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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT

Ho-Chunk filmmaker Sky Hopinka and Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer are among this year’s winners of the prestigious $800,000 MacArthur Fellowships.

The so-called “Genius Grants” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation support creative people in various fields whose work addresses pressing social challenges.

Hopinka is a filmmaker, video artist and photographer who creates new forms of cinema that center Indigenous perspectives. His works have been featured at the Sundance Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and other museums and festivals.

Kimmerer is a professor and author whose books include, “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.” 

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They are among 25 winners of the 2022 MacArthur grants, joining artists, sociologists, scientists, historians, activists, mathematicians, writers, composers and musicians, as well as a demographer, an engineer, a lawyer, and a physician.

“The 2022 MacArthur Fellows are architects of new modes of activism, artistic practice, and citizen science,” Marlies Carruth, director of the MacArthur Fellows, said in a statement.

“They are excavators uncovering what has been overlooked, undervalued, or poorly understood. They are archivists reminding us of what should survive,” Carruth said. “Their work extends from the molecular level to the land beneath our feet to Earth’s orbital environment — offering new ways for us to understand the communities, systems, and social forces that shape our lives around the globe.”

Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, Citizen Band Potawatomi, is among two Indigenous winners of the 2022 MacArthur Fellowships, an $800,000 award known as a "Genius Grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  Kimmer is also an author whose books include, “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.” Ho-Chunk filmmaker Sky Hopinka was also awarded a 2022 fellowship. (Photo courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

‘Gift of time’

Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, professor and citizen of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. 

She lives in Syracuse, New York, where she is a distinguished teaching professor of environmental biology at State University of New York. She is also the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.

“I’m deeply honored by this award, which to me affirms recognition of Indigenous ecological knowledge as a source of guidance for how we better care for the land,” Kimmerer told ICT. “I hope it celebrates the brilliance of the Indigenous science that has been created and shared by our ancestors. There’s a tension for me, between the individual nature of the award and the reality that our knowledge is collective and intergenerational.”

She said the award will help her share the work being done to protect the environment.

“This incredible gift of the fellowship comes with the responsibility to illuminate and support that knowledge and to use it on behalf of land justice,” she said. “I’ve had the incredible privilege of being able to do the work that I love; protecting our plants, sharing their stories and working with a community of Indigenous scholars from young students to elders.”

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Kimmerer said the funds are a gift in many ways.

“The fellowship provides the gift of time — to think and to dream,” she said. “I need big chunks of time to write, so I’m grateful for the spaciousness this award provides. I’m working on a new book grounded in the animacy of forests and the natural world, informed by Potawatomi language. That story is calling me — and now I can answer.”

Kimmerer said she now will be able to do more work on restoration of cultural plants, advancing the work of plant protection and land healing, with Indigenous science leading the way.

“I also want to use this as an opportunity to learn and grow as an activist, to bring these ideas into action,” she said. “The MacArthur Fellowship brings visibility and awareness to the broader public of the significance of Indigenous knowledge and the ethics of land care. I hope that it lifts up all of the Native educators, activists, writers, scientists, knowledge holders, traditional practitioners who share in this work and this honor.”

‘Sense of validation’

Hopinka, who is also an assistant professor in the film and electronic arts program at Bard College in New York, layers imagery, sound and text to create an innovative cinematic language.

His short and feature-length films connect Indigenous histories and contemporary experiences, using both written and spoken language. His films include recordings with elders and family members, and incorporate poems and stories in English and chinuk wawa, which he speaks and teaches.

“The award means a lot in a lot of different realms,” Hopinka told ICT. “The financial support is huge, just in alleviating some of the stresses that come with making art, making films, and primarily being self-funded. The other is the sense of validation and recognition of the work that I've been doing for the last 10 years that has been primarily more experimental, more art-focused. There isn't a lot of support in the U.S. for Indigenous artists, especially Indigenous artists working in experimental film.”

Hopinka said the grant will provide support for projects he already has under way.

“I'm going to keep on with the projects I've been working on,” he said. “Financial support has never really been a hindrance as far as just how I work with a camera and a microphone. I've been finishing up a video installation, and I have a feature planned for next spring that I'm going to be shooting, and a few other features in development.”

The award draws further attention to the Indigenous creative community, he said.

“I'm not sure what it means for the larger Native community,” Hopinka said. “There’s a lot of work that is being done and has been done in the last I don't know, however many years, a long, long time … How can we continue building on that and how can we be showing the world that there's a larger Native creative community out there that are making poems, that are making films, that are making art, that are making movies?”

Originally from the West Coast, Hopinka is now based in upstate New York, which he says has expanded his views of language and land issues.

“I never thought that I would live on the East Coast,” he said. “The first 25 years of my life I lived in Washington, Oregon, California, and then went to grad school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to be close to my tribe and my family. And then I just … kept on going further and further East over the years. It just makes sense in a lot of ways … I am continuing to work on issues of language and lands, and understand what it means to be Native from parts of the country with different histories.”

Previous winners
Other Indigenous winners of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowships, known as Genius Grants, include:
—Playwright Larissa FastHorse, Sicangu Lakota Nation, selected in 2020
—Jeffrey Gibson, Mississippi Band of Choctaw, an artist who was selected in 2019
—Poet Natalie Diaz, who is Mojave/Latina and was selected in 2018
—Legal advocate Sarah Deer, a prominent voice for Native women's rights, in 2014

*Correction: Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer is one of two Indigenous winners this year of the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grants." Her name was misspelled in an earlier version of the story.

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