Reflections on the IAC Annual Conference and an Evening of Native Storytelling

This report was written by Micaela Young, IAC Development Director, who was instrumental in pulling together team members and external partners to host the IAC Evening of Native Storytelling during the 2020 IAC Virtual Conference. We hope you spend time researching and enjoying the links she has included connecting you to the authors who were part of this event and so much more! The report certainly reflects there is much promise and opportunity yet to unfold. Thank you everyone for being part of the IAC story!


“It’s always good to hear these stories of resilience. We all know the power of stories, how stories connect us, they teach us, they entertain us, they heal us, they return us to place, bring us back home, give us hope, offer us truth, allow us to travel, remind us of our obligations, of our relations, of how we survived, of how we are not alone…” - Gordon Henry


The Intertribal Agriculture Council, Resiliency through Agriculture (virtual) conference attracted 1,408 participants to its various tracks, 45 sessions in all, that covered regenerative agriculture, holistic agriculture management, economics, legal and policy topics, food systems, communications, and professional development, all IAC mission areas and realms of expertise. As tradition dictates, caucus meetings were held for each region represented by IAC as well as a concluding meeting for all of IAC’s membership that consists of 574 federally recognized Tribes and Alaska Native Villages. 28 organizations, many of them affiliates and partners of IAC, pledged their sponsorship of the event. Our records show that 91 participants attended IAC’s first ever evening event, the Resiliency through Agriculture Storytelling Competition that brought together a panel of expert and emerging activists, agriculturalists, artists, actors, and writers to select the top seven stories that demonstrate the theme “Resiliency through Agriculture.” Elements of the conference and storytelling event came together in ways we could not anticipate nor manufacture.


Zachary Ducheneaux, IAC’s Executive Director and third generation Cheyenne Sioux Nation rancher, opened the evening by sharing a story of his hardworking father, Wayne, the patriarch of the family that preceded him in the long fight towards equity and dignity for Native American farmers and ranchers. Zach described the heavy burden shouldered day in and day out by the nation’s food producers who quietly bear the responsibility of feeding their own families and those of the nation, often without financial security or acknowledgement. A terrible burden to bear, one that shoves many of our food producers off of their lands and into the depths of despair, only to be met by a tone-deaf federal response to create a suicide prevention protocol vs. fixing the very system that created that deep, dark void in the first place.


In her resounding story, “The Ground Our Grandmothers Tended To,” Tanadigan to Winyan of the Lower Sioux White Earth Nation reminds us, that even through the proverbial ‘soil’ tainted by oppression and repression, the very force of resistance that creates our resilience, “our blood Wakan is the soul of this earth, she must grow.” In this story, we begin to take notice of and hear the irrepressible subtle voice beyond the voice, see the hand guiding the hand, and feel the immovable mover, moving us all. There is something pervasive and inexplicable that upholds this work we share. Dr. Martin Reinhardt, Anishinaabe Ojibway citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe and author of The Decolonizing Diet Project Cookbook announced Tanadigan’s story. Tanadigan’s words and Martin’s food sovereignty work remind us that there is a way forward and out of the muck of the past, through degraded ground and seemingly forgotten ways of being and knowing, towards a healthy and empowered future.


Momentarily, we are bewildered by the acidic words of Solamon ‘Sol’ Jacobs, as he tells the harrowing tale of a young man cast into the foster home system after experiencing a break in his family and separation from his ancestral lands, only to be flung deeper into that law and justice system that is anything but, after he strikes out at his foster parent. For author David Heska Wanbli Weiden, author of Winter Counts, this scene is all too familiar as an advocate of Native youth who find themselves captive to the adoption system that removes them from Tribal lands. As the most likely place where healing, belonging, and meaning can be found, he fights to keep them in Native communities through his legal advocacy work. Like the protagonist of Sol’s story, “Forgotten Children”, the young and vulnerable characters of Winter Counts are lured by opportunists looking to sell illegal and dangerous substances to those who fail to find true belonging and nourishment in their lives. This is not so different from the eagle in Michael McCreery’s story, “Humbly Giving of Himself” that sickens itself on poisoned horse meat placed at the edge of a farmer’s field by coyote hunters.


In search of nourishment, the eagle consumes the tainted meat and finds itself thrashing against the helping hands of the Tribal Conservation Officers, Michael and his Biologist friend Max, both of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. In the care of Michael, his friends, and the animal doctors, the avian patient, “Miigizii” is rehabilitated and set free once again to take to the open sky. Contrast this caring approach to the foster parent in Sol’s story who instead of realizing the vulnerable creature is lashing out in fear and pain, instead throws the child into an institution. In Michael’s careful sing-song delivery of the story, we hear yet again, the voice beyond the voice, perhaps the last woman to have read to him. We hear the tenderness that was likely present when he discovered the ailing eagle. This is the voice that accompanies him into some of the darkest places as a law enforcement officer where he spends his waking hours. Unbeknownst to the audience, the announcer of the story, Craig Ironpipe, feels strongly about introducing young people to the lands where they can reconnect, sweat out their pain, and find meaning in their work instead of in substances.


For a moment, some of us are lost in the shadowy recesses of the stories and are unsure of how to find our way back out, that is, until Skya and Jerry encourage us all to, “Get Back in the Saddle.” If you are lucky enough to know Skya and Jerry, they are both approachable and full of good cheer, but they are also a bit like a bunch of fireworks going off inside of a barrel, full of charge and direction. Skya’s beauty and youth may fool some into thinking she is a flower to trample, but Skya sits in charge of a financial institution in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, Akiptan CDFI, that brings needed funding to ag operators around the nation. As a strong Cheyenne Sioux woman, she’s not afraid to fight it out to make sure there is adequate financial fuel to keep producers going. Similarly, Jerry is a young producer and activist from the L’Anse Bay Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, or the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. He fights tirelessly for treaty rights throughout ceded territory while running his own operation, Dynamite Hill Farms.


At intermission, the American Indian Foods program staff treat us to rich imagery of traditional foods carefully tended; berries tenderly plucked from the stem, oysters hoisted up onto a boat and cracked open with a pocket knife, salmon fillets rinsed in cold water and arranged carefully before packaging, and we are reminded that all this bounty comes with a price. Buck Jones, subsistence fisherman and member of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission contended with harsh weather, cold and cracked hands, and cranky, litigious government officials to win back the river and the rights of Northwest fisheries Tribes, much like Tezozomoc describes the streaks of blood on corn husks before the corn is prepared and enjoyed by those who gathered it and carried it on their backs. Tezozomoc and Buck connect us back to Zach’s opening words and story titled, “Resilience is Hard Goddamn Work." Indeed, it is and will likely involve a few hundred swear words. The petty moralists may grasp at their pearls, while the rest of us are offended by deeply unjust systems that cause real harm.


Dr. Gordon Henry, enrolled member of the White Earth Anishinaabe Nation in Minnesota, Professor of Creative Writing and Native American Literature, and recipient of the American Book Award for his novel The Light People affirmed the value of the event, saying, “it’s always good to hear these stories of resilience. We all know the power of stories, how stories connect us, they teach us, they entertain us, they heal us, they return us to place, bring us back home, give us hope, offer us truth, allow us to travel, remind us of our obligations, of our relations, of how we survived, of how we are not alone…” Henry introduced Ellie Mitchell, author of the story, “The Little Sister” and member of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe. At the time of pairing panel members and storytellers, we were not aware that Ellie is a student of Gordon and we situated the two of them together because of the way they cultivate an illuminating sovereignty and persistent Native identity that transcends the confines of institutions and prescribed duties.


Surprising and powerful themes also run through Eugene “Gene” Brave Rock’s work for his role, “Chief Napi'' in the blockbuster hit, Wonder Woman, his commitment to restoring indigenous language, and Elena Terry’s story, “We Are Our Grandmother’s Prayers.” Harkening from the Ho-Chunk Nation, Elena is the Executive Chef and Founder of Wild Bearies, an educational, community outreach nonprofit that strives to bring ancestral foods to communities in a nurturing and nourishing way. Elena recalls the wonder she felt as a child as she watched her grandmother move about her kitchen preparing spiritual food. In a moment of realization, she, as a child in the story says, “at that moment, I realized she was superwoman.” Upon discovering this line, we knew this was Gene’s story. Gene shared his wonderment, saying, “being a storyteller and listening to these stories and the connection that always goes back to the earth and to what we nurture, is a language within itself.” He followed this by saying, “for me, that force that drives me through my journey is my grandmother; it’s her prayers, it’s her blessings, her wisdom, so that was an amazing connection to feel and be reminded of.”


Despite virtual and technological limitations and the uniqueness of our individual work, events like the IAC annual conference and Storytelling event offer an opportunity to experience the inexplicable force driving our collective efforts and to see their connections. Through stories, we can quiet down enough to hear that gentle voice within that instructs us to care for the young and vulnerable when they are hurt, or raise that voice to shout from the courtyard up to the jail cells like Nick Tilsen and the LandBack movement, “to our relatives in Pennington County, we wanted to remind you that we have not forgotten you, that we love you!” We recognize the indiscernible presence urging us forward when the roots and shoots we’ve tended break the soil, and even if we cannot pronounce the scientific or ancient indigenous word for it just yet, like Nicole Masters instructs, we will know the presence of life immediately, in the way we recognize the intoxicating smell rising from earth after the rains fall or in the healing effects of sage smoke curling in still air. We know that behind every superhero is a kindly and loving grandmother. We know that the world needs more men and women like those who showed up for this event. We know that we are on the right path, and we are on it together.


Can we be certain that our grandmothers’ prayers, and our prayers, and that of our children are being heard? If the previous stories left you doubting, the question is answered resolutely by Jean Tahdooahnippah, a Comanche Nation storyteller who speaks with the quiet confidence of a person who has seen political movements and administrations come and go. Her story, announced by Ben Jacobs, “Turns Out, Coyote Gives a Damn,” is told through the eyes of coyote who lurks around the edges of a public meeting that attempts to gather support for a man-made reservoir, a metaphor for something ominous, that submerged centuries of cultural history and artifacts under a myriad acre-feet of water and destroyed crops and livelihoods, which ultimately turns into a moment of collective outrage. Coyote enjoys the corporation-sponsored “free” lunch, throws on a free t-shirt with a tagline, “I Flood, I Vote” and listens to the lamentations of the crowd. Momentarily, we are uncertain in his cavalier attitude, whether anything good will come, until we hear:


These people, his neighbors and friends had yet to be heard in Washington. Yet, in this time and place, Coyote heard them. He heard the layers of grief from ranchers for animals caught in the flood. He heard the tears from elders for traditional grounds covered with muck and poisonous topsoil. Coyote heard mothers and grandmothers who had lost their histories when the floods destroyed their homes and heirlooms. Coyote heard the farmers whose crops stood under five feet of water. He heard the ranchers who lost their livestock in preventable floods. He heard anger and frustration. He heard all these things and more. He dropped his head. His heart ached. But as he listened, Coyote also heard strength, resilience, and hope. These people would continue to fight. He would too.


Bringing us back around to the conference setting, Zach Ducheneaux urges attendees to bring their concerns to the caucus meetings and the membership meeting. He says, “We won’t just complain. We’ll do something about it.” We can already see the future in people like Ben Jacobs and his exciting venture, Tocabe, an all American Indian eatery in the heart of Denver, Colorado. Bringing tradition into the present, Tocabe is colorful, bustling, prosperous, and generous to the community. With that, we hope you will join the IAC in a new year of food systems building, institutional reform, kinship, and ways of being beyond resilience.


In friendship and solidarity,


Micaela Young, IAC Development Director


P.S. The Storytelling Event and all conference sessions were recorded. Those who registered can visit our event site by clicking on this link: https://web.cvent.com/hub/events/f1424142-8746-4d7e-90d4-70ea98e4cfaf


If you missed the annual conference, stay tuned and follow us HERE as we have future plans to create an opportunity for those who could not attend to view the sessions.


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