Indigenous Uprisings & Cross Movement Building

The Radical Futures Now team had the pleasure to speak with Holly Bird to bring us to speed on critical issues facing Ingenious Movements parallels to Black movements, COVID-19 and its impact on the Indigenous Community in America. Hon. Bird graduated from DePaul University College of Law, where she served as the Native American Representative and President of the Latino Law Students Association. Most notably, however, Hon. Bird founded and served as Vice-President, President, and President-Emeritus of the Illinois Native American Bar Association, and is credited for using her advocacy to remove offensive sports mascots from several Illinois schools. Hon. Bird has authored the publications: “Jumping Through Hoops: Traditional Healers and the Indian Health Care Act,” (1999) and “Making the Cross-Cultural Case; Educating the Judge about Race, Religion, and Ethnicity” (2004). In 2008, Hon. Bird was appointed as an Acting Chief Judge / Associate Judge for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, where she served until 2011. Bird maintains a private practice in Traverse City, concentrating in matters of Native American, family, juvenile, criminal, civil, traffic, real estate, probate, employment and business law. Bird also served as the Civil Ground Coordinator for the Water Protectors Legal Collective, the leading legal service at the NoDAPL camp/protest in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She continues to volunteer for WPLC to date. She also founded and serves as the Executive Director for the MI Water Protectors Legal Task Force, a project of the National Lawyer’s. Take a listen and be a part of this conversation.


Rhiki Swinton:
Welcome to The Radical Zone Podcast, where we get updates on the current state of the world and how various communities are impacted from activists and organizers who are out there doing the work.

The Radical Zone Podcast is housed under the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. I know you are probably wondering what the Arcus Center is. The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, also known as ACSJL, is an initiative of Kalamazoo College whose mission is to develop and sustain leaders in human rights and social justice through education and capacity building. We envision a world where every person’s life is equally valued, the inherent dignity of all people is recognized, the opportunity to develop one’s full potential is available to every person, and systematic discrimination and structural inequities have been eradicated. Listen to and engage in conversation with organizers and activists across the globe about social inequities that impact us all.

Hey, everyone. Rhiki Swinton here. Thank you again for tuning into The Radical Zone. Joining me today once again is my lovely co-host, Tirrea Billings. 

Tirrea Billings:
Hello, everyone. 

Rhiki Swinton:
And we have the pleasure of talking to a very special guest, Holly Bird, about indigenous movements, the parallels of those movements to black movements, and also how COVID-19 has been impacting the indigenous community in America. 

Tirrea Billings:
Awesome, and so I just want to introduce our guest, Holly. So Holly has a private practice in Traverse City that concentrates on matters concerning Native Americans. She is the associate Supreme Court judge for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians. She is the leading legal service at the NoDAPL camp/protest in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and she is also the co-executive director of Title Track. 

Holly Bird:
Yes, thank you, [inaudible 00:02:07]. I’m so glad to be here. 

Rhiki Swinton:
So Holly, how are you doing? How are things in Traverse City?

Holly Bird:
Things in Traverse City are doing pretty well. We have managed to keep our COVID numbers down, and many of us are working remotely. I’d already been doing that for quite a while. So we’re just holding it down, basically. Keeping the families safe. Trying to keep tourists from infecting us too much, so that’s where we’re at. But I’m very blessed. 

Rhiki Swinton:
So I’m really interested to know: How did you get into this work, and what motivated you to pursue a career in law?

Holly Bird:
That’s a great question. I always like to tell people that I came into this in a very unconventional way, and I am a fairly unconventional attorney as well. I actually graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy here in Michigan and went on to get degrees in art, social science, anthropology from Michigan State. So I went off and was actually working as an artist on the West Coast and was introduced to the concept of Native American law by my Aunt Maria, who was the executive director of Oregon’s native legal services. And I had some exposure to lawyers, as my father was a lawyer and my grandfather, and my step-grandfather. But they were businessmen. They weren’t really practicing as lawyers, so I never really got to see the advocacy side of it.

But in college, I had always been really active in advocacy, protesting, negotiating rights, whatever it was, so it actually was a very natural sort of fit for me to be an advocate, more so than it was to be a typical lawyer. So I went into the law because at that time, our Native American community was in dire need of lawyers. I’m really only third-generation attorney for Native Americans and second-generation judge, and I am the very first Native American arbitrator in the United States. So that was a need that our community had. I sort of became fascinated, seeing what my aunt was doing with the attorneys in her office and how it affected our communities and how rich that need was. So went from basically being an artist to being an attorney.

So from there, I worked in various issues concerning our communities. One was initially working with mascots in Chicago. As a law student, I helped get rid of a Redskins mascot in Chicago in their high schools. I started working immediately on the different urban issues that Native Americans face when they’re sort of disenfranchised from their reservation areas and the support that they can get there. And also, just lots of advocacy. And all of that kind of rolled around eventually into working for tribes as a tribal judge. I worked as a guardian ad litem for children. And then, when Standing Rock came around, that was sort of a natural for me. When I saw videos of the dogs being sicced on my relatives out west, I literally couldn’t sleep for days. So in a way, it really wasn’t even a choice for me. I had to leave, and I had to go help.

So fortunately, there was a legal tent there that allowed me to volunteer. And then eventually, I came on staff with the Water Protector Legal Collective and had been with them for about four years in various roles. I was the ground coordinator during the NoDAPL Standing Rock camp, which meant I was in camp, lived in camp, and provided legal services to the people that were there. Sometimes that meant just giving them legal advice on different things. Other times, it meant holding off the police for a raid. So there were a lot of different things that we did.

And then after that, I’ve been volunteer attorney, I’ve been on the board, I was a co-executive director. And recently, actually departed because COVID made it necessary to be home, and started working with Title Track as a co-executive director. So fortunately, I get to do a lot of the same work here that I did there. I’m still working on water issues, working on racial justice and equity. And as well, I still have my private practice focusing on Native American issues.

Rhiki Swinton:
So let’s talk a little bit more about the NoDAPL protests. Can you tell us more about it? And from our research, I’ve seen that it started in 2016, so can you talk to us a little bit more about how they maintained momentum for the movement over a long period of time?

Holly Bird:
Absolutely. And you’re right: NoDAPL started in 2016. It actually started in April by a group of spirit runners that were teenagers. And these teenagers began a run to bring awareness to the fact that this pipeline was being built a mile from the only water source of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation. And that was Lake Oahe that connects up and goes right next to the Missouri River. And it was very controversial because the DAPL had, prior to that, decided to put the pipeline through Bismarck. But because of one township meeting they had with some of the local residents where they expressed displeasure, they decided to move it and put it one mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, despite their vehement objections and lawsuits, et cetera, et cetera. So this amounts to environmental, ecological genocide
for this tribe if that pipeline breaks.

And so these youth started a spirit run to bring attention to that, and then they ended up bringing the focus of that run to a camp that they started about a mile from the NoDAPL pipeline site. That quickly grew, and at one point toward the end of 2016, we had over 20,000 people there in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. I was there as the civil ground coordinator, and so lived in camp along with those other 20,000 people that would sometimes come and go. And we lived under the threat of… We had missiles that were pointed at us 24 hours a day. We had huge spotlights that were on the camp 24 hours a day. There were over 33 different law enforcement agencies that showed up to essentially terrorize these peaceful water protectors. And we don’t call them protestors, because you’re not protesting when you’re on your own land. You’re protecting it.

And the land that they were on was unceded territory under the treaties, so it was land that they had easements with the federal government to have ceremonies on. They had burials on that land. They had ancient ceremonial sites that this pipeline crossed. As a matter of fact, in April, right around Easter, there was a break, and the tribe had just set forward to the judge and to DAPL the location of the ceremonial sites that were going to be in the way of the pipeline. And that weekend, which was over a holiday weekend, DAPL came and bulldozed all those sites so that there wouldn’t be any proof of that. And that was right before the dog bites happened, and the dogs that were being used against people who were coming to protest and trying to protect those sites.

So there was a lot of just real nasty things going on in the name of big oil. I personally watched troops of law enforcement, National Guard, private security guards running all over burial sites, including the burial site of a five-year-old child of a friend of mine who was there. So it was just really disgusting, what they were trying to do. And so I think the outrage that came out of that, the fact that law enforcement could treat people that way, it was something that we hadn’t… That form of racism we hadn’t seen since almost the ’70s. People were not seeing that on large scales, as far as what was happening to Indian people, even though we’ve said it’s always been there. But this was really obvious. Everything from using high-powered water cannons to try to remove water protectors from certain areas to blocking traffic to the casino to that tribe so that they would be economically forced to allow the pipeline through. It was just horrible, and the government there, unfortunately, was completely bought out by DAPL for that pipeline.

And I should mention that it wasn’t just the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that was on the receiving end of that injustice. There were lots of farmers, there were lots of citizens that are being affected by that pipeline. We saw, for example, one elderly woman who had a family farm that she’d had for a long time, and through the use of eminent domain, they built the pipeline through her back yard, and it was between her house and a barn. And she didn’t even have permission to cross over that pipeline to get to the barn. So there was just horrible things happening with this pipeline. And you couple that with the continued injustice and continued poor treatment of our native relatives in those areas, and you get something like Standing Rock happening.

So in my mind, the momentum kept moving because we have the youth as a driving force. The youth were there and not letting people forget. The elders were there to advise them. We had ceremony involved. We had prayer involved. And people came to camp saw a different way of living, which made it pretty amazing. One of the things I noted about living in camp was that we were off grid, so we really had to rely on each other for food, for our basic, everyday needs, whether it was sending people out to get water, whether it was the big kitchens that people set up for cooking, whether it was donations or food brought in by people. We had lots and lots of donations, as far as clothes, shelters, things like that. And we all worked very hard in camp to basically do our everyday things.

I had gone there with my husband and my teenage son at the time, and this was before anything was getting too crazy over there. And we all remarked that being there for a week, we felt more invigorated and healthy than we could ever remember. And so I think a lot of people went to camp. They saw that people could live together in sort of a good way, a traditional way, with prayer and ceremony, work, exercise, eat healthy, and rely on each other in a really good way, and this was all under the cultural principles of the Lakota, the Dakota from that area, and that you could see that work. I know a lot of people’s lives were very changed just by being there, and they came out with that fire in their hearts to continue this and the fire to continue what we Native Americans have always been trying to get across, which is the relationship with our Mother Earth and our protection of her so that we can all sustain here.

Rhiki Swinton:
Wow. Holly, that was beautifully said for sure. That actually is a great segue to my next question. So considering the most recent protests and calls to action around police brutality and the state of black lives, can you describe the parallels that you’ve noticed between indigenous uprisings and the current black uprisings that we’re seeing today?

Holly Bird:
Absolutely. To me, the only real difference that we’ve had recently is that the black uprisings have been more urban, and the indigenous ones have been more rural or based on the land. But the injustices are very similar. The need for racial equity in these situations is very similar. The need for recognition for this culture of white supremacy and colonizing… It’s a call for it to stop. As a Native American, we don’t really count ourselves as different from our black brothers and sisters. We kind of feel like we’re all in the same boat. We got to this boat in a different way, but we’re all being treated poorly because of the color of our skin. Whether that’s purely the other issue, I think for us, we also have to look at how this colonist culture has continued to treat us poorly.

And I always say… I guess in our culture, it’s because they themselves have healing to do. They have not begun their own healing journeys to sort of get over the trauma of colonization of… When people murder others, when people enslave others, when people murder babies in order to access land, there is actually a trauma there for them. I mean, you really have to deaden yourself to spirit and the heart to be able to do those things. And collectively, when the colonists came here, they were all part of that. They were all complicit in that. And unless you’ve done the work to heal that in yourself, which would include healing alongside the people that you’ve inflicted that harm upon, then you’re still going to fall back on those old habits of treating someone as inferior or, in some cases, and I can say this even about my good liberal white friends, perhaps lack of understanding about these situations and what they mean and what they are.

I honestly don’t believe that a lot of white people in our culture today have done the work, and I know that there are many that are still deeply involved in that system. They benefit from it, and they don’t see a reason to change. So unless they’re opening and willing to understand what that is and to name the problem and to start dealing with it, it’s going to continue.

Rhiki Swinton:
Holly, I love what you said about how we’re all being affected by this colonist culture, and it really doesn’t matter. As long as we’re people of color, we’re being affected in some way because our skin color is a little bit different or darker. Can you talk about how we can work together, how all people of color can work together in this realm, I want to say, of cross-movement building, how we can use this time to stand in solidarity with one another?

Holly Bird:
Absolutely. I mean, we have to be in solidarity with one another, in my mind. I have seen this happening quite a bit. At Standing Rock, for example, close to 50 percent of the people that were there were not native, and there was a large number of people there from other places, all kinds of skin tones, and they were some of our closest allies. We’ve got lots of cross-culturalization within our own communities as well. So I have, for example, lots of relatives that are black, because that was sort of a natural caring for a lot of our people, was that coming together in unity and in understanding.

So what I’ve seen happen with the Black Lives Matter movement, so many of my native relatives are 100 percent behind that. And the way that we be a good relative in that aspect is that we don’t attempt to co-opt that movement. We don’t attempt to say, “Oh, yeah, but what about us?” We say, “Absolutely, 100 percent. We support you. We’re uplifting your voice, and now is your time, and for us to back you 100 percent on these things.” And you’ve seen that, I think, in a lot of these protests, that we’ve had lots of native uprising groups that have participated in the Black Lives Matter protests and in the media and forwarding all the different pieces of literature or anti-racism, and certainly a lot of anti-law enforcement. Educational materials. I mean, we’re lifting our voices alongside of yours, essentially, or black people. And I think that the same thing can happen as well, and it has happened in the past, where the black communities have stood up for us as well.

So I think that there is no question that we need to be unified. We have done it in the past. We’ve seen things like the Rainbow Coalition come up and support black people in these urban centers, but we need to have that, in my opinion, strengthened even more, and for any detractors that are out there to put down any hesitancy and stand up for one another.

Rhiki Swinton:
Absolutely. There’s a lot of gender wars and things going on in the black uprising community, and there’s a lot of comparisons going on, as far as the gender dynamics in black movements. And so I know a lot of black movements have been started and spearheaded by black women, like the Black Lives Matter movement started by black women as well as other movements, too, like the Me Too movement and things like that. And so can you describe the role of the matriarchy in indigenous movements and how supported are they, or lack thereof, as far as the matriarchy versus the patriarchy?

Holly Bird:
Oh, yes. We have so many parallels. And in fact, if there’s one thing that we’re really very similar in, it’s this: Both of our communities are spearheaded by very strong women, very strong matriarchs. We’ve had to undergo the oppression of this colonist culture where men were subjugated, our warriors were taken down. And often, we were left to fend for ourselves. We’ve been left to raise our children. We’ve been left to be the moneymakers in our home. And I’m not blaming our men. I’m blaming an oppressive system that created so much dysfunction within our traditional roles and within our families.

So we’ve had centuries of this happening, and so we’ve had… Out of this, strong women have risen. And we’re also trying to help uplift our men at the same time, but what ends up happening is, there has been a lot of disparity in that. Because of that unhealthiness, because of the oppressive culture, because of the imposition of colonist religion, even, and particularly in my community, we’ve seen upticks in sexual molestation. We’ve seen upticks in rape and the putting down of women, which is not a traditional role for us. Women in our culture, depending on which tribe you’re from, our culture is largely matriarchal. The women make the decisions along with the men. There’s a balance there that traditionally, we always had. But women were in charge of making a lot of the important decisions. And that was a recognition of the fact that women are life-givers. Hence, they have a direct spiritual connection to the creation spirit.

And so for women, every person is somebody’s father, mother, child, daughter, son, niece, nephew. So when we make decisions, we make those decisions for the seventh generation. And I believe that there are similar ideas within the black community. Women make those decisions based on what’s good for the future and for the family. And so we’ve sort of arisen out of these colonial ashes that have been cast at us, right? And in that, we’ve had to struggle with our men. We’ve had to struggle with the patriarchy that’s been imposed on us.

Like I said, for us, a lot of that imposition was through the enforcement of the Catholic Church on our people. And what that meant… The Catholic Church is a patriarchal religion. It’s a patriarchal setup, and really is meant to either cast women into the role of the good madonna, virgin type of situation versus the Mary Magdalene prostitute. And when you do that, you pit people against each other, and you make stereotypes that, in my mind, have contributed to the subjugation of women and the large numbers of murdered and missing women that we have in both of our communities.

All of that kind of rolls in, and then you have society in general thinking it’s okay, that if women are inferior to men, and to me, this was vastly a white idea, but if women were inferior to men, then you could do whatever you wanted with them. You could take the head of their family and enslave or kill them. You could separate their families through the use of child and family services. You could do all of these things to essentially try to break that family down. And the focus is on the women, because they recognize that our women are strong, and our women are the center of our families. So in that way, I feel like our spirits and our communities are not broken, because our women still remain strong, that we still remain as the head of our families in many ways, or at least in the center of our communities. And that is something that they will never be able to break, as long as we recognize and we keep that moving forward.

And doing that, we do have to have some calling out. We have to tell people, “You can’t treat us this way.” We recognize that there’s an illness within the patriarchy when women are being treated poorly, and we call it out, and we push it out, because we have to keep our people in a place to survive. And fortunately, I’m not saying that that’s all men, because we all know that there’s many, many wonderful men out there that are supportive and are performing in ways that they should be, that they are the strong men that we need to have in our communities. But that’s a journey for them as well. They’ve had to undergo a lot of punishment on all sides and a lot of learning, and then healing for themselves. And as women in these movements, we have to understand and uplift that as well.

I always say one of the things that we always have to remember is to love each other, our men, our women, our children, to make us strong, not to make us weak, and to make them strong and not to make them weak. And we’ve been taught by this society to try to do it the opposite way. And that was intentional. That was an attempt to break us down. But as women, we take that back, and we keep people strong. I always say that’s where the strength of women is, is in the strength of their heart, and the fact that we can love people to make them strong. And I see that as a complete parallel in both of our communities. We do that, and we do that with all that we have.

Rhiki Swinton:
So can you talk a little bit about what is happening on the reservations right now, as far as COVID-19 goes, and how is the virus affecting Native Americans and indigenous communities?

Holly Bird:
Yes. COVID in Indian country has been devastating, unfortunately. Like other minority groups and some lower-income groups, our communities have been very disproportionately affected by the virus. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. First of all, we have less health care available to us, even through the federal funding that we receive. And I want to make sure to point out that when we say we receive federal funding, this is something that we negotiated for with treaties. This is sort of like rent for the land that people now live on. And because different administrations have tried to withhold that funding, have put barriers to that funding, it’s constantly being messed around with, we’ve had less health care available to us. And the health care that we do get is often less quality.

So because of that, we have a couple centuries of poor health care. You add to that the lifetimes on using the commodities that the government has given us. That’s the food, which is really unhealthy. It’s always, like, Velveeta cheese and white flour and things that were never traditional to our people and caused us to suffer epidemics of diabetes and high blood pressure, asthma. Lots of things that could be avoided with a healthy, traditional diet.

Because of the lack of health care, we have higher numbers of these things happening in our community. So when something like COVID hits, it’s devastating. These are higher risk factors for complications of death in all people, but because we already have these in higher numbers, we’re dying disproportionately as well. And I do want to point out that some of this also is caused by… We have environmental diseases that other people don’t have. Some are due to uranium poisoning, for example, on the Navajo reservation. The government allowed uranium companies to lease that land, and then when they chose to close down, they didn’t make them clean it up. So there’s whole reservations that are without water because it’s poisoned by uranium. And that’s another thing that makes it difficult to combat COVID. If you don’t have water, you can’t wash your hands. If you don’t have water to drink, it’s also hard to make sure your health care is doing what it’s supposed to do.

And then as well, we have other places, whether it’s urban or other rural places, where we have very poor or polluted water or no water. So we can take the recent Standing Rock issue as a case in point. If that pipeline were to rupture, one of the largest tribes of Sioux in the United States would become drastically unhealthy and then susceptible to things like COVID.

Furthermore, we have a really bad economic impact. I think we have 245 casinos in the United States out of over 500 tribes, and most of those were shut down due to COVID. And their income is largely based on those casinos. The economic impact has been enormous. Out of 245 casinos, that’s 1.1 million jobs that are affected. A lot of them are non-native, too, so it’s not just the native community. For example, the feds in the state, I think they get, annually, about $17 billion in taxes from casinos. So there’s been a large effect because of COVID.

And then furthermore, we were left out of the initial CARES Act package. I don’t know if some people knew about that, but when they were initially doing those stimulus packages and the CARES Act packages for the states, they left tribes out. And tribes had to sue to be included. And there was really no reason for leaving them out, other than the current administration doesn’t really like Indians. So we had to sue the federal government to be included in those stimulus packages. And then it took months to get that funding for our Indian health centers and our tribes. There are still some tribes that are experiencing delays in getting that funding. So that has a large impact on their ability to provide services and to provide food and housing for people during this crisis. And as of right now, we’ve had 19,378 deaths in Indian country due to COVID, and that gives us one of the highest per capita rates of deaths in any community in the United States.

Rhiki Swinton:
Wow. That’s insane. I was reading your publication called Jumping Through Hoops: Traditional Healers and the Indian Health Care Act, and it basically talks about what you were talking about in response to Tirrea’s question about how the Indian Health Care Improvement Act was an act that was supposed to offer Native Americans and indigenous people high-quality health care, but it excluded them access to traditional Indian medicine. So can you just talk a little bit more about that act, its shortcomings? Is there any work happening now around amending that act? And then also, what are some resources out here that people can look to for more information and get more information on how to help indigenous communities in the U.S.?

Holly Bird:
Thank you so much. Wow, you really did your homework, and thank you. I appreciate that. That was an article I wrote back in, I think, 1998. And it has been used many, many times by the Civil Rights Department with the Department of Justice. And yes, the history on that… I was in law school when I wrote that and did a number of interviews to find out what I could about the Indian Health Care Act, because believe it or not, there wasn’t a lot of research out there about it. And I spoke to some of the original doctors and people that were involved in creating that act, and yes, they purposefully left out provisions for traditional healers, the traditional medicines that people have been using for thousands of years to treat medical conditions, et cetera. And their reasoning for that was because they felt it was second-class health care.

And of course, now some of them, I think, have changed their mind. They understand that that was short-sighted and certainly racist in its implication. And actually, when you look at all of the things that Native Americans have contributed to modern-day medicine, it’s also just false. One really good example that I think most people don’t know about is the fact that aspirin was invented by Native Americans. It’s something that they’ve used for thousands of years. Oral contraceptives were invented by Native Americans. Most of the antiseptics and pain medications, or a lot of them that we use today, were created by Native Americans. And the list goes on. I mean, there’s countless applications. But what has happened in Western medicine is that you’ll get a scientist or someone who “discovers” indigenous people using a certain type of plant or medicine, and suddenly they’ve discovered it, and it becomes their own invention. They take it, they make a drug out of it, and it becomes what you have today, and the original person who had been using that for thousands of years and who actually made those discoveries is called a second-class health care person.

So that was sort of what I was pointing out about the Indian Health Care Act. And I do think that there has been a change in viewpoints, mostly because Colonial America started looking at alternative health medicines, keeping in mind that people were dying of overdoses, looking at the way that the Western medical health profession… Sometimes the cure is worse than the actual illness. And so people started reaching out, looking for different ways of healing, and that sort of opened up the doors a little bit to Native Americans being able to access their own traditional healing sources.

And it’s sad to have to say that, because I think that they should have always had a right to those things and should have always had funding to be able to pay for those things. We have a number of traditional healers, and unfortunately, that number is always dwindling for us because they’re not supported, but who use our traditional medicines, who use our traditional ways. That includes songs and prayers and relationships of all kinds with medicines, with the spirits, and with the communities themselves. And those healers, unfortunately, are often poor. They’re often overextended and required to travel long distances to help bring healing to people.

So that’s a situation that, if you had a really good medical doctor, that would be unheard of, to be treated in that way for helping to heal people. These methods do work for our people, and in fact, we’ve seen some cases out there now where, for example, a young girl was being treated for cancer, and the medical establishment wasn’t working for her or the parents. Her cancer wasn’t going away. And the parents actually had to go to court to get an order to allow them to take her to a traditional healer, who then cured her of her cancer. But it took an enormous amount of time and money for them to be able to do that, and that just shouldn’t be the case. Native Americans are entitled, and should be entitled, to utilize their own healers and their own medicines that work for them without persecution and with financial support.

So yes, with the Indian Health Care Act, I think there have been improvements, but it’s slow going. And I think the fact that it has been slow going has resulted in greater disease and a real lack of health improvement for our people.

Rhiki Swinton:
And can you just tell us in what ways can people support the indigenous community, and what resources can we look to for more information on how to help, whether that be with the economic aspect or with the health aspect?

Holly Bird:
There are so many resources. Right now, for COVID, Indigenous Mutual Aid: Eagle and Condor is one of the organizations I’m working with. I’m also working with the Return to Heart Foundation. I’m working with the Nexus Equal Justice work group. There’s a number of them out there. You could actually just do a quick search, and you’ll find Native American organizations that have popped up in response to the COVID crisis.

Now, in general, if you’re interested in Native American affairs and helping out, I always point to things like the Native American Education Fund, the Native American Rights Fund. Earthjustice often does a lot to help with the legal aspect of things. And there are a number of groups out there in any given place. I guess it depends on where you want to focus your efforts and what kind of things that you would like to give to. So there’s those that are based on helping children. There are those based on helping elders. For example, if you’re in Michigan, we have the Anishinaabe Racial Justice Coalition, and they’ve been helping along with Title Track to put together funds for native elders during the COVID crisis. So there’s a lot of ways that you can help.

Rhiki Swinton:
Who inspires you to do the work that you do?

Holly Bird:
You know, I’ve spent a great deal of my life working with children, whether it’s as a guardian ad litem or a child attorney. I’ve also worked in some preschools, but I have to say that what I do is for our children. I really want my children to grow up in a world that they don’t have to walk down the street and be called Pocahontas or a wetback or something else. I want them to know that their friends and their relatives, their aunties, their cousins are not going to be pulled over and killed because of the color of their skin, whether it be their Native American family or their black family. I want them to know that their Jewish relatives can go to synagogue and not be blown up by bombs.

So I think that for me, it’s my children and our future generations. In our Native American culture, we always work and look toward the seventh generation, which would be seven generations in front of me. And of course, one of the biggest issues that I see right now is the environment. And part of me worries about even my children having a world to grow up in that’s safe and healthy, environment-wise.

When I went to… And this is kind of an example, I guess, of, in my way of thinking, as simple as it is. When I was taking part in the Higginbotham Fellowship for arbitration in New York City, they had a group of us there. And we were all going through our bucket list. And lots of people wanted to get a Tesla, they wanted to go skydiving, they wanted to make a million dollars. And I think I was the only person in the whole room that, when they asked me what was on my bucket list, I said, “The number one thing is to hold my grandchildren.” And that stands true today.

We have such high rates of death in our Native American community. We’re the highest rate of death in any minority in the United States, whether that be from police brutality, from physical health and poor health care to the highest suicide rate in the country, and in fact, almost the highest suicide rate in the world. And then you couple that with the environment and what’s been going on with it… To me, there would be no greater joy than being able to see my future generations living healthily and living in a much freer and more loving place than I am right now. And I would love to be able to look my little grandchildren in the eyes and know that they have hope and that they have a future that they, too, can believe in. So that’s my greatest inspiration.

Rhiki Swinton:
So we’re coming up on the end of this segment, but before we let you go, Holly, we just want to know: What projects are you currently working on?

Holly Bird:
So I’m working on a number of projects. One is Indigenous Mutual Aid: The Eagle and Condor. We have a Facebook site with the same name. We’re receiving and looking for PPEs, anything that we can use to help fund the needs or help bring up the needs of our community during the COVID crisis and beyond, because we expect that there’s going to be some economic delays and things. And not everybody is going to be okay. There’s going to be elders that have lost their rides to medical appointments. There’s going to be young families that don’t have access to food or funds for rent. So those are things that we’re working on within our indigenous community.

And it should be pointed out that when we do work on those things, it actually benefits the entire community, because if we have overages, or even if somebody is there, we share. We’re a community that constantly shares. And I always said that here in Michigan, if you see a community that has a casino, like a tribal community, you’ll notice that the entire community surrounding it, including all the non-native communities, benefit greatly from their economic success. And that’s because it’s within our culture to take care of our community members, no matter who they are. So that’s one of the projects I’m working with.

I also have a fellowship right now with the Return to Heart Foundation, which is… Sarah Eagle Heart is the CEO of that organization. And our focus right now is on COVID, but also on uplifting indigenous female leaders within these movements and providing support for each other and for our efforts to take care of our indigenous wisdom keepers and keeping our communities healthy and safe. And then, of course, working with Title Track to uplift whatever racial equity voices we can.

One of those voices that I’m working specifically on right now is the Northern Michigan Anti-Racism Task Force, which sprang up out of a need during this Black Lives movement period. We got together. I think we put together one of the largest protests in Northern Michigan in support of Black Lives movement and are now working to change policies, both law enforcement, government, school, et cetera, et cetera. Policies within our communities to address bias and racism and prejudice.

We’re also working on trainings to help with implicit bias for the general community and are getting requests daily from companies, from governmental entities, et cetera, et cetera. I’m also working on the water campaign, which… Our focus is, of course, the Great Lakes and getting Line 5 out of the Great Lakes. Our focus, which is sometimes a little different from some of the other groups, is to bring creative practice, meaning performers, entertainers, and their voices to uplift these movements as well. So we use a lot of that within our campaigns in order to bring attention to the matters. But my focus has been also to use all of that to bring natural rights to the Great Lakes. That’s an idea whose time has long past been overdue and needs to be done in order to protect the lakes.

And then on top of that, we do a lot of work with youth, including more recently, the youth of Flint. We’ve been working with them on songwriting, workshops, something we call RiverQuest, where we get them out in nature and talk to them about the water and its importance, and then help them to inspire creativity within themselves. And that’s been really a beautiful, beautiful project. So there’s so much that I’m involved in and I’m looking forward to being involved in every day.

Rhiki Swinton:
Holly, thank you so much for joining us and having a conversation with us about the indigenous community and things that people should be aware of around that community. I just want to close out with a quote. So we believe that every voice must be heard. We believe that every person must be seen. We believe that together, we have the power to build a better world.

So that’s all that we have for today. Thank you, Holly, again for joining us. Remember that the conversation is not over, so please join us next time on The Radical Zone.

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