In the short documentary Future Ancestor, artist and scholar Lyla June embarks on a seven-day fast on the steps of the Capitol building in Santa Fe, symbolizing her intention to care for the next seven generations. At the time, she was running for a seat in the New Mexico state legislature. Her mission was to bring Indigenous culture and values, as a Diné (Navajo) and Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) woman, into the political sphere. Though she didn’t end up winning, that mission has persisted in her work on, among other things, the Seven Generations New Deal.
The film was created by photographer and videographer Josué Rivas (Mexica and Otomi), whose work showcases contemporary Indigenous identity in the U.S.
Both leaders in their respective fields, June and Rivas took to Grist’s Instagram account earlier this week to discuss their work, what drives them, and what they have learned from each other. In these excerpts from that conversation, they discuss their process in creating the film together, and June shares about her current research on Indigenous food systems. Watch the full conversation on Grist’s Instagram.
This is one of a series of Instagram Live conversations between members of this year’s Grist 50 list and the people who nominated them. The Grist 50 recognizes emerging leaders in climate, sustainability and equity — we call them Fixers — who are advancing new ideas and new approaches to a better future.
- Read more about 2021 Fixer Lyla June
- Read more about 2020 Fixer Josué Rivas
- Explore the full 2021 Grist 50 list to discover more Fixers making a better future happen today
The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
Rivas: When I saw that you were part of this year’s cohort, I felt excited for the future. During the nomination process, the first person that came to mind was you. We were making this documentary together, Future Ancestor, and I was thinking not only is there a need for Indigenous people to be part of this Grist list, but Indigenous women particularly. After editing that video of you, and really listening and feeling what you were talking about, I felt that the future was going to be a beautiful incorporation of the matriarchy back into our society. Right away, I knew I wanted to nominate you and welcome you into this community.
June: We should tell people a bit about the film. I ran for office last year, against the oil and gas industry of New Mexico. I raised 125 grand in 20 days. We had donations from all 50 states because the Permian Oil Basin is in New Mexico. It contributes greatly to the climate crisis and has the potential to contribute even more. So I was going full speed ahead, and posed a pretty significant threat to the oil establishment. My opponent was getting maxed out donations from ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil, all these different oil companies.
They just threw everything they had at me. It got pretty crazy. But the cool thing was Josué documented my seven-day fast at the Capitol steps in Santa Fe. That was really fun and beautiful. I was fasting for the next seven generations. And I think what I liked about it most was that we were bringing an Indigenous way of representing and being to the political sphere. And we were also unveiling the Seven Generations New Deal, an Indigenous-based climate policy.
Rivas: Knowing you through the years and knowing your spirit and your leadership, I knew that you were going into this full force — and also that it was much bigger than you. It was much bigger than just your campaign. You were igniting something that hopefully people are going to pick up on. What you were doing was very courageous, and I think that’s why I wanted to document it.
Another thing I learned and I continue to learn is putting forward a new paradigm of how we tell our stories as Indigenous peoples. This is your film as much as it’s all of ours. Tell me a little bit about how you felt telling your story.
June: As Indigenous peoples, being filmed or being represented in the world can sometimes be a challenging experience, because of the history of misrepresentation. I totally understand that you’re not supposed to control how you’re represented in the media. But it is nice to have a safe place where you can share your Indigenous story on the climate crisis and know you’re going to have agency over how you’re represented. I knew that you were down with that. It’s like how you say, “I don’t take photos, I make photos,” or, “I don’t shoot with my camera. I go and I make art” — all the language that you use to decolonize photography and videography.
Rivas: Tell me a little bit about your academic path. I’ve always been so inspired by that because I’m not an academic at all. How does that inspire you in your life right now?
June: I’m in the middle of a doctoral program. I’m sort of getting into the meat of writing technical papers on pre-Colombian Indigenous food systems and how those are so connected to regional ecosystems management. You know, we didn’t used to have these little plots of food. It was like the Earth was our garden. The Earth was our farm. And we tended it in the same way a farmer would tend an acre, but we tended whole mountain ranges.
One of my papers was about Indigenous burning practices and controlled burns. Fire kept the cycles flowing on this continent for thousands of years. Every region of this continent was burned routinely — you bring all that debris into ash, which fertilizes the soil. Now they’re talking about biochar like it’s this new technology. We’ve been doing that for thousands of years.
So that’s my fire paper. My water paper was about Indigenous fisheries. I took six case studies, and one was the Chesapeake Bay, where Algonquin peoples oversaw an oyster fishery for 10,000 years.
Rivas: That’s insane.
June: Yeah! America’s been eating oysters out of the Chesapeake for 300 years, and the oyster population has pretty much collapsed. But by looking at the archeological record, we can see that these oyster shells not only persisted for 10,000 years but got bigger over time — meaning that ancestors sustainably harvested oysters, and actually grew them for 10,000 years. And each of these six case studies of Indigenous fisheries were all at least 6,000 years old, where they were harvesting the same species from the same locale for over 6,000 years straight. If that’s not sustainability, I don’t know what it is.
I’m obviously nerding out on this quite a bit. I did the fire, the water, now I’m doing the Earth, all focused on Indigenous soil management.
Rivas: As you talk about these studies that you’re doing, I can’t stop thinking about how that would be a beautiful documentary. How you’re going to these different places — so you’re doing fire, water, Earth, and then air?
June: You know, I haven’t thought about air. I was like, what is the air? Is it the cultural knowledge? But now I’m realizing the air is climate — and how all of this connects to climate.
Rivas: I’m a visual person. So as you’re talking about all these scientific things, that’s translated to me in images. And I think that’s important, for people to see themselves in these stories.
In the film, you said something that just blew my mind completely, which was that we’re planting seeds for people we will never meet. That stuck with me, and it has been running my life, really, in a lot of ways. Tell me a little bit about that.
June: Right now, we’re thinking about the next fiscal quarter. Or maybe the next five years. I’m guilty of that, too. I was indoctrinated in this culture. You don’t really think, “How are we, as a national community, going to work together to make sure that our great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren have a wonderful life?” I’m trying to have that run my life, too.
Let’s make sure we pass on to our children what works — which is honoring women, honoring water, honoring biodiversity, and honoring humility as the highest technology that we as human beings can ever possess.
And by the way, anything smart I say, I’m just plagiarizing my elders. Everything I’m sharing is my elders’ wisdom, so I’ve got to give a shout-out to them.