Tou SaiK Lee interviews Missy and Ernest Whiteman about representation, intergenerational art, and 'The Outsiders'

Ernest and Missy Whiteman
Left: Ernest Whiteman stands in a field, wearing a brown jacket. Right: Missy Whiteman stands with her hand on her hip in front of a plain background. (Courtesy of Missy Whiteman)
Play/Pause
Listen:
Tou SaiK Lee and the Whitemans talk about representation, relationships with elders, and 'The Outsiders'
Download MP3
| 00:54:47

For the latest episode of our history podcast The Current Rewind, local rapper Tou SaiK Lee sat down with a father and daughter pair, Ernest and Missy Whiteman, who are both artists working in the Twin Cities. Tou SaiK is Hmong, and the Whitemans are Hinono'ei. All three of them use a different medium to create art. For Tou SaiK, that's music; for Ernest, it's visual art; and for Missy, film.

We could only include a short clip of their conversation in the podcast episode, so we're sharing their entire dialogue here. Use the audio player above to hear them talk about falling in love with The Outsiders, listening to their elders, and telling their own stories. You can also read the full transcript below.

Tou SaiK Lee: I feel a solidarity with indigenous people, and also — my journey traveling to different countries, I also realized that Hmong people are considered indigenous people in other parts of the world. A lot of the movement and creativity that's coming out of Native communities here in the United States are an inspiration to me.

I'm just going to start off with introductions: your name, and I'm going to ask you, what is your favorite home-cooked food? A food that you ate growing up.

I'll share mine first, just you have a little time to think about your own. Mine is — we have this herbal boiled chicken. This is made from, I swear it's ten different herbs. We give it when someone is sick. They give that herbal chicken soup to them, but you can eat it at any time, and sometimes they put tofu and bamboo with it too. We usually eat this chicken soup with rice. That's one of my favorite home cooked foods growing up. And my name is Tou SaiK.

Ernest Whiteman: My name is Ernie Whiteman. That's my English name, but I was given a name when I was very young by my people. My name was given to me by my great-grandfather, Charlie Whiteman, who gave me the name of [phonetic transcription: DAY-ba'-AY], which means "strong old man," because when I was very young they didn't expect me to live to be a year old. So I firmly believe in our tradition and our culture, that these names have a value and mean something and carry you through your life, and that's what it's done for me, that name.

So that's who I am. And I'm Hinono'ei, which is what my people call themselves. It means "the people" — merely "the people." We were given the name by the European colonizers: Arapaho, Northern Arapaho, but we refer to ourselves as Hinono'ei simply. So that's who I am: [DAY-ba'-AY] and Hinono'ei.

Tou SaiK Lee: First of all thank you for being here. What is the favorite home cooked food?

Ernest Whiteman: Oh, man. When I was a child I was a little bit heavy, so all home cooked meals were the best for me. It was like when I was in Mexico. I was looking for some good tacos and I told me wife, I said, "Ask that guy." And he was a good-sized man and I figured that he knew where the best taco place was. So I asked him where's the best tacos. And he said, "They're all good." So that's the way it was with me I think.

I had so many different dishes that were traditional, but I think one of the ones that I remember the most is because my people live in a drier environment than Minnesota, we're able to dry out food to preserve it. And one of the things that we preserved was game meat — deer and elk. And so you would dry the meat, but you would cook it — rehydrate it. But then you would put in your base of vegetables or whatever you wanted with it. Mine was just simply potatoes. Potatoes and the dried meat.

And a little different than your culture is that we don't use a lot of spices. Some people say that traditional native food is very bland, and it is. It's very basic. Just basic things. So that would be mine: dried meat and potatoes.

Missy Whiteman: Tous. My name is Missy Whiteman and I also belong to the Northern Arapaho Hinono'ei and Kickapoo people. I grew up here, not on the reservation like dad. Not to be like that — it's always that debate of country versus city, right? But it's not like that for me, because we actually brought our traditional food with us to the city here.

One of my favorite meals was actually corn soup. But my Kickapoo relatives made it with turkey, and so here it's mostly like pork or buffalo, so I'm like I'll take whatever I can get. I'm not picky.

Tou SaiK Lee: Thank you both for being here. I did want to also say that I am Hmong ethnically and also of the Lee clan, and my parents came from Laos as refugees, and I was born on a refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand. So that's kind of part of my journey in being here.

So I want to ask you about arts and how arts has an influence in your lives. We could start with Missy this time. I know you're a filmmaker and I wanted to ask what drew you to become a filmmaker and what role does arts play?

Missy Whiteman: At a very young age I had the influence of the arts through my dad, through visual arts and also traditional arts and a lot of our traditional teachings. It was really until I was in kindergarten when I watched 'The Outsiders,' and I was like, "Man, I can definitely relate to that movie."

Missy Whiteman: I can remember being in kindergarten looking at my little feet and being like if this was an opening shot it would be a fade from black. I think that's where my perspective really shifted into thinking I want to be a filmmaker. And then it wasn't until getting older I realized that first of all I don't see myself on the screen, and I don't see my perspective or my narrative on the screen. And I also had no clue about directors or writers or producers or crew or anything about the industry.

And so I was automatically like dismissed. I dismissed it from myself because I didn't know that path. I just followed dad's path, where he was going to college in Eau Claire, WI for undergrad for fine arts, and every opportunity I had to spend time with him I learned about visual arts and I learned about seeing the world through an artist's eye.

It really wasn't until we moved here to the Twin Cities that I met Native filmmakers through the Two Rivers Film Festival. Chris Eyre was there at — like a really young Chris Eyre, like he was still wet behind the ears, like still looking around like what do I want to do in film. And that really—

Tou SaiK Lee: The filmmaker for 'Smoke Signals'?

Missy Whiteman: Yeah, the director of 'Smoke Signals.'

I think where that journey started was visual arts, and then in high school went for visual arts, and then I even attended MCAD for visual arts and film because I was like, "Well if the film thing doesn't work out, then I can always fall back on visual arts."

But today I find myself going back and forth between film. Right now I'm working on a visual arts project, and then moving it into installation work. Because I had that experience from my dad and that exposure from my dad, I'm able to work interchangeably within these different mediums.

Tou SaiK Lee: Thank you. 'The Outsiders' was the first book I ever read in elementary school, and so that was a significant story for me too.

Missy Whiteman: Like, "Okay, Ponyboy."

Tou SaiK Lee: Yeah. And it was a story I could relate to growing up — to 'The Outsiders.'

For Ernest, I know you've been involved in various arts organizations and initiatives as well as being a creative artists yourself. Maybe you could tell a little bit more about your experience with the arts in the Twin Cities as well as if you want to talk a little bit about your own creativity.

Ernest Whiteman: I've been involved with arts, I would say, the majority of my life. My mother was a strong advocate, a supporter for the arts in my family. She was a musician — a self-taught musician — and she was a painter. And so when I started getting interested in art, she would encourage me in arts.

I also had an uncle by the same name that I have who was into traditional art forms of the people of our nation. So I was able to learn from him a lot of the traditional art forms of our people.

I moved to the Twin Cities, and after I got out of school I was in awe with all the art in the Twin Cities here because I had never been exposed to that growing up on the reservation. It wasn't until I was 14 years old that I had been into my first art gallery. It was kind of a shock because I was taken into this art gallery in Denver, Colorado — a very fine art gallery. It was advertising Native American art.

So I went in there and there were these beautiful paintings and beautiful sculptures of Native American people, but none of the art was done by Native people — not one piece in that whole gallery. And I said, "What's wrong with this picture?" They're advertising Native American art but it's really just Native American imagery done by non-Native people.

And so I grew up with that kind of awakening, knowing that there was much more that I had to offer in the art world, and how do I tell my story. And so I merged myself into the art world and tried to understand and learn as much as I could about the arts.

And what I learned was that the perspective of art in this country is purely European perspective — everything. Which kind of conflicts with the indigenous way of looking at things. So I had to learn and decipher and deconstruct what I learned in that academia world, and mix it with my culture, and to come out with something that was not totally this or not totally that, but a blending of both cultures, so that it could be viewed by both cultures, not just by one culture.

The hardest part was getting people with that mindset, from European perspective to see the Native perspective in art. That was one of the things I did, was I spent a lot of my time in academia educating professors about Native art. I even became an undergraduate — a teacher. And so it became part of not only art but teaching art became a part of my life also with that.

When I moved to the Twin Cities, like I said, there was such an exposure to arts that I had never seen before. I could virtually go out almost every night and do something different in the art world, where I didn't have that before. And so I became really engaged in many of the art organizations in the Twin Cities and served on various art boards for different arts organizations, Intermedia being one. I also worked with the Walker Art Center in the education department. To me, I was just learning as much as I could about how art functions, how art organizations are set up, and how I could apply that to Native art.

And so we founded an organization — a group of us — called The Native Art Circle here in Minnesota, which had a roster of 500 Native artists throughout the State of Minnesota. And Missy was talking about going to the film festival. That was one of the things that we did, was set up the first film festival here in the Twin Cities at that time, which was many years ago.

I have been involved with arts for a long time. Right now I'm kind of at a point where I'm doing something that's related to the arts, and that's food — natural organic food with where I work and live now — with an organization called Dream of Wild Health, where we teach the culture, the art, the language to the young people.

Tou SaiK Lee: Thank you.

Ernest Whiteman: Yeah.

Tou SaiK Lee: As a hip-hop artist, I was telling Ernest that now that I'm writing this book about my grandma and I performing together, that I'm kind of returning to my roots as a writer, because before I became a hip-hop artist I was a writer that just wrote stories.

It was getting into hip-hop as a teenager that got me to break out of my shell and actually perform, because before that I was very quiet. I was shy, didn't speak up that much. Music, first of all with my brother Vang, and then going into understanding how hip-hop can connect to my cultural identity.

For me, now as a solo artist, all the songs I do are like a deep dive into my culture, as well as embracing the culture of hip-hop and how I've been influenced by this movement of disenfranchised young people, how it came from black culture, Latino cultures that came together during that era, and how it's influenced all these different cultures all over the world now.

But talking specifically about indigenous people, what I've noticed is that various indigenous groups are using hip-hop as a way of engaging young people into the culture. And so I'm wondering what are your thoughts about the impact of how hip-hop is getting young people to engage in their culture, in their history and in their language, and what are some examples that you've known?

Missy Whiteman: Do you want to start, or should I?

Ernest Whiteman: You can start because I'm thinking a little bit.

Missy Whiteman: He's like old school. He's like — Redbone. That's his generation, is Redbone. So same thing, where you're bringing mainstream concepts such as hip-hop into, and bringing Native indigenous artists, musicians, MCs into a place where young people have access to them. And I think that's really what it comes down to.

If you live on a reservation and you're a young person, especially today you have a lot more access to different types of music, versus when dad was growing up, like '60s, '70s — I'm not going to date when he grew up — but they had the radio. That was their access, and Redbone was a huge group back then — "Come And Get Your Love." Like even to this day you'll see elders get up and jam, and even young people, because that's our people up there being represented.

Missy Whiteman: And with hip-hop it's the same thing, where it's like that's our people being represented as well as our ability to also tell our stories. I think about younger artists like Kitto — Reuben Stately — he's an up and coming artist, and I think us who have listened to old school hip-hop even have our debates with the younger generation about what is hip-hop, because we know the elements of hip-hop.

We know that it came out of New York, out of the Bronx as a response to social injustice, whereas here, young people living on reservations are like this is my outlet to tell my story and talk about the injustices, but mostly talk about the healing that's happening. Utilize this music to heal, to incorporate language, to incorporate samples of our traditional music and also to reimagine a future that's us, that's indigenous.

Tou SaiK Lee: This is one of the things that came up. Did anyone perceive the samples of traditional music, traditional chanting, as offensive initially, or did they see it as honoring — because I do it. And it is drawing inspiration from Native artists, where I sample traditional arts.

I sampled my grandma first of all, and she does the kwv txhiaj — the poetry chanting — but then also like the flute, the violin, the leaf blowing, the mouth harp are all instruments that I've actually collaborated with elders, but I'm wondering if it's perceived — initially if it was perceived in a way where it was not offensive, but it's not honoring the traditional way of presenting it. Do you have a thought about that?

Ernest Whiteman: Yeah. Let me get back to something first that you talked about earlier, is how the tradition and hip-hop — how that is perpetuated today. And one of the things I mentioned earlier was the fact that Native people have adapted to so many things in this country, that it's unbelievable how we've been able to adapt to so many changes.

For example a good one is the language. We've all had to adapt to a new language. Many people have had to adapt to various religions, which were forced upon them — even the introduction of metal objects like a bow, a metal bow — those materials. But one of the things is that if we didn't adapt we wouldn't survive.

So we had to adapt to all these changes because we are survivors. We are survivors. We are still here and we still survive, so we have to adapt to change, and there is a hesitation about change because change has not always been good for our people in this country. There are so many things that I won't even go into those things, but change has not been positive.

So yes, I think in a lot of cultures when you try to merge say something with hip-hop with traditional music there is going to be that little bit of clash. They're not going to except it right away because it's totally different. It's a totally different way of projecting your culture in another way. We are very fortunate that we have young Native people today that can make that adaptation from the traditional to the hip-hop and merge those things so that it's more acceptable to the people today than it was before.

But I remember that even dance at one time — when people would do something different at, say, a pow-wow, some of the traditional thinkers would say that's not the way it's done. We don't do it that way. Ten years later everybody's doing it. So change takes time. It has to be accepted. You have to show the people how it works, and then they say, "Oh, I got it."

I think it's that way with music, with art. You make adaptations to your culture. It enhances your culture because it's the way things are today. We're in 2019, aren't we?

Tou SaiK Lee: Yes.

Ernest Whiteman: So things are different today. Technology — it used to be if I went to a pow-wow, let's say in Wyoming, pre- all this technology, even before they had recorders, I would hear a song. I would take that song — I would have to travel great distances — let's say I'm from the East Coast — with that song, and I would sing that song. The people would hear that song, and look how long it took me.

Now that song can be just shot over there instantly, and people can hear that song, people can learn that song. So it's time and change.

Missy Whiteman: I like that traditional to hip-hop transition. It's definitely the same thing with film too, where it's like you're talking about sampling and you're talking about adaptation, where these mediums — we've had to adapt not only narrative form, because again, our storytelling is not in linear form. It's in secular form.

So if we're talking about film, like in sampling, or even like filming certain things, the way that I was taught, like if we talk about the traditional perspective, you're not supposed to film certain ceremonies. You're not supposed to film certain aspects of our culture because it's not appropriate. I've always wondered why.

The only thing I can really think of is, one, for us to preserve it for ourselves, but also because a lot of the boarding schools and the priests came in to our camps and lived amongst our people and would document these ceremonies and document our songs and our teachings and traditions, and then would adapt that into prayer books, into curriculum, into all of these different material that they would feed kids in the boarding schools, so that they were like, "Oh, well this is like our teachings," or, "This is our teaching." And so in that way it was like brainwashing mechanism, and it was our way to preserve that.

But then at the same time there's the other part where it's like if we want to learn language, we need to document certain things because if our young ones aren't going to take the time to sit with an elder, to have the patience to sit with an elder and to learn the language or to learn those stories, we have to adapt a little bit.

And I feel like with hip-hop, you definitely — my biggest recommendation for anyone that's working with Native culture is to always seek an elder out and always as questions of an elder because you can ask me, but I'm not an elder. I don't have elder status, and I'm always like 'ask dad', because he would know more than I would.

Tou SaiK Lee: Thank you for sharing that. It made me think about in collaboration with you, Missy, or with filmmakers is should say in general too, that the hip-hop music combined with the video, like having the visual to along with the song is very powerful too.

Missy, you had a particular music video that you shot with a Native hip-hop artist, and you I had a collaboration too, but I wanted you to talk about that video first, and then we can talk a little bit about the video that you and I did together, and also how the video adds to the — how it can be captivating to people that are experiencing a video along with a powerful song.

Missy Whiteman: Yeah, so you're talking about "Indigenous Holocaust," and that's with Wahwahtay Benais. So Wahwahtay Benais, an Anishinaabe hip-hop artist, produced a song called "Indigenous Holocaust," and initially it was based off of his research on boarding schools.

He learned about different stories of young people going through the boarding school experience, and I say "experience" lightly because it was less than an experience. It was a forced assimilation, and why we call it "holocaust" is because we compare it to the Holocaust that our Jewish relatives went through, and it was the same process, except it was more based on full assimilation if not extermination.

So with the song we wanted to bring forth the story of these young people, but also to talk about the healing part of that. And so bringing in a spiritual runner — so in the music video you'll see Wahwahtay Benais, and then you'll see animation that's done by my friend Jonathan Thunder because we wanted to talk about those different levels in which we exist not only as human beings but especially as indigenous people.

So we have like this human realm and then we also have the spiritual realm. And so we incorporate animation in that as well as First Nations United Runners, and that's a newer ceremony that's actually come up for us that is in response to young people especially who are dealing with suicide, who are dealing with addiction, who are dealing with broken families and all these negative issues. It's them running.

It sounds really cheesy, but they're really running for the people and they're praying for the people. And so my biggest thing is if you're going to bring forth a song, you have to also have a solution to that, because boarding schools — it's huge. It's something that we're all learning about.

So his music video, it really came together. He's like, "I have this vision, this is what I'd like it to be," and then asked someone who produces the video — it's like this is what I see too, and this is the visual story. He's like, "I have the lyrics, I have the musical story," and I'm like, "Okay let's put these together and see how they come together," and it just came together pretty magically I guess you could say.

Tou SaiK Lee: Yes, and that video is on YouTube for anyone that wants to check it out and watch it.

Missy and I collaborated on a music video from a song I wrote called "Lub Neej Paj Ntaub," which means "the flower cloth life," and the song was in collaboration with Shawn Mouacheupao, who is a musician/producer. And I created the song to honor the Hmong women of our lives, the matriarchs, the daughters of our community, and it's just because I feel that there's not enough emphasis, there's not enough recognition.

Tou SaiK Lee: And so for example, "paj ntaub" is a part of the story cloth. It's the symbols that represent our culture, and during a time when Hmong people were in China and those symbols represented our way of communication and our language at one point. When we were being persecuted and we were going to lose that language, it was the matriarchs of our families that preserved it by sewing it onto blankets, onto cloth. And so then these symbols continue to represent our culture to this day.

Now, here in the Twin Cities, in Minnesota, we decided to document a lot of the women that were working at the Hmongtown Marketplace in the Frogtown neighborhood. And so we shot the video there with Kevin Yang and my wife, Ntaub Xiong, who helped out a lot, and we had my niece and my sister-in-law there too, as well as two Hmong women dancers, Tracy [Tient Yang] and Melvina [Cha], and they came through and danced, and it was just a beautiful video that you can also check out on YouTube.

That was great because Missy and I had talked about collaborating for years and we found that that was the message we wanted to put out there. And just thinking about message, I think that's what a lot of young Hmong that want to get into hip-hop or music also draw inspiration from a lot of indigenous communities. It's like having a strong message about our culture, our history, because once some people write those types of songs I feel like it really connected to them in a way where they didn't really understand the importance and the depth of their culture.

And I really like how Ernest talked about how it also brings a different cultural perspective. Even the way that we value farming, for example, and food as a form of healing, I think that's always been a part of our culture.

I really wanted to get your perspective on the intergenerational collaboration with my grandmother and I — Fresh Traditions — in the sense of what was your perception of it, as well as what connections do you see with Native upbringing too?

Ernest Whiteman: One of the things that I do today is I'm a cultural director with the program Dream of Wild Health, but I'm also the elder. The elder in many cultures is the person that we all seek for information, for advice, for spiritual things. And so we I think today have drifted away from that, the way our cultures were meant to be. And so I desperately am trying to make that connection again with the young people.

We, as older people, become invisible to the younger generation. I once said to an elderly lady, "It's good to see you." And she said, "It's good to be seen." And what she meant was that I no longer have my role because of today's contemporary society. People don't have time to communicate with their elders, and to me that's an important part of any culture, is your elders. They are the backbone of your people. They have the information.

And so if I'm not fulfilling my role as an elder I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do. That is my role, is to be that person for the people. And I think that probably with your culture and your grandmother, collaborating with your grandmother, that was one way that you were able to bring that connection together with your grandma and what you do. You were able to work together in doing that.

I think that's probably something that we need to be thinking about. I know in my culture it's how do we utilize our elders more. How do you collaborate with our elders? We don't just go and ask them for information, but there's other ways that we can incorporate the elders into whatever we do in our daily lives, and not to neglect them. I kind of sound like I'm feeling sorry for an elder, but it's "be nice to your elder week" or something like that.

Tou SaiK Lee: It should be every day, right?

Ernest Whiteman: Yeah.

Tou SaiK Lee: Just to respond to part of what you said, I did feel that elders hold so much knowledge, but just her skills in all the different arts that she did included the poetry chanting. I think they were underappreciated, and so for me it was important to collaborate with her to really highlight that she had been practicing these arts since she was nine years old, and that she's seeing it being highlighted and performing together is something that really brings value to it, and also brings a wider audience in understanding of her art form.

Missy Whiteman: Yeah, like elements like hip-hop and how you both performed. It's like you created a space for her. I think younger generations like ours are — I see myself as a connector. I don't really see myself necessarily as like I'm a specific status. I see working with young people and elders and connecting that generation, because for our community it's really about our young ones not being able to communicate with our elders for a multitude of reasons.

It could either be like they're afraid — how do we approach an elder? A lot of elders today have gone through boarding schools, and so especially if you're going for cultural knowledge or whatever, sometimes there's like this mentality. We called it this boarding school mentality where there's a lot of shame in even pronouncing words right, and they've be like, "No, that's not how you say it."

They may not even know that they're doing that. They may not even know the impact, but because that's what they learned in boarding schools, that's what they're going to teach that future generation.

One of the things I've learned in discovering our language, our culture, our way of life, is that it's built out of love. And so even our elders like dad who are willing to teach out of love, really those are the elders that, to me, we want to make sure that we're definitely connecting to, and even the elders that have gone through boarding schools, really seek to understand and really be compassionate because they've gone through some serious trauma, and it's something they endured so that my generation, which is was I call "the connector generation" can heal.

We acknowledge that truth and then we begin that healing process, and then our children are the ones that take all of these teachings from their grandparents. For example, my daughter is an artist. Molly is nine. She's an artist. She's into coding. She's into organic farming. She has her own little garden, and any opportunity that she can get so spend with Grandpa at Dream of Wild Health, learning from him, it's like she's a sponge. She'll sit there and they'll read a magazine about knives for hours.

But it's because that generation has that — I don't want to say "hunger," but they want to learn those traditional ways, because they know that's their role. They're the seventh generation, and they don't want, like, cell phones. She's like, "I don't want a cell phone. I don't want — money doesn't matter to me." It's just a different way of life for her.

Whereas our generation was taught: You go to college, you become a lawyer or a doctor or, for me, a filmmaker. You make money and that's how you're successful.

But I actually wasn't given that message. I was never given that message because I'm not technically in the industry as a filmmaker. I'm an independent producer. And so that's a totally different realm than being a commercial producer. So I think having your elders instill those ethics in the future generation is what we should be doing, what I hope we're doing today.

Tou SaiK Lee: First of all, thank you. I think you bring up — bringing up the young people and Molly, your daughter, and stuff too, I think that's really important not just to have them be artists — or to have them be artists, but as a way of life and seeing the world through an artist's view. I think that's really important and it makes me think about how my grandma's generation — when I was learning from her about her art and how she got into it, for her, she spoke about it like it was a way of life.

She learned these poems, she learned how to chant from relatives, and then when she went farming, that's when she would practice. She would farm while she chanted her — so she had all these years of just practicing, and because she didn't learn how to read or write, that was her way of honing and polishing her abilities, was through that.

And so going back to how it's valued now, I think it's funny too with Grandma, like these were the first times that she was able to get paid to perform. And grandma's like "I'm cashing in" because I've been doing this art my whole life.

Ernest Whiteman: When's the next performance?

Tou SaiK Lee: Yeah, when's the next performance. And I remember — they asked us to do a benefit show. And Grandma said, "You know, I'm the benefit. I was poor my whole life." I said, "That's a good point, Grandma."

I think, though, one thing about Grandma that I really appreciated, [and] that I carried on — and I really got more into it, because unfortunately she passed in 2017 — but her storytelling. And the storytelling historically for our people, it held our history. Our history was in the stories, and at first we didn't trust books.

And the reason why, because a lot of the books that were written about Hmong people in China, for us they were inaccurate. They did not represent us. But then our stories that were oral that we passed down through generations were more accurate to the way we saw history, and so for me it was important to learn storytelling and to learn our history through it.

But I'm hoping that with our generation that we can figure out ways of documenting these stories too, and making sure these stories live on — our history within these stories live on. And so I was just wondering what your thoughts are about storytelling?

Ernest Whiteman: Storytelling is a very important part of any culture. Storytelling retains the culture and passes the culture of the people on. I always think about a time before technology when all there was was a person telling the story and the audience. There was nothing that was recorded. There was nothing that was written down, but you had to listen to the story.

And so it was not uncommon for my aunt to tell us a story more than once. She would come and spend a night with us, and she would put us to bed and tell us a story. A week later my aunt would come and she'd tell us the same story. And so I thought, "Is she losing her mind? She doesn't remember telling us that story?"

But what she was doing was reinforcing that story so that we learned that story, we knew that story. And that was the only way that stories were passed on, was through oral tradition. Today we have books, we can record, we can do a multitude of things in storytelling today.

But I still believe that one of the most effective ways of storytelling is hearing it from a person live. There's more impact when you hear it. I was fortunate to tell stories over a fire in Mexico with a Huichol grandmother who was very old, and she told her story of how corn was brought to the Huichol Indians of Mexico.

And so she asked me to tell a story. We didn't even speak the same language. She spoke another native language and I spoke another language, so her daughter interpreted from Huichol to Spanish. My wife is a Spanish speaker. She translated Spanish to English to me.

So you talk about this cross-language storytelling — we had to go through all these, but the stories still came out, and we still told that story. The kids that were there, the grandchildren, they sat around the fire. There was no technology. There were no cellphones. These kids listened intently to everything she had to say. They knew the importance of a story, of how that would be passed on.

You mentioned earlier the women in your culture were able to retain the symbols and the things of your people. That is true with many Native tribes. It's the women who are the historians. It is the women who are the ones that keep the history alive. The men usually — the women tell stories, but the men also are storytellers.

So there's that gift of storytelling. It is a gift. So if you're blessed with that gift you share it with your people.

Tou SaiK Lee: Do you want to add to that?

Missy Whiteman: I always have to go back to film because I think that's a newer way to tell stories, and there's a lot of different ways that you can revitalize language, retell the older stories in a newer context and help young people to especially see these older stories and relate it to their world and their environment because I think that's the biggest challenge too for young people, or just anyone existing in this world, is like, how do I live even a spiritual life in this world and how do I balance all of these different belief systems that are — that we live in a contrary society that does not support — for example the Anishinaabe Seven Grandfather teachings, and does it support love, respect, honor, knowledge, wisdom? I'm not naming all seven, but how do we do that? And you have to bring it in a different light.

With storytelling, with elders that's always a good thing. It's like always make time for that. And then of course music — hip-hop — and also teaching younger people how to create in their own voice. So you and I both teach young people, and for filmmaking it's the same thing where it's like it's about the process of filmmaking for young people, and it's also like breaking these boundaries. Like how do we break boundaries where we can say let's just go with the flow with the story, and then also how do we interview elders? How do we sit with an elder with a camera?

And then also trust, because for us it's like we see a camera and it's like nope, we're not going to say anything. And if there's an indigenous person with that camera there's going to be more trust there. And there's going to be a willingness for that elder to share that story with that younger person or with that indigenous person.

Tou SaiK Lee: And just to make a point about, when I said Hmong people didn't trust books, I think now that the books are written by Hmong people, those are the books we trust, just like films. When the films were about us but it was made by someone else it didn't represent us authentically, and so there's actually film about Hmong people that misrepresents Hmong people too out there, and once the films are made by us, then those are the films — the type of storytelling that we're able to translate, or through film or through books, that we're able to trust more.

Ernest Whiteman: That goes back to what I said earlier about my experience, which was very disappointing, with that gallery I went to when I was 14 years old. It was not representing my culture. And I knew something was wrong. Something was not right. It didn't feel good, but I didn't realize at the time it was because I'm being represented by someone else who doesn't even know who I am or has no connection to me.

And so I think that's true with many cultures, is there was mistrust in books — even in the arts; all these forms — movies. Often many movies were made without Native people. There's a list of all these famous actors that have played roles as Native people in movies, and there were no Native people there. Movies were not made by us until recently, so it's something that's changing, though.

And I think that with young people like you two, you're making changes for the next generation, and that's the important thing, is — what do we have to offer? Even if you're a younger person, you guys are fulfilling that role already. You guys need to be commended for that because what you're doing is not an easy undertaking. I know that. It's a struggle at times, but you have to do it, and you do it well.

Tou SaiK Lee: Thanks. I appreciate you calling me a younger person. Missy and I, we're like that bridge generation between the young people and the elders, but thank you.

For me, actually my grandmother's storytelling is what got me engaged into my culture and language, because there was one time when I couldn't actually speak my language that well, and I didn't know much about my culture. So storytelling was a way to get me involved and engaged and start me on my journey of learning more about my culture.

Missy Whiteman: The relationship that Tou and I have dates back to 2011, and when were in the CCLI — Creative Community Leadership Institute that Intermedia had, and again, that's that legacy the generation before us left, was Intermedia.

And one of the things that you and I connected on — like that's one thing within cross-generations and also cross-cultures, is that always looking for the similarities. Like you and I — that's a relationship that's like where are the similarities between the two, and where do our teaching connect, because we have traditional teachings that talk about one another's people, and that's something that we're like, "Okay, so our elders were right, and here it is happening today," like our communities working together and then also your willingness to share and be patient with me and learning.

Because I think with your music video if you want to talk about representation you were like I know I want a woman director, but maybe there aren't any Hmong directors that are ready to direct this music video yet — "yet," I'm going to say. You entrusted me in saying you felt like I understood enough of your culture to have share this lens and share this perspective that you have.

And for me I never questioned anything you wanted because I understand what you want. And then how do we bring that forward? How do we bring that to the next level? And even for you it's like you get it. I bring you to a pow-wow and you're like, "I'm going to wear my traditional clothing from Hmong New Year," and then you show up at a pow-wow and everyone's like — they're all like, "Tou, Tou!" — it's like what are you wearing. And then you teach and you share and they're like "us too, we have this," and I think that's the most important thing is finding those similarities wherever, whatever culture it might be. It's so vital.

Tou SaiK Lee: Right. And I just wanted to acknowledge that we did have a Hmong woman help out, which Joua Lee-Grande helped with the editing of that music video for "Lub Neej Paj Ntaub." And I did want to say that this is a start of conversation. We hope is that we continue to have more conversations and connections, speaking of connections between our cultures.

One thing I really wanted to mention to end off with was, I think not a lot of Hmong people here in the United States have that understanding yet that we are a people that are an indigenous people, but I think there's a lot of value in having that understanding. And when I traveled across to Hmong people living in different villages, in Southeast Asia and eventually in China, I realized that everywhere we are, we're always fighting to keep our culture and our language and our history, and the reason why is we don't have a country.

Hmong people have this debate about, "We should have a country, we should fight for a country." But initially we were a people that lived without borders and we didn't care about having a country. It was other people that created borders around us and then we ended up being these nationless people that had to live in all these different countries, but we usually lived in villages in the mountains. And I think there's a lot of value in that because we're going to fight harder to keep our culture because of it.

And that's a value that I see in a lot of other indigenous people, and so that's something that I really wanted to say, that that's something we could really learn if we really embrace that aspect of ourselves and our history.

This interview is a bonus feature of The Current Rewind, the podcast putting music's unsung stories on the map. You can find the episode featuring Tou SaiK Lee and Ernest and Missy Whiteman, entitled "Across Borders, Across Generations," via any of the feeds below.

Listen on Apple PodcastsSubscribe: Apple Podcasts, NPR One, RSS, Spotify, Stitcher

The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Culture Heritage Fund.


comments powered by Disqus