Indigenous Performances and Wisdom Permeate Internet Airways
November 30, 2020

Indigenous Performances and Wisdom Permeate Internet Airways

My parents were farmers, and my brother and I would work the horse-drawn plow. I had corn seeds in a pouch, and I would drop each seed behind him as he plowed the earth. I went right behind him and dropped the corn seeds as we went. I’ll never forget those experiences.

Arletta Toland (Diné) illustrated the story of her life through American Sign Language (ASL) during an IndigenousWays Virtual Event — Wisdom Circle, via Zoom. An ASL interpreter on a split-screen spoke the words of Arletta’s life of when she hauled water on her family’s farm; then to the fever that took away her hearing; to growing up in boarding schools, foster homes, and her parent’s farm; to now, her life on the Navajo Reservation as a deaf Indigenous woman. Arletta was among dozens of elders who shared wisdom through a bi-weekly series hosted by IndigenousWays.

IndigenousWays (formally Indigenous Solutions) was founded in 2007 by Natasha Terry (Diné/French/Irish) and Elena Higgins (Maori/Samoa). The nonprofit is dedicated to inclusively promoting to diverse communities living in balance concepts through music and artistic expression outreach and events.

IndigenousWays received a First Peoples Fund (FPF) Our Nations’ Spaces grant in 2020 with plans to use the funding to host their second BeautyWays Music and Arts Festival. But in mid-February, they wondered if the event would go on. When the COVID-19 shutdown came in March, they pivoted their plans and started a bi-weekly virtual series. Through the IndigenousWays Virtual Events — Wisdom Circle and Concert Series, they worked with elders, spiritual advisers, communities, artists, musicians, and guest presenters to maintain connections.

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A. Natasha and Elena. Photography by Lea Morales

“Amber Hoy and Hillary Presecan at First Peoples Fund were extremely supportive,” Natasha says. “We had regular meetings, troubleshooting the online aspects, as we had never done this. We were working month to month, sorting and getting out the monthly calendar of the presenters and their information, updating our website and all our social media pages. This is how we have worked in the past, but not at this insane velocity!”

Natasha and Elena launched the Wisdom Circle and Concert Series on April 1. They continued to dig deep daily to produce two newsletters per week and promote on social media.

They took in feedback and worked with First Peoples Fund to make each week. Now 60 presenters and 60,000 views into the series, they’ve developed a format that respects the presenters and their time, honors the land and people of the land, and informs viewers of other IndigenousWays happenings, including relief for Black Mountain, Arizona on the Navajo Nation.

Hit hard during the COVID-19 crisis, Natasha’s home-place of Black Mountain received $25,000 through IndigenousWays’ fundraising. Since the end of May, they have conducted four relief runs to take emergency supplies and hand-washing stations to communities.

“Because of this platform, we’ve been able to bring relief to Black Mountain,” Natasha says. “We’re going on our fifth relief run, 26 miles up a mountain dirt road.”

The Concert Series presenters — musicians and performers — are thankful for the paid opportunity to present their art. Among the hardest hit by the shutdown, performing artists come online to present poetry, music, and storytelling.

“With the [Our Nations’ Spaces] funding, we’re able to pay all presenters and interpreters,” Natasha says. “They [have] made clear their gratitude of being supported during this time.”

One of the largest audiences reached in this series is the deaf and hard of hearing. Every event is teamed with ASL interpreters to make access available for all, and IndigenousWays introduces a deaf Indigenous elder like Arletta every month.  

“We do a split-screen for the interpreter to be on the other half of the screen,” Natasha says. She is also an ASL interpreter and understands the challenges of live streaming. “It’s very accessible visually.”

Having an ASL interpreter for his performance during the series stands out in Wade Fernandez’s (Menominee) memory. Wade is an FPF Cultural Capital Fellow (2015), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow (2012, 2013), Community Spirit Award Honoree (2010), and FPF trainer. He now does 3-4 live streams per week for several venues — doing his part to bring hope.

“It’s like the [ASL] interpreters are part of the art,” he says. “They’re flowing with the music and the words. You’re doing the music, but they’re part of it; they’re jamming with you. I’m glad to be in the series because it’s reaching people that aren’t reached in other ways. That’s such a beautiful point of what IndigenousWays is doing.”

At the end of each virtual event, Natasha or Elena welcome the audience to turn on their mics and cameras to check in.

“Inviting people on is so well-received,” Natasha says. “It allows people the opportunity to be seen, heard, valued, and to have their lives witnessed during this time. Some people have questions for the presenters, and others just want to say ‘hi.’ According to feedback, our platform actually saved people from committing suicide. The intimacy of having people invited onto the platform at the end of the speaker session proved to be healing for a lot of people.”

As the global audience shaped the series, IndigenousWays decided to stream via Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms. Elders and performers continue to share their wisdom and art through the series while Natasha and Elena seek more funding for it and ongoing relief efforts on Black Mountain.

“IndigenousWays’ ability to transition very quickly has been made possible with the support from the Our Nations’ Spaces grant,” Elena says. “We want to give you all a huge shout out not only for blessing us with the funding but also for your spectacular support. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without your loving support.”

For this series, IndigenousWays also received assistance from the National Endowment of the Arts, National Endowment of Humanities, New Mexico Humanities Councils, NM Arts, Santa Fe City Arts Commission, and individual donors.

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