"Our America: Reclaiming Turtle Island" brings to life the July 2022 National Geographic issue cover story, "We Are Here," written by Charles C. Mann with photography by Kiliii Yuyan, and the conversation around Native sovereignty and the efforts Indigenous nations and communities are taking to reclaim Turtle Island -- a common Indigenous name for North America.
Watch the full episode in the media player above.
Yuyan, a National Geographic photographer, is Nanai/Hezhe (East Asian Indigenous) and Chinese-American and his work primarily covers stories on indigenous communities in the arctic and subarctic regions.
"My entire life has been a journey of trying to revisit and reclaim not only my indigenous heritage, but also just to understand how it is that my grandmother's people were so closely tied to the land and what it is that made us who we are, today," he said.
Yuyan also shares his own definition of sovereignty.
"Indigenous sovereignty is the freedom to be your whole and complete self. What it really means is, it's the freedom to speak your own language, it's the freedom to live by your traditional lifestyle. And it's the freedom to live according to your own cultural values and priorities."
In "Our America: Reclaiming Turtle Island," Yuyan reconnects with some of the individuals featured in the magazine, including model and activist, Quannah Chasinghorse, who appeared on the cover of the iconic issue. Chasinghorse talks about the role her mother, Jody Potts Joseph has played in molding her into the strong woman she is today. Potts Joseph, a tribal leader, traditional tattooist and part of the National Geographic Television show "Life Below Zero: First Alaskans," believes reclaiming identity and cultural preservation is a huge part of Native Sovereignty.
"Multiple people throughout our communities are reclaiming different parts, whether it's practicing or Sundance's in ceremonies, or traditional tattooing like our family is doing, our hunting practices, our practices in Northern California, where the tribes are practicing our traditional burning to prevent massive wildfires," Potts Joseph said. "There are multiple, multiple examples of our people reclaiming who we are, our lands and our identities."
Both women use their influence and platform to continue to be strong activists in their communities. Chasinghorse discusses the significance of traditional tattooing and how cultural appropriation can be a misrepresentation of the sacred practice.
"These practices come with so much more," she said. "It's not done for the look and well When a person outside of the community that's not native or non-Indigenous, receives a facial tattoo that resembles our tattoos, it's a misrepresentation of what they really are and where they originated from."
Global music icon, cultural activist and member of the iconic music group Black Eye Peas, Taboo, is part of a generation of Native Americans who are still learning about their heritage and history, which was lost due to colonization and assimilation.
Taboo, who is of Native American and Mexican descent, attributes his success to his maternal grandmother, who taught him about his Shoshone heritage as he got older.
"I wouldn't be anywhere without the love and support of my grandmother," he said. "So, the idea of creativity, of dance, song, performance, storytelling, was sparked by my grandmother.
Taboo's pride for his Native American roots inspired him to pursue his career as a Marvel comic book writer where he could expand Native American representation to the comic brand.
"The journey of storytelling with Marvel is just an extension of something that was started in my grandmother's living room," he said.
Taboo is candid about the importance about not getting everything right on the journey to learning about his history, but does his best to do so in a respectable manner.
"As you go along, you learn every different perspective, because every tribe is different, every nation is different. And that's something that I'm learning on my journey to reconnect with my roots. And I do it in a way where I'm respectful and I'm vulnerable enough to say I don't know everything about it. I'm still learning. I'm still student and I'm very proud of that."
White Corn was the dominant crop and fundamental food source for the Seneca and Haudenosaunee people, but disappeared over the centuries. Today, the Haudenosaunee confederacy in upstate New York is reclaiming the freedom to grow and eat their own food.
"[What] we're really about is being able to feed ourselves and trying to convince our own people how important that is, for things like diabetes, for heart disease, and all of the other things that affect us today, we think that if we're eating our own traditional food, that we have a better chance of survival," the White Corn Project's founding site manager and artist, Peter Jemision (Seneca, Heron Clan) said. "And being able to be sovereign."
Angela Ferguson, a traditional corn grower featured in the National Geographic cover story, talks to groups about the importance of preparing their pre-colonial traditional foods as a major part of being sovereign.
"It means that you can feed yourself, it means that you're not giving your power away to anybody else to determine your sustenance," she said.
Ferguson, who is an Onondaga farm supervisor, provides insight into the role that their powerful food systems played in history.
"One of the great powers that we had was our food," she said. "Because in order for people in general, anywhere to be successful, there has to be physical health, spiritual health, mental health. And when you have a strong society of people based off of their, their health and wellness, then that's where their power comes from. And the food played such a large role in that."
Ferguson and the White Corn Project connect food to sovereignty in their work with Indigenous youth.
"Part of sovereignty as well as not just the food, but being able to speak your language, to be able to go to the ceremonies and know that they're still taking place." Ferguson said. "When you don't have to ask somebody else for something and you can do it yourself. That's what makes you strong. That's what makes you sovereign."
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