“Remembering Who We Are and Our Relations” with Julian Brave NoiseCat
In this episode, we speak with Julian Brave NoiseCat, an enrolled citizen of the Secwepemc, also known as Shuswap First Nation, in British Columbia.
Julian Brave NoiseCat explores the importance of connection and relationship, to family, to history, to place and to culture, threading his own story throughout a larger narrative about the deep trauma Indigenous people have experienced through colonization and the resilience and power that is emerging as individuals, tribes and nations work to reclaim their own stories and landscapes.
Julian is a fellow of New America and the Type Media Center, as well as one of the first visiting fellows of the Center for Racial Justice at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. In 2019, NoiseCat was named on the Time 100 list of emerging leaders.
We begin with Julian’s keynote address at the Bioneers 2020 conference and follow with a heartfelt conversation hosted by Cara Romero.
A prolific, widely published Indigenous journalist, writer, activist and policy analyst, Director of Green New Deal Strategy at Data for Progress, Julian Brave NoiseCat has become a highly influential figure in the coverage and analysis of Environmental Justice and Indigenous issues as well as of national and global political and economic trends and policies.
Raised in Oakland, California, in a single-mother household, Julian is a proud member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen and a descendant of the Lil’Wat Nation of Mount Currie. You can follow Julian on Twitter @jnoisecat.
Julian Brave NoiseCat — Apocalypse Then & Now — Julian Brave NoiseCat, an activist and one of this era’s most brilliant emerging progressive journalists and thinkers, lays out the case for the moral imperative to assure that Indigenous voices have a central role in humanity’s struggle to address the existential climate crisis.
Indigenous Activism NOW: Talking Story With Clayton Thomas-Muller and Julian NoiseCat — Clayton Thomas-Muller and Julian Brave NoiseCat are nationally and internationally acclaimed Indigenous leaders in the fights against climate change and the accelerating, human-induced destruction of our ecosystems. When they aren’t on the front lines organizing movements to protect the planet, Clayton and Julian work as accomplished writers penning penetrating analyses of the connections between settler colonial capitalism, broken social and political systems, trauma, and environmental disaster. They also happen to have a deep friendship. In this intimate conversation, these two exemplary leaders share the story behind the story about how their lives intersect with their activism and discuss their new projects and their hopes for the future. Moderated by Alexis Bunten (Unangan/Yup’ik), Co-Director of the Bioneers Indigeneity Program.
The Indigenous Renaissance | Julian Brave Noisecat — The brilliant young writer, journalist and activist Julian Noisecat offers his insights into how, around the world, Indigenous peoples are rising in a global renaissance that holds untapped promise for a world in peril.
This is an episode of Indigeneity Conversations, a podcast series that features deep and engaging conversations with Native culture bearers, scholars, movement leaders, and non-Native allies on the most important issues and solutions in Indian Country. Bringing Indigenous voices to global conversations. Visit the Indigeneity Conversations homepage to learn more.
Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
Co-Hosts and Producers: Cara Romero and Alexis Bunten
Senior Producer: Stephanie Welch
Associate Producer and Program Engineer: Emily Harris
Consulting Producer: Teo Grossman
Studio Engineers: Brandon Pinard and Theo Badashi
Tech Support: Tyson Russell
This episode’s artwork features photography by Dauwila Harrison. Mer Young creates the series collage artwork.
Additional music provided by Nagamo.ca, connecting producers and content creators with Indigenous composers.
ALEXIS BUNTEN: Hi, Everyone. Welcome to Indigeneity Conversations. I’m Alexis Bunten, co-host and also co-director of the Bioneers Indigeneity Program along with Cara Romero.
CARA ROMERO: Hi Everyone. Today we’re honored to be sharing an intimate conversation I had with Julian Brave NoiseCat, a member of the Canim Lake Band and descendant of the Lil’Wat Nation. Julian is a world renowned journalist who recently won the American Mosaic Journalism Prize for outstanding long form work that fosters greater understanding of underreported stories.
AB: Julian is a prolific, and widely published 28-year-old writer, activist and policy analyst. He’s become a highly influential figure in the coverage of Environmental Justice, Indigenous issues as well as broader political and economic trends and policies.
Julian is really a tour de force. He’s currently working on a book titled We Survived the Night. The book weaves together reportage on Indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada along with a personal narrative about his journey as a young man and writer. He’s also making a documentary that explores the links between colonization, genocide and ecocide. It follows Julian as he searches for unmarked graves at the Canadian residential school that his relatives were sent to.
CR: Our conversation offers insight into Julian’s personal stories that have brought him to where he is today, his philosophies behind the work, and our shared experiences.
First you’ll hear Julian’s keynote address at the 2021 Bioneers Virtual Conference, and then we move right into our conversation.
Julian Brave NoiseCat: Weyt-kp xwexwéytep.
Julian Brave NoiseCat ren skwekwst. Ren kiké7ce te skwest re Alexandra Roddy ell ren Qeqe7tsé te skwest re Ed Archie NoiseCat. Secwecwepmc-ken ell St’itlimx-ken. Te Tsq’escen re tst7ekwen. Te Oakland re tst7ekwen.
Le7 ren pupsmen ne7elye tek tmícw w7ec re Piscataway-ulucw. Qweqwlut-ken te Bioneers. Te Coast Miwok ell Ohlone-ulucw re qw7éles.
Me7 peqíqlc-ken te Secwepemc-ulucw.
Pyin te sitq’t lexexyem-ken te necwepepl’qs re qelmucwúy ell re tmícw.
Good afternoon. I thought it would be most appropriate to start my keynote in my language, Secwepemctsin, which I was lucky enough to learn from my Kyé7e, that’s my grandmother. She’s the oldest person on the Canim Lake Indian Reserve, and one of our last remaining fluent speakers. When she was a little girl, a government official called an Indian agent took her and a bunch of other kids from Canim Lake away from their families on the back of a cattle truck to an Indian residential school called St. Joseph’s Mission. There, they were brutalized for speaking their language and taught to hate themselves for being Indian.
Earlier this year, 215 unmarked graves of Native children, some as young as 3, were discovered at the site of the Kamloops Indian residential school. My Kyé7e earned her nursing degree there. Not long after, 182 hidden burials were identified at a residential school in Cranbrook, British Columbia, then 751 in Maryville, Saskatchewan, 160 in Penelakut, British Columbia.
Across the continent, First Peoples are now searching for the bones of our young ones at the schools that were supposed to civilize us. Over the last four years, I’ve been journeying back to St. Joseph’s — excuse me, over the last four months, I’ve been journeying back to St. Joseph’s Mission in my people’s homelands where they’re using ground penetrating radar to find my Kyé7e friends, cousins and classmates who never came home.
When I was there in August, I interviewed a former Kukpí7 or Chief. He had never publicly spoken about the residential school and his origins, but on camera he told me he was the illegitimate child of the priest, the product of kidnap and rape. Even though he was the child of a white father, he was taken to a residential school with all the other Native kids, and like all the other Native kids, he was abused. When I was there, he told me, “We all were.”
After he shared his story, which ran more than three hours, I stepped out of his front door on the Sugar Cane Indian Reserve, ash was falling from the sky. Western Canada, the western United States, and really the whole world seemed ablaze. This summer, the Northwestern part of North America was gripped by a heat dome that set all time temperature records from Portland, Oregon to Port Smith in the Northwest Territories. As of mid-August, heat, wind, lightning, and humans sparked over 1500 wildfires in British Columbia. One small town, Lytton, where I have friends and relations, burned complete to the ground. It’s now little more than a grid of concrete foundations and scorched chimneys. The province of British Columbia, like many other jurisdictions, declared a state of emergency.
Now I’m currently working on my first book and a documentary, and in both of those projects, I’m thinking through the convergence of these apocalypses — the genocide of colonization and the ecocide of climate change. I’m trying to understand how Indigenous Peoples have persisted in the face of existential threats, because I believe that our survival ought to matter to more people than just ourselves, that it ought to matter to you.
I chose to begin my keynote in my language tonight because I wanted to show you that in our words, and in our very being, Indigenous Peoples are refusing to be annihilated.
In Secwepemctsin, I said who I am in relation to my kin, to my community, and to the places I come from because those things matter, not just to Indians, but to all people. At this dire juncture, with a pandemic engulfing humanity, and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere climbing to levels not seen in 3.6 million years, we all need to remember who we are, how we are related, where we come from, and how the other-than-human world, to which we are also related, gives us life.
Allow me to demonstrate. When I introduced myself, I said, “My name is Julian Brave Noisecat.” And that meant something, because NoiseCat or Newísket as the name was originally pronounced before the missionaries messed it up, it nearly died out. You see, at St. Joseph’s, the missionaries baptized us with Christian names. Before then, our people carried ancestral names and earned names, what you might know as Indian names, and we could take on many in a lifetime.
But as they were taking control of our lands, the government of Canada and the Church said that that would not do. Us Indians could not be plural, we could only be individuals. They said you Indians need one name so we can keep track of you, so we can confine you on reservations, count your dwindling numbers, and mark our control of your lives. They gave us names in their faith so they could save us from our supposed savagery. When stealing and destroying are called civilizing and enlightening, they can be justified.
In fact, they were so good at taking away names, that when she died, my great grandmother, Alice NoiseCat, was the last person to carry her name. Alice raised my father when her own parents were all messed up from the residential school could not. She was a hard worker. He remembers her towing him out on the family trapline in a sled made from an old car hood. They’d check all the traps, pulling frozen beaver and muskrats out of the water so they could sell their fur and feed their family. They didn’t have much, and hunger was common. But Alice, Alice was generous.
One time, she found a fresh apple, a hard thing to come by on the rez, even today, and she saved it for my dad because she knew he loved them. And then one night, in 1966, he remembers when she went out looking for her husband, Jacob, who was out drinking in a blizzard, and she froze to death.
After Alice was gone, there were no NoiseCats in the whole world until my father married, reclaimed her name, and passed it onto me.
Remember who you are. Be true to who you are. There’s power in that. But also remember that the power of identity is not individual, it’s plural, it’s collective.
The next thing I did when I introduced myself in my language was I put myself in relation to my family and my people. And here, I should acknowledge that praising boomers probably isn’t the wisest decision given the general state of things. As young people, we have certainly inherited far too many problems from our elders, climate change included.
But that said, I think it’s important to remember that we are not alone, that we have relatives, that we are, in fact, all related, and not just us humans. The other-than-human world shares some of our DNA too. If we remember that, maybe we will recognize that our fates are also interrelated.
Over the last five years, my father and I have participated in the tribal canoe journey. It’s an annual indigenous gathering on the West Coast, where tribal people organized into what are called canoe families, get into their ocean-going vessels, and paddle for days and even weeks across the seas. At the end of those voyages, we converge on a single community for a week-long celebration of food, gifts, speeches, dances, and songs.
My father wasn’t around for most of my childhood. He was struggling with alcoholism and the demons inherited from St. Joseph’s and the cycles of poverty, dysfunction and abuse it unleashed on Canim Lake. But the canoe journeys have brought us back together, and they helped us recognize the importance of family. You see, the beautiful thing about the canoe is that it quickly teaches you that if you want to go anywhere, you need other people, you need a family, you need to go together.
Pulling alongside dozens of members of canoe families that welcomed us into their vessels with open arms, my father and I have traveled across international borders and hundreds of miles of ocean. We’ve made countless friends, learned dozens of new songs, and visited many magical places. We’ve been inspired. And in 2019, we were inspired to bring the canoe journey to Alcatraz Island. That year marked the 50th anniversary of the Alcatraz occupation, a 19-month protest for indigenous self-determination, sovereignty, and treaty rights.
I need you to understand how important the Alcatraz occupation was to Indigenous Peoples. It’s like our version of the Montgomery bus boycott. It launched a social movement that changed the hearts and minds of Native and non-Native people across the country and around the world. Alcatraz made Indians proud to be Indian again, and it transformed federal policy.
During the occupation, President Nixon, the frickin’ Watergate guy, shifted the federal government’s policy from an officially stated goal of termination to one of self-determination.
Working with our own canoe family, which we called the Occupied Canoe Family, my mother, father, and group of friends that included a youth worker and an Alcatraz occupation veteran, organized a paddle around Alcatraz Island on Indigenous Peoples Day in 2019. Eighteen canoes, including some from as far north as Canada, participated. Dozens of media outlets covered the story. A local TV station broadcast the canoes, circumnavigating the island from its traffic helicopter. Our little all-volunteer effort even made it into The New York Times. And for a day, Alcatraz was not seen as the former federal prison, but instead as a symbol of indigenous freedom, the way Native Peoples see it.
We can do a lot together when we recognize the fact that we need relatives, that we need family. Every time my father and I got out into the water, we rekindled and deepened our connection to the seas and places that gave us our Salish culture.
And in my introduction, I also told you where I come from. Canim Lake, called Tsq’escen in our language, and Oakland, the town by the Bay that raised me. I also acknowledged that today I’m speaking to you from Washington, DC, the homeland of the Piscataway people, and that you all in Marin are on the territory of the Coast Miwok and Ohlone. It was a very cosmopolitan land acknowledgement, one that in its head-splitting multiplicity demonstrated how our synthetic, Zoom-connected internet reality can dislocate us from a meaningful relationship to the places where we are.
I think that’s dangerous. Because if we don’t stop to remember and honor the places we come from and rely upon, how can we possibly defend them?
Earlier this year, I was asked to write an essay for the Paris Review celebrating the Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday, who was the First Native American to win the Pulitzer prize for fiction. While reporting that piece, I discovered that Momaday actually taught one of the original student leaders of the Alcatraz occupation. Her name was LaNada War Jack, and in 1968, she became the first Native American student at UC Berkeley.
Now, although Momaday never got involved with the Alcatraz occupation or the Native Rights movement, War Jack told me that his lectures influenced her profoundly. So in my reading, reporting and writing, I set out to understand the ethic at the core of his work, the worldview it grew out of, and the movements it continues to influence. Rereading his books, I noted a brief postscript in my 2010 edition of the Pulitzer prize-winning House Made of Dawn. It read: Both consciously and subconsciously, my writing has been deeply informed by the land with a sense of place. In some important way, place determines who and what we are.
I am Tsq’escenemc, a person from Canim Lake, a place we call “Broken Rock” in our language, but I am also a son of Oakland, a visitor in Washington, DC, and now a virtual guest at Bioneers. My connection to those places and others is also an imperative. It demands that I remember, honor, and protect those patches of Earth.
Now that we are in dialogue and relation, I believe that you are asked to do the same. You might be thinking that I sound exceptionally proud of being Indian, and I’m certainly guilty of that. But this, this is not mere identity politics. What I’m saying, what I’m thinking through in the book I’m writing and the film I’m making is that a broader humanity facing the apocalypse of climate change might have a thing or two to learn from a people who’ve lived the near total loss of our own worlds, that Indigenous Peoples have something important to say if you’re willing to give us an audience like you have given me today; that there might be even ways that our humanity and our collective future can be brightened if you have it in your heart to believe that the civilizing mission was wrong, that the St. Joseph’s missions of the worlds had it all backwards, that in fact, in the long run, it’s all of you that have something to learn from all of us; that maybe America, Canada and the so-called civilized world should become just a little bit more indigenous rather than the other way around.
The United Nations says that climate change is nothing less than code red for humanity. It is already brutalizing many of the places we come from and rely upon. It is driving us apart, making us forget that we are not just interconnected but interrelated. We are all kin. And if we’re not careful, climate change is going to make us forget who we are — animals of remarkable intellect, capable of immense care and compassion, even when grave injustice has laid us low.
So my message for you today is simple: Remember who you are. Remember that you have many relatives, human and non-human. And remember that we all come from somewhere, and that those places, and the place called Earth, need us to fight for them.
CR: Julian, thank you so much. Your keynote delivery was stunning and heartbreaking, and I listened to every single word that fell from your mouth. So I just wanted to start our Q&A by saying thank you for your generosity and your many gifts that you share in this world.
I am interviewing you today from Oga Po’geh, from Santa Fe, the land of the Keres, Tewa, Tiwa, and Towa speaking peoples, also known as the Northern Pueblos. And in honor of your keynote, my bones are from the Mojave Desert. From the heart of the Mojave Desert along the California side of the Colorado River is where I’m from, and married into Cochiti Pueblo here, and like you, am a fierce defender of our cultural landscapes, and believe in the re-indigenization of people and the power of place.
I feel so grounded after your keynote, and loved the flow and the circular thinking. It really provided this comfortable feeling for me in the way that we speak of things and have an understanding of interconnectedness, an interconnectedness of kinship and of place and of where we come from.
I wanted to start out by asking you a little bit more, Julian, about where you’re from, about who your mom is. I have this deep sense that she must have been a very amazing person or that she is a very amazing person. Can you tell me a little bit about your mom?
JBNC: Yeah. Well, firstly, thank you for that really generous response to what I had to say and it’s very difficult for me to talk about my mom in part because I feel like I’m so close to her and have just been so lucky to be surrounded by her love my whole life, that it’s hard for me to have the kind of distanced lens, a certain kind of perspective. I find, as a writer, you can’t be so far away from something that you can’t see it, but when you’re so close to something in the way that I feel so close to my mom, I actually have a really hard time writing about and talking about her because like it’s — she’s just kind of everything to me.
And I guess I should say that my father is Secwepemc and St’at’imc, like I said, from British Columbia, Canada. My mom is actually an Irish-Jewish New Yorker. They met in a bar called the Shadow Brook just outside of New York City. It’s like I’ve kind of dreamt this scene up as a — maybe a scene from a film or a novel before. Apparently my dad gave her the earrings out of his ears. It’s like, kind of how they got acquainted, and she was the bartender at the bar. So she gave him free drinks for the whole night.
And I guess what I would say is that my mother, even though she’s non-Native, made a lot of very instinctual and purposeful decisions to make sure that as a kid who looks the way I look and is connected to the community that I’m connected from, that I maintained that relationship. So she, from a very young age, before my parents actually split up, she would take me down to the Intertribal Friendship House, which is the third oldest urban Indian community center in the country. It’s on International Boulevard in Oakland, California. I’d go there for drum and dance practice every Thursday night.
And then very bravely, actually, she started taking me home to my family’s rez to visit my relatives, to visit my grandparents, my cousins, my aunts, my uncles which back in the day before Google maps and everything, like, it’s a really remote part of the world to get to from California, and she made that effort, despite the fact that she was not blood-related to them. But now she is sort of considered an auntie and a sister and a relative to my family, which reflects on the really loving decisions she made for me as a mom, but also I think on the ways that Native people can be very open and loving in the ways that we make and support relatives. She’s fully part of that family and community now, and I think that that’s a really incredible and beautiful thing, and has made it a lot easier for me coming from the kind of childhood situation and home where my dad was not in the picture for a lot of my upbringing to maintain something that at the end of the day has become incredibly important to me and sustaining to me in a way that sometimes it’s hard to find the words to capture.
CR: Well, thank you for your vulnerability. And I often find as I share and the more vulnerable we are with our upbringings, that you make me feel less alone and hopefully you connect with other young Native people. I hail from a very similar background with a single mom and absent Native father going through all of the things that you described. And I do know your father, and love him, and love the genius of his artwork. And in getting to know you, love to see the genius inherited and your art form being writing. And I have such a deep respect, as do so many of us, for your giftedness in writing, and was hoping that you would talk a little bit about learning that that was your gift and that that was your art growing up. Can you talk a little bit about your journey to becoming a writer, and maybe when you knew?
JBNC: I’m still not sure if I’m a writer. [LAUGHTER] Like I think I need to write at least one book before they let me call myself that.
So you brought up my dad, and I’ve had a complicated relationship with my father, but we’re good now, in part because of the canoe journeys, and I just think time can really heal some wounds. And I guess what I would say is that some of my earliest memories growing up were hanging out in his studio watching him carve, sitting in the back of his purple powwow van going to all sorts of Indian art shows, Indian Art Northwest in Portland and all sorts of different shows in random places across North America.
And I think my dad had designs on making me into like his apprentice. There’s a thing in the Native art world, especially with families that make art, and dads whose sons also go on to become artists, particularly among carvers. There’s carving families in the Northwest. And I think that that’s kind of maybe originally what he thought I was going to become, and then we obviously didn’t end up spending that much time together after I was a certain age.
Julian with his father, Ed Archie NoiseCat; Alder and abalone Bear Mother Moon Mask by Ed Archie NoiseCat.
Photos courtesy of NoiseCat.
And then the way that I guess I started to fill that void was by trying to read and learn and understand, through other people’s stories, through novels, through history, who my dad was; who this absence in my life was, and who our people were. I obviously knew that through him and through my relationship to my family, but there was a whole world of literature and artistic interpretation of what it means to be indigenous out there that opened up to me when I started reading people like Leslie Marmon Silko and Sherman Alexie, despite how complicated it is for me to say that now, Louise Erdrich, etc. I started sort of emulating the way that they wrote short stories.
And then I just kind of kept at it. The reality of the media industry did not seem to make writing and journalism to be a sensible economic decision for me, but I just kept doing it, and eventually I stumbled into an idea for a book, and I kept getting published, and eventually I was very fortunate to get a book contract.
And in the process of doing all that, I guess this is sort of a long story, but I started to think about my craft as a writer, my art as a writer, in relation to my father’s craft as a carver and as a sculptor. And I do non-fiction. And what’s interesting about non-fiction in relation to carving and sculpting is that essentially in both art forms, you go out into the world and you gather material. My dad carves wood. So he goes and gets his logs and things to carve into various pieces. And to a large extent you’re limited in both carving and non-fiction writing by the material that you go out and gather in the world.
As a non-fiction writer, I’m not at liberty to make things up as they come to me in my mind, I have to go out and report them and gather them up, and then I can shape them down into the art form of the piece that I want to make. And so what I’ve kind of found is that even though I never conceptualized myself as sort of following in my father’s footsteps to become the sculptor that he wanted me to become, in a certain way I actually did end up following him down that road, at least conceptually and in the form of art and writing that I produce, and that that actually has now started to bring us together.
So we are now, over 25 years later, in the situation where we hang out. I interview him quite a bit for the book I’m working on, and talk about our art. He talks about the things that he’s writing on and we sort of bat ideas back and forth about things that we could make together, and at the same time I get his input on the pieces that I’m writing. So in a way, writing and art has always been and is now becoming very clear to me sort of a way of reconnecting to and processing my relationship to my father, and ultimately has actually kind of made me an artist in a way that’s not that different from his life as an artist.
CR: Well, you are telling such a powerful story with your art. As a Native person to another Native person, the complexity and the difficulty with the things that we have and need to communicate, it’s just a joy to read your writing and to listen to you speak. So I can’t wait to read your book and know more about your movie that you’re making. Can you share a little bit more about both of those things?
JBNC: Yeah. For sure. So my book is called We Survived the Night. The title is derived from the traditional word for good morning in my people’s language. It’s Tsecwínucw-k and it doesn’t actually translate to good morning. If you literally translate what it means, it means you made it through the night, or you survived the night. So the book sort of is going to begin with a little bit of reflection on what it must have meant for my people, my ancestors to say that to each other in the mornings after the children were taken to the residential schools, and the mornings after.
We learned that our land had been settled and taken from us without any sort of treaty or recompense by colonists. The mornings after, people died in our pithouses by the dozens, which is something that happened in 1862 and 1863. And then it sort of — The way that I think about it is that it’s a — in our language we call it lexey’em, which is like a kind of story that is not about the spiritual beings in the spiritual world, which is to say that it’s an account of both my sort of family and personal history as well as of the things that I’ve gotten to go out and report on in Indian Country in the United States and Canada and a few other places, and essentially what the story of Indigenous Peoples in North America is today.
So it’s divided into three thematic parts. The first is called Apocalypse. It’s about Indigenous Peoples as post-apocalyptic peoples, as people who survived the loss and destruction of our worlds. The second section is called Odyssey, and it’s about Indigenous Peoples journeying to, return to, and reclaim and remake our home and homelands. And then the third section is called Trickster, and it’s about Indigenous Peoples navigating the seams and contradictions between indigenous worlds and communities and forms of governance, and colonial worlds and institutions and politics.
The film — it’s a documentary, and it’s following the search for unmarked graves at the residential school, St. Joseph’s Mission, that my family was sent to, which is an ongoing search. So I’m working on that at the same time as I’m writing the book.
CR: It’s such a powerful development, this uncovering of what we’ve known for so long that has happened at the residential boarding schools. And I really look forward to the telling from indigenous perspective in both the book and the film.
Just an aside, it was about 15 years ago, our tribe is known for our funeral rites, that they bring in the Chemehuevis and the Southern Paiutes to help the spirit go to the other side, as well as to help the bereaved. And we had several singers go along the Salt Song Trail and go and conduct ceremony at Carlisle and at Sherman, and at several of the schools here in the United States where we hold those stories, where we know that the children never came home, and the stories of desperation of parents looking for their children.
And so the Salt Singers gave the children ceremony so that their spirits could be released, and that we could have some sort of closure. You know, it’s going to be a very heartbreaking path as we learn and share these stories, and hopefully find closure and some sort of ceremony, and bring children home. So self-care is very important. And so I wish you and everyone that is part of this movement blessings and self-care along your journey. And what you’re doing is really important.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your work as the vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress. And can you talk a little bit about transitioning into this work and the importance of data? And a little bit more about your behind-the-scenes work in Washington, and being a citizen activist.
JBNC: Yeah. Well, first I just want to say thank you for sharing the story of the Salt Song Trail, and the bringing home of the — of your people’s children. I think that so many different nations and communities are doing that work right now, and it’s incredibly heavy, heavy work. Every time I come back from Williams Lake, I have trouble getting out of bed for like two or three days.
And yeah, so I just think that it’s important to acknowledge and think about, take care of ourselves and each other, and support all the people who are going through the process of telling the truth to a broader public who seems to be listening, maybe for the first time, to a lot of these stories, and seeking justice and accountability to the people who did this, and trying to restore a sense of dignity and wholeness and healing to so many families and people who were so deeply harmed and I mean, it’s just — it makes me sick and angry whenever I think about it.
So I never really worked full time as a writer until now, my primary career was in the sort of nonprofit, activist think tank kind of space. So a few years ago, a friend of mine named Sean McElwee invited me to become the first employee at a think tank he was creating called Data for Progress. And at that think tank I focused on and still am quite focused on climate change policy and public opinion research, as well as advocacy for more progressive climate solutions and legislative interventions and regulations and those sorts of things.
And essentially it was a start-up, and while I was there we grew from the two of us to now Data for Progress employs over 20 people, which was a really cool thing to be a part of. I also got to get pretty involved behind the scenes in a number of campaigns that actually did see, it seems, to have some real world policy impact. I think I was the first, for example, to put out the idea that Deb Haaland should be the Secretary of Interior, and through a sort of a public relations insider/outsider, online and sort of advocacy campaign, we ended up actually winning that push to make her the first ever Native American cabinet secretary. She’s obviously now the Secretary of the Interior. And the ability to do that was in large part because of my role and my freedom at the think tank Data for Progress. So I’m really, really grateful for that, and really grateful for everyone who I worked with who also played really important roles in helping make that happen.
You know, I think essentially data is both a way to understand what’s really going on out in the world. Right, like, there’s a lot of bad data, but if you have data that’s collected in ways that are sound social science, sound data science, you can get a more accurate representation of, for example, what people actually think about issues like climate change, and then you can use that to inform realistic and pragmatic strategies to actually act on and transform the world that exists, which is, I think, sort of the role of activism and advocacy.
But also I think it’s important to understand that data can be — itself can be used as a tool. Right? So if you have information about the views of voters of the public on a particular issue, that can then persuade an elected official, a politician, a political party to behave in different ways. That is one way in which you can make democracy actually more responsive and more progressive and active on issues related to climate change.
And so working in DC and working in this sort of think tank, activist/advocacy space the last four years, I’ve learned how all of that actually happens and works, and sometimes doesn’t work, and in a way I think it’s actually made me better at writing and understanding things like politics and policy and understanding the ways that political actors actually make decisions, and the ways that they might be persuaded to make different and better political decisions, which I think at the end of the day, if you care about a lot of these things, that is pretty important knowledge and information.
CR: I think, definitely, understanding as much as you can about how to affect change politically, and then you have that other really sound piece of being able to influence public opinion. And I think that that is a combination of what you’re talking about, that solid data.
And then art, you know. I mean, I’m just such a believer in the power of art. So to be able to combine your art form to influence people and public opinion is really important. And I think I’m saying that for the young Native people out there that are listening; that, I know I come from a platform of encouraging citizen activism, that no person is without power to affect change.
Do you want to speak to that a little bit, as well? Because I just think that you’re such a wonderful example of making big change as one person.
JBNC: I got the opportunity to learn from and work with lots of other people who understood and knew about things in ways that I did not yet, especially when I was younger, and earlier on in my career, and that, at the most basic level, working together collectively and collaboratively, that’s what politics and democracy are. It’s about groups of people with ideas and values, about how we should govern ourselves, trying to convince as many people in society that that’s actually the best, most just, most equitable, most prosperous way to arrange things for the greatest number of people.
That world, the political world, can be a very brutal one. It’s one where lots of hopes and dreams die in the sort of a meat grinder of Congress and electoral politics and those sorts of things. But that once in a while, the right people, the right ideas, and the right sort of, I don’t know, I think moral relationship to how we should be relating to each other as humans can come around and the right things can happen, and especially can happen when we find common ground and figure out ways to work together, and figure out ways to convince other people that we’ve got some good ideas and they ought to throw their lot in with us rather than the cynics and the bigots and the people who would rather see the world burn.
And in the context of climate change, which is essentially the largest collective action problem of them all, right, it implicates not just every American but every single person in the world, and every society in the world in the epic task of reducing emissions and adapting to a warmer planet. I think that that’s kind of our only option, is to figure out how to make these systems, these democratic systems — as long as they’re democratic, by the way, because they might not always be democratic, you know, work in our favor. And so I would encourage any young person who is interested in that part of how society works to just go for it and be willing to learn and to collaborate and work with other people, because we need as many people in this fight as we can get.
Photos by Emily Kassie.
CR: And I would add to that that as we foster young leaders to listen to your keynote and listen to the messaging of understanding indigenous issues and the way that you beautifully illustrate the connection between the genocide of Indigenous Peoples, the First Peoples of place, and as that relates and correlates with ecocide. You have to look at that connection. We have to scream it from the hilltops so that people understand that in order to rebuild and find solutions, you’re not going to be able to do that without that spiritual interdependence that Native Peoples have with each other and with their landscapes, and with their bioregions.
Thank you, Julian, for sharing with us and for being so generous with me today during this Q&A.
JBNC: Well, I just want to say a big Kukwstsemc. Thank you very, very much.
It’s hard to grow up inheriting all the things that we inherit intergenerationally as Native Peoples, but I also think it’s really important to remember that there are incredibly powerful, beautiful and important things that we also inherit. It’s not just the shit that they did to us at the residential schools. There’s a lot more there that is worth learning and fighting for, and taking up.
I would especially encourage the young Native People who see this to be part of that long line of fighters and ancestors who are going to try to bring us back to who we were, because it was a beautiful way, I think.
CR: [words in her language], Julian. Thank you so much.
AB: That was a great conversation with Julian, Cara. Keep an eye out for the book and documentary coming out in the next year or so. Again, the book is titled, We Survived the Night. And you can follow Julian on Twitter for more details about the book and documentary, as well as his regular political analysis.
And to hear other episodes of Indigeneity Conversations, and hear and see more from Julian Brave NoiseCat, visit our podcast page at Bioneers.org.
CR: You can find other original Indigenous media content there, and learn about the Indigeneity program and our initiatives, including curricula and materials for students and life-long learners. Thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Indigeneity Conversations. It’s been a pleasure to share with you today. Many thanks and take care!
Sign up to stay connected for new episodes!
Leave this field empty if you’re human: