The Value of Your Story

Joe Whittle on receiving a 2019–21 Fields Artist Fellowship

Joe Whittle

The fellowship started with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for being seen and recognized as an artist in ways I had never experienced before, including feeling a sense of financial security for the first time in my life. My plan was to research and compose a series of stories using writing and photography to investigate the opportunity gap. The second part of the project was to engage local youth who fall within the opportunity gap, through creative/artistic storytelling workshops during the first summer of the fellowship and through an outdoor adventure and storytelling camp in the Wallowa Mountains the second summer of the fellowship. 

The aim of the outreach was to help build identity and self-esteem among marginalized youth through the sharing and validation of their personal stories and identities. I believe when a person can pull out their personal story through creative expression, no matter the medium, and then have others validate and welcome that expression, it can have a monumental impact on their ability to achieve the opportunities life offers and to create their own opportunities through continual self-expression. 

Prioritizing homeland ecology and cultural identity 

During the first year, the primary challenge with the workshops was in getting the kind of turnout I had hoped for. The director of the local Building Healthy Families office, whom I worked with to identify local youth to invite to the workshops, informed me that if she invites ten youths to an event, she expects one to show up. I found that to be roughly true. We reached a total of seventeen youths from the community the first summer, which I felt was a success. 

The COVID-19 pandemic required me to greatly reduce and limit the scope of the outdoor adventure storytelling camps. I narrowed it to simply engage Indigenous youth, in an effort to support them in their reconnection journeys with their homelands. Homeland ecology and cultural identity are one and the same thing for Indigenous people, and separation from the land has been one of the most harmful impacts of colonial violence that we’ve experienced and one of the most damaging to Indigenous identity and opportunity. So I prioritized that, amid the chaos of trying to make an in-person outdoor youth camp happen during a pandemic. 

We invited three families to attend, one from each Indian reservation that holds tribal members who consider the Wallowa Mountains to be their homeland. That was a skeleton version of what I had hoped, but it seemed the most manageable regarding the risks of COVID. We asked for two weeks of isolation prior to the camp, with COVID testing right beforehand. Of those three families, only one was able to actually show up. However, narrowing it to just one family allowed us to cater the entire trip to them and really enhance the experience overall. So while participation goals fell short, the quality of the engagement increased. The thank-you letters and responses from both the children and parents for both summers' outreach programs signaled the success of the endeavors for me, even though we reached fewer kids than we hoped.

I recently learned that one of the Native youths we served during the adventure has decided he wants to be a narrative storyteller. He is twelve years old and has started his own podcast and website to showcase his filmmaking and storytelling endeavors. Learning this has warmed my heart to no end, as the central focus of my efforts was to introduce creative storytelling as an identity-building tool.

Members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation gathered on the shores of the Columbia River to release thirty Chinook salmon above Grand Coulee Dam. Those salmon are the first to swim above the dam since its construction nearly eighty years ago.

Loss, pivots, and returning to homelands

The most unexpected and difficult challenge of the second year, however, was the death of one of my nieces, and then the death of my brother barely a month after that. A central piece of the story series I am producing for the fellowship has been focused on reconnecting myself and my daughter to our tribal homelands. Our tribe was forced thousands of miles from our homelands to Oklahoma, and most of us have never actually visited our homelands on the East Coast. A primary goal and opportunity of the fellowship were to finally be able to afford the travel expenses to visit and reconnect with my homelands, and to take my child along with me on that journey, to pass the gift on for generations to come. Then to use our story to illustrate the need for countless other Indigenous people to have the same opportunity.

During both years, I focused on taking my daughter and myself back to our homelands, as well as visiting our tribal communities in Oklahoma to participate in our cultures and connect with our people and family. The final iteration of that was for me to begin a backpacking journey on the Appalachian Trail with the goal of crossing the length of my homeland, from Massachusetts through Pennsylvania. I drove across the country in October of 2020 right after my niece passed away, documenting the forced removal diaspora journey of my tribe along the way. Within a week of beginning my hike, I received word that my brother had passed away, ultimately falling victim to his health traumas as an Indigenous person and combat veteran, at fifty-one years old. I had to cut my journey short and return home to be with my family. 

Len Necefer, founder of Natives Outdoors, and River Whittle, my daughter, backpack in Joseph Canyon during an all-Indigenous backpacking trip. 

Obviously, this changed the trajectory of the story I was working on. But it also highlighted the subject matter of the centerpiece story, which is a three-part series with the working title, "Money Shouldn't Exist”. The story seeks to highlight the litany of traumas caused by the constant commodification of the natural world and human populations for power, wealth, and profit. The goal is to highlight the cascading impacts of colonial trauma experienced by Indigenous people as an example of what happened to the entire world in the bigger picture, with the takeover of monetization and profit motives that control the extraction and use of all our natural resources and human populations. My brother's story ties directly to this, as he was a veteran of Desert Storm, a war that was fought entirely over oil profits and market control. 

The trauma of losing two family members in a row threw a major wrench in not only my physical ability to complete my goals for the project, but also my emotional capacity for it. Especially because I will now be writing about my brother's death and sharing this terrible personal trauma as part of the story. Traditionally, our tribe grieves for a year before we discuss in detail the deaths of loved ones. Our mourning period is a year. This gives perspective and time for some level of acceptance upon which to platform our healing journey. I was forced to set the work down and sit stunned with my grief throughout the winter and spring and am now approaching a place where I can begin to write about it. The sad irony is that I know it will make the series so much more impactful. I look at it as a parting gift my brother left the world. But I have to find a way to do it justice in my writing. The final story in the series will be about Indigenous futurism, and how the concepts we live by can be used to paint a picture of a better tomorrow that we can manifest. This three-part series will be the centerpiece work of my fellowship project. 

Researching and capturing the opportunity gap in Indigenous communities 

I have produced or am producing eight other stories as part of the fellowship research. Three have already been published by Oregon Humanities magazine, High Country News, and Appalachian Trail Journeys magazine. Both the personal losses and a global pandemic added perspective and meaning to the work I hoped to achieve with this fellowship, though it is not something I expected, to say the least. 

The fellowship enabled me to facilitate community engagement, have the financial security to work on the various aspects of the projects, and, hugely, to return to my tribal homelands for the first time in my life—which is an experience that will be felt for the rest of my life. Beyond that, however, I honestly don't know how I would have faced the losses of my loved ones without this fellowship. Being in my homeland when my brother passed allowed for a level of acceptance, hope, and healing that could not have existed without the fellowship providing for me to be there. It also allowed me the financial security to just sit with my grief and mourn when I returned home, as well as seek mental health services that I could not have had otherwise. Also, my research and investigations of the traumas of colonialism and the extractive commodification lifestyle have given me so much necessary perspective, over the last two years, on these losses my family has suffered.  

Drawings and words etched by Indigenous children, some as young as six years old, on the brick walls of a solitary confinement cell at Fort Spokane.

Connecting with the cohort

My fellow Fellows have become family to me. They are such incredible sources of inspiration and motivation. Seeing how they each grew from their own experiences and visions to become such powerful storytellers for their communities and the world will inspire me for the rest of my life! I love them dearly, and they will remain family to me. Being in this cohort and understanding how each of our unique but similar journeys led us to where we are today has been so fulfilling and validating. It really helped me to understand that I'm not alone out here, trying to carve a place for my story to be heard and validated in the world, and that it is necessary and important for us to see each other in our unique journeys and find that solidarity.

What's next for me is to complete the written portions of the centerpiece series I am doing for the fellowship and to see it published. I will also be completing the photographic coverage of two more pieces. The subject of the stories will tie into the theme of the fellowship, in addressing the opportunity gaps created for Indigenous people by separation from our homelands. 

Lights from oil rigs off the Gulf Coast of Louisiana shine in the distance as recreators enjoy a campfire at the beach. This photo is part of a three-part series titled, "Money Shouldn't Exist: Indigenous Perspectives on Economic Justice."

Advice for future fellows

Just. Be. Yourself. Believe in the value of your story. Believe in your worth. Believe that the world needs to hear and learn what you have to share. And share it. No matter what it takes, or what resources you achieve or lack, find a way to share it. Put it out there. People are listening, and looking for your story. They need to hear it, and maybe even use it to validate their own story. Believe that people will give you space in their heart to share your story. 

The value of storytellers

This fellowship has taught me that the most valuable resource for an artist is to be seen, heard, and validated—and valued for who you are and what your personal story means. That in itself is enough to keep creating and sharing, at least for me. But, the financial side is a sad necessity of the world we live in. I believe that every artist should have the capacity to share their self-expression and be recognized for it and also be able to survive and meet their basic needs. It is sad to me that the world that has been constructed around us requires that sort of “success” to be a competition, to be a matter of contrived scarcity. It is sad to me that I needed this fellowship to achieve that financial security so that I could just breathe long enough to create this art and share these stories. Achieving this fellowship helped me to understand that, in realizing that so many others deserve it too and that I shouldn't have had to achieve the fellowship in order to survive as a storyteller. 

Storytellers of every medium are so valuable to the world because they help us define our priorities, our uniqueness, and our challenges as communities and larger societies. They also help us recognize our value and worth as a society, and for others in the future to see that too. It's sad that all of that is predicated under the priority of profit first, and that we must find a way to commodify our stories in order to survive in this world. I hope that I have used this opportunity to push toward changing that dynamic someday. 

Additional works and publications:

"Reciprocity of Tradition", Oregon Humanities magazine

"Salmon swim above the Grand Coulee Dam for first time in 80 years", High Country News

"Native Lands", Appalacian Trail Journeys magazine


Culture, Fields Artist Fellowship, Storytelling


1 comments have been posted.

Thank you Joe for that wonderful story. We share Wallowa County as our growing up geography which is a very special place on earth. I was just there this week. I worked at OCF when we conceived the Fellowship and your story makes me so proud and happy--exactly what we hoped for. And I thank Fred Fields who made it possible with his incredible gift to community.

Kathleen Cornett | July 2021 | Portland

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