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UNPFII Chairman, Grand Chief Edward John Discusses the Power of Indigenous Storytelling

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NEW YORK - Diplomats, journalists and media activists from around the globe turned out at United Nations headquarters on Thursday, August 9th for the 18th annual International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. In honor of this year’s theme, ‘Indigenous Media, Empowering Indigenous Voices,’ the aim was intended to highlight the vital role films, blogs, social media and other platforms play in advancing the long-running indigenous rights movement.

In his opening remarks, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon renewed a pledge of support to the movement and the implementation of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). He said, “Indigenous voices are recounting compelling stories of how they are combating centuries of injustice and discrimination, and advocating for the resources and rights that will preserve their cultures, languages, spirituality and traditions.”

The afternoon event included a multimedia presentation, featuring a mix of films along with a panel discussion. Indigenous media-makers represented included TV and radio broadcasters from Norway, Ecuador, Canada and the United States. Issues raised targeted collaboration shortfalls, funding hurdles, and the need for digital access in rural indigenous communities.

Chairman of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Grand Chief Edward John of Canada played an active role in the talks. Indian Country Today Media Network spoke with John at the event about the importance of indigenous storytelling, why the mainstream media often misses the mark, and his personal experience as a residential boarding school survivor and how it has fueled his passion for language preservation through the media.

Chairman John, what do you think about what’s happening here today?

Well, it’s the 18th anniversary of the establishment of the World’s Indigenous People’s Day at the U.N. It was 1982 on August 9th when the first meeting under the auspices of the United Nations happened that involved indigenous people so it commemorates and celebrates that day. So this day is significant in that we today acknowledge the indigenous communicators who tell our stories to the public and with an indigenous perspective.

So it’s important in the regard. There are so many issues that we have to deal with, but to focus on the work of journalists, broadcasters, bloggers, writers… and to continue to make sure that we support that part of our community, that part of the indigenous world.

Why is it so important to promote indigenous voices right now?

Well we need to be able to speak up. We need to be able to speak out. We need to be able to tell our stories. We need to be able to challenge the myths, the stereotypes. We need to bring more attention to our issues, because, you know unfortunately, mainstream media doesn’t do enough of that.

When we hear and see stories about Indigenous Peoples, usually they’re negative stories. They’re usually of the dire situation of many of our people in our communities and so we need to be able to balance off that with the contributions that indigenous people make globally, historically and now as well.

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I understand you have a very powerful personal story about your own experience with residential boarding schools. Can you talk briefly about how these stories play a role in the campaign to promote indigenous storytelling?

It was an experiment by the state as to, infamously said, kill the Indian and the child and the institutions to do that were the Indian residential schools and we were as children supposed to be the mechanism by which our languages died, our cultures died as Indigenous Peoples. That was who were supposed to be. Unfortunately that miserable experience failed. Many of us went to Indian residential schools already immersed in our language and our culture and the next number of years in these institutions were designed to beat that out of us, you know?

There’s some very drastic consequences, drastic situations of indigenous children in these schools. I would say that if I count back and think of all of my colleagues in that institution, I would have to say that many of them are dead now. Yeah.

And so, the impacts have been pretty dramatic. The impacts have been pretty negative in many regards. You know we have indigenous languages that are on the verge of extinction because these schools were designed to kill the languages and they’ve been effective in that regard. That’s not to suggest that um, you know, we’re not standing up, we’re not speaking out. We are standing up, we are speaking up and telling the story that people would understand it.

You know, we need support to ensure that our languages continue to survive and that’s one of the issues that we need to address through media.

Thank you for sharing your story. Can I please take a picture of you to post on Instagram?

Is that like Twitter?

Yeah, but only with more pictures.

Well, I post pictures on my Twitter.

So you tweet?

Yep. I can be found at @akilechoh.