Josué Rivas: The Power of Stories

“When one lives in a society where people can no longer rely on the institutions to tell them the truth, the truth must come from culture and art.”  John Trudell

Josué Rivas (Mexica/Otomi) began his talk at Stanford, “The Power of Telling Your Story”, with those words.  He is an award winning photographer and videographer who spent nearly seven months at Oceti Sakowin camp. He has founded the long-term multimedia  Standing Strong Project, a quest for a contemporary vision of Native America.  He hopes it can create space for more indigenous folks to tell their own stories.

In contrast with some of the other media personnel who showed up to capture the stories of the water protectors at Standing Rock, Rivas was intentional about giving before he took. Observing tradition, he would show up with tobacco to offer before asking permission to document a person’s experience. Rivas even incorporates this into his language about the work, straying away from the traditional framework of “taking” photos — “because I don’t take. I create. I’m not taking photographs, I’m creating images.”

Rivas also acknowledges that “it’s an intimate thing, when you have a camera.” A photograph belongs both to the subject and the photographer, but the subject is usually in a more vulnerable position — especially in a place like Standing Rock, where people were making sacrifices, and grappling with all sorts of issues and traumas. These wounds are communicated both with tenderness and frankness in Rivas’s work.

He directed the video of Nahko’s Love Letters to God, with powerful images from Standing Rock.

In the recent issue of Yes! magazine, the Decolonize Issue, Rivas wrote “Decolonization starts inside of you.”

Colonization, at its core, is about creating separation, separation among people and separation from spirit and our connection to the Earth. Humans have been taking more than we need, and we haven’t been giving enough back.

Decolonization starts inside of you. It is a lot about finding compassion and kindness, and less about anger and fear. We should remember that it begins with an internal process of healing and reconciliation. Once we find that peace, then we will be able to move forward and unify as peoples. We must remember that we are all related.

At Standing Rock, we saw a new vision of what it means to be human. The fire and the water were our tools for healing. It was not just a protest; it was an awakening for all of us to return home, back to where our spirit lives in harmony with our past and present. In that way, we can have a healthy future.

The real front lines are within.

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