Introducing: Reciprocity Project Season 1

The Reciprocity Project Films share Indigenous knowledge to heal the planet, reminding us that "We're here as guests." 

“We’re here as guests, and we’re here to be as careful and as responsible as we can be.”

– Thomas Belt, from “ᎤᏕᏲᏅ (What They’ve Been Taught)” by Brit Hensel and Keli Gonzales (Cherokee Nation)

When humans lighten our footprints on the planet, the Earth heals itself. This healing happens more readily when we adhere to a practice of reciprocity with the land, in which we tend to the land while only taking from it what we need—as opposed to the extractive practices of settler culture. When living in reciprocity with the lands we live on, water and air become clearer, animals reclaim territory and the land becomes healthier. 

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The simple yet profound value of reciprocity inspires a wondering that remains urgent: How can each of us learn from Indigenous ways of being in relationship with the land and understanding more about our cultures?   

This is the inspiration for Reciprocity Project, a collaborative effort between Nia Tero, a global nonprofit uplifting Indigenous land sovereignty through policy and storytelling, and Upstander Project, which uplifts silenced narratives through film and education, in association with REI Co-op Studios. Reciprocity Project is a series of short films made by Indigenous filmmaking teams in different communities, each exploring the question: What does reciprocity mean to you?  

The project is rooted in the knowledge that Indigenous peoples and communities have been in good relationship with—and speaking the language of—this land since the beginning of time. Diverse Indigenous value systems offer a path forward.   

Starting this Indigenous Peoples Day, all seven short films in the first season of the Reciprocity Project are available to view on the REI Co-op YouTube Channel.  

“It was like something that was lost, something that was stolen, was gifted back to me, and it felt like it just belonged there.”

– Brianna Smith, from “Weckuwapasihtit (Those Yet to Come)” by Geo Neptune and Brianna Smith (Passamaquoddy)

One of our goals with Reciprocity Project is to continually build on and assess our own accountability practices with community, and to strive to eliminate extractive or exploitative practices. The documentary film industry has an ongoing colonial legacy of taking advantage of community members as “consultants,” bringing them in toward the end of a project in order to legitimize it, rather than engaging them early on in the creation and production process. In an attempt to repair some of that history, we sought to create films with and for Indigenous communities. From the start, each Reciprocity Project filmmaker worked with someone within their own community—not as a “consultant,” but as a substantive and essential partner, grounding the film in authenticity, communal knowledge and mutual respect. 

Additionally, the Indigenous communities documented in these homeland-centered stories were also their first audience: Only after sharing the films with the communities did we move forward in seeking broader distribution and recognition. This, too, is a form of reciprocity.

“If you learn well, then you will teach the children.”

– Reverend Trimble Gilbert, from “Diiyeghan naii Taii Tr’eedaa (We Will Walk the Trail of Our Ancestors)” by Princess Daazhraii Johnson and Alisha Carlson (Gwich’in)

Reciprocity Project isn’t simply a set of short films: It is part of a larger paradigm shift. In addition to the films, Reciprocity Project includes a rich media ecosystem of learning materials, discussion questions, filmmaker roundtable videos, photos, podcasts and more, available at  Reciprocity.org. This is part of an ongoing education for those with whom these vibrant, medicinal stories resonate—people who may not be Indigenous, but who care deeply about the environment and seek to contribute to its healing. Reciprocity Project is for all of us.  

“One thing I really want to change through ‘Ma’s House’ is to actually transform the public perception of Shinnecock, where we are a modern place, where we have history being celebrated.”

– Jeremy Dennis, from “Ma’s House” by Jeremy Dennis (Shinnecock)

These films share an urgent message: The time to act to heal the planet is now.

Listening to our elders, appreciating and incorporating their knowledge, and helping to spark learning among the young people in our communities are ways to open space for fresh ideas and ways forward. The Reciprocity Project films might also inspire you to listen—really listen—to the land, air, water and animals around you. Educate yourself and others about the history of the land you are on, the space you occupy and the Indigenous People who are on that land today. What is your land telling you? How is it caring for you and how can you care for it? And as we listen to and learn from the work of these Indigenous creators, may we all ask ourselves the question: What kind of ancestor do I want to be?

“Diiyeghan naii Taii Tr’eedaa (We Will Walk the Trail of Our Ancestors)” was created on Lower Tanana Dene lands by Princess Daazhraii Johnson and Alisha Carlson. It is the first documentary spoken fully in the Gwich’in language and follows an elder teaching his granddaughter how the Gwich’in people take care of caribou (and vice versa).  

In “ᎤᏕᏲᏅ (What They’ve Been Taught),” filmed by Brit Hensel and Keli Gonzales on the Cherokee Nation and Qualla Boundary, an elder shares stories that uplift tradition, language, land and a commitment to maintaining balance.   

Mother-and-son team David Hernandez Palmar and Flor Palmar (Wayuu Iipuana) made “SŪKŪJULA TEI (Stories of My Mother)” in the Wayuu Community of Majali, Wounmainkat, Abya Yala, telling the story of a wise Wayuu woman teaching her sister’s grandchildren the importance of reciprocity within their culture.

Geo Neptune and Brianna Smith (Passamaquoddy) made “Weckuwapasihtit (Those Yet to Come)” on the lands of the Passamaquoddy Nations of Sipayik and Motahkomikuk: Unceded Passamaquoddy Territory. Their film features Peskotomuhkati youth leading an intergenerational process of healing through athasikuwi-pisun, or “tattoo medicine.”  

“Weckuwapok (The Approaching Dawn)” was created by a filmmaker collective comprising Jacob Bearchum, Taylor Hensel, Adam Mazo, Chris Newell, Roger Paul, Kavita Pillay, Tracy Rector and Lauren Stevens. It celebrates how the Waponahkik (the people of the dawn land) bring gratitude to the rising sun through stories and ceremony, joined on one special morning at Moneskatik (Schoodic Point, Maine) by Yo-Yo Ma and other friends and visitors.  

Jeremy Dennis’s “Ma’s House” was filmed on the Shinnecock Nation and serves as the filmmaker’s documentation of how he restored his family home by hand to create a communal gathering place for a new generation of artists.  

Filmed on the Occupied Kingdom of Hawai’i, “Pili Ka Moʻo” by Justyn Ah Chong and Malia Akutagawa (Kanaka Maoli) shines a light on a Kanaka Maoli taro farming family on a quest to preserve their ancestral land and burial grounds from settler encroachment.  

We are grateful to the peoples who welcomed these productions into their homes, communities, and lives. 

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