“You’re Not the Indian I Had in Mind”: Jess Housty On Respectfully Working in Indigenous Communities

I started my day with my morning tea and these illuminating words from Jess Housty. From her Twitter profile (@heiltsukvoice), Jess Housty describes herself as: ‘Cúagilákv: Community agitator; mother; tribal councillor; admirer of gentle warriors; foreign-funded radical; Indigenist; unapologetically . Though I haven’t met her myself, I have had the opportunity to hear her speak about her work on the campaign to end trophy hunting in Heiltsuk territory. She speaks eloquently and passionately about the importance of collaboration, perseverance, and staying grounded. Check out her other writings here.

Now back to the article. This article is a MUST READ for all Canadians. I really mean that. Though she is writing to a specific audience (film-makers who want to film in Indigenous communities), her words carry with them a much broader significance. Housty leaves this final message:

Reconciliation isn’t about federal apologies or one-time marches in the street. It’s about re-evaluating how you carry yourself in the world in relation to Indigenous peoples. There’s a great deal of learning (and unlearning) to do and I hope you intuit how important and transformative the journey can be.

In the article, she describes the many problematic ways in which films are made in Indigenous communities and provides practical alternatives to people who are interested in working with Indigenous communities. Housty asks all the good questions that people tend to shy away from. Her article addresses the following 8 questions:

  1. Are you centring Indigenous voices and perspectives?
  2. Do you expect Indigenous people to stage their culture for you?
  3. Have you done your homework?
  4. Are you clear on ownership and intellectual property?
  5. Have you thought critically about compensation and benefits?
  6. Are you building capacity or just extracting resources?
  7. How do you feel about leaving final approvals or ownership of footage with us?
  8. Are you playing up stereotypes or open to authenticity?

These reflections and suggestions for improvement are certainly relevant in the law school environment where professors are tasked with implementing the TRC Calls to Action and promoting reconciliation. There are endless ways that this article could prove useful to professors in Canadian law schools. For example, professors could assign Housty’s article as reading and then ask each student to analyze a media piece (film, article, news clip) on a legal issue in Indigenous communities with Housty’s words in mind. It is also directly relevant to any professor or student who intends to do legal research with Indigenous communities.

These words keep coming back to me, as I wander through my day. I reflect on the work I have done as a lawyer working with Indigenous communities. Have I done a good enough job centring Indigenous voices and perspectives? Have I been building capacity? Compensating properly? And on and on. I welcome the opportunity to reflect on my work through a new, sharper lens and am thankful that Jess Housty shared her words with the world. So go ahead and read the full article here.