13 October 2020

We Are Indigenous: Breaking Media Stereotypes with Indigenous Storytelling

There are an estimated 476 million indigenous peoples in the world, living across 90 countries. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.

COVID-19 has posed a grave threat to Indigenous peoples around the world, who already lack access to healthcare and other essential services. Yet, Indigenous peoples are seeking their own solutions in their own languages, using divergent knowledge, practices and preventative measures to fight the pandemic.

In the We Are Indigenous series, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) speaks with Indigenous academics and activists to learn how the global Indigenous community’s contributions are building a healthier and more sustainable future for us all.

To many Indigenous peoples, storytelling extends beyond a fantastical realm and acts as a vehicle for information dissemination and the generational transfer of knowledge. Often times mainstream news and media only cover one aspect of the Indigenous story that focuses on vulnerabilities, traditions or harmful stereotypes, including in the context of COVID-19 which continues to cause a great deal of damage to Indigenous communities.

The United Nations Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that Indigenous peoples have the right to establish their own media in their own languages and to have access to all forms of non-indigenous media without discrimination. With the goal to dismantle media-based prejudice against Indigenous groups, Indigenous media professionals are working to ensure Indigenous cultural diversity is properly represented in the media and tells Indigenous stories in a way that is factual, dignified and ethical.

Tarcila Rivera Zea is a Quechuan activist from Ayacucho, Peru and founder of the non-governmental organization Chirapaq.  She is also a member of the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. She first joined the Indigenous women’s movement in Latin America in the 1980s. The movement, as she described it, was the intersectional advocacy between feminism and Indigenous rights, which had not been included in mainstream activism before. Her interest in Indigenous storytelling through journalism was sparked as she “walked along with the others who want to find the reassessment of expression of the Indigenous communities especially related to their rights.”

When Rivera Zea worked as a library secretary at the Ministry of Culture in Peru, she dealt with many editorials and publications and noticed “the assessment of Indigenous artistic expressions and knowledge, unfortunately, does not translate to many formal and official systems.” This realization inspired her to join the Pueblo Indio Magazine of the Indian Council of South America (CISA) as a journalist to address the lack of Indigenous knowledge transmission. Her work included collecting testimonies of Indigenous women raped during armed conflicts and exposing the discrimination and abuse that Indigenous women and girls endured. In 1986, Rivera Zea founded Chirapaq (Center of Indigenous Cultures of Peru) to support the cultural reaffirmation of Indigenous peoples with a strong human rights approach. The organization, now a leading agency for the rights of Indigenous women, empowers Indigenous women and youth to become leaders and increases the visibility of Peru’s Indigenous peoples and cultures. Throughout her journey forging a connection between journalism and activism and paving the way for future Indigenous media professionals, Rivera Zea has stressed that localized journalism is a powerful way for Indigenous peoples to achieve their rights and reclaim their own story.

Nikki Iyolo Sanchez is an Indigenous media maker, decolonial educator, and Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Victoria, Canada. Originating from El Salvador to a Euro-Canadian mother and a Pipil/Maya father during the civil war, since birth Nikki's life has been shaped by the impacts of colonization, globalization, and systemic inequity. In her early childhood, Nikki and her mother were forced to leave her father's territory for their own survival. Ever since she has been working towards deeper cross-cultural understanding and empathy. As an Indigenous media maker, she not only creates content but also helps create platforms and networks that support the development and capacity building of emerging Indigenous and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) storytellers and filmmakers.

For Sanchez, decolonial media is a vehicle for education, expression and information dissemination on important topics such as the environment and Indigenous rights. Speaking about covering Indigenous peoples’ stories during COVID-19, Sanchez stated that she has been very mindful of “going directly to the sources – to the communities” when gathering information related to the experience of Indigenous peoples, as “predominantly mainstream media will naturally have inherent biases when trying to represent other people’s narratives.”

For example, through her social media channels, Sanchez brought attention to the heartbreaking situation faced by the Navajo Nation during COVID-19 including food insecurity, their lack of access to basic services such as clean drinking water, and inadequate housing conditions. She also closely covered the communities who have sought to protect their communities by exercising their sovereign rights and closing entry to their territories, which she described as “profound and unprecedented act of self-determination that these Nations are committed to keeping their communities and elders safe as they say ‘absolutely not’ to entry from people who could be brining pathogens that the communities do not have the resources to deal with.”

For Indigenous youth who aspire to create their own media as storytellers, Sanchez advocates that Indigenous and BIPOC should always have the right to dictate their own narrative; “the only person who can dictate your identity is yourself.” Instead of being perceived as traditional and static, “Indigenous peoples have every right to be as diverse, broad and multidimensional as they choose to be as human beings and it is time that media begin representing them as such.”

Youth academic and Indigenous activist Qivioq Nivi Løvstrøm studies in the Department of Culture and Social History at the University of Greenland. Echoing Sanchez’s call for Indigenous self-representation, Løvstrøm shared her mantra, ‘nothing about us without us’, stating that, “We are the only ones who can speak for us.”  When faced with preconceptions and biases, Løvstrøm says it is important to set boundaries and listen to yourself and that everyone has “their own specific ever-evolving culture, and we are navigating both worlds.”

All people have the right to represent themselves in their own way. When the content made by Indigenous peoples for Indigenous peoples is seen and heard, it helps to broaden social perspectives, combat stigmatization and promote better understanding that leads to respect and curiosity, which according to Sanchez, “ultimately creates a more vibrant and interesting world for everyone.”

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