In the third episode of the Seedcast podcast by Nia Tero, host Jess Ramirez explores the concept of reciprocity with Cherokee documentary filmmaker, activist, and member of the Cherokee Nation Brit Hensel (Native and American, Zibi Yajdan.) Topics include cultural preservation by way of language, how the ways in which we treat animals reflects how we treat each other, and who holds responsibility for telling Indigenous stories.
Jessica Ramirez (00:00):
Hey everyone. My name is Jessica Ramirez. Welcome to Seedcast made by Nia Tero. Coming to you from the Traditional Lands of the Coast Salish People
Music "Rooted" By Mia Kami
Jessica Ramirez (00:29):
Nia Tero is a nonprofit organization. We provide support to Indigenous peoples protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. We share Indigenous methods of care for the land with non-indigenous communities, and we support storytellers to elevate Indigenous knowledge systems and rights. Seedcast is a platform to introduce to you the lives of Indigenous peoples from around the world.
Jessica Ramirez (01:02):
2020 has been an extraordinary year. Never have I been so keenly aware of the movement of others, watching my social media feed fill with the requests for laptops for kids. Donations gathered for loved ones lost due to COVID or food collections created to feed folks who lost their steady income streams. Indigenous peoples have many definitions for the word reciprocity and certainly, it goes beyond what we would define as a mutual exchange of goods or ideas. For me, I recognize that my joy is wholly related and only possible if we can all have our health, safety, and wellbeing intact. And so I give, I give because when you live from a place of abundance, the possibility of living in a world where we can all be free is just right there. I had a chance to speak with Brit Hensel. Last week, Brit is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and resides in Oklahoma. She's a writer and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. She currently works as a producer on season six of Osiyo - 'Voices at the Cherokee People" an Emmy-winning documentary-style program, featuring the people, places, history, and the culture of the Cherokee Nation. We talked about reciprocity as it being a core foundation of one of her current projects that is in production.
Brit Hensel (02:30):
[Intro in Cherokee] Hi, my name is Brit Hensel. I am a citizen of Cherokee Nation, and I'm really happy to be here with you guys.
Jessica Ramirez (02:46):
I've been listening to Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, which is not new by any means, but I'm not really a reader. So I'm listening to it. And I heard a lot of stories in the first hour or so last night of, of listening to the book around reciprocity. This time of year brings up a particular kind of reciprocity. Often we think about people who don't have what they need in order to get by. And I also think that there's another way to think of reciprocity, which is like, how can we give what we have? Because there's just we're always working from a place of abundance. What does reciprocity mean for you as a Cherokee person?
Brit Hensel (03:48):
"Well, You know, it's really interesting because I, if you probably would have asked me this five months ago, I would have be like, "Oh, I don't really know how reciprocity fits into like a Cherokee worldview or like specifically what that is". And I have talked to some elders and some people, and we've just been going back and forth because originally when I started asking about reciprocity, we were like, I had asked a first first language speaker and he was like, "I don't think we have a word for reciprocity, you know?" And or just talking about more of the concept and trying to figure out like, what, what that would mean for Cherokees and kicking around two different words that sort of encompass like a Cherokee perspective of, and I even hesitate to say like a Cherokee perspective, because there are lots of different perspectives, but the ones that really mean a lot to me can kind of be pinned down into two different words.
Brit Hensel (04:45):
And one of those words is ᏙᎯ - tohi and the other is ᎦᏚᎩ - gadugi, that ᏙᎯ(tohi) in Cherokee, it means like three, three different things. And it's like one could be like, you're, if you're ᏙᎯ(tohi) you're like physically or mentally well or ᏙᎯ(tohi) could be used to describe moving at a unstressed or an unhurried, the way that the rivers or the Creek run, its ᏙᎯ(tohi) or ᏙᎯ(tohi), it indicates peace or serenity, but it all kind of comes back into this idea of balance, which could be one way that Cherokees could look at reciprocity. And then the other ᎦᏚᎩ(gadugi) is like everybody working together. And so we have our communities are completely rooted in that. Like, if I have something that you need, I'm going to give it to you, even if you didn't ask for it, it's just that way that community helps community.
Brit Hensel (05:36):
And it isn't, this is what we do. It just is the way that it is. And it has been that way in our communities for thousands and thousands of years. So those two words for me, those are values that I live my life by and lots of Cherokee people I know live their lives by and are rooted in those things and especially like during these difficult times, you know, we're thinking a lot about reciprocity, a lot about those two, those two words. And just like when things are crazy, just still going back to those things, like those are anchors in my life, you know, things that no matter how crazy stuff can get, I know that that's, that's where it's a place I can, I can be rooted in and like move from a place of strength from those words, if that makes any sense.
Jessica Ramirez (06:25):
Yeah, no, it totally makes sense. And I think that we could all be better people with those two terms in our vocabulary. What way are you being able to capture the essence of reciprocity and these stories? Like how did you even come to these two different definitions and figuring that out with other people?
Brit Hensel (06:51):
So we're working on a film about these two things and it was cool because this film it's me and a bunch of all Cherokees, it's a through and through in front of and behind the camera Cherokee everything. So we basically just got in a big zoom call and were all just talking about what we thought, but it was funny because none of us on on the team are first language speakers. So we kind of all talked through it, we thought, and then we were like, alright, we gotta call. We gotta call a first language speaker and figure out what one of those words is best. But so my film or the film that I'm working on the "reciprocity project" is more of an exploration of the word ᏙᎯ(tohi), more of that balance because I'm really interested in the idea that it takes a whole community to heal a community.
Jessica Ramirez (07:42):
Here's a clip from the Reciprocity Project's latest production by Brit Hensel.
Reciprocity Project Soundbite (07:50):
We don't care where you're from, we don't care whether you're Indian or not if you need it. Let me give you this meat because I have it and you need it or want it. My sense of ᎦᏚᎩ(gadugi), this is ᎦᏚᎩ(gadugi) it's a way of life.
Brit Hensel (08:08):
So we're talking about balance, talking about reciprocity. I just really wanted to try and like bring that word to life in a way and doing that through some traditions that we have we have like mask carving traditions. We have, we have a dance called the Booger dance and they're basically like masks made out of gourd or wood. And it's just something that we've had for a very long time. And from what I've learned, you know, they came around the introduction when European people first came for, you know, around the time of first contact. And the masks were used as depictions of things that the community was weary of. The masks were used to mentally condition the community to catastrophic events, essentially things that would bring us out of that state of tᏙᎯ(tohi) out of that balance. So when the boogers would show up and they would be dressed up and they'd be masked, it would be like the disruption of the balance that Cherokee people were always working to sustain. And so when that balance is broken, we need to get back to that place in order to be operating in the right way. But yeah, it's still like I still in the very beginning stages and I'm still working through all of it, but it's been more of the explanation and exploration of the word ᏙᎯ(tohi) and just like how important balance is to Cherokees. And that's kind of like one of our ways of reciprocity
Jessica Ramirez (09:53):
What is it about film that you hope to achieve as a storyteller?
Brit Hensel (09:59):
My goal and like the things that I really hope to do is, I just want to tell Cherokee stories. I want to make films and tell stories that make my community proud and make my community feel seen. And that's really just like the beginning and the end for it, have it all for me. And so that kind of is always like a guiding light, even if I'm not working on a Cherokee, like specific story, like that's where, you know, my, my passion comes from is just to continue to make sure our stories are told authentically and I'm always learning, you know, I don't feel like there's ever an arrival in a way. I mean, I am Cherokee and I carry that with me everywhere I go. It's not something I, I can turn on and off and it informs everything that I do as an individual and my relationships with friends and filmmaking.
Brit Hensel (10:48):
But yeah, I mean, I definitely, sometimes I'm like, who am I to be speaking about these things? I'm not an elder and I'm not a first language speaker. I'm just me. And, but for me, I always just try and bring as many people with me as possible. I can only speak from a Cherokee perspective and I only can speak from my individual perspective. But if I have five other Cherokees who are also filmmakers, you know, we're stronger together. I think that our work benefits when there's a community of us, whether that's like a filmmaking community or community at large, just continually bringing more perspectives with me and always asking for, for input. It doesn't just have to be my way, although it could be my, you know, it could be directing the film, you know, that's, that's, that's the benefit. And I think like the best part about community as we all can bring our strong suits to the table. And that way work can be really powerful and full of different Cherokee perspective because there's just not one way.
Jessica Ramirez (11:49):
I did not grow up with Spanish as my first language and I identify as indigenous Latinx, but my relationship to my Indigenous identity is one in which I'm seriously growing into and have a lot to learn still. So I have like, I'm still learning the very, you know, facets of what is my, my mother tongue, (Laughs) you know before Spanish. So I'm curious for you, like, what is the role of language in your work and how does that help to continue to build that trust?
Brit Hensel (12:23):
I think it's really important to note, like I'm still a language learner. Like I have so far to go. Cherokee is a really, really tough language to learn. I did not grow up speaking the language. I didn't hear it ever around, you know, this is something that I'm choosing to continue to try and learn as I'm getting older and making it a priority in my life. But yeah, I mean the language is everything. Culture is connected to language. Like our language is connected to our medicines. Our language is connected to our worldview. You know, like a Cherokee perspective, a Cherokee worldview is built into the language. And so when you can't speak the language or you don't know the language you're missing out on the way our ancestors would move through the world. Unfortunately we're losing speakers, you know, as the days go by, there have been some folks who have passed because of COVID and the majority of our speakers are older, but yeah, I mean, it's devastating because with them goes so much knowledge. We can, we can never get back. But one thing I will say is like the tribe is making major efforts to preserve and teach the language and I'm benefiting from that progressive approach. And I'm not a first language speaker and I'm still learning, always something that I definitely hope my kids will have that when I have kids in the future, they'll have an opportunity to only speak Cherokee and go to the immersion school and to do do those types of things.
Jessica Ramirez (13:55):
We're living in a very different world than what I knew when I first came into social justice work a little over five years ago now, I feel like the issues around racial justice, cultural preservation, traditional knowledge seem to be a lot more mainstream. I'm curious for you, how do you feel like this moment might be different? Who's paying attention or who's listening. Who's watching to the kinds of stories that you produce. And maybe you could tell me a little bit more about, about some of your projects.
Brit Hensel (14:33):
It's really interesting because now more than ever, we do have people's attention in a way that we maybe didn't have it before. I definitely think that we're turning a corner in terms of understanding that if the story isn't coming from the community, we have no business telling the story. And, and for some people that is like really definitive, strong statement, right? I, I think it really matters the ways in which the stories come from the communities. And if you aren't from that place, you don't know, you can't really, especially in documentary. I think if it was like more of a narrative or, you know, fictional situation, it could be different, a different story, but especially for documentary film, which is, you know, what I predominantly do, it's really important that you're not being extractive. And I think that all of these types of ideas are kind of coming to a head in this moment.
Jessica Ramirez (15:24):
How do you manage for it to not be extractive? Cause I think of film and production work, as you know, you have this hard line deliverable, this, this asset that needs to be produced at the end of the day. And you know, as a producer, director, you might have a certain way or an idea of which, how you would want something to come out. What does that look like for you in order to kind of achieve the care that needs to be taken and not being extractive?
Brit Hensel (15:58):
I mean, we even deal with this between different native nations, right? Like I'm, I'm a citizen of Cherokee Nation. There are three different Cherokee tribes, for example. And when we go to other Cherokee communities like in Western North Carolina and Cherokee, North Carolina on the Qualla boundary where the Eastern band of Cherokee Indians are like, I'm not from that community. So when I'm going in there to tell a story, while I am Cherokee, we have a shared language, we have shared values. I'm not from there. And so it takes like a serious amount of relationship building and a major intention and, and an understanding that I'm not coming in there to tell the story for any other reason, other than the story needs to be told. It's my job as a filmmaker to make sure I'm telling their truth. Right. And, but I really believe like it's about your intention. And I mean, I really just try and get to the heart of the matter. And that takes time that takes building trust.
Jessica Ramirez (17:07):
Do you feel like in addition to the concept and traditions of reciprocity within Cherokee peoples you're, you know, this isn't just like a human to human effort, this is all beings. And do you feel like that is innate?
Brit Hensel (17:26):
I think one of the things that I always go back to is we're, we're visitors, you know, the world doesn't belong to us. And we share, we share this home with all animals, like with birds, with fish and they were here before we were, and for thousands and thousands of years, my people have had a very different relationship with the earth and with the things around us, the plants in a way that it was sustained and things were ᏙᎯ(tohi) right. It was balanced. And we are very far from that today. And so I just think that we have a lot of lessons we can learn from the past, but also sometimes I think, yes, there's so much value in the past. And I often look backwards to look forward, right. But there is also this, this really important thing of, I have to look forward to because there are seven generations to come, you know, there are, there are many to come.
Brit Hensel (18:29):
So I'm continually thinking about how can I leave this place better than the way that I found it? How can I honor those that I come from? And the ways I move about the world, the way I move through the world, the way I interact with people and that matter, it matters in, in that connection to animals and the way that we treat them. I think, I think there's something to be said is like, just because you are a Cherokee or just because you're a native person, it doesn't mean that you innately have that understanding, right? Like that's something that is a value to be taught to young people. And I think that that's why it's important to incorporate that into storytelling. And I think one of the reasons why I am so excited about talking about healing or trying to work towards, you know, these aspects of like these really, really powerful aspects of our culture and putting them out for young people to see them in the way they, they can receive it and be excited about it is because it's foundational to who we are.
Brit Hensel (19:24):
And it that's how we will continue to like thrive in the future. And so I feel like that is part of my role as a filmmaker is to, you know, to continue to process these things on my own journey and the things that really mattered to me and, and serve them up for my community and other people around me who, you know, could, who might be interested or might find real value in that. And I mean, ultimately at the end of the day, we're, we're all moving through this world together and we are interconnected whether we realize it or not.
Jessica Ramirez (19:58):
Brit, thank you so much. And I really love those prompts that you mentioned, you know, how do I move in the world? What is my role? I think we would, it would all serve us a collective good, If we could ask ourselves those very questions. Thank you for your time, your generosity, the work that you do to preserve and also lift the work of Cherokee peoples. And I'm really excited to hear more about your project and please keep us posted on all the ways that we can share, share the good work of you.
Brit Hensel (20:43):
Thank you so much. I appreciate it. And I appreciate you guys taking the time and having some time to talk with you guys.
Jessica Ramirez (20:51):
Thanks Brit.Take care.
Brit Hensel (20:52):
Jessica Ramirez (20:53):
Thank you for listening to learn more about our work at Nia Tero visit our website, Niatero.org, and a big thank you to our Seedcast team. We couldn't have kicked off these first few episodes without you.
Jessica Ramirez (21:07):
Executive Producer - Tracy Rector
Senior Producer - Jenny Asarnow
Host and Co-Producer that's me - Jessica Ramirez
Co-Producer and this episode edited by - Felipe Contreras
Social Meedia Manager - Hannah Pentaleo
Marketing Manager - Julie Keck,
and Theme Music by - Mia Kami
Jessica Ramirez (21:26):
Subscribe today to catch our next episode of Seedcast. You can find us on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, and Spotify, or wherever you hear your podcasts. See you soon.
Music "Rooted" by Mia Kami