Conversation with Gerald Taiaiake Alfred at Hay Festival Medellin
Indigenous Cultural Revitalization and Living Between Worlds
By: Erika Valero
Photography: Fredy Builes
Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, January 28, Medellín-Colombia. Hay Festival Medellín
¨It is a very simple vision, our ancestor’s vision: just to be in a respectful, sustainable and honoring relationship with all of the other elements of the natural world, to not put the human above anybody else.¨
How would you describe your community, the Mohawk?
I am a person who grew up in the Indian reserve, in an environment of land loss, pollution, and all of the social problems that went along with that. But at the same time, from a community that is very proud and likes to fight for justice. I make it my own mission in life to fight for our land, to clean up the land, and to allow our kids to be even more indigenous so that we are in balance with the natural world.
In Canada we became very resistant to colonialism, so we have a reputation of being one of the tribes always in a confrontation, which is true. They tried to take away our land and our government.
The Mohawk are also known in New York for their work with steel, like the building of the Twin Towers and other high buildings. My father did that, all my friends did it. That´s what people think when you say Mohawk in New York.
In your work you talk about the youth and cultural revitalization, can you explain that concept to us?
My work is to look at each tribe and find opportunities they may have to maintain a connection with their practices. Or, if those practices are lost, we look at finding ways for them to relearn it from other tribes. The basic model is the Master & Apprentice, like you do with language or with art. A lot of our youth are lost, because of the lost of land and the racist assaults on our culture. They are native but they don´t know what that really means. They lost any connection with their traditions. There´s much frustration and anger, so there´s a lot of violence in our communities as well as lateral violence and substance abuse.
I was very involved in politics in what was called the reivindicación de la tierra. It involved the legal and political process to get our lands back. That was my work when I started over ten years ago. When I shifted over to cultural revitalization, which was when we were getting youth to practice our traditional culture and language on the land that we gotten back.
Twelve years ago I started working with one particular community on this matter. We tried to figure out a new way of getting youth to be focused and have a purpose and to be proud of being indigenous. Not to go back to hundred years ago, but to integrate where we have been with our modern life; a new balance. It’s been two years now and we have seen amazing changes in them and their families.
How do you use storytelling, language and art to be bring the youth back to their traditions?
I do a lot of different things but it’s always the same path. I used to write scholarships and more political stuff for that purpose, but now I´m doing more creative writing and storytelling.
There´s a lot of people who do it using the language but for us it’s mostly through speaking to groups and communicating on their level, which they are not used to hearing. In school they get to study history and leadership. It’s very political. But when I go to give my speeches I talk to them about the great Earth, because I lived there. I have suffered what they suffer. I try to convince them that all the answers that the government is giving them are not going to help them. The only thing that will help them to feel whole again is being in a respectful relationship with their territory, their land, and respect their ancestor´s vision of being indigenous.
What´s the ancestor’s vision of being indigenous?
It’s very simple. It’s just to be in a respectful, sustainable, and honoring relationship with all of the other elements of the natural world; to not put the human above anybody else, to look at it as an interconnected secret weapon. The relationships that exist and keep that balance are sacred. Humans are healthy if the natural environment is healthy, same with the animals. It’s very simple but profound.
It´s almost impossible to have this vision right now because of capitalism. This system looks at everything as a commodity, including people. It´s hard to have a vision of respect for each other in this context. So we are creating these non-capitalistic spaces where people can experience what it’s like to be an indigenous person.
How would you describe your job as an educator?
My job in the University of Victoria in British Columbia is Indigenous Leadership. I educate the leaders at the master and doctoral levels so they can go back to the communities with this cultural knowledge. These leaders are already in both worlds, but we feel they are to be held accountable to the indigenous tradition, not another idea of progress or capitalism. Most of the native people in Canada are segregated, pretty much what happens in Colombia with your native people. There is nothing for them. They are isolated in harsh, cold weather. Mostly they´ve been moved away from the good land to marginal land so other people can take advantage of the resources. That is colonialism.
In Canada, the option they are giving to these people is to leave their land and go to college. For me they are destroying their tribal identity. But even with that option, they do not make it. They have to go to the right college. There´s a lot of schools so we try to take care of their political education so they can make the best of both worlds.
Do you think it is possible to live between cultures and to have an indigenous vision of life in our actual social and economic system?
It´s very difficult, you have to commit and sacrifice. You can’t just live a normal life and expect to have that benefit. You have to sacrifice somewhat of comfort and material reward that comes from participating in this system in order to maintain that connection. It requires money and time, but it´s possible.
When I go hunting, sometimes I take my children or other people to maintain the connection. It costs a lot of money but it’s worth it because you can have a different relationship with food, with cooking, and with preserving the meat. We just need to shoot a moose. The meat will last a year for a whole family. We use guns so that the animal does not suffer. There´s many ways to preserve the meat but now we mostly freeze it.