ᏙᎯ (Tohi) with Brit Hensel

August 02, 2023 Nia Tero Season 3
ᏙᎯ (Tohi) with Brit Hensel
Show Notes Transcript

Sometimes it’s important to go back to your roots. 

Seedcast is proud to re-release our third episode ever, an interview with filmmaker Brit Hensel (Cherokee Nation). When first released in December of 2020, our team was just beginning to learn how to produce a podcast. We still love the rawness and honesty of this conversation between Brit and host Jessica Ramirez. 

In this episode, Brit talks about the meaning of reciprocity, cultural preservation by way of language, how the ways in which we treat animals reflect how we treat each other, and the importance of narrative sovereignty. When we made this, we already knew that Brit was a bright star. Since the original release of this episode, Brit’s film ᎤᏕᏲᏅ (What They’ve Been Taught), which she created with Keli Gonzales (Cherokee Nation), was a selection of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival – which made Brit the first ever female Cherokee director to have a film featured at Sundance – and earned an IDA Award nomination for best short film. Brit has also worked on all three seasons of the FX series Reservation Dogs. We cannot wait to hear what Brit is going to do next.  

ᎤᏕᏲᏅ (What They’ve Been Taught) is part of the first season of Reciprocity Project, a partnership between Nia Tero and Upstander Project, in association with REI Co-op Studios. 

Host: Jessica Ramirez. Producers: Jessica Ramirez, Felipe Contreras, Tracy Rector 

Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.

Enjoy the Seedcast podcast on the Nia Tero website, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and your other favorite podcast platforms.

Keep up with Seedcast on Instagram and use the hashtag #Seedcast.

ᏙᎯ (Tohi) with Brit Hensel [Re-release]
 Seedcast Season 3
 August 2, 2023

[theme music begins to play in the background]

[00:00:00] Jessica Ramirez: Hey! This is Seedcast, and I'm Jessica Ramirez. We started this podcast way back in 2020, when the world was very much changed by the global pandemic. We created it as a way to connect with Indigenous peoples from all over the world. This podcast has grown a lot, and we're continuing to do so. Today, we're actually sharing with you the third episode of Seedcast that was ever released, back in December 2020, where I had the opportunity to have a conversation about reciprocity with filmmaker Brit Hensel. Brit is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and she uses her love for storytelling to help amplify the voices and values of her community.

Theme song by Mia Kami: We are standing, hear our calling, we are rooted to the ground we’re here to stay. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can't tear us down, we’re here to stay…

[00:01:08] Jessica: When I spoke with Brit in 2020, she was working on a film called ᎤᏕᏲᏅ (What They’ve Been Taught). It's now been released, and it's a part of the Reciprocity Project series from Nia Tero. It was also an official selection at Sundance Film Festival. And Brit has worked on all three seasons of the hit FX show Reservation Dogs, which premieres today—so don't forget to tune in to season three. You can learn more about Brit, and about Reciprocity Project and Reservation Dogs, by checking out our show notes. Thanks for listening!

[theme music fades, original episode begins]

[00:01:45] Jessica: Indigenous peoples have many definitions for the word reciprocity. And certainly, it goes beyond what we would define as a mutual exchange of goods or ideas. For me, I recognize that my joy is wholly related and only possible if we can all have our health, safety, and wellbeing intact. And so I give. I give because when you live from a place of abundance, the possibility of living in a world where we can all be free is just right there. 

I had a chance to speak with Brit Hensel last week. Brit is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and resides in Oklahoma. She's a writer, and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. We talked about reciprocity as it being a core foundation of one of her current projects that’s in production.

[00:02:38] Brit Hensel: [Intro in Cherokee] Hi, my name is Brit Hensel. I am a citizen of Cherokee Nation, and I'm really happy to be here with you guys!

[00:02:54] Jessica: I've been listening to Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book—which is not new by any means—but I'm not really a reader, so I'm listening to it! [laughs] And I heard a lot of stories in the first hour or so last night, of listening to the book, around reciprocity. Often we think about people who don't have what they need in order to get by. And I also think that there's another way to think of reciprocity which is like, how can we give what we have? Because there's just—we're always working from a place of abundance. What does reciprocity mean for you as a Cherokee person?

[00:03:51] Brit: Well, you know, it's really interesting because if you probably would have asked me this five months ago, I would have to be like, "Oh, I don't really know how reciprocity fits into like a Cherokee worldview, or like, specifically what that is." And I have talked to some elders and some people, and we've just been going back and forth because originally when I started asking about reciprocity, I had asked a first language speaker and he was like, "I don't think we have a word for reciprocity, you know?" And just talking about more of the concept, and trying to figure out what that would mean for Cherokees, and kicking around two different words that sort of encompass like a Cherokee perspective of—and I even hesitate to say like a Cherokee perspective, because there are lots of different perspectives—but the ones that really mean a lot to me can kind of be pinned down into two different words.

And one of those words is ᏙᎯ—tohi and the other is ᎦᏚᎩ—gadugi. That ᏙᎯ(tohi) in Cherokee, it means like three, three different things. And it's like, one could be like, if you're ᏙᎯ(tohi) you're like physically or mentally well; or ᏙᎯ(tohi) could be used to describe moving at a unstressed or unhurried; the way that the rivers or the creek run. It’s ᏙᎯ(tohi) or ᏙᎯ(tohi), it indicates peace or serenity. But it all kind of comes back into this idea of balance, which could be one way that Cherokees would look at reciprocity. And then the other, ᎦᏚᎩ(gadugi), is like everybody working together. And so our communities are completely rooted in that. Like, if I have something that you need, I'm going to give it to you, even if you didn't ask for it. It's just that way that community helps community.

[00:05:38] Brit: And this is what we do. It just is the way that it is. And it has been that way in our communities for thousands and thousands of years. So those two words for me, those are values that I live my life by and lots of Cherokee people I know live their lives by, and are rooted in, those things. And especially during these difficult times, you know, we're thinking a lot about reciprocity, a lot about those two words. And just like when things are crazy, just still going back to those things, like those are anchors in my life, you know. Things that, no matter how crazy stuff can get, I know that it's a place I can be rooted in and move from a place of strength from those words, if that makes any sense.

[00:06:28] Jessica: Yeah, no, it totally makes sense. And I think that we could all be better people with those two terms in our vocabulary. What way are you being able to capture the essence of reciprocity and these stories? Like how did you even come to these two different definitions and figuring that out with other people?

[00:06:54] Brit: So we're working on a film about these two things, and it was cool because this film, it's me and a bunch of all Cherokees. It's a through and through, in front of and behind the camera, Cherokee everything. So we basically just got in a big zoom call and were all just talking about what we thought, but it was funny because none of us on the team are first language speakers. So we kind of all talked through it, we thought, and then we were like, alright, we gotta call a first language speaker and figure out what one of those words is best. So my film, or the film that I'm working on the Reciprocity Project, is more of an exploration of the word ᏙᎯ(tohi), more of that balance, because I'm really interested in the idea that it takes a whole community to heal a community.

[00:07:44] Jessica: Here's a clip from the Reciprocity Project's latest production by Brit Hensel.

[Reciprocity Project Soundbite]

We don't care where you're from. Really don't care whether you're Indian or not. If you need it, let me give you this meat, because I have it and you need it or want it. My sense of ᎦᏚᎩ(gadugi), this is ᎦᏚᎩ(gadugi), it's a way of life.

[00:08:10] Brit: So we're talking about balance, talking about reciprocity. I just really wanted to try and like, bring that word to life in a way, and doing that through some traditions that we have. We have mask carving traditions. We have a dance called the Booger dance and they're basically like masks made out of gourd, wood, and it's just something that we've had for a very long time. And from what I've learned, you know, they came around the introduction when European people first came around the time of first contact. And the masks were used as depictions of things that the community was weary of. The masks were used as depictions of things that the community was weary of. The masks were used to mentally condition the community to catastrophic events, essentially; things that would bring us out of that state of tᏙᎯ(tohi), out of that balance. So when the boogers would show up, and they would be dressed up and they'd be masked, it would be like the disruption of the balance that Cherokee people were always working to sustain. And so when that balance is broken, we need to get back to that place in order to be operating in the right way. But yeah, it's still in the very beginning stages, and I'm still working through all of it; but it's been more of the exploration of the word ᏙᎯ(tohi), and just like how important balance is to Cherokees. And that's kind of like one of our ways of reciprocity

 [melodic hip hop music plays]

[00:09:55] Jessica: What is it about film that you hope to achieve as a storyteller?

[00:10:01] Brit: My goal, and the things that I really hope to do is, I just want to tell Cherokee stories. I want to make films and tell stories that make my community proud, and make my community feel seen. And that's really just like, the beginning and the end for it, of it all for me. And so that kind of is always like a guiding light. Even if I'm not working on a Cherokee, like specific story; that's where my passion comes from, is just to continue to make sure our stories are told authentically. And I'm always learning, you know, I don't feel like there's ever an arrival in a way. I mean, I am Cherokee and I carry that with me everywhere I go. It's not something I can turn on and off, and it informs everything that I do as an individual, and my relationships with friends, and filmmaking.

But yeah, I mean, I definitely sometimes am like, who am I to be speaking about these things? I'm not an elder, and I'm not a first language speaker. I'm just me. But for me, I always just try and bring as many people with me as possible. I can only speak from a Cherokee perspective, and I only can speak from my individual perspective. But if I have five other Cherokees who are also filmmakers, you know, we're stronger together. I think that our work benefits when there's a community of us—whether that's like a filmmaking community or community at large—just continually bringing more perspectives with me and always asking for input. It doesn't just have to be my way, although it could be, you know, it could be directing the film. That's the benefit. And I think the best part about community, as we all can bring our strong suits to the table. And that way, work can be really powerful and full of different Cherokee perspectives, because there's just not one way.

[00:11:51] Jessica: I did not grow up with Spanish as my first language, and I identify as Indigenous Latinx, but my relationship to my Indigenous identity is one in which I'm seriously growing into, and have a lot to learn still. So I have like, I'm still learning the very facets of what is my mother tongue [laughs] you know, before Spanish. So I'm curious for you, like, what is the role of language in your work, and how does that help to continue to build that trust?

[00:12:26] Brit: I think it's really important to note, I'm still a language learner. Like, I have so far to go. Cherokee is a really, really tough language to learn. I did not grow up speaking the language. I didn't hear it ever around, you know. This is something that I'm choosing to continue to try and learn as I'm getting older, and making it a priority in my life. But yeah, I mean the language is everything. Culture is connected to language. Like our language is connected to our medicines. Our language is connected to our worldview. You know, like a Cherokee perspective, a Cherokee worldview is built into the language. And so when you can't speak the language or you don't know the language, you're missing out on the way our ancestors would move through the world. Unfortunately we're losing speakers, you know, as the days go by. There have been some folks who have passed because of COVID, and the majority of our speakers are older. But yeah, I mean, it's devastating because with them goes so much knowledge we can never get back. But one thing I will say is, the tribe is making major efforts to preserve and teach the language, and I'm benefiting from that progressive approach. And I'm not a first language speaker, and I'm still learning, always. Something that I definitely hope my kids will have—that when I have kids in the future—they'll have an opportunity to only speak Cherokee, and go to the immersion school, and to do those types of things.

[00:13:57] Jessica: We're living in a very different world than what I knew when I first came into social justice work a little over five years ago now. I feel like the issues around racial justice, cultural preservation, traditional knowledge seem to be a lot more mainstream. I'm curious for you, how do you feel like this moment might be different? Who's paying attention, or who's listening; who's watching the kinds of stories that you produce? And maybe you could tell me a little bit more about some of your projects.

[00:14:35] Brit: It's really interesting, because now more than ever, we do have people's attention in a way that we maybe didn't have it before. I definitely think that we're turning a corner in terms of understanding that if the story isn't coming from the community, we have no business telling the story. And, and for some people, that is like really definitive, strong statement, right? I think it really matters the ways in which the stories come from the communities. And if you aren't from that place, you don't know, you can't, really—especially in documentary. I think if it was like, more of a narrative or you know, fictional situation; it could be different, a different story. But especially for documentary film, which is what I predominantly do; it's really important that you're not being extractive. And I think that all of these types of ideas are kind of coming to a head in this moment.

[00:15:27] Jessica: How do you manage for it to not be extractive? ‘Cause I think of film and production work, as you know, you have this hard line deliverable; this asset that needs to be produced at the end of the day. And you know, as a producer, director, you might have a certain way or an idea of how you would want something to come out. What does that look like for you in order to kind of achieve the care that needs to be taken and not being extractive?

[00:16:01] Brit: I mean, we even deal with this between different Native nations, right? Like, I'm a citizen of Cherokee Nation. There are three different Cherokee tribes, for example. And when we go to other Cherokee communities, like in Western North Carolina and Cherokee North Carolina on the Qualla boundary where the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are, I'm not from that community. So when I'm going in there to tell a story, while I am Cherokee—we have a shared language, we have shared values—I'm not from there. And so it takes a serious amount of relationship building and major intention, and an understanding that I'm not coming in there to tell the story for any other reason, other than the story needs to be told. It's my job as a filmmaker to make sure I'm telling their truth, right, but I really believe it's about your intention. And I mean, I really just try and get to the heart of the matter. And that takes time. That takes building trust.

[upbeat melodic music plays]

[00:17:10] Jessica: Do you feel like in addition to the concept and traditions of reciprocity within Cherokee peoples, this isn't just like a human to human effort, this is all beings. And do you feel like that is innate?

[00:17:28] Brit: I think one of the things that I always go back to is, we're visitors, you know. The world doesn't belong to us. And we share this home with all animals—like with birds, with fish, and they were here before we were. And for thousands and thousands of years, my people have had a very different relationship with the earth, and with the things around us, the plants, in a way that it was sustained and things were ᏙᎯ(tohi), right? It was balanced. And we are very far from that today. And so I just think that we have a lot of lessons we can learn from the past, but also sometimes I think, yes, there's so much value in the past. And I often look backwards to look forward, right? But there is also this really important thing of, I have to look forward, too; because there are seven generations to come, you know. There are many to come.

So I'm continually thinking about how can I leave this place better than the way that I found it? How can I honor those that I come from? And the ways I move about the world, the way I move through the world, the way I interact with people, it matters in that connection to animals, and the way that we treat them. I think it's something to be said is, just because you are a Cherokee, or just because you're a Native person, it doesn't mean that you innately have that understanding, right? Like, that's something that is a value to be taught to young people. And I think that that's why it's important to incorporate that into storytelling. And I think one of the reasons why I am so excited about talking about healing, or trying to work towards, you know, these aspects of like these really, really powerful aspects of our culture and putting them out for young people to see them in the way they can receive it and be excited about it, because it's foundational to who we are.

[00:19:26] Brit: And that's how we will continue to thrive in the future. And so I feel like that is part of my role as a filmmaker is to continue to process these things on my own journey, and the things that really mattered to me, and serve them up for my community and other people around me who could, who might, be interested; or might find real value in that. And I mean, ultimately at the end of the day, we're all moving through this world together, and we are interconnected whether we realize it or not.

[00:20:00] Jessica: Brit, thank you so much. And I really love those prompts that you mentioned—you know, how do I move in the world? What is my role? I think it would all serve us a collective good, if we could ask ourselves those very questions. Thank you for your time, your generosity, the work that you do to preserve and also lift the work of Cherokee peoples. And I'm really excited to hear more about your project. And please keep us posted on all the ways that we can share the good work of you!

[00:20:46] Brit: Thank you so much, I appreciate it. And I appreciate you guys taking the time and having some time to talk with you guys!

[00:20:53] Jessica: Thanks Brit, take care.

[00:20:54] Brit: You too.

[theme music begins]

[00:20:58] Jessica: I hope you enjoyed this peek back into the Seedcast archive! There are 34 original episodes for you to check out, featuring so many incredible Indigenous peoples from around the world; and reciprocity is one of the themes we always come back to. Find all the episodes wherever you find podcasts, or at

This episode was produced by me and Felipe Contreras, who also edited the episode. Nia Tero is a Seattle-based foundation. We are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples with a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship for all vital ecosystems. That means we provide support to Indigenous peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. Their practices are one of our best guides for making Earth livable for generations to come. Here at Seedcast, our guests represent themselves. They don't necessarily reflect the views of Nia Tero. We honor their honest perspectives and lived experiences. You can learn more about Seedcast and about our work at Don't forget, Seedcast is now on Instagram! Visit us at @niatero_seedcast. 

The executive producer of Seedcast is Tracy Rector. The senior producer is Jenny Asarnow. Seedcast producers are Julie Keck, Stina Hamlin, and me—Jessica Ramirez, with additional support from Hao Awe Decker. Fact checking by Romin Lee Johnson. Nia Tero social media by Nancy Kelsey. Transcripts by Sharon Arnold. Seedcast graphics by Cindy Chischilly. Seedcast theme song is Rooted by Mia Kami. I'm your host, Jessica Ramirez, and we look forward to sharing more stories with you all very soon.

Theme song “Rooted” by Mia Kami: You and I…Like the wind we still move, like the waves we rise high, like the sun we never die. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay…