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IllumiNative Founder Talks Native Representation at SXSW: ‘We’ve Never Had Justice’

IllumiNative Founder Talks Native Representation at SXSW: ‘We’ve Never Had Justice’

“There’s nowhere you can walk in this country that is not Native land,” said IllumiNative founder and executive director Crystal Echo Hawk at Rising Native Voices, the Variety and IllumiNative event in partnership with SXSW on Saturday.

IllumiNative, which is a Native woman-run social justice organization, DIGA Studios and Madica Productions recently announced their documentary-style podcast “American Genocide: The Crimes of Native American Boarding Schools.” The six-episode podcast examines the human rights violations against Indigenous children at Native American boarding schools, looking for answers specifically at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, S.D.

Variety‘s co-editor-in-chief Cynthia Littleton moderated the conversation with Echo Hawk, Lashay Wesley, IllumiNative’s director of communications and storytelling, and Patrick Smith, DIGA’s executive director at the event, talking about Native representation in media and the new podcast.

“This story is an entry point into understanding how big and sweeping this was,” Echo Hawk said about the Red Cloud Indian School and how it correlates to Native land being taken away more broadly. “The reason you own a house and you’re going here and going shopping, is because somebody was removed from there. And these schools were one of the primary ways. Go for the kids, break up the families, break these communities in half by taking their kids.”

Echo Hawk and Wesley lead the podcast, which premieres its first two episodes on April 12. The podcast comes after Secretary Deb Haaland’s Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, where the Department of the Interior 2022 report revealed the abuse, neglect and other atrocities taking place at over 400 boarding schools from 1819 to 1969.

“It is multi-layered, it’s very much an American story,” Smith said. “And I think as a Black American, I saw all these parallels to what Africans went through. It’s colonialism.”

Wesley said the podcast format made the most sense for the story, giving it a sense of intimacy. “There’s something so intimate about the quality of people’s voices, the way that you can feel emotion by listening to a podcast,” Wesley said. “And the most important thing in telling this story was, of course, the people that we spoke to, and to have the room and the space to listen directly to them. But also, one way that we’re telling the story is through music, through sound.”

“I’m less worried about what [the podcast] is going to do for IllumiNative, and it’s more about what it’s going to do for our people,” Echo Hawk said. “Because it’s emotional. We’ve never had justice. When you think about tens of thousands of our children who never made it home. And it’s deeply personal…there isn’t a family that hasn’t been touched on some level.”

Watch the full conversation above.

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