LISTEN: Alastair Lee Bitsóí on becoming a writer to advocate for Indigenous communities

Alastair Lee Bitsóí joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss how his Navajo upbringing and roots shape his writing and push for Indigenous food sovereignty.


Bitsóí is a writer, reporter and storyteller who grew up on the Navajo reservation and is currently completing a master’s degree at the Columbia School of Journalism. He also talks about how to approach environmental justice stories in a culturally appropriate way.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Bitsóí and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or Spotify.

Transcript 

Brian Bienkowski 00:11

I am super excited to be joined by Alastair Lee and it sounds like my dog is excited, too. Alastair, How are you doing today?

Alastair Lee Bitsóí 01:34

I’m good, Brian. [SPEAKS IN NAVAJO]. And that’s just my simple biography for developing kinship with others who are related to me or not.

Brian Bienkowski 02:06

And where are you today?

Alastair Lee Bitsóí 02:08

I’m actually based in Harlem in the borough of Manhattan, or also part of obviously, people know it as New York City. But I would like to acknowledge it as Lenape indigenous land.

Brian Bienkowski 02:24

Excellent. And, of course, well, of course for me, because I’ve done my research, but not for our listeners. Of course, you’re not from there. So you, you grew up in the Navajo reservation in the southwest, U.S. And can you tell us a little bit about this place you grew up? And perhaps how you see it may have shaped you?

Alastair Lee Bitsóí 02:39

Absolutely. So I am Diné, I am from the Navajo Nation, generally the geographic marker for audience members who are not familiar with the Navajo Nation, it’s geographically a fact is that it’s like roughly the size of West Virginia and includes the modern states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. So I’m from the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation. And a small community called Nosh Chitty, oral history or oral historians would say like, at least the the community story is that a badger dug up, washed clawed his way, or her way into a wash and discovered water. And so where, where, I’m from a community where badger claws are the the animal of our community history.

Brian Bienkowski 03:45

And I think, you know, I’d have I think in general, our nation is pretty, pretty ignorant when it comes to indigenous history. But I think most people are aware of the Navajo Nation. But what is something about where you’re from that might surprise some people?

Alastair Lee Bitsóí 03:59

We’re nestled but low the just mountain range or the Sky Mountain Range that straddles the Arizona New Mexico State line all the way up to like the four corners in it, it ends there. And it’s a mountain range that really informs who I am where I come from my clan history. The variation in landscape where it’s like desert with canyons and clay soils all the way up to high elevations of like 9000. And so we, I live in the foothills right now. I do have a farm that I’m the heir to. It’s 11 acres of my clan. My mom’s clan Is to a honey or I’m Tijuana. That’s my first clan. So we are near-the-water people. And so I’ve done some work there. It’s 11 acres, so I’m doing my best to restore it. And then my father’s clan is the Kenya ani people, which is my second clan. And they’re, they’re known as leaders in the community. I guess their characteristic as a clan is leadership. My mom’s characteristic, as a clan or my clan is more like we’re healers in the community. We those those two, I guess bloodlines inform and my clenching lines inform my outlook on life.

Brian Bienkowski 05:44

So before we get into your work, and why you became a writer, I’ve been asking everybody on the podcast, what is a moment or event that has helped shaped your identity up to this point?

Alastair Lee Bitsóí 05:52

I’ve been through a lot as a writer, as a human, I’m 30 years old, you know, I’m also queer. Um, I’m also lefty. So you know, like, I’ve, I felt like I’ve experienced a lot of I don’t want to say discrimination and be like, and then assume a victim role. But you know, like, I’ve been through a lot, you know, I’ve been through sexual abuse as a child. Like, I’ve been through physical abuse as a child, I experienced bullying, but I feel like those unfortunate events have made me who I am. And I think that going into ceremony going into, I’m an advocate for mental health therapy and access, especially among indigenous peoples, it really started, when I reconnected to the homeland, like, my, there’s a lot of memories attached to the homeland, whether it’s good or bad. And I feel like once I acknowledged that, like, when I when I, when I made, I don’t know, want to, I don’t want to say peace. But you know, once I acknowledge the culture, the history, the language, the ceremonies, the rituals, the foods, the creation narratives, like of my being, and then understanding the powers and roles of the clans that make me who I am like, I think that’s where I shifted in those, those are collective memories, you know, their ancestral memory, their present memories, and there’ll be future memories. And I feel like really tapping into that ancestral memory, things that I now see that inform who I am now. So I’m going to get into some of the the articles. So I was able to look at some of the work you’ve been doing. And it was all just just really great reads and fascinating stuff. And one that really touched me was about the Great Salt Lake. So this is something I didn’t know that much about. I love the first person accounting of the importance and the reverence of salt. Says wonder if you could talk about the relationship between indigenous people and salt harvesting from that Great Salt Lake and why this is in danger with a drying Lake. When I left New York in 2017. I journeyed home, I went, I did a role in DC didn’t quite work out. Then I did a then I, Utah as a state was never on my radar. And I was just like, Okay, I’ll go there. And that was just the political climate of the Obama administration. And then you have the Trump administration coming in. And so Obama designated Bears Ears National Monument as a national monument that, that secured protection of like 1.9 million acres of public land, but also ancestral land to like tribes like the Navajo Nation and Hopi, the Hopi tribe, the ute mountain, Ute, the Pueblo of Zuni, and then the Indian tribe. So those are just the main five tribes, but there’s other tribes and that have historical ancestral ties to that landscape. And so moving to Utah in early 2018, and being there, tell like, what, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23 to 25 years like, it really, that was a journey in itself. And that’s where I learned about the politics and the landscape of Utah as a state. I also learned about that’s where I fell back into journalism again, and I wrote that piece for Atmos magazine. Like 2021 I think or 2022 I don’t remember the dateline for it now. But I was in conversations and in you know community organizing about like, how do we protect this Great Salt Lake from evaporation, like from becoming an extinct, destroyed ecosystem? A lot of the conversations were centered around like ranchers, the water, which was important. But there was there was no collaboration with tribes or indigenous perspectives to like, what is the Great Salt Lake like what does it mean to us like why? Why is this so critical? Why are we not leveraging indigenous voices to this narrative to protect it? because it was mostly focused, again, like on the suburban, White-organizing perspective of like, we got to protect it from more or less pollution, from development. And like, this Great Salt Lake is a terminal lake it just all the washes from the Wasatch Mountain, or their water systems flood into it. Or go into it, it’s the pathway. And so like, I was just getting frustrated in those conversations, I’m like, why are we not included, or maybe they’re being included in it, but, and there’s like salt there, you know, they have the science on it, like, oh, this this is a mineral here. It’s found here, it’s used in this way. But it was more like exploitive use of it rather than like, like stuart-use, I guess I don’t know if that’s the best way to describe it. And as a Diné person, I’m aware in a culture that when a baby, we have a life span, I’m taught that like a human lifespans 102 years old. So from infancy till old age, and that’s the goal. When you’re a human. That’s what you strive to be, and live long. That’s the path. Of course, not all humans live that full lifespan, we have different pathways or different things that can result in premature lifespans, or full lifespans. And so one of the teachings in the culture is salt, like you harvest that, and you give it to when a baby is born. You when it laughs, that’s when it decides that it’s going to be here on Earth. And so, when at last, it’s a celebration of human senses, it’s a celebration of like, here, it’s a celebration of emotion. And so you celebrate that milestone in that baby’s life with salt. And you give it you put the salt in their hand, and then you, you share it as a as candy, I guess, so to speak. Like, it’s a celebration, it’s a feast. And it’s very, it’s a value, that’s an a, it’s a value that still live in a community. In so working with Bears Ears and working the narrative around Bears Ears, like I learned that my people, my people traveled seven hours to trade salt, they went, traveled and traded with nearby tribes, they even also went to these and harvested salt from the Great Salt Lake, or the Zuni Salt Lake near the Pueblo of Zuni. And so salt has always been part of our cultures. And I felt like that story with the protection of the ongoing threats of climate change and the lack of, not enough snow, the lake effect of the Great Salt Lake, like and then, you know, the capitalist priority of producing agriculture and hay and food and exporting that like how that’s dwindling resources, natural resources, and development. And then the impact of the dust effect from a drying Salt Lake and how that could be catastrophic, not only for ecosystems, but humans who have asthma. And so it was just, I was just like this salt value is not here.

Brian Bienkowski 14:22

So you’ve also written about another story that caught my eye was mental health treatment for boarding school trauma, which but I was wondering as a reporter, how you approach these kinds of stories. I mean, this can be complex and traumatic for people. So I’m wondering what your approach is from the outset.

Alastair Lee Bitsóí 14:35

Being a storyteller, I think it’s you also heal people. And I feel like that’s where I turn on my first clan. Like, I’m a healer, I’m going to I’m going to have complex conversations. I’m going to wonder I’m going to and so like and then you know, like all the trauma I experienced stems from boarding school. It stems from the disruption of our food systems from The Long Walk. It is comes from all of those things. And it’s not it’s not blaming them, but I think it’s like awaring getting aware of the influence of such historical events on the population. And so even my father and my mom’s Nico are discipline of, of disciplining us as children, like an into verbal abuse and, and then I saw the patterns of behavior. I’m like, “Oh, my mom and dad, were trained to be that way. And then there was another generation that was abused. And they thought that abuse was normal.” So it just kept trickling down. In the Salt Lake Tribune is where I ended up covering indigenous boarding schools as a narrative. And I learned how that narrative makes me sick as well, it harms me to go back to the past, and the memories of these innocent children who are forced to go to school against their will, or they were rounded up in, you know, different strategies and tactics to, I guess, “kill the Indian, save the man.” When it came to the the boarding school narrative of the Paiute children. There was a lot of like, innocent deaths that happened there, there was burials. And so you know, I was writing about that. And I was like, “Okay, how do you protect your spirit in the process of telling the truth?” And so that was a battle that I had to navigate, and it conflicted me and I’m like, I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to go about this, I don’t know. And my mom and dad would warn me or like, in the culture, you don’t really talk about death, you do. I mean, there’s a reason there’s a process, you don’t just go in there. And I don’t, I realized I didn’t have the proper clearances to do that kind of story and telling and because in that same time, it did hurt, spiritually hurt me. Because not only was I telling the truth, I was telling these stories, the untold stories of these boarding school survivors, and then applying all that and then going into therapy. And then I realized, like, therapy is really helping me. And if I’m this younger, millennial indigenous person who had a hard time, like, admitting they need therapy, because of their PTSD, I learned, wow, a lot of my elders have undiagnosed PTSD, I can see why it’s hard for them to go maybe inward, and to consider they need treatment. And of course, there’s that historical perspective of the healthcare system medical to Black, Indigenous and People of Color community, there’s that distrust. And so me just going through my own trauma and my own healing journey, and learning, like, I could help people in this way, like, maybe not all of them need therapy, but they also need help, because some of their toxic behaviors like a trickle down to me, and I’m trying to end those like behaviors. And so, you know, like, for instance, like, sexual abuse, it’s rampant like there’s that can be attributed to the outcome of the high suicide ideation in our communities. Like, if they’re not talking about that, how do you like navigate it? How do you become a survivor of those episodes? Like, how do you not let it define you? but also, you can still reconcile and still live this life. And so you know, like those memories and that track record of tragedy, but also resiliency and happiness. And, you know, like, I’m still working through it right now. I don’t have it all together, like, and I see that evolution. And I felt like writing and I felt with my editors, like I was like, I can report on it. But this is what it’s doing me and didn’t quite work out at the Salt Lake Tribune. Then I became liberated as a freelancer, I’m like to write for High Country News, which is the outlet I love. They respect that. I think the values are aligned. And as a writer, it’s focused on environmental issues in the west and one of the former editors there, like saw my coverage on boarding schools at the Salt Lake Tribune. And it really took off there because when I was at the Tribune, there was stories I thought that they never gave me a chance to tell the way I wanted to tell. And so when High Country News came to me, “I’m like, Okay, this is what I’m going to write.” And that’s where I came across like, the Greyhound generation, I think I sent you those clips, and I was impressed with this Navajo Diné, I guess you would call him an outlaw. But he was a leader and he objected to the roundup of indigenous peoples or Diné people. And he was eventually murdered for standing up and I was like, Who’s this hero in my community? He needs to be told, he needs to be heard. And so like I wrote those stories and not knowing the family would connect their dots. And then that ended up being a documentary now. So that was kind of cool. And so like, I was like, where is that warrior spirit? That is the Diné people. And this man is it, he embodies it. And so like that happened, but like, you know, like, I did those series for High Country News. But the mental health one was really the one I fought and worked on for a good year. I mean, it was a lot of push and pull reporting. But I just felt like, I wanted to talk to a survivor. But then I realized, like, I’m a survivor of all these things, too. And I had a difficult time to get through therapy and check in. So let’s go look from it from a provider in, let’s make sure that the provider, the providers are there, and they speak to the tools that they can offer, should an indigenous boarding school survivor want to consider therapy now. So that was my tactic or strategy was to like, I can’t just go to the survivor first and hope that they’re in therapy, maybe I just look at it from the behavioral, social, medical, cognitive behavioral.

Brian Bienkowski 21:21

And so you’ve mentioned food a couple times, just just mentioning, both, you know, home and kind of your journey you’re on now. And I know you’re doing your master’s thesis on food sovereignty with a focus on the four corners potato, which I am not familiar with. So I was wondering if you could kind of outline you know, what does food sovereignty mean to you? You know, why are you pursuing this and how does the Four Corners potato fit into all this?

Alastair Lee Bitsóí 21:44

I think just learning about what food sovereignty is through a dear friend who’s a clansister, Cynthia Wilson. She’s a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, she would be a good interviewer as well. And she, steadfast in her values as a Diné woman, but also as a Diné woman who knows the vitalness of foods because of her nutrition background. And like indigenous foods, like being part of the landscape and then being like foraging or indigenous, like non-GMO foods. And so, you know, like I as the communication director, formally out of this nonprofit called Utah dinette, aka, like, that’s where I started to get deeper into my being in through food, I got deeper. And Cynthia introduced me to her work was focused on research of this four corners, potato, I think scientifically, it’s called Sol, Salah Nam gem, Sai gem gem Maasai. And they, she had a food program that focus on that, she worked with University of Utah researchers, and she just one day decided to give it to me as a gifts like, Hey, I know what you’re doing. Like, essentially, she’s like, this is what you need, this is what I’m gonna give you and this is you go with it. It was like a gift I couldn’t deny. And I was just kind of like, okay, I couldn’t get, I couldn’t not take it back. I’m not here, I don’t want it. And you know, like I was doing a lot of that spiritual work in that line of work we were all doing together. And it was it was just beautiful to receive it. I felt like that’s like the potato. I think it really grounded me to be rooted in the culture, but in the land, and then it was COVID as well. COVID came and so like, I feel like the pandemic definitely uprooted a lot of our communities and we had at least at one point, the highest infection rate in the country, per capita. We used that momentum or to look within you know, like if the global supply chains and be disrupted, we have these values in our food in our communities to grow our own food. We got to go back and reclaim our food systems, we have to go back and grow our own foods like our ancestors, like you need to tap into that untapped, like knowledge that needs to be exercised right now. And so that’s where my relationship with the potato began again, because it really made me look at other foods that might people grew like as desert dryland farmers, my my grandmother’s grew it, you know, but they never executed it. And then when you think about it, my my own grandmother, she knew, you know, like, she may be forecasted. And so she assigned me the farm. And with this potato as i Okay, well, I have this farm under my name. I get consistent pressure from family of what are you going to do with it? And then I have this potato that grows naturally in the land. And I’m I’m so privileged and very happy to have that connection with it.

Brian Bienkowski 25:05

I know environmental work can be kind of it’s tough, right? And then when you add kind of cultural trauma and the histories that the Navajo Nation has dealt with, that can layer on even more, you know, layers of trauma and pessimism. So what are you optimistic about?

Alastair Lee Bitsóí 25:21

I have one elder in the communities that who said and I agree with her, she’s like “those with common sense will survive, the others won’t.” And I feel like when you have common sense, especially when you have connection with the land, and you, my father is always saying like, “remember the elements, remember the moon, remember the sun, remember the fire, the air, the breath you have,” like the senses, you have, like, you have to appreciate those things, the water that you drink. And those are things that are so basic and so simple that a lot of the world forgets, or maybe some parts of the world are fighting for that. And that’s why there’s major conflict going on. And so I think that’s where humanity needs to really look at themselves. And sometimes I’m saying that now, but sometimes, you know, I get dysregulate I get, I’m like, What are you doing, you’re just you’re kind of contradicting what you’re saying that you believe in. So like, I have to check myself as well. I have to make sure like, I mean, human, I will probably miss up a few times, several times. But I also remember those values as guidance. And that’s the approach that I I tried to take in, you know, like love and forgiveness as well, like, a lot of our indigenous communities say we don’t have a word for love, but maybe they’re they’re colonized. I think their love doesn’t exist, but it’s always existed. And so like, you know, reframing and reclaiming some of these things, values and word choices in our community is very critical to me. And so like, I just hope that I’m healthier. Going forward. And I feel like health isn’t a very important value to me, because it will allow me to do what I want to do, which is to storytel Right, grow farm, go grow foods and, you know, be an advocate for my people when the time

Brian Bienkowski 27:18

Excellent. Well, Alastair, this has been so much fun. And I have I have a few fun questions, at least I hope they’re fun. Before we get you out of here, and these first three if you just answer with one word or a phrase quick off the cuff. My favorite thing to cook is

Alastair Lee Bitsóí 27:34

chicken enchiladas. You need the green chili and the red chili. I love that.

Brian Bienkowski 27:39

Oh, that sounds so good. Right now. I must be late for lunch. If I have a whole day off, I am likely.

Alastair Lee Bitsóí 27:45

Probably sleeping.

Brian Bienkowski 27:48

Sounds good too, right now. Yeah. And last, if I could have dinner with one person, it would be

Alastair Lee Bitsóí 27:53

I’m just gonna say plural ancestors, just so that they remember. They teach me more things that I need to know.

Brian Bienkowski 28:01

Perfect. That works. And you do not have to confine yourself to one word or phrase here. But what is the last book you read for fun?

Alastair Lee Bitsóí 28:08

It’s called All boys aren’t blue. It’s a memoir by George Jim Johnson. And it’s considered the number two most banned book in America.

Brian Bienkowski 28:22

All right.

Alastair Lee Bitsóí 28:24

I got it from the journalism school. They had like a banned book day and I’m like, I signed up for it. I’m like, Oh, this is cool. Like, I’ll read it. I’m still going through it. But this is for fun. It’s non-academic.

Brian Bienkowski 28:34

And a great note to end on. Thank you so much for your time today and I hope we can have you on again in future.

Alastair Lee Bitsóí 28:39

Yeah, absolutely.