Interview by Margaret Sagan of FVC, NMAI
MRS: Good morning, Carol. First, just to begin, I'd like
to know where you're from.
CK: Well, I was born in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which is
in central Bolivia, in a town called Quillacollo. I didn't really
grow up there. I left there when I was three years old. I came
here to New York with my parents.
MRS: You've worked for many years in international policy
making. Could you please describe how indigenous communities can
use international policy as a tool to strengthen their collective
CK: First I want to mention that if they do try and use
international policy [they need] a lot of patience, because it's
the governments of the nation-states, the members of the UN, that
make the final decisions on how policies are going to change or
not. Those nation-states have been very influenced and almost
guarded, I would say, by the private sector: the oil industry,
mining, industrial agriculture, et cetera.
For the past few decades, while it's difficult for them to do
so, most indigenous peoples have been putting part of their efforts
in the international arena, while still keeping their other efforts
and their other energies at the local and national level. If you
put all your eggs in the international basketit moves at
the speed of a glacier. It's not the most effective, but it's
the place that indigenous peoples thought they needed to take
their strugglesbecause indigenous peoples are peoples just
as the German peoples or the British or any others, with their
own government systems, with their own forms of social organization,
political organization and their own languages. So the international
arena is where they should be and have chosen to be.
MRS: Please describe the relationship between international
political organizations, nation-states, non-governmental organizations,
and indigenous organizations. Do they work in concert?
CK: Yeah, it's an interesting dynamic. In order for indigenous
peoples to have any type of status within the UN system, they
have to form non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In a way it's
ironic, because many of them are governments in and of themselves,
so how can they be non-governmental? But many of them have chosen
to say, "OK, if we're going to play in the UN system we have
to play by their rules, so we're going to form non-governmental
If the NGO functions well, it has very strong ties to the local,
traditional community and gets its guidance from the traditional
structures at the grassroots level. What they usually do is try
to get what's called "consul status" in the UN System,
so that they can register and participate in any of the policy-making
discussions they feel are important to them. That's how the link
is made to the grassroots communities-through the NGOs.
MRS: You've been working within policy-making discussions
around issues of food. How's food an expression of culture? And
why is that important to you?
CK: It became important to me a long time ago, just understanding
who I was living here in the US. It was through a lot of the food-related
traditions that my mother kept really strong ties to our background
and to our homeland. Some of my favorites are a lot of the soups
that my mother makes with quinoa and with peanuts. I also really
like the jerky that we used to have; when I have been lucky enough
to be able to go back to, I try and get some of the llama jerky
that they have there.
We're still really happy when we can find some of the traditional
foods that we used to eat back home. Lately it's become easier
to do that, there are a lot of stores that sell those types of
things. When we have relatives who come here they often bring
whatever they can.
So, I have a personal tie to food as a cultural expression and
as part of cultural identity. When genetically-modified foods
came to the forefront of our reality
it freaked me out. I
felt like by working on food issues, especially now in this globalized
era, that it would be a really good way to link with other people,
not just indigenous peoples, but to form strong alliances to help
move the flow of things into a direction that was healthier and
wiser for everybody on this planet.
And I know that it's always been an important issue for the indigenous
peoples that I've worked with
.The food, the welcoming that
they would give us, the foods that they would serve, they were
so proud and happy and honored to be able to share that with us,
and to be able to tell us the stories that were behind the salmon
or the caribou or any of the types of corn that they would serve
us. You knew that their identity was very much tied into it.
In Indian cultures, they consider themselves descendents of these
foods. The Mayan people are the people of the corn for example:
los hombres del maíz. There are people who are salmon people,
there are people who are caribou people, like the Gwich'in in
Alaska. Their whole being stems from it, even some of the clan
systems are based on foods and crops
it's very much literally
part of many indigenous people's cultural identity, and their
food systems carry a lot of their singing traditions and their
dances. Their overall health depends very much on them being able
to eat that foodin the season when it's supposed to be eaten,
not in the seasons when the federal government, or state government
decides it should be hunted or gathered or sown.
MRS: I know that you recently came back from living in
Alaska and I was wondering if you would like to describe the indigenous
community and the community work that you've been doing.
CK: Sure. Chickaloon Village in south-central Alaska,
the community that I lived in, is pretty unique because the traditional
leadership, both male and female, in that community has been at
the forefront of the sovereignty movement there.
They've also been very active in creating bridges that help to
heal some of the misunderstanding or misconceptions between Native
and non-Native in the work that they've done. In their clinic
for example, they decided that they would want to try and help
as many people as possible
with some of their employment
services and the access to computers that they provided to the
public, they wanted to make sure that the non-Native people who
live near-by could also have access to that, so that the entire
community would benefit.
They have been affected a lot by mineral extraction up there,
because there has been a lot of coal development over the past
decades. And their subsistence food, their salmon in particular,
has suffered under the impact, and of course the people have too.
Through the mining that was done there, a lot of the rivers were
contaminated. It made it impossible for the salmon to really be
healthy there and thrive. Some of the environmental work that
they've done there has been really ground-breakingthey've
been able to re-route and recreate the original path that the
salmon used to take into this one creek. They've been able to
bring the salmon back to that creek, to a fairly healthy population,
little by little.
One of the areas that I've been helping them with is strategic
planning and gathering some of the traditional knowledge from
the elders through interviews and visits, so that they could have
a traditional basis for the laws that they developed in order
to protect the environment. I worked on [coordinating] an environmental
ordinance for them, and I'm helping them also in grant-writing
for that Moose Creek restoration project.
MRS: Is there youth participation in any of these efforts?
Is that traditional knowledge being passed down within the community?
CK: It is. [Chickaloon] has a strong language program.
There aren't very many elders who speak the language, there aren't
that many Ahtna Athabascan speakers left. They've been involved
in documenting the language through a really innovative and creative
language program that includes interactive media.
Another way that they've been doing wonderful work is through
their traditional school. If I'm not mistaken, they created the
first Alaskan Native traditional school in Alaska, where they
teach not only the standard reading writing and 'rithmetic, western-style,
but they also teach the Ahtna language and the traditional stories.
The young people do extremely well on standard tests
they have been on radio and television in some interviews, and
they bring a lot of confidence with them when they speak in public.
Many people think it's because they know who they are, because
they have that strong basis in their language and their traditional
MRS: How can community video also be a way of knowing
who you are?
CK: In remembering back to some of the videos and discussions
that I had with indigenous people, Native filmmakers from Bolivia,
for example, I know that there's been a lot of self-knowledge
and resurgence of pride in who they are as peoples that has arisen
through the use of media. Many of them have said, "You know,
when we see ourselves on the screen, it really strengthens our
sense of self. It inspires us to delve even more into understanding
our older stories, the tribal stories." Many of them have
been able to take those traditional stories and put them into
genres like fiction, inspiring the young people to want to go
back to these stories as well. And they see that they are using
a modern technology to bring these stories back, to recapture
them in a really interesting way.
Many of them want to learn media and continue on being expressive
and having the courage to say who they are and do so proudly.
In many countries in Latin America, in Bolivia in particular,
the element of racism is still very strong. It's not quite like
it is here. To be a Native person here it's almost
past decade or so it's kind of cool or sexy to be Native, no matter
what fraction Native you might be.
But there, and in other countries in Latin America, the ones
who have the hardest times are the ones who are influenced by
the type of racism and subjugation that they find, especially
if they have any interaction with the city people. They go to
the urban areas to try and find work, because some of the climate
conditions are changing the way their agriculture can survive.
They confront so much mistreatment and racism that some of them
decide to perm their hair so that it's curly, or they change their
last name from their Native last name to a more Spanish last name,
and try to fit in that way. I think that little by little that
that's changing but it's still a big struggle. The media is helping
the resurgence in indigenous pride and in wanting to know more
about and recover a lot of the traditions.
MRS: We're here at the Selectors Meeting for the Native
American Film and Video Festival. What do you personally look
for while you're evaluating videos for the festival?
CK: I try and keep any type of judgments I might have
about the videos in the context of, "What access do the local
people there, the media makers, have to other ways of seeing,
other ways of thinking.?" I look for something that speaks
from direct experience rather than being a view of something from
the outside If the filmmaker really allows the voice of the local
people to come through strongly, that's always an advantage for
any video or any film. I look if it expresses something that really
no other filmmaker could express or no other people could express.
MRS: How did you get involved in media to begin with?
.I think I got involved mainly through my writing,
through trying to communicate, not just the Native public in the
Native journals and newspapers that I used to write for, but also
to a more general audience, about all of the different levels
of issues that indigenous peoples are dealing with: day-to-day
survival and their long-term aspirations for how they want to
develop as peoples, what type of future they want to leave for
their children and grandchildren.
I saw how important it was to use any possible tool to communicate
those things. And it doesn't necessarily have to be in a dry depressing
documentary style. It can be told through fiction. A lot of factual
things can be expressed through fiction, sometimes much more powerfully
than in documentary. So I've always been interested in writing
as a communication tool, not just journalistic writing but also
short story writing. I see the short story aspect of video as
well: storytelling, narrative. And that's why I got interested.
Carol Kalafatic - photograph by Tim Warner