Stories articles Storytelling

Filming GATH & K’IYH in honor of king salmon and birch trees, in Alaska near the Boreal Trail. (From left to right: Tracy Rector, Princess Daazhraii Johnson, Yo-Yo Ma and Adeline Peter Raboff).

Filming GATH & K’IYH in honor of king salmon and birch trees, in Alaska near the Boreal Trail. (From left to right: Tracy Rector, Princess Daazhraii Johnson, Yo-Yo Ma and Adeline Peter Raboff). Photo courtesy Reciprocity Project

December 21, 2023

Joy is an Act of Reciprocity

By Tracy Rector, Managing Director, Storytelling

For many Indigenous cultures, Winter Solstice is a time to go inward. We are reminded to slow down, take pause, and prepare for colder weather. This includes resting, eating nourishing foods and engaging in storytelling that carries us through the season.

This time of year brings up an array of emotions and personal experiences. Some resonate with the various winter holiday celebrations, the break from routine, and time with family and loved ones, and others might feel a sense of isolation, personal contemplation, and even revisit or try to distance themselves from difficult memories. Either way, it is a time of preparation and reflection, a time to give thanks, to be humble and hopefully experience joyful moments.

For marginalized peoples, there are often deep life lessons about basic survival, sustained hard labor, ingrained work ethics bound to survival, and a feeling that one must always be in service to a greater purpose, such as taking care of children, parents, elders, community, and the Earth while setting aside personal needs including what some might deem a luxury – enjoyment of life.

For those who are wholeheartedly committed to their communities and invested in the work of overturning systemic injustices and oppression, it can be easy to overlook the transformative power of joy as an integral part of the work. But seeking and cultivating joy is a radical act in the face of adversity and a strategic tool to have in our arsenal to challenge narratives of despair. Joy plays a deeply significant role in shaping our lives, relationships, communities, and the world at large and provides a meaningful resource to replenish and sustain our spirits, resilience, ability, and determination to build a better world.

Celebrating and amplifying joy doesn't mean the pain, hardships, and harsh realities of life go unacknowledged or ignored. Instead, it means elevating delight and allowing that to carry us through the adversities and obstacles along the way, serving as an important counterbalance that can enable us to live full and purpose-filled lives. It is a resistance to the suppression of pleasure and a reminder of the inherent worthiness of experiencing happiness.

Joyousness can encompass the full array of human emotions, from laughter to tears to both, acknowledging the complexity of our experiences and embracing our wholeness as people. In acknowledging our joy, we recognize our humanity. By actively embracing joy, we honor those who have come before us, especially those who have made sacrifices for us — their descendants — to live more fully.

The shared experience of joy is an act of exchange and reciprocity. We often see this in the dances and in the call and response found across the African diaspora, the sharing of offerings during harvest, often as a teaching in Turtle Island, or the gift of reciprocal songs in the Sápmi territory of Northern Europe. Family, community, and deep connections to land, language, spirituality, and culture continue to serve as invaluable sources of joy and strength for many global Indigenous Peoples who are reclaiming and reshaping their stories about Indigenous life.

No one else more intimately understands the depths of Indigenous joy or possesses the perspective on how those stories should be told. Stories told by Indigenous Peoples for Indigenous Peoples allow for the amplification of the full breadth and richness of an Indigenous experience. By shining light on the successes and the struggles, we make space for truth and understanding.

Commemorating the accomplishments, triumphs, and wins of everyday people from all over the world has great meaning, whether it's a graduation, first harvest, birthday, coming-of-age celebration, family reunion, or cultural ceremony. These moments deserve recognition as much as the significant strides made in greater efforts such as the revitalization of language, cultural awareness, protection of the environment, and powerful spirituality practices; policy changes in support of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination; and the return of ancestral lands to tribes and nations.

The recognition of our joy, our humanity, and the nuances of our realities and daily lives humanizes Indigenous, Black, and Brown experiences and creates pathways for reciprocity, unification, and understanding. This is imperative for the well-being of our communities and nations. Joy can serve as a valuable compass to guide us toward the future we envision and help us remember what we're working towards and fighting for, and why.

Joy is a unifying force that brings people together, fueling Indigenous resilience and determination while igniting the collective imagination of all, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to work towards those futures together. It fosters connection, builds bridges, and transcends barriers. It can become a foundational principle for envisioning and building a solid framework for strong, energetic, and thriving futures.

In celebrating joy, we create spaces where a multitude of diverse voices can be heard, where cultures intersect, and where solidarity flourishes. Joy becomes a shared experience that joins us in our collective pursuit of liberation and justice, a vital force that propels us forward. It is a testament to resilience and a catalyst for change. Let us share and amplify joy as we continue our collective journey toward justice for all and a future that is strong, vibrant, and filled with unwavering delight!

Reciprocity Project Season Two gathering hosted by the Akwasasne commmunity of the Haudenosaunee Peoples, in October 2023.

Reciprocity Project Season Two gathering hosted by the Akwasasne commmunity of the Haudenosaunee Peoples, in October 2023. Photo courtesy Reciprocity Project.