The Power of Cultural Organizing: A Conversation with IllumiNative

Today is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. A quick peruse of Twitter confirms that corporations and organizations are adhering to the woke left’s social media schedule, with obligatory shout-outs to the Indigenous peoples of the world. But the time for thoughtful captions with a 24-hour shelf life is long past (and let’s be honest, there was never a time for that!). Native communities continue to safeguard their knowledge, speak truth to power, share their stories, and hold the memory of what has been while imagining what could be with or without our commemorative Tweets today. Our Indigenous communities deserve more – deeper listening from non-Natives and real money, lots of it, to continue holding and sharing the way forward.

It’s increasingly clear that our country’s systems are working as intended- to strip women and marginalized people of their rights and bodily autonomy, while expecting them to carry on the responsibilities of keeping our society and economy running. While the current flavor of oppression and blatant disregard for life (see gun violence stats) and our bodily autonomy feels new to me, a 34-year-old white cis woman, (see the overturning of Roe), it’s nothing new for Native communities. 

As a foundation, we have a long history of supporting Indigenous-led work (Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project, Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, IllumiNative, Strong Hearted Native Women’s Coalition, Friendship House Association of American Indians, to name a few), and we have work to do and room to grow.

So here’s our ask for today: listen to Native voices and perspectives, support Indigenous-led work with real $$$ and keep showing up with funding, acknowledgments, and celebrations far beyond International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. 

To kick off the kind of deep listening we’re talking about, we sat down with IllumiNative’s Leah Salgado to (re)connect on the power of cultural organizing and building the world we want right now.    

Tell us a bit about IllumiNative’s work.

IllumiNative is a Native women-led racial and social justice organization dedicated to increasing the visibility of Native peoples. Our mission is to build power for Native peoples by amplifying contemporary Native voices, stories, and issues to advance justice, equity, and self-determination.

Through research, narrative and culture change strategies, movement building, and digital organizing, we’re working to dismantle white supremacy and disrupt invisibility and toxic misconceptions about who Native people are. Our movement building and organizing work centers around our grassroots organizing efforts across Indian country. We aim to build power for Native peoples by strengthening the ability of Native organizations and tribes to tell their stories, build partnerships and advocate for change. We do this through grantmaking, capacity building, and high-impact campaigns that are grounded in the principles of narrative and culture change. 

We saw the success of this work through the For The Love Of Our People COVID-19 vaccine campaign; we also were able to do this work in our Red Road to DC campaign and our work to ensure secretary Deb Haaland was both nominated and confirmed to serve as the first Native person in a cabinet-level position.


IllumiNative’s work is rooted in narrative and culture change strategies, how are you connecting with and empowering movement leaders, artists, and culture makers to accelerate change?

We believe passionately in the power of narrative and culture change to move our work forward and to make the world more just and equitable. We know there’s magic when we can connect movement leaders with artists and culture leaders. 

Our work can’t exist in a vacuum, where narrative and culture change strategies are happening on one level and direct action and organizing are happening in another. We have to all work together to move this world toward a more just and equitable place and there is magic in that.  

Whether it’s our vaccine work with our For The Love of Our People campaign or working to get Deb Haaland nominated and confirmed, it is all about intentionality. How are you being intentional about creating space to bring everyone together? How can we be intentional about creating opportunity for everyone to see themselves within this work? 

Sometimes it’s about reaching out to culture change strategists being like “hey, how can we connect you with the grassroots organizers who are doing this work?” And then it’s about how we work with artists and culture makers to ensure that they have insight into what’s happening at both of those levels and providing them with those insights and also with the funding to ensure that they can make that happen. 

Through our work and through our model, it’s really been about how we continue to find more opportunities to convene to build those long-term relationships, and to build that respect to ensure that these aren’t just one-off engagements. We’re building intentional relationships to ensure that this work succeeds. And sometimes it takes a little more time. Sometimes it means that we can’t move as quickly, but it really does mean that we get to move change forward in a better way and at the end of the day I think that means our work is better– and I think that’s a really important part of the work we do at IllumiNative.     

We’re in an unprecedented moment, with the rollback of Roe v. Wade and Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, how are your communities being affected by these decisions?

Indigenous communities are being impacted by many of the decisions coming down from the Supreme Court, whether it’s Roe v. Wade or Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta.Tribal sovereignty as we know it is under attack and it’s just the first of many. We know in the fall the direct challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act is expected to come. This is not the first time our communities have been under attack or the first time tribal sovereignty has been under attack as well. 

While our communities are impacted and struggling, we need to ensure resources are being moved to our communities, to our Native women, non-binary, and trans relatives. 

Tribal sovereignty, in particular, the ability of Native women and birthing people to have the ability to make decisions about their bodies is something that’s always been under threat. 

I will say this, our communities are very much galvanized. You can look to the elections that happened in Kansas, most recently, where there’s a high number of Native women elected in that state’s House, or congresswoman Sharice Davids going through her primary in a very difficult general election. Native people are worried, but we are also galvanized and ready for action to fight to ensure our communities are protected.

What do you imagine might come up in the next year that you’ll be especially well-positioned to deal with?

There are many issues Indigenous people are well positioned to lead on and to deal with. Climate change continues to be something that impacts all of us, the ability for our land and water to be protected; as this summer shows record high temperatures, and increased flooding. 

Climate change and climate chaos continue to impact all of us and native people have the knowledge and the solutions of the ways we can be good stewards of this land. We are rapidly running out of time to be able to fix this so it’s imperative Native people are in positions to lead. 

In addition to climate change there are additional problems we have to reckon with as a country and as a community.Boarding school investigations are underway and we know there will be additional reports that will come out in 2023 around more graves that will be discovered. 

We know our communities will need to prepare and heal and find ways to move forward with the survivors of those boarding schools but also for folks who need to find ways to heal from the folks that didn’t survive and how families will move forward from that. 

This government needs to tell the truth and find ways of reconciliation with Indigenous people for what was done and funded. That’s something that we know we must deal with for many years to come, but especially in 2023. And we also know that this fall the Indian Child Welfare Act (Brackeen v. Haaland) is a Supreme Court decision that will be handed down this year and in light of Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, there’s a lot of folks that believe that ICWA will fall as as well. I think this is another way in which we know Native people and our allies need to come together to ensure that we’re able to pass additional protections for Native children and that requires us to also speak truth to power about the reasons why the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in the first place and find ways to ensure that Native children are once again protected as a result of what the Supreme Court will likely do the fall as well. There’s a lot of issues that are going to be coming up in the next year that we need to be in a good position to deal with.     

What does the future hold for IllumiNative? What kind of support and/or funding is needed to keep your work moving forward?

The future here at IllumiNative is very bright.There is a lot of pain and worry, and this country continues to show its true colors, and reckless disregard for justice. We know the importance of truth telling and we know the importance of stories and we know the importance of the narrative, and we know the importance of storytellers. 

We are betting big on the importance of our people and as much as there has been a lot to mourn, we also know there are moments of great joy and much we can be incredibly proud of. 

We can look to Deb Haaland sitting in the position that she is, as Secretary of the Interior, an office that has been for a long time incredibly destructive for Native communities, now for the first time in history has a Native person at the helm and a Native woman at the helm is incredibly powerful. We have the first two Native women elected to congress, we have Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan in Minnesota, we know that we have the first two Native shows premiering on television, this past weekend we had the first Indigenous woman action hero with her own movie that opened with critical acclaim on Hulu.

Sometimes there are moments where it feels hopeless but then there are moments in which there are finally places where Native children are seeing themselves as strong and as powerful, in a way that they need to be seen. So there’s a lot also for us to celebrate and to be proud and there’s more work to do, but sometimes it’s moments like that where we get to feel immense amounts of joy. And so, the future is bright as much as sometimes we feel a little bit sad, I think it’s always about making sure we’re keeping our eye on the horizon.

So in terms of support and funding that’s needed to keep our work moving forward, we are always looking to ensure that we have flexible capacity support, to ensure that we’re able to not just keep our doors open and keep our work forward but also to ensure that we have ways to move funding toward community. Certainly, we’re making a big bet on our artists, our storytellers, ensuring that we have ways to support our Native Artists and Storytellers Fund, you know that’s something that we are constantly looking for. In the next 12 months or so we are looking to become our own C3, so that’s where support from our funders is incredibly critical. We’ve been incredibly blessed so far for the support, certainly from the Women’s Foundation California, but we’re always looking to ensure that we get to continue this work for many years to come.        

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