Black and Indigenous Storytelling as Counter-History
For untold centuries, storytelling has been foundational to the ways Black and Indigenous people understand and connect to the world around them. However, knowledge systems upheld in academic settings continually disavow these narratives, and those who hold them, as valid sites of intellectual production. For BIPOC heritage professionals, storytelling taps into historically marginalized ways of knowing. It offers ways to reclaim and retell histories that often counter the harmful and one-sided narratives told about Black and Indigenous peoples through archaeology, museums, and heritage sites.
In this webinar, we explore storytelling through artifacts, cultural landscapes, comics, graphic novels, and video games as a means of counter-history, illuminating new ways of imagining pasts, presents, and futures for Black and Indigenous people. Panelists will discuss how they engage storytelling as an intellectual entryway into interpretations of the material evidence of Black and Indigenous histories.
Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva), Comic Book Artist and Illustrator
Antoinette Jackson, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Anthropology Department, University of South Florida
John Jennings, Professor, University of California at Riverside
Ora Marek-Martinez (Diné, Nimiipuu, Hopi), Ph.D., Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Native American Cultural Center, Northern Arizona University
Dian Million (Tanana Athabascan), Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair of the American Indian Studies Department, University of Washington
>> DANILYN RUTHERFORD: Hello, I would like to welcome everyone to today’s installment of this webinar series, From the Margins to the Mainstream. My name is Daniel Rutherford, I’m the President of the Wenner Gren Foundation.
This series grew out of a collaboration involving the Society of Black Archaeologists, the Indigenous Archaeology Collective, the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies, the Archaeology Centers Coalition, the Wenner Gren Foundation, and SAPIENS. Today’s discussion is made possible by the generous support of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
This conversation, the fourth in our series, focuses on “Black and Indigenous Storytelling as Counterhistory.” In the coming months, this series will address topics from cultural stewardship to archaeological epistemologies and Black and Indigenous futurities.
Before we begin, I want to acknowledge that I am attending this discussion from Santa Cruz, California, which is located on the unceded homelands of Awaswas speaking Uypi Tribe. The Amah Mutsen Tribal Band, comprised of the descendants of indigenous people taken to missions Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista during Spanish colonization of the Central Coast, is today working hard to restore traditional stewardship practices on these lands and heal from historical trauma. I want to honor the ongoing connection of Amah Mutsen people, past and present, to these lands and waters and encourage you to investigate the indigenous histories and living communities connected to the places that you occupy.
Our moderator for today’s discussion is Dian Million, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of American Indian Studies, and Affiliate faculty in Canadian Studies and the Comparative History of Ideas Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Professor Million is a poet, scholar, and the author of numerous works, including Therapeutic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights, “Felt Theory: An Indigenous Feminist Approach to Affect and History,” and “Intense Dreaming: Theories, Narratives, and Our Search for Home.”
Professor Million is going to lead the conversation with our four distinguished panelists:Our first panelist is Ora Marek Martinez is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and the Executive Director of the Native American Cultural Center at Northern Arizona University. Trained as an Archaeologist, she has extensive experience in indigenous archaeology and indigenous heritage management and a commitment to decolonizing and Indigenizing archaeological narratives as a way to reaffirm Indigenous connections to land and place.
John Jennings is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Riverside and the founder and curator of the ABRAMS Megascope line of graphic novels. He has written and illustrated many graphic novels, including Kindred, an award winning adaptation of Octavio Butler’s novel. His work is featured in Pitch Black Rainbow: The Art of John Jennings.
Antoinette Jackson is a Professor and the Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida and Editor in Chief of the journal, Presents Past. She is the author of numerous publications, including Speaking for the Enslaved: Heritage Interpretation at Antebellum Plantation Sites and Heritage, Tourism, and Race the Other Side of Leisure.
Weshoyot Alvitre is an author and illustrator, whose work appears in the graphic novels, “GHOSTRIVER: The Fall and Rise of the Conestoga” and “At the Mountains Base.” She is the artistic director of the video game, “When Rivers Were Trails”.I want to take just a quick moment for some technicalities. We’re using the Q & A function for questions during this webinar. If you hover over your screen, you can find that webinar. If you have questions please place them there when it comes time to open the conversation, we’ll take those questions as they arise.
Thanks to all of you for this conversation and thanks to everyone who is tuned in. Without further ado, I’d like to turn the floor over to our moderator, Professor Million.
>> DIAN MILLION: (Speaking Athabascan language). It’s good to be here with all of you today, it’s my honor to be here with these esteemed storytellers and artists and generally great people. So I come from the interior Yukon territory of Alaska, we’re from Unana, and today I am broadcasting from the lands of the upper Skagit Coast Salish peoples, so I want to say a bit of thanks to the hosts of this land that I am speaking to you from. It is a great honor to be asked to say anything to this group, so I will just start off with something that will make me a little more comfortable. Usually that might be a poem, but maybe today a little bit of a story.
So a long, long time ago, actually, back in the 1970s, a young anthropologists wandered into our country. She was eager to find out from three elder women at that time what was their stories, what was the actual what had they experienced as people from the outside had come among them. You know, so they were like, oh, my goodness, this young one. So at any rate, the first thing they said to her was, well, I’m sorry, we can’t tell you that until you know the stories. What? She says, I just want to know what happened to you when like these miners came among you. No, no.
First, you’re going to have to learn our stories. So she set to work, she would come back every once in a while and try again and try to get those elders to tell her, you know what I’m saying, just all I really want to know is what happened to you during this time? From that time to this time. No, no. You have to go back. You have to learn this story. Now you have to learn that story. You have to learn all these stories first. Then we’ll tell you. So by and by, she did. She was a very respectful person, and she did, enough so that when they began to tell their life stories and those stories intertwined then with what they had told her from their Athabascan point of view, from their Athabascan world view about what the world meant from where their perspective was.
So all of these stories they learned, they had to learn were the stories of that place and that land. So there is no place coming from where we came from, there was no place that was not storied, there was not anyplace that did not have language around it of the many things that occurred there, or the great foods that we could get there, or basically everything, everything in the universe was contained in those stories. So they actually formed our world and this is the thing that I knew from a very young time that stories were world making and that’s why I’m really honored to be here among you because stories are world making, they can literally change the world that we’re in. As you know, we all here together today have come from great storytelling traditions, and these storytelling traditions have brought us up, honored us, protected us, and also they have set the tone for us to actually not tell it a past so much, but to project into a future.
We know how much that the path that we walk into the future or what we will give our children is a great gift, and that gift is contained in the power of the kinds of storying that we can do.
Boy, we have been let loose in the world now. That’s a line from one of my old poems. Anyway. Yeah, we have been let loose in the world at this point, for sure, because now we don’t just tell our stories, and I never did learn stories around the fire. I always saw that, you know, on TV and stuff, Indians sitting around fires. No, we were out having to chop wood or something. We didn’t even get to sit around a fire and hear stories. We heard the stories usually when we were cooking or sewing or doing something useful.
At any rate, so the useful thing that we do now is that we tell our stories across a lot of wonderful mediums. We’re not afraid of new mediums, you know. One of the first things that some of our Yukon elders seized on were cameras. They really liked cameras. They liked taking pictures of each other. And with those pictures, they could tell, you know, even deeper types of stories, you know, about people. Hmm, we got this one on you. Anyway, yeah, today we’re going to hear from people whom storying is something more than just telling a tale. I think I’m among world builders, so I want to know about your experience and I’m going to open it that way with me stepping back, but trying to listen to these great people. Okay? That’s how it is where I’m from. (Speaking Athabascan language). That means I’m done. Let’s see, who is going to go first? Do we have an order?
>> ORA MAREK-MARTINEZ: Just a note really quick from some of the organizers, the livestream is not working right now, but the recording will be available later, so just stay tuned with us, and weep keep you going here.
>> DIAN MILLION: Thank you. I did not get those messages.
>> ORA MAREK-MARTINEZ: Well, since I unmuted myself, I can go.
>> DIAN MILLION: Okay.
>> ORA MAREK-MARTINEZ: (Speaking Navajo language) I introduced myself to you all in Navajo language. We’re taught from a very young age to introduce ourselves to people when we’re speaking about things that are very personal to us and I think that this sort of qualifies for one of those moment stories, very important for me and my family. My mother is Navajo, mountain clove clan. My father was Nez Perce from northern Idaho, maternal grandmother Hopi, paternal grandfather was actually Bohemian and Italian, so I’m what you call a Hasal Rascal, my parents met at a University, this is why I’m so beautifully intertribal here. Originally I’m from Lapwai, Idaho, Nez Perce Reservation, born and raised there, but I moved here to Flagstaff, Arizona, now, so I just want to take some time and recognize and honor the ancestors and the land users of this area. The San Francisco Peaks or in Navajo language (Speaking Navajo language) is a very sacred place, so I want to honor their ancestors, past, present and future. So I will turn the floor over to our other esteemed panelists. (Speaking Navajo language).
>> ANTOINETTE JACKSON: Yes, I will go next. This is Antoinette Jackson, I was worn and not raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, and I want to expand on what Dian was saying in terms of world building to include world expanding and world enriching. The stories that enriched me as being born of a daughter of parents who were both born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, shaped me until today, although again, I didn’t grow up necessarily in New Orleans, but we went back to Louisiana every summer to visit my grandparents and work on their farm and work with my grandmother in the city, and follow her around and things like that. So I was totally shaped by the South, southern Louisiana.
So to say that stories shaped me, I would not be the person I am, Professor of the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, without that. Two parents born in the segregated South who histories of marginalization, exclusion, and all those types of challenges were part of their lives, part of their everyday lives, but it wasn’t the story that I learned, really. I learned that people were resilient, resistant, farmers, domestic workers, they were in communion with one another, fellowship, spiritually, high spiritual grounding, and all those things informed who I was and knowing my place in the universe.
So I acknowledge that part of my ancestry which gave me the strength and the perspective in which to move along the path and learn all kinds of other things that I needed to know. The world enriching part was the fact that as a person who was on one career path and changed into anthropology because I learned the history of enslaved African people along the Gullah Geechee Corridor, people who worked on rice plantations, I learned that story, and it enriched my ideas and informed the next great trajectory in my life. So knowing who I was came through stories, my life was enriched by learning, and I’ll talk about that more, some of the history and heritage of the descendants of enslaved Africans known as the Gullah Geechee and how that enriched my life and how full circle I used those kinds of knowledges that kind of beginning to now be in a position to be a storyteller and share of knowledge and collector of knowledge and stories, to help expand and enrich the world in which we live. These stories and those histories need to be told, and that’s my charter right now and who I am. So that’s a little bit of my introduction.
>> DIAN MILLION: Thank you. Let’s have John.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: Thank you so much. The first thing I would like to do is to respectfully acknowledge our responsibility to the regional and current caretakers of this land, which is Riverside, California. The Tongva people, Cahuilla peoples, all of their ancestors and descendants past present and future and respectfully and very gratefully accept the opportunity to continue the greatness of those people through education here at UCR. So thank you for having me. The other thing is thank you for my honorary anthropology Ph.D. I’m actually not an anthropologist. That was really interesting. I was like, oh, I got a yeah, sorry to be all like, to do that. Yeah, I have an FFM, I’m an artist, my graphic is in graphic design, art, I actually teach at the University of California Riverside in media and cultural studies, actually. Media and cultural studies. So I’m extremely grateful for that honorary anthropology degree, although I dig through stories to a certain degree, I have a great respect for anthropologists do and archaeologists do. So thank you for that.
So originally I’m from Mississippi. I was born in 1970, so I just recently turned 50 a few days ago. Looking back at my story, I was raised by really strong Black women from the Deep South. I was actually born about an hour north of Louisiana, in a town called Brookhaven, Mississippi. Mississippi is somewhere that you’re not from, it’s somewhere that you survive, right? So a lot of the stories that I tell now as a graphic novelist and as an archivist and as a teacher and designer are being directly influenced by my southern heritage.
I was raised by a single mom who was in love with like probably some of the, I don’t know, some of the most disruptive crazy stories that you could probably see, like she was really into B movies and really violent like exploitation films. And Stephen King. So I actually started reading like horror and science fiction and fantasy at a very, very young age, and I think that really shaped the way that I thought about the world, because I lived in a very isolated space in the middle of Mississippi I almost grew up in a cliched environment, you know, of poverty and hope being mixed together, really coming up in the middle of a cotton field and collecting bugs and staring at the stars while laying on top of a barn, you know.
It sounds Steinbeckian, but I didn’t know what I was going to be in for for the rest of my life, these stories and teaching it. And actually teaching my students to fight for their own lives. My grandmother was probably a conjurer woman, when I look at stories that she would tell me that were just crazy superstitions, now in my research I realize she was probably a conjurer, because she had all kinds of roots and medicinal applications that were coming from the local vegetation around, you know, where we grew up.
So in retrospect, I’m very thankful for those stories now because they challenged me, and I grew up just in some ways like, you know, addicted to stories. I always wanted to hear like a new story, you know. And I really fell into mythologies from all different peoples, and I was always actually very interested in iconography and symbols. Little did I know that I was actually picking up the skill set of what I would later find to be a graphic design are or a visual communicator.
And that kind of led me to become someone who studies the meanings behind symbols, semiotician. I’ve been in the academy 23 years, this is my fourth post, most of my career has been as an artist and graphic design instructor, so graphic design history, methodology, but also teaching stories like racist science fiction or the idea of like space and identity, you know, the confliction of space and identity, or an Afro futurist design studio or hip hop, you know, as a design aesthetic. These are some of the things I’ve been trying to introduce to kind of push back against the institutions of design.
So now I teach courses around Afro futurism and comics and race and horror and the utilities of horror and dealing with some of the spaces that we’re kind of beset with and I’m also connected to the Eaton Archive, which is one of the largest science fiction studies repository in the country, here at UCR. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity share. I’m really honored to be talking to you all. So thank you.
>> DIAN MILLION: Thank you, John. Weshoyot?
>> WESHOYOT ALVITRE: Thank you for having me here. I am Tongva and Scottish and currently residing on Chumash territory in California, my dad is Tongva Spanish and Basque, I was born on national parkland at a cultural center in Newbury Park, on Chumash and Tongva territories, I grew up with land and plant knowledge of my dad and family history and mixed history along with the genocide of California Indian people. And, you know, growing up, I think it was a little bit difficult because I have an obviously like non European first name.
So my lineage and my dad’s nationality got brought up quite often growing up. So I think from a very young age I had to answer a lot of questions in regard to who we were as people, what, you know, tribe I come from, why we choose to use the name Tongva as opposed to using the name Gabrielino and a variety of political perspectives and having to grow up with that although a young age has influenced my work currently. For a long time I didn’t engage in any Native based artworks because I didn’t feel I had safe spaces to present those, either with editorial oversight kind of cutting and pasting what I was allowed to share publicly, and just over the last five or so years, I’ve found safe spaces with Indigenous publishers to be able to share, you know, Native based stories, be able to have the academic backing and support to tell historical stories from a Native perspective. So the graphic novel mentioned Ghostriver we partnered with the publisher in Philadelphia and through a Pew Center for Arts grant we were able to tell of a historical that oftentimes doesn’t mention Indigenous event or treat them as people and that was a huge eye opener into the way that academics can support the work we’re doing as Indigenous people to retell our own stories with our own voices.
I also am working currently on a book about a medicine woman, Toypurina, a Tongva medicine woman, who led a revolt in San Gabriel Mission in 1785, and in taking on this project it has opened up a wide expanse of doing anthropological and archeological research to support not only the place and time that the events took place, but also the historical records of her descendants afterwards.
So I’m very grateful to be here, I’m looking forward on the conversation. So thank you for having me.
>> DIAN MILLION: Thank you. I think we have many really good questions, and because of some of the things that I think people want to get to, I’m going to start with this one question just because I think it bounces off almost everything all of you have already said and I think it would be good to like bring this into folk focus a little more. One of the questions is with settler colonialism and gentrification disposition in its various forms can lead to an erasure of histories and heritage. How is storytelling offered as a form of resistance to this erasure?
So we want to go back, let’s go back to Ora first.
>> ORA MAREK-MARTINEZ: Okay. So I forgot to mention that I am an archaeologist. I work for my people, Navajo Nation for about 16 years before I moved into academia. So for me, the way that I saw my perspective is my very active being here as an Indigenous woman is a form of resistance, right? And occupying space not only within the academy, but also the institution that I’m a part of, that there is also a form of resistance. So part of what I take with me into my scholarship is basically creating space that was never allowed for our people’s voices, our people’s stories, the stories that they hold that connect them to the past.
And so for me, being an archaeologist, you know, within southwestern archaeologists, there’s a lot of negative feelings, I guess, and opinions and theories about Navajo people and that basically we are squatters in our own homeland. So coming from being trained in archaeology and learning of these histories, whereas when I grew up, I heard about our creation stories, I heard about where our people come from, our clans come from, because each of our clans come from different spaces.
So hearing those stories and then hearing this theory that my people are not actually a part of these homelands, and yet my people have stories that we are originating, we do originate, there are ten clans that originate from the area known as Diné (Speaking Navajo language) which is boarded by our sacred mountain, this mountain behind me, I know you can’t see it, but it’s (Speaking Navajo language) that’s our western boundary marker.
So understanding our stories and that our people believe that we are here, that we’ve always come from here, that there are at least ten clans that do come from this area, that to me, it showed me that there has to be a form of resistance built into these kind of academic interpretations of our histories. And our people from time in memorial have held these stories, have cared for these stories and nurtured them and have breathed life into them by telling them and retelling them to these different generations. That is a form of resistance. And by me providing those stories, I feel that it gives archaeology that sustenance, the heart that it actually needs to be able to really tell these stories.
Archaeology provides one sort of dimensional view of our history, and by incorporating the traditions, the ceremonial histories, the prayers and the songs of my people into these interpretations, it turns our histories into something that it’s meant to be. And like I said, we sort of breathe life into these stories by actually saying them. And in Navajo culture, our words have power. So when we tell these stories, they bring that power to us as people. So it’s those stories that keep us going, it’s the sustenance that we need to keep going generation after generation after generation.
And I don’t think that, you know, within the field of archaeology that people realize that that contains sacred knowledge, just the very fact that we’re going back to the past into our deep past to uncover this knowledge that is equated with our ancestral knowledge, that’s sacred, that’s sacred knowledge. And when we divorce it from what it’s meant to be and what it’s meant to do, then what is it actually that we’re doing, right? And in that way, archaeology becomes very violent, it becomes very sort of it’s destructive of all of the things that hold us together as a people right now.
So the act of retelling these stories that I’ve heard from medicine people, from traditional knowledge holders, from my elders, that has provided me with the ability to retell stories to our youth and to these generations who are coming up, and creating stories that actually mean something to them and that are connected to the landscape, that are connected to our people, to our prayers and our songs and our offerings. So it’s always important, I think, to sort of position yourself, especially as an Indigenous scholar or as a scholar who is coming from these marginalized communities, we are the we hold that power right now, and part of our responsibility is to provide that information to the next generation.
And for me to disrupt these sort of narratives that archaeology has created without us, that is resistance in and of itself, and that’s what’s going to keep my people going and our people going for generations to come. So for me, stories become that resistance.
>> DIAN MILLION: I think you’re making a really, really good point because first of all, that is to me, it is kind of a very colonizing move, to have taken our stories out of context, that our stories were great. I’m looking at the galaxies behind you. Our stories at one time formed great galaxies of knowledge altogether, they weren’t just one story. Like, you know, we pick up a book where there’s just one story, and then you turn a page and then there’s another story accident or whatever like that. We never constructed stories like that.
Our stories were like great trees of knowledge, and sometimes they would go from one story to the next story to the next story. That’s why you had to know all those stories, because they were connected to something. And they were connected to something real, the earth and the people’s lives and the animals and all the other kinships that were in those places.
So what you’re saying, yeah, resonates a lot with me too. You can’t just cut those stories out of the context they come from, and I think that’s been the biggest harm that has been done to us.
Okay. I’m going to turn to bear with me here, let’s just go in the order we were going in, okay? That would be really good. Antoinette?
>> ANTOINETTE JACKSON: Hello again. I appreciate it. I appreciate the last comment about stories, and being an anthropologist, actual an anthropologist, I know John has decided he doesn’t want to claim that.
And in tandem with the archaeologists, you know, as a discipline within anthropology, I agree wholeheartedly with what was just said. And what I want to add is, my work centers on, or I started in my professional career as an anthropologist looking at and being drawn into the stories about enslaved Africans in plantation spaces.
Now, when I say that, it shortens the trajectory because at any point in time prior to me becoming an anthropologist and getting into this, no one would have thought that I would be telling stories about plantation spaces, because I had heard so many negative things, so many marginalized stories about everything to do with plantation spaces, enslavement. And not a negative history and the system of that, but I had erased the entire understanding of communities, whole communities of people and connections and intergenerational conversations because I was trying to avoid all of the marginal negative things I had heard. And learned in school about plantation spaces and people who enslaved people who lived and worked on those communities and spaces.
And one of the things I was drawn to was when I learned of the Gullah Geechee community and the descendants of enslaved Africans and work and history around rice agriculture, by listening to stories, I took a trip down to Saint Helena Island and spending time with folks in those communities learning about enslaved communities and the role they played on rice plantations, the knowledge you have to grow rice, to cook rice, to manage and work on a rice plantation, it wasn’t throwing out seeds and hoping it would grow. So I came to a whole new understanding of the labor and laboring role and management skills and technology around that process. Through listening and being and listening to the stories of folk who were descendants of people who worked on those plantations. Which brings me to the thing about stories. Descendant knowledges.
Descendants tell stories and pass on the heritage of their communities, or plantations period, and those stories are often, when he encounter stories of plantation spaces, they’re static. I was always confronted with the idea that you see the stories of the slave owners and those folk when they’re told in these plantation museums or people visiting those spaces, they talk about the present backwards, the house, talk about the family, what they’re doing what and who owned what and where, and it’s a present connection and a past connection. Enslaved Africans are considered static in time, fixed, with no movement at any one point, not even when they were enslaved in that point. And we don’t hear the multitude of stories and things that people were confronting and dealing with.
And then when you look at these stories in the present, they’re all still trapped in the past. And that was my impetus with doing the work that I do is because I was spending time in these communities talking with elders and descendants of people who were working or descendants of people who had communities of people who worked on these rice plantations, I started to look at these stories as dynamic and interconnected, and looking at them from topical areas, like thinking of home, how do you discuss home, a plantation is a plantation space but is also home. So how do people talk about things like home and cooking and food ways and labor? Not as enslaved people, but as people who were in this condition or this situation, but we also, they had also a larger view, a larger connection that is often lost when people talk about these spaces.
So one of the things that I have been doing is expanding that kind of discussion to move from static to dynamic in our understanding of plantation spaces. And then also looking at it beyond geographic space to looking at a diaspora, how are you connect to do other communities and other folk who have gone through similar conditions and went through similar situations and how do you have conversation and engage in that knowledge. So unlocking that is an important part, incorporating descendant knowledge, looking at people in terms of not a plantation, but in terms of how they defined things that were significant to them, home, religion, food ways and all those kind of things and talk about the spaces through those kinds of trajectories and bringing that out, and enabling other people to become more engaged in understanding descendants of enslaved Africans or people who worked on those plantations as people, and I think part of the impetus for some of this is that the point was to dehumanize people, to take away that humanity.
And I think we need to go back, and that’s what I am interested in is going and putting that humanity, showing that humanity, even in the face of whatever people were doing, they were human. And I think the human part is the most dynamic part, the most important part to me, because again, Africans and people who are in marginalized conditions have had to create a humanity or create family and home and connections with each other that teach us today how to go forward.
>> DIAN MILLION: Right.
>> ANTOINETTE JACKSON: And I think those things are lost when we don’t tell these stories and don’t continue those conversations. So that’s been the kinds of work and labor I’ve done around plantations, which again, in term of anthropology and those kind of discipline approaches, most people are just looking at things, artifacts and what they find in the ground and they don’t think about the stories.
>> DIAN MILLION: Again, connected.
>> ANTOINETTE JACKSON: Connect us to those items and those things. So in terms of culture and the anthropology as a discipline, that’s what I bring to bear to that. But it’s beyond cultural anthropology, it’s the people themselves that informed me, the ethnography, the stories, connections, what people are doing in their everyday lives. It’s not to do with necessarily anthropology.
>> DIAN MILLION: No, it comes from a real place.
>> ANTOINETTE JACKSON: Right.
>> DIAN MILLION: Experiences. I think one of the things that is so incredible, and I want you to reflect on this if you want to, but you’re right. So the reduction of people with such a profound experience to this one dimension.
>> ANTOINETTE JACKSON: Yes.
>> DIAN MILLION: And not understanding or realizing what kind of brilliance it took to reinvent themselves in a new place, when people were stripped, they were stripped from places that had really deep and long, long, thousand year histories and languages and arts and they brought it together again. They built again. They had to build again. See how brilliant? That’s one of the things that crossed my mind, because really when I finally came across an account of Gullah, what you know I’m saying, I was so impressed, I was incredibly impressed. And so I want you to keep those thoughts because I want you to come back to the brilliance of that. John, it seems like you want to do you want to follow up on that?
>> JOHN JENNINGS: I’m definitely following. I mean, I’m trying not to talk too much honestly because I get so excited about storytelling. It’s such a huge part of art and it’s such a huge part of design and all the different aspects of cultural production. I definitely look at myself as a storyteller. Where do I start? My goodness. Yeah, I’ve always been like one of the only Black folk in a space, you know, what I call borrowing from Archie Boston, a Black designer, he had this book Fly in the Buttermilk, I’ve been the fly in the buttermilk most of my career, being a particular index around ideas of Black people in America, particularly Black southern folk, so I definitely echo a lot of things that Antoinette and Ora was saying as well. Being stories in a system, not stand alone, but they’re living histories. I think that’s one of the things that through me to what people call Black of culture or Afro futurism, as this illustration behind me, these stories are co present. I’m in the present but we’re also looking to the past and to the future at the same time and these stories affect each other, you know.
And one of the most powerful stories of course is the story of race, for instance, right? Or the story of Whiteness and Blackness and all these isnesses, right? When I talk to my students around constructions of Whiteness and Blackness, I always use a common story around Peter Pan. When you see Peter Pan for the first time, he flies into Wendy’s window and he’s trying to catch his shadow, right? Because without your shadow, you don’t exist, right? So what he’s trying to do is trying to reattach his shadow. And to a certain degree, when Blackness was constructed and given to us as an idea, it was supposed to be like the shadow of Whiteness to a certain degree, supposed to embody all the things that Whiteness isn’t.
What happens with your shadow has its own stories, own songs, own ideologies, its own histories? What kind of tensions happen when the shadow starts speaking, you know? So that’s something I’ve been really thinking about a lot in my own work and that’s why I’m so attracted to the ideas of speculating other futures and other histories that could have happened, because when you think of the could have story, the what if story, it also becomes a pointer to what didn’t happen, and I forgot who said it, was it Ora, that said erasure was violence, or erasure is the story of violence? I just wrote almost a similar line in an introduction to this editorial letter.
We’re doing a book for my imprint called across the tracks, which deals with, it’s an introductory piece about the Tulsa race massacre. There’s so many incidents like this that happened in the 1900s and in 1919 in particular and as you stated earlier too, a lot of people don’t think about the Indigenous people suffering in those spaces as well, which is why we also got Professor Collette Yellowrobe to actually talk about the people who were injured in Oklahoma as well. But I was thinking about, you know, this notion of like how stories are resistant strategies, or almost like programs or like a type of technology, what I like to call like a liberation technology, you know, that they can used and weaponized in different ways.
As you said earlier too, it’s like there’s these notions, you know, from West Africa that we talk about called Nomo or like Ashay where you can speak things into existence, that the very creation of an idea is a disruption, you know. And these are things that I talk about in my Afro futurism courses, the students actually have to create liberation technologies, they actually can’t speak directly to oppression from different spaces, right? And one of the things that’s really interesting to me is that I feel like in the program that I teach in, there’s so much freedom in media and cultural studies that I could have never have found an art because art has so many rules and because I teach in a rules, right?
Even though probably Picasso said art is the lie that tells the truth, which I always find very comforting. But the other thing is in some African American homes you couldn’t even say the word lie, so you would have to interchange the word lie for the word story, you know. It’s a beautiful lie. Are you telling a story? You know, that kind of thing. So storytelling became like this kind of trick, you know, to a certain degree. So storytellers are tricksters, and actually utilize any means to actually like disrupt an overarching narrative.
So we’re talking about resistance, I mean, stories by their very existence are technologies that can give us the power to resist those spaces, and actually create counter spaces, which is what I’m trying to do with Megascope, my book in print. And it’s open to different types of intentionalities, different worlds, it’s stories that have been buried, you know, stories that are meant to be erased, like Tulsa, for instance. I found it exciting and also shameful that so many people learned about the Tulsa race massacre from watchmen, or the fact if you look at love craft country, you had sundown towns, the idea that I grew up with that, that was the obvious thing and it’s almost like we live in these different spaces, and stories connect us. You know, stories connect us.
>> DIAN MILLION: Oh, yes.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: Yeah. And they’re like circuit boards. That’s why I love the idea of technology.
>> DIAN MILLION: I want to pick up on a couple things you’re saying.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: Okay.
>> DIAN MILLION: One of them is, I was just thinking my colleague Chris Teuton has a book called, the Cherokee Liars Club. In Cherokee, that’s that if you’re telling a story, you know, unless you were there, then how did you know that?
>> JOHN JENNINGS: Right.
>> DIAN MILLION: So in their language apparently, you know, certain stories, you just start out, you assume the person could be a liar. So he could talk to you about that more than me. But I just like that idea, you know what I’m saying, of the ways in which stories are projections, you know, and that’s what you’re doing.
But the other idea that I thought was really good from that is that these spaces, you know, that we are in, not only are our stories erased from these spaces or attend out of context or that they’ve been disconnected from their own roots.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: Yes.
>> DIAN MILLION: But our stories, because we have existed here now a long time together, we have stories of each other.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: That’s right.
>> DIAN MILLION: And for us to reach out and make those, to reach out to make those stories speak to each other again, it is honorable, both in the past and as we’re saying, as you’re creating, you know what I’m saying, as we’re all creating or projecting into the future.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: That’s right. That’s right.
>> DIAN MILLION: That’s incredible. What you know I mean? That for me is another really important thing that we’re all doing together right now, your art is gorgeous.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: Thank you. I want to add right quick that, you know, what you just said, a lot of what we’re trying to do is excavate the history of the future, so to speak, because if you look at like a lot of stories about the future, people that look like us aren’t there, you know. So you have to actually, like anything other than straight white men are making the future, right? So that is unacceptable. So, you know, we’re trying to reclaim that future space, the history of the future. The other thing I want to say right quick and move on is the fact that digging takes a lot of work. You know, digging through time, the work that we do takes a lot of work. Covering up things is lazy.
>> DIAN MILLION: It takes a lot of emotional work too.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: Yes. Yes. It’s so easy to cover something up. It’s just really lazy. Digging and putting things together is a lot of work, it takes a lot of time. But my thing too is whenever I dig something up, I try to leave something behind too, for whoever is coming next. Speaking of which, you know, I’ll stop talking.
>> DIAN MILLION: Okay, let’s get to Weshoyot.
>> WESHOYOT ALVITRE: My brain is swimming, I wanted to respond to much and everybody said so many great things. With regards to work I did that was personal to my tribe, I kept it personal. I didn’t do storytelling for the public based on any of my tribal traditions or my people for the longest time. It wasn’t until I was invited to Indigenous Comic Con in New Mexico, and ironically enough one of the people that was listening to one of the panels at the very end, they had a question and answer session, and he was actually from UCR, and he asked me, you know, if you could do a dream project, what would be your dream project? At the time I had been working on other Native stories, so it’s tribes outside of my own and most of the tribes were outside of California.
California tribal members don’t oftentimes get the space to talk about our people, and, you know, across history we were one of the last people to be colonized, and I think we were colonized at a great deal of speed with a great deal of violence. So growing up I was raised as traditionally as I could be through my dad’s teachings and I was raised and I declared that I am a Tongva tribal member, and with that knowledge base there were so many things missing. Even thousand there’s things that are missing. When I do these lectures, I don’t and haven’t been able to regain enough of my language to introduce myself in my own language because so much of our language has been lost. And there are people that are, you know, doing a lot of work and trying to rebuild that language. So I try to say that it’s asleep right now, it’s on a shelf, and it’s going to be taken off that shelf and dusted off soon.
But in reclaiming our stories, so many tribal members in California are of mixed race, they’re either mixed tribal citizens or they’re mixed with colonial blood. So, you know, back to the story of Indigenous Comic Con when I was asked what my dream story was, I let my guard down, I would love to do a story of my people through and I learned through it through one of my Native American history classes, learning about a Tongva tribal member from somebody outside of our tribe was eye opening to me, it instilled a sense of pride and a person who did tremendous things in her tribe, overcame colonialism, it’s talk about in anthropological papers, yet I didn’t hear about it from my own people, I heard about it from western history, so the guy who asked me the question he was an instructor at UCR and right after that he came up to me and graciously said that he had the transcripts of her trial and he would send them to me but that right there was a huge starting pointed and I think it was really pivotal into the work that I am currently doing and that I hope that I continue to do to tell stories.
In utilizing actual documented records of these people and these places, and tie those in with traditional knowledge that I was raised with, in doing this project, it allowed me to uncover a lot of personal things that I didn’t expect at all. I have Spanish bloodlines from leather jacket soldiers who have been written about in books and oftentimes in a negative light. So the last five years has really been collectively a personal healing journey for myself in dealing with the polar reality of having somebody who was a conqueror coming over from another country and participating, you know, as a soldier in some of the genocide of Native people in California, but then also having the bloodline from the women who intermarried with this Spanish soldier who were Tongva and Cahuilla and they carried on those histories of thousands and thousands of years, up until me today speaking about this. So for me being here and speaking from both side, having both those bloodlines in my veins, I find I have the power maybe to clear the history that has been written about from a colonial lens and to provide another side of that story, and one thing that Antoinette brought up was just bringing it back down to that human element. There’s so much racism and hatred that can be brought up and so much pain I think in dealing with these stories, especially if they’re personal.
So many people are so quick to jump to, you know, attacking certain sides or saying you’re not true to one side or the other side because you’re both or you’re taking sides, and what I try to do with the stories that I tell is to find that human element. Through sharing these cultural aspects you get a deeper appreciation for the cultures that you’re telling stories about, but at the same time, I hope that readers when they’re Native and non Native they’re reading these and they’re understanding that we’re all people, we’re all human beings and we all feel, you know, emotions, we all have family members, we all have sons, daughters, or have experienced certain things. From a human level I think that you can hit empathy and compassion that way. And I hope that by, you know, dealing with these hard things, we’re able to kind of neutralize a lot of this hate and this back and forth that we’ve experienced and emerge from this with a better understanding, a better knowledge and just a more compassionate viewpoint towards each other.
>> DIAN MILLION: Yeah, thank you. I think what you are bringing up is probably the part that has been the most painful for so many people. I mean, we have a lot of people in urban areas at this point right now who are not on their land. Did I freeze? Are we here? Am I here? I had a little
>> WESHOYOT ALVITRE: Yeah, I can hear you.
>> DIAN MILLION: I had a little internet bump there. Oh oh. I was going, no!
Because there are so many of us in cities right now, but it’s not just that they’re in cities, it’s that they’ve been forced away from things. Everybody in California who knows that history knows how atrocious it was. It’s not that it wasn’t atrocious in other places, but it left you with a lot of the same, that it was very purposeful, the erasure of the peoples there, that you were still there is a miracle, okay? But it is a different situation because we are, all across, I was just going to say, even in Alaska, we face the fact that we are multiple histories at this point, you know what I mean? There’s multiple peoples in my family.
So there’s multiple peoples from different backgrounds and racializations in my family, at this point in time. We are making different histories together in the place where once only my mother’s folks lived. My father didn’t even know who he was. He was adopted. So we literally could never find exactly who he is, you know. But that’s such common, I mean, I could go on and tell you a lot of stories you would probably identify from. But making art from that is actually another way to connect. You know what I’m saying? In that it won’t be just that you are representing something, it’s that, you know, what is the beauty of your creation is that it will also teach you, you know what I’m saying, reteach you in how those connections are not straightforward, they’re always complex. Part of it is is that we must claim who we are. What you know I mean and a lot of people can walk away from it.
There’s a lot of people I know right now, their lineages are of, you know, they go way back, but for some reason, they’re hurt, and they won’t go there with it. They don’t want to know anything about it is what I’m saying. For those people who are brave enough, you know what I mean, to actually look, I think that’s what you’re saying. You know what I’m saying? To really look. And to claim that. And to live it. And to walk it. What you know I’m saying? And to find the part of your soul, what you know I mean, to project that into your work. That in itself, it’s not an excavation. It’s a re I think it’s almost like a regrowth of your relations. It’s a rekinshipping. What do you think about that?
>> WESHOYOT ALVITRE: I think that’s a really beautiful way to put it. I know for me personally growing up having that dynamic and having my father’s generation, you know, it was almost shameful to bring up other aspects of the family history. And I know it’s a source of contention in many families because some of the, you know, the historical bloodlines and whatnot, they’re very conflicting or they bring up hurtful feelings, and yes, a lot of people, they don’t want to deal with it or they’re not capable of working through it in one regard or another. So I really think that the work that all the panelists are doing here is really tremendous and hopefully is a good example for people watching this.
>> DIAN MILLION: Yes, it’s how our erasure is achieved, so I’m really happy that you spoke to that. That’s really good. I’m going to get another question up here. I am following the script, but not. I’m going to ask the panel now, storytelling comes in different forms from oral narratives to visual images to more embodied practices. What are some of the most effective or more effective ways you’ve seen storytelling deployed in the communities you’ve lived and worked in? What are some of the most effective ways that stories I’ll go back to Ora.
>> ORA MAREK-MARTINEZ: So I’ve sort of been thinking about this question, and I have two different responses. The first one I think is the employment of our creation stories. Right? And our creation stories form a foundation that we’re able to build the rest of our lives. And for me, being told the creation stories and going to these places and seeing where these things were happening on our landscape, that connected me in a way that I felt that I needed to protect our language and our culture and our heritage and our land, but it also made me connect with my ancestors.
And when I would go to these places, my father who has now since passed, always would tell us, close your eyes and think about your ancestors. Hear the wind. Feel the wind on your face. Smell everything that’s here with you. And remember that your ancestors were here. They were living here. They breathed here, just like you are now, and you carry your blood in you. Take pride in that. So for me, that was a sense of strength, but it was also a reminder that my people come from the earth. My people came from these places. And my ancestors and my family, they fought and died for those places. And they sang and they prayed for me and for my children and their children to be in this place, in this world right now.
So for me, seeing the creation stories and the way that they’ve been told to me and the way that they’ve been rooted me and connected me to my past, but also to our past as a people, right, and understanding that land is connected to who we are. So archaeology utilizing the land and looking at the land, to me, that was another way of sort of connecting with our ancestors, by using these other ways and seeing things from a different perspective, but still, it rooted me in my culture, it rooted me as a (Speaking Navajo language), as a Native woman.
So for me, that’s one of the most effective ways that I’ve seen my communities sort of use stories as a way to connect us all. And on my Navajo side, there’s a story that if we all tell the same story and it’s exactly the same, the same language, then that is the end of us as a people. So for my people, for Navajo people, there’s diversity built into our storytelling. There’s an appreciation of how where we come from influences our stories, so I always carry that with me, when I hear different people’s stories and they’re different from my own stories, it captures their life and their people, and that to me, there’s so much knowledge that is embodied in those stories and the places where they lived and where they walked that, that is power, right? And that’s something that keeps us, that sustains us and will keep us going. The other side of that, I think one of the other effective means of storytelling will be scary stories, you know.
I think we all sort of, I know my dad
my dad is a very, very famous storyteller in the Pacific Northwest, Larry Marek I’ll say his name, and I know a lot of people knew him and appreciated his storytelling, and oh, he would tell us some scary stories. And I started thinking about all the scary stories that we heard, and they were actually sort of ways to correct the things that we were doing as kids or the things that we were getting into, you know. For where I grew up in Lapwai there’s what we call stick Indians and they’re sort of these spirits, I guess, or little people that keep us in line. And they will strike when you least expect it, right? And Elm bowed in all of these stories are protocol for how we act, how we carry ourselves, where we get water, where we collect things where we go for resources, so for me, realizing that these scary stories, they were protocols being enacted, but it was also sort of shaping us and influencing us in the development of our own sort of characteristics, of our personality, but also of our responsibilities, you know, in that we have responsibilities to take care of the land and of our people, to fight for these things because we are born into this, we’re born into a fight. And that’s something that we do have to carry on. But those stories have always sort of guided me.
And anytime I would go to my dad for help in any issue that I was dealing with, in protecting our cultural landscape, I would get upset and go to him, and he would just kind of look at me, and he’s like, well, you know, a long time ago, one of your ancestors, they went through this, and so he would tell me these stories. And I would just kind of think about it and look at him and realize that that was his way of telling me you already know the answers, you already know what you have to do, because we gave that to you, we provided that foundation for you so you can make those decisions in your life about what to do and what not to do. And part of that is, you know, the stories that he told me was to tell it from my heart, to speak from my heart.
>> DIAN MILLION: Yeah.
>> ORA MAREK-MARTINEZ: So for me, I think that is sort of where speak with your heart, telling from your heart, that’s where our community sort of come into action, that’s where they employ all these things, they lay those foundations for us. So yeah, those are my two.
>> DIAN MILLION: Oh, that’s wonderful. I wanted to share with you, I did not know your dad, but I have heard of him. I went to.
>> ORA MAREK-MARTINEZ: When I was, oh, geez, about 14 years old. Okay? So by and by, I was with a group of people and we started a northwest Native American writers, because we were thinking we were writers, so one of the people I met up with was of course Liz Woody. Liz Woody is also from Diné and from Warm Springs and Gloria Bird, and I don’t know if you’ve heard of her, but she’s
>> ORA MAREK-MARTINEZ: Yeah.
>> DIAN MILLION: Okay. So there was Liz and me and Gloria Bird and Ed Edmo and Vince Wanasi we used to call Spook and that’s where I heard some I was educated by them.
I can speak from where I was from but that was also the power of their stories, what you know I’m saying? It’s like you’re saying, it’s not just our formal stories that are going to tell us something really important, you know what I’m saying, about what you need to know about this place, they’re instructions for living well there, right? They’re instructions for living well there. So in our funny stories and scary stories, to keep you in line, and hopefully we keep in touch because one of these days I’ll tell you what happened to us up on Mount Hood with our stick Indian encounter.
>> ORA MAREK-MARTINEZ: Yeah.
>> DIAN MILLION: Oh, my goodness. I’ll go to Antoinette and give Antoinette a turn here.
>> ANTOINETTE JACKSON: Yeah, yeah, I enjoyed, I like following Ora, because I like the idea to speak from the heart, and I think we lose that idea speaking from the heart, from being in not an oral culture, as a western culture, it’s not necessarily cultures from an oral tradition. So when I go back and work with these communities, especially a community like Gullah Geechee and all of my Louisiana people if I go back to where my grandparents were from and going to those churches and things like that, oral tradition was the way that you spoke and shared. So I think about pray songs and singing and how people just know the song to sing at the right moment, and I remember as a child being in my grandparents’ church and all of a sudden people would burst into song. We were used to following in a program, if you do western, you know, you follow along and the A, B, C, and people would burst into song or burst into a statement about something and everybody knew it. And we’re like, what? What?
So understanding the oral tradition and people telling stories through laying the base work by understanding these songs, and you sing them and you sing them over and over again and everybody forms community by knowing these stories and knowing these songs and songs for different things, and as an anthropologist I’ve also found that to be true in many of the communities I work in, that is, singing and pray songs and work songs and celebration songs, just to get through, just to get through or just to lift you up or to share something important, important celebration. People know the songs. So pray songs, singing and communicating in that way is a big thing.
Naming as a form of storytelling, name being someone a certain thing because that brings back the story of the person whose name you’re taking, and I find that to be true in many, much of my research. And then again in my own personal family experiences. But in my research, I find that naming, I learn the names and the story of the names and family names, and I really learn about people and families and communities just listening to the naming practices and their connections to names.
The other thing is cooking, cooking and recipe and the stories people tell because they are associated with foods, everybody has a certain way of cooking, whole entire family, entire communities so it’s sometimes competitive and also a form of traditions and passing things along and learning a story of how to do something through cooking and leak you say you learned a process, it’s not just cooking, it’s learning patience that you have to wait, particularly with working with the folk where rice is important, there are all kinds of ways to cook rice and people judge you and your family and your entire lineage if you don’t get the rice right and the tradition that’s important for your family and your community, so you learn not only the importance of rice, but you learn also the importance of how to prepare it, how to serve it, when to serve a certain type of dish, and all of those things embody traditions and knowledge about a community or family.
And then the other thing is like I call stories about testing stories. I think I was telling you a little bit about that before, I think we had conversation, Dian, and I was saying that people have this ability to do testing stories. And I know as a researcher, I always get testing stories. I go into a community and they’ll tell me one of the testing stories is the even in death story. It’s about they would tell me the story of people typically a lot of times enslaved Africans where sometimes if they were deemed, you know, close to the Master or important by western white folk that they get to be buried in the cemetery which was not usually am the case, but buried with the people who enslaved them or buried with people that have marginalized you. So depending on who is telling you that story, they would say hey, so and so is buried in the thing, in the cemetery and it was like, you know, it was an honor.
And if I went along with it being an honor, then I was cast as thinking in one light. If I was like thinking like, what? Is that an honor? Even in death they were buried like in a place that was not you know, that was kind of represented their oppression? You know, I’m not questioning that or thinking about it in a larger, in a different kind of way, it situated me with the storyteller.
So this was often. I had so many stories, testing stories. So those are the kinds of ways, I mean, I categorize the ways.
>> DIAN MILLION: Testing stories sound like framing. Frame you. I know exactly what you’re talking about, because that’s how they did gossip. They had a story about you that would just put you a certain way, like everybody knew, ah, yeah, okay.
>> ANTOINETTE JACKSON: So yes, rich, rich traditions of ways in which people and communities tell stories. And again
>> DIAN MILLION: I’m glad you brought up cooking. A lot of women, their stories don’t they don’t understand how important cooking knowledge is as a form of storying.
>> ANTOINETTE JACKSON: Yes.
>> DIAN MILLION: Really. Because there’s like a tradition thing that you’re going to get from somebody, you know, somebody gave you something.
>> ANTOINETTE JACKSON: Yes, exactly. And then the range of things that people have cooked. I focused on rice in this talk or this conversation, but then, you know, research other places, people knew how to do cactus or catfish if you’re from Kansas, telling me all about catching catfish and how to do that and Caribbean, you know, cactus and how people prepared that.
So all of the range, not even just boxing in on particular types of food.
>> DIAN MILLION: Yeah, don’t get us started on fish.
>> ANTOINETTE JACKSON: Okay.
>> DIAN MILLION: Oh, my gosh.
>> ANTOINETTE JACKSON: Yes, hey, seafood too in Louisiana.
>> DIAN MILLION: Okay. Let John jump in. John, jump in.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: I forgot what the question was, I was so immersed.
I was listening to ability net, I’m lake, wait, what do you mean the question?
>> DIAN MILLION: Storytelling comes in different forms.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: Oh, yes, got it.
>> DIAN MILLION: Most effective ways you’ve seen storytelling been deployed in communities you’ve been a part of.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: So of course I’m really biased toward the visual. Like I said, as a young child, like I said, I was really into mythology or super early from various peoples, you know.
>> DIAN MILLION: Art is definitely story.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: Yes. So it’s like I was really into the oral stories that my grandmother would tell me, but also I think what really drove it home for me is when I discovered that all the methodological, like I’ll the mythological, Greek myths in particular, had constellations connected to them. So I think when I discovered wait a minute, all these stories have like stars? And I would that’s the thing that actually made me really obsessed with that, and I love the idea of illustrated stories. And then the thing that actually connected me to comics and graphic novels was my mom, she was a literature major at an HBCU in Mississippi, I went to Jackson State, and she had all these books from various, you know, from college laying around, I started reading at a super early age and probably really inappropriate things, that I think about it, I started reading Edgar Allan Poe super early, so I totally get the stories about horror and terror because I write, I’m a horror writer and I teach horror too.
So anyway, the thing that connected me to art and the visual storytelling was the fact that my mom got me my first comic books from Marvel Comics which were like Daredevil, my favorite superhero, Spiderman and mighty Thor and I started saying wait a minute this Thor guy in Norse mythology is kind of like this guy here, and I became obsessed with anything that looked like a comic book. So I’ve read anything that looked like illustrated story, Paula and Darlair I loved the illustration style, I was really into it, I was really into weird images, as far as saying how they were telling stories so I was really into like trying to understand hieroglyphics and debating tapestry, anything that looked like a comic book or was a and I could see that resonating with a lot of, you know, today’s youth which is one of the reasons I’ve co founded several ethnocentric comic conventions, the one in Schomburg, Harlem, Black and Brown Comic Art Festival in San Francisco and also the Soulcon, Latinx and African American comics piece that we do in Columbus, because I think that I think stories are designed to be shared and we live in a space where we’re dominated by the commodity of the stories, the stories have been commodified. And that commodification disrupts the ways stories are supposed to be told, unnecessary sequels and characters that survive the ending of the story, and these things that in our own mythologies would never have happened get disrupted by capitalism because people just want more Spiderman stories, that kind of thing.
So I’ve been really interested in like, you know, finding, creating spaces, designing spaces where people of color can come together and tell stories about, you know, through comics and sequential narratives that are their own stories. So for instance, with the Harlem piece, close to the last decade or so, I think 60,000 or so African American kids, or at least kids, have come through, and they see comic book makers that look like them, that are telling stories that are coming directly from that community. And it’s one of the Blackest spaces on the planet because we’re talking about the repository of the Harlem Renaissance in the middle of Harlem on Lenox Avenue also known as Malcolm X Boulevard, Langston Hughes’ ashes are in an urn buried in a foundation that’s blickity black, and students come in there and never have to know what it’s like to not be the subject of a story and that’s extremely powerful and I think seeing yourself reflected back at you is just so invigorating, what you know I’m saying? I’ll end really quickly because I want to hear more, I like listening to you all more than I like talking. I’m like let me stop. One of the things that sticks in my head is when Black Panther came out, right, there was this meme coming around and young Black men.
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>> DIAN MILLION: But I also know at some point, as people begin to actually use our works or our ideas without permission, you know what I’m saying, and without contextualizing them, that that also hurt a lot of people. So I really, you know, agree or understand what you’re saying about actually even, you know, seeing places where people still weren’t in control, what you know I’m saying? It still wasn’t their stories that were being told. There’s still stories being told about them. You know what I’m saying? Without them actually even being present and stuff like that.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: Right.
>> DIAN MILLION: So that’s one thing to think of is that like both of you have said that taking back that space and making sure that’s hey Black space or that’s a space that’s shared with other marginalized and other people of color what you know I’m saying that we’re going to build these stories out so we aren’t and also just being able to give something to somebody really young, it makes me happy right now that we can give something to somebody really young, even before they can read the words on paper. That’s so cool.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: Yeah, there’s nothing like it. Nothing like it.
>> DIAN MILLION: So it’s kind of like the stories and songs and recipes we’ve been talking about and stuff like that. It’s something that you can give somebody quickly, you know what I’m saying?
>> JOHN JENNINGS: Exactly.
>> ORA MAREK-MARTINEZ: Yeah.
>> WESHOYOT ALVITRE: I’m taking in everything everybody is saying and it’s all so relevant to this conversation. I think the most effective ways, and I’ll kind of touch on what people have already mentioned, like for me personally, we have creation stories, very much like what Ora was discussing, but with my tribe specifically because we’ve lost so much in such a short amount of time and so many of us had to go underground and couldn’t share a lot of these things, they have been set aside, so we have to rediscover them. My own tribe’s creation stories, you know, they were written about by a Spanish missionary, Boscana, so you have certain religious details written about us from a person who was literally trying to take those things away from us and to prevent us from practicing them.
And it’s just a repetition and so much of the material that I had growing up, outside of traditional oral history from my dad telling me these creation stories I didn’t have very many tribal members to go through to discuss these or even learn about them, so I don’t come from a tribe where I could go to elders and learn about stories from my tribe. So growing up, I turned to books, and oftentimes it was very sparse the information I could find about my own tribal community. If I did find it, it was either shortsighted or it was written about from a very colonial almost like a propaganda type of perspective.
So I found them extremely effective and I still do. I’m still doing, you know, massive research into people who have written about the Tongva or the Gabrieleno. You have stories written from 1800, and material written from her husband who is Scottish, you have accounts of the woman of San Nicolas Island and because they couldn’t find anybody that spoke her language due to genocide and due to the fact that most of the islanders were taken farther south than they could reach by horse or by walking distance, in the short, you know, 8 weeks that she was alive here after being brought over from the island where she sustained herself for 18 years and, you know, sung her songs in her language, we have thank goodness accounts from Chumash interpreters who by way of oral history recounted a song that she sung on the travel back to the mainland and then that song was then given to, you know, JP Harrington to record it so it wasn’t completely lost.
But the most effective things that I find are direct either first person narratives or like that but often are not written from people from our community. I’m speaking specifically with my community. But I think it is overencompassing into other areas, the idea of food got brought up for storytelling and one of our traditional foods is acorns and there are so many stories involved with the harvesting, with the seasons, with the oak trees and the landscape and I think that ties into visiting these places, being in touch with the land because that’s where our ancestors spent all this time, that’s a huge connection we’ve lost in I think today’s world where we don’t grow our own food anymore, we go to a store and buy it, so we don’t have that connection to the earth and to that ground and that sensitivity to seasons and also those stories, knowing when planting season is, knowing when harvesting is, and all the little stories in between if your season isn’t good, if you have excessive rain or a drought or something like that. We used to have stories for all these things to help us understand them better, and we’ve lost those because we’ve lost that connection to the land. I think also, yeah, all of our senses. Taste is another one that I think there are stories involved in that, because they hold memory. You’ll taste something that you had from your grandma and in a heartbeat you can remember, you know, certain little details that are your own stories. The last point I wanted to make too was with language.
From my own tribal community language like I mentioned before has almost been lost. One of the most effective things that I see whenever I hear anybody reading or writing about our people or telling stories about our people is the use of language, because I didn’t have that growing up and I Still don’t have that to where I can communicate, you know, through sentence structure, I know words and I knew words growing up from my dad, and the way that those words sound when they’re roll off your tongue is so different than the English language. It wasn’t until recently where I’m actually taking an online Cahuilla class and I was so emotional the first two week, and I still get that way, to be able to say these words that are so close to your Native tongue and to hear them being spoken back to you in a sentence structure, it really put me through and it still does, a very emotional place because that was taken away from us and our songs, which ultimately are our stories, have been taken away. So over the last couple of years, you know, I’m engaging in this language class now and I’ve been trying to hunt down Waxel in recordings, and as scratchy as they are to be able to hear those stories being sung in a song that were things that you used day to day I think are so important.
So you have the auditory, you know, sensation, you have the visuals, through visual art and visual connectiveness or as you were speaking about, you know, artisan crafts, whether they’re carvings or tattoos or symbology or even the petroglyph behind me here, they are all so meaningful in our collectiveness to the culture and the stories that are tied into all of that. So I think we need to get back in touch with all of our senses, and I think in doing that, we’ll be able to get more of a connectiveness with the storytelling.
>> DIAN MILLION: Yes. Yeah, it does. It takes a long time. I was thinking a lot of Deborah Miranda you know what I mean, as you were speaking? Have you read Bad Indian?
>> WESHOYOT ALVITRE: No.
>> DIAN MILLION: Go get a copy of Bad Indian. It’s that story too, that story of having almost nothing to go on to reclaim place, space for your people, to live again. And so I just think that that would be a wonderful, you know, Kuca Baulding (?) I think is another one, to hear how sometimes we have to glean stuff through the heavy handed, what you know I’m saying, by people had no idea what we were talking about and didn’t even bother. At least the young woman who I talked about the anthro that walked into the Yukon back in the 1970s, and she learned the language and she’s well respected because she didn’t run away, she stayed for us for 30 or 40 years, that was Julie Cruikshank.
>> WESHOYOT ALVITRE: Recently I read The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline that book and the concept of, you know, dreaming and communicating in your own language was just such an amazing take away, that really kind of hit home just because of my own personal experience with my tribal language and it being lost and set aside and not being available to me, and something that’s very difficult to track down and piece back together. So I’m glad people are writing about these things and telling these stories.
>> DIAN MILLION: I was thinking of those in particular because they’re California, you know what I’m saying? Different than your Tongva, you know what I’m saying? But they also went through some of the similar situations.
But one of the things that you just said, that was the thing that was taught me, though, too, that I would share here is that they said, well, you know, and that would be catching on what Dimaline is saying, is that if you go to the land, even if it’s under concrete, what you know I’m saying, go to the stream that’s coming out in a wasted part of the city, go to wherever the land still has power and tries to emerge, and touch her. I mean this. Mainly because the thing of it is is what they used to say is even if, if even if we lose the knowledge, that the earth will give it to us again. And that’s what I also think about many African American communities, they built back.
They asked for mercy from the spirits of a new place, and they received it. They were able to rebuild theirselves. You know what I’m saying? As communities and peoples. And nobody understands that or knows that or whatever like that. That you can’t ever take those connections away if you move towards them. That’s the idea off the top of my head. Because we did too, we were like, you know, if we’re relocated for any reason, like I was when I was young or whatever like that, the first thing is I said I learned manners. I learned manners from these folks that were from here. And it helped a lot to not feel so disconnected because I was a long ways from home.
But there’s lots of ways in which you can, like you’re saying, you know what I’m saying, but that you’re there, you’re doing this. I’m trying to put my hands up, put my hands up to your efforts, it’s so wonderful.
>> WESHOYOT ALVITRE: Well, thank you very much for your kind words. It’s hard when your homelands are chord in cement like Los Angeles, so I’m appreciative of thanks you’re saying and I understand it.
>> DIAN MILLION: It’s just that I’m going to try to connect you with some people who are like doing the same thing you’re doing. What you know I’m saying? And it is difficult to find the earth underneath the concrete sometimes. Yeah. What you’re saying is important. Thank you so much. So what should we do? We still have a few more minutes. Let’s just have you all, you know, I’ll start with you, do you want to say a few things, and I’ll go backwards this time, everybody share whatever you want to share, because we have I think about 15 more minutes or something. This would be a good time to just share whatever you want to share.
>> WESHOYOT ALVITRE: I guess I’m not really sure if the audience members, if there’s a lot of archeological students or if there’s writers or storytellers, but I would ask that anybody doing this sort of work looks into the human element of the stories that they’re telling, if they are anthropology students and they’re digging up bones, please learn proper protocol in how to deal with this and also to be very respectful of the first people that were here.
I think often time the ego in this area supercedes sort of the human etiquette of treating people like human beings back and forth. Oftentimes it’s either people making discoveries on certain lands or writing about certain things, this ego gets brought into it, and I think it taints it a little bit. So I think it’s very important to just be very respectful that we all have so much history on these lands, and it’s important to carry them as if they were our own family members and that they’re not animals or any subhuman type of thing that you’re digging up or dealing with in the field. And that ultimately there’s probably somebody that’s alive today that these people are related to, whether directly or indirectly.
So if you just keep the idea of we all have stories and these bones or these items in a museum are the same as we are, they all contain stories, and to be respectful of those stories, whether or not you can understand them or interpret the language that they’re speaking to you in.
>> DIAN MILLION: Thank you. John?
>> JOHN JENNINGS: Yeah, I would say amen to that definitely for sure. Thank you for that. I don’t know, I mean, there’s a lot of I think about stories so much always a creator and as a curator and as an editor. Yeah. I mean, the idea of, how do I say this, focusing on the things that are similar, because when I see a discussion like this, all I see is like these glaring similarities between the types of stories that we want to tell, and that a lot of times we’ve been socialized or certain people have been socialized to think about ourselves as, quote, unquote, different and we always focus on or mankind in general I guess this is something that Octavia Butler was afraid of with these two tenets that she writes about and she said that her two greatest fears, I mean, two of the things that she writes about is the fact that mankind always creates hierarchy and is that mankind, the second one is mankind always wants to be at the top of those hierarchies.
So these negative stories have have been generated to creates and as you said earlier to dehumanize people, right? So what I’ve been trying to do with the work and try to encourage my students to do is to challenge those negative stories. That’s what a stereotype is, it’s just a story doesn’t change. It’s about fixity, somebody used that word earlier, fixity, the word from the Greek “stereo” means hard or fixed and there’s no accident, that stereotyping comes from the graphic design process, it’s a printing term actually, you know, created in 1800s and we get it redeployed in the 1920s as to what we think about stereotyping now.
So what I would encourage people to do across the board is to really try to find the humanity and also the commonality of stories and how they grow together throughout the human family because we need each other to survive on this planet and that’s the story that we don’t know the end to yet but it’s unfolding right in front of us, we’re damaging the planet, we’re damaging each other, and we need to figure out how to survive here together. I think stories and our ancestors, they already knew, you know. We just need to unplug and listen. I think that finding the commonality is something that I would definitely implore people to do, because I find that building coalitions and building stories together is the best way to move forward.
>> DIAN MILLION: Powerful word. Thank you, John, that was powerful.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: Thank you.
>> DIAN MILLION: Antoinette?
>> ANTOINETTE JACKSON: Yeah, real quick, I was check being the questions and a couple questions talking about whether or not, how we connect or look at the connections and the similarities and the way to work together between the African Americans and some of the Indigenous communities and Native stories and peoples. So I don’t see a divide, especially since being on this panel, I never did anyway, but I said this panel brings it out even more. Our whole charter is to tell a bigger story.
I think we’ve all shown that things have been deliberately left out, marginalized by multiple communities that are not white, not western, so it’s our job to work together to tell our stories, to critique how we got left out, critique the processes and our disciplines that continue to leave people out, and also the more importantly is to put it back in, to put it in and to recognize that it’s our job to not only put it back in but to create transformations and that working together are where those transformations are going to come.
So we have a big lift, so we have no room to really work in opposition, and I see that the synergy, if you watch this panel, you can get that very clearly. With we have not only a job of telling a story but transforming of where we have been to where we want to be, John’s work speaks to that, futuristic, how do we create these bigger visions. So and everybody on the panel has shared those kind of bigger visions. So I know we have a short time, so I’m going to
>> DIAN MILLION: No, thank you.
>> ANTOINETTE JACKSON: end there.
>> DIAN MILLION: I wasn’t paying attention to the Q & A time, so I will apologize for that, because I wanted the rest of you to have some let’s go back to Ora. Okay? And have Ora close out what she wants to say. Then pick these questions. Are we going to end at 6:00?
>> ORA MAREK-MARTINEZ: We’ll leave the last five minutes to our sponsor, so we’ll have a couple more minutes. I’ll try to make this brief. I actually did look at a couple of the of questions and I did see a few questions about conflict and how to integrate stories into heritage work, and I just want to sort of ask people to take a bigger step back, right? And within the field of archaeology specifically, archaeology has been a tool of colonialism. I think we all understand that. We know that. The stories that we’ve shared sort of exemplify that. And I think that when we focus on truth and issues of primacy and issues of ownership, we’re always going to sort of have those kinds of conflicts between our stories, our perspective, our histories, and those of scientists who had been trained in western traditions, right?
So I think if we move away from these very colonially based questions of, like I said, who was here first or who owns this land or those kinds of questions and moves to looking at the humanity of our past, of actually looking and understanding that there were multiple ways of being and living in the past and there’s not necessarily one truth that is discoverable, although all of our training and everything sort of tells us that that is possible, but coming from an Indigenous perspective, that’s something that you’re taught very young is truth is shaded in many different colors. And our focus should not be on truth. It should be at looking at those connections, the connections that we maintain with one another, the connections that we maintain with our landscape, connections that we maintain with other groups of people, other tribes, and other communities.
And I think that when with refocus our orientation, our framework, storytelling allows us to see a reality that we’ve never experienced before and it makes my heart very happy to hear from people that we have heard from today because it speaks to the criticalness of having these stories integrated and bringing these stories that have been repressed and hidden and ignored in silence for all these years, and now something that has sort of Al stayed with me was, I traveled to Australia a couple summers ago, and we listened to a group of Tazmanian aboriginal people speak about their experience, and there’s this sort of story about they don’t have language, they don’t have culture, but when we went there, we were greeted according to protocols, we were greeted with language, we were greeted with food, all of the things that sort of make us Indigenous, right?
And what they told us is that the way that they see their language and culture is that it’s been buried, and they buried it for their own protection, so that at one point in the future, that it would start to grow and bloom and people would be able to enjoy it again. And that’s something that has always stayed with me because it speaks to the power of our culture, of our language, of our stories in today’s world, right?
And these stories, these liberation strategies, those are going to take us into the future. Those are the vehicles with which we can envision our own future and see that we can maintain, that we can survive and thrive into the future. So for me, you know, it’s really thinking that there doesn’t have to be conflict. There’s nothing that says there has to be conflict. It’s up to you as a researcher to have that lay, to lie within you as being okay, and to just recognize that it’s okay to have these different variations of truth because there really is no truth, right? We all have our own truth through our own experiences.
So creating space for storytelling within the work that we do, within the academy, is critical and it’s necessary right now at this time. So I want to thank everybody for listening to our words and thank the other panelists because my mind has just been, you know, blown away by the work that you all are engaged in, and I’m looking forward to hearing and seeing more of storytelling within our own respective fields. So thank you. (Speaking Navajo language).
>> DIAN MILLION: (Speaking Athabascan language) I thank all of you. This is very wonderful. I look forward to speaking with you all again.
>> WESHOYOT ALVITRE: Yeah, thank you so much.
>> WILLEKE WENDRICH: Thank you to all of you, I’m the Director of the Cotsen Institute of archaeology at UCLA. My name is Willeke Wendrich. The sponsor of this event. I want to start by acknowledging that the Cotsen Institute of archaeology is built on the land of the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples as traditional land caretakers of the Tovaangar which is the Los Angeles basin and the South Channel Islands. We pay you’re respect to the ancestors, elders and relatives past, present and future. I would have rather liked you to continue because I’ve been so inspired by what you’ve been talking about. It’s such a rich subject, and you speak so much from the heart, that this whole combination of spoken words, of narratives, of interpretations in drawing or in dance or in cooking, it comes at the heart of what we as archaeologists hope to get at but what is often really difficult to get at, and yet it’s so fundamental.
My specialization is Egyptian archaeology, so I’ve worked in Egypt with Egyptian colleagues for a long time, I’m now working in Ethiopia, well, not at the moment because I hope you heard that there’s a horrible situation there, there’s war, and I’m extremely worried about my colleagues and friends there, but what I learned so much and what I try to bring across to my students is exactly these points that you’ve been highlighting. The fact that there are kind of parallel truths, that there are all these stories, that there’s just not one way of telling them. And that there is no separation of sacred and profane, for instance, and that things that we are thinking about as superstition because of a judgment that goes back to the enlightenment and into a very particular way of looking at knowledge is something that most of the world for most of the time has done very naturally, it’s this being imbued by spirit, by something that is more than just what you see in front of you.
I’ve learned awe lot about stories and telling, different types of stories, the testing stories, the stories of liberations, the systems of stories. What most struck me was this telling stories from the heart, and I was really thinking that by telling stories from the heart, whatever form they have, if they are spoken, if they are written, if they are drawn, those stories from the heart bring emotions to understanding and they bring understanding to emotions. So it’s this working together in which narratives are much more than just a story.
I am of course very happy to someone referred to hieroglyphs and this whole idea that you can tell a story with imagery is of course something that I’m familiar with, but also that I had to learn coming from a background that is very much focused on writing and on a written knowledge connection. So to learn that an image has all narrative imbed in it is something you need to do if you study a culture with ancient archaeology in it but that deeper feeling of that knowledge to our present audience, so in that respect, I’ve learned so much today.
And I really want to thank you, and I really don’t want to talk more. I want to end with thanking you all once more for this very, very inspiring two hours, and I wish it would have gone on.
I also want to introduce our next webinar, which is on December 2, so that’s the next webinar in the series From the Margins to the Mainstream, Black and Indigenous Futures in Archaeology, and the topic on December 2 is community stewardship, and the sponsor is the Archeological Research Facility at the University of California in Berkeley. And with that I thank you all also from watching, from posting questions. And we hope to all see you on December 2. Thank you.
>> JOHN JENNINGS: Thank you.
(The meeting has concluded at 6:00 p.m. EST)
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