NGPhotoCamp to see images from our recent Virtual Photo Camp: Democracy in Action, focused on the concept of democracy and what it means in the lives of young people.

*This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.

Feature image by Markus Martinez Burman | Caption: A mural next to the town market in Juchitan, Oaxaca has been dedicated to the conservation of nature. On the mural Uruguay´s former president Jose Mujica is quoted “Those who fight for the environment, fight for human happiness.

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