The world is learning something we all know: Indigenous people are amazing

American Academy, Pulitzer Prize and TIME 100 recognize two journalists, an author and an actress.

The world is learning something we all know: Indigenous people are amazing. Several prestigious awards this week recognized the talents of four individuals for their work in journalism, writing and acting.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an honorary society founded in 1780, released its list of more than 200 members who are global leaders in a variety of disciplines ranging from science to literature. Two Native journalists, Candis Callison, Tahltan, and Patty Loew, Bad River, were elected to the 239th class at the Academy.

The Academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams, John Hancock, and others who believed the republic should honor exceptionally accomplished individuals and engage them in advancing the public good. This honor recognizes and celebrates the accomplishments of its members for contributions toward public good in the areas of the arts, academia, government, and public affairs. 

Callison, an associate professor of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia, received the message after her 8-hour flight from Peru to the United States.

“When opened my phone in New York this morning. I got a text saying, ‘Congratulations.’ I thought, ‘What?’” She laughed. She checked Twitter. “And I was like, ‘oh my gosh.’ I opened my email about it.”

And to be on that list with former First Lady Michelle Obama. “That is something. There are amazing people on the list. It's quite an honor to be part of that list and those group of people,” she said. “It’s exciting and unexpected.”

Callison is a visiting professor at Princeton University where she teaches a course on environmental conflict and Indigenous media, and will be returning to Canada in the summer. She is most known for writing about journalism in the Arctic.

She said her journey has not been straight-forward.

Callison received her PhD and master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she also gave a speech to doctoral degree recipients last spring.

You can hear her discuss current Indigenous news with other Indigenous minds on the weekly podcast Media Indigena.

Before becoming a professor and writing her first book, “How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts,” Callison used to work in television and radio for CBC and CTV.

Her former CTV producer Jeff Bear congratulated Callison, who was the first host of First Story.

“Candis is very special,” Bear said. “When she looked into the camera and began to speak, we all lost a breath.”

He remembers she didn’t have any on-camera experience, but that changed when someone in the studio suggested putting her in front of the camera.

“She was a natural fit,” he said.

Callison said she really tried to make career choices that led her into places where “Indigenous perspectives and voices were important.”

That combined with formulating better questions, not coming up with the answers.

“For me that’s been the driving force for what’s led me to various research projects. What first drove my work as a journalist, I looked around journalism in the ‘90s and didn't see very many people who reflected the communities I came from, right? I didn't see many Indigenous people in mainstream media. For me there was something really missing and I kept following where I saw gaps and where better questions could be answered and more historically-informed.

One question that illustrates her work: What does it mean to be a journalist in settler colonialism?

“Both the U.S and Canada are still having a hard time coming to terms with the long colonial history here and I think interestingly needs to inform how we think about the future, how we think of the environment, and big issues like climate change,” she said.

But as the president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences said the work members pursue and achieve often comes with the prices of “disappointment and self-doubt.”

“I think about specific times when times were a little more difficult. Sometimes it was putting one foot in foot of the other and moving toward a large vision I was committed to and other times I felt like I had the support I needed,” she said. “And other times I wanted to honor my ancestors and honor the people who were supporting me by continuing forward.”

Loew, who was also elected to the Academy, was surprised by the honor.

“I was frankly a little surprised because my work has been hyper local,” she said over the phone. “It was a great surprise.”

She too was “sort of stunned” when she looked at the list of members. “It’s something that’s really humbling. People say that a lot.”

Loew holds two positions at Northwestern University in Chicago: a professor at the Medill School of Journalism and Director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research.

The Governor of Wisconsin awarded Loew the 2019 Wisconsin MLK Heritage Award in January. It honored women who contributed to social justice. Loew wrote a social studies book “Native People of Wisconsin” that is used by schools in the state.

PattyLoew_7
(Photo courtesy of Patty Loew)

Yesterday, she traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, to attend a master’s dissertation defense about food sovereignty and intertribal cooperatives at the university.

Coincidently when Loew reflects on the challenges and rewards of her work, she thinks of the video “Protect Our Future” that tribal youth worked on in 2013.

Three Ojibwe teenagers documented a taconite mine threatens the wild rice beds of the Bad River community.

She’s worked with Native youth for more than 20 years teaching them the inner workings of digital storytelling.

The students who create these videos are often labeled with a learning disability by the school system.

“Their whole horizon shrinks and the possibilities and opportunities shrink,” she said. “A lot of what I do is not what I do with media skills. It’s self-esteem and building self-confidence. I found myself working with some kids who wanted to do a documentary about this mine.”

It won three national awards and screened at more than 30 film festivals and environmental conferences. 

Those three 14-year-old students “were encouraged to downsize their ambitions and what they created was remarkable. They felt so good about it,” she said. All three pursued a higher education and are finishing, and became politically active.

“There There”

Novelist Tommy Orange’s book “There There” won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel. Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma.

Judges described his book as: “a devastatingly beautiful novel, as acutely attuned to our current cultural and political condition as it is to the indelible legacy of violence that brought us here.”

“This novel is not only breathtaking, but also profoundly moving as Orange assembles a chorus of characters whose collective narrative disrupts and expands our literary landscape,” they said. “The breadth and scope of this novel are matched only by the fierce and relentless intelligence that Orange brings to his characters, who despite tragedy, heartbreak, and loss, reside in a remarkable world of hard-earned grace.”

The book was a jury finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and won the Aspen Words Literary Prize this month. 

The Pulitzer recognizes fiction that deals with American life while the Aspen Words chose a fictional book that “illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.” His book came in as a finalist for both awards. 

Time 100

Each year Time Magazine releases the “Time 100.” A list of the top 100 most influential people in the world. Those who make the list are the “pioneers, leaders, titans, artists and icons of 2019.”

One Indigenous person who made the Time 100: Yalitza Aparicio.

The Indigenous actress falls in the artists category with 16 other artists who include Dwayne Johnson, Glenn Close, Rami Malek, Regina King, Khalid and more.

(Previous story: Yalitza Aparicio gave some Indigenous representation at the Academy Awards)

Aparicio, Mixtec and Triqui, is notably recognized for her lead role in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” which got her nominated for an Academy Award. The film is available on Netflix. 

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

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