Launching Ilíiaitchik: Planet Forward and IRes’ Indigenous Correspondents Program

Oct. 3, 2022
Ilíiaitchik: Indigenous Correspondents Program logo

For Indigenous people, storytelling has been much more than a means of entertainment for thousands of years. Native communities have employed storytelling as the primary mode of communicating cultural beliefs and community values, as well as critical ecological, historical, and spiritual knowledge to the next generation since time immemorial. Storytelling has allowed Indigenous people to make sense of the world and their relationships within it, to teach cultural values, local ecological knowledge, regional and family history, sacred stories, and about significant events. Before brick-and-mortar Western school systems were built, Indigenous communities leveraged the art of storytelling through dance, song, and oral storytelling (among other forms) as their primary means for educating, engaging and motivating fellow community members. Despite concerted efforts by Federal Indian Boarding Schools and other colonial systems to stamp out traditional storytelling and knowledge transmission, Indigenous communities are revitalizing their rich communication traditions today and working to reclaim their narratives.

Revitalizing Indigenous storytelling practices is perhaps more important than ever before, given that the stories depicting Indigenous communities today are often crafted by non-Indigenous people, which can lead to inaccurate and damaging portrayals of Native people. Mainstream media and news outlets often only highlight aspects of Indigenous stories that focus on vulnerabilities; a practice which too often paints a picture of Native people as only victims rather than innovators, leaders, and powerful change agents. Far too frequently, non-Indigenous-led news outlets cover only one aspect of Native stories that paint them as static, rooted only in the past, and/or perpetuate harmful stereotypes. In addition to perpetuating inaccuracies, non-Indigenous storytellers are more prone to inflict harm on communities through “parachute journalism” techniques (defined as when media producers are sent to report on a community in which they have little or no prior knowledge or connections to tell a story, and then leave after the story’s publication). Non-Indigenous journalists often report on Indigenous issues and communities without concerted efforts to build lasting, reciprocal, meaningful relationships with the communities they engage with. These practices are extractive in that they position Indigenous people as entities to be studied and/or described with little to no prior consultation or meaningful involvement by community members. 

The problem with underrepresentation of Indigenous people in multimedia is also an issue of environmental injustice. Although Indigenous communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change, pollution, and global biodiversity loss, only a very small percentage of scientists, professors, and environmental journalists at U.S. universities and news organizations are Indigenous. By failing to listen to those communities most adversely impacted by global change, media outlets perpetuate inequities felt by global warming. Indigenous people must be part of the conversation if we are to paint a more complete picture of the impacts of climate change - not just on livelihoods, but on cultural and spiritual practices. Indigenous ways of knowing also offer invaluable frameworks for fighting biodiversity loss, overexploitation, and global warming

In an effort to center Indigenous storytelling, we’ve launched the Ilíiaitchik: Indigenous Correspondents Program, or the “ICP” for short (the program's name derives from the Biiluuke/Crow word ilíiaitchik, meaning "to speak good words"). 

The ICP is a 10-month community-building and skill-building program designed for 10-12 Indigenous university students focused on environmental storytelling. Jointly supported by The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs and UArizona’s AIRES Education Initiatives and the Indigenous Resiliency Center (IRes), the program’s ultimate aim is to create a space for Indigenous storytellers to sharpen their communication skills, showcase their stories to a national audience, and build a supportive community of fellow Indigenous writers, filmmakers, audio producers, and artists in the process. We hope to accomplish these objectives through each participant publishing and editing a storytelling piece on Planet Forward’s platform after working with our Indigenous Editor, in addition to monthly skill-building workshops led by Indigenous experts in the communication sphere, and social networking events. 

Cinnamon Kills First headshot

Northern Cheyenne author, filmmaker, beadworker, and advocate Cinnamon Kills First.

Photo courtesy of Cinnamon Kills First

This year’s program launched in early September with a total of 12 students representing 11 different tribes and 7 universities comprising the cohort (note: be sure to check out bios for four of this year’s correspondents, below). Our first workshop, titled “Healing through Storytelling” was led by published author, documentary filmmaker, and traditional beadworker Cinnamon Kills First. Cinnamon is Northern Cheyenne but currently resides in Chinook territory where she owns and operates Northside Advocacy LLC. To begin the workshop, Cinnamon shared her experiences authoring books that honor her identity as an Indigenous woman, including her illustrated children’s book titled “Go Dance” which follows the story of a young boy gaining courage while attending a powwow. Cinnamon answered the Correspondents’ questions about how to craft stories that don’t re-traumatize Indigenous readers and authentically represent community practices. She then guided the Correspondents through a reflection exercise focused on reclaiming narratives and recentering the body and heart when encountering potentially upsetting stories written about Native communities by non-Indigenous reporters, ethnographers, etc. We closed the workshop session by writing and then sharing short “six-word stories” describing experiences where we have felt comfortable outdoors and supported by our communities. As one Correspondent reflected following the workshop, “I liked the guided 'meditation' - this workshop could be even longer and spread out over a few days. The material was really engaging, and I especially loved thinking about how to craft stories that focus on the harsh realities my community currently faces, but also don’t center solely on the trauma.”

We also recently held our first team Social Meet & Greet event, attended by UArizona and Planet Forward staff members who provide critical support for the program. Correspondents shared their perspectives on effective storytelling techniques and spoke about their backgrounds and personal interests in breakout rooms with UArizona and Planet Forward staff members. We look forward to holding more social events in the coming months as we prepare for the cohort convening in person at the 2023 Planet Forward Summit in Washington, DC.