Sahtu Dene documentarian journeys 17,000 km for Indigenous storytelling project

December 27, 2021
Sahtu Dene documentarian journeys 17,000 km for Indigenous storytelling project

At 27, Tate Juniper is stepping into his journalist boots for the first time, travelling 17,000 km across the United States by road, capturing stories and portraits of Indigenous people through his new project We Are The First.

An electrician and accountant by trade, Juniper started the project because “Indigenous representation in popular culture and media has been historically and in the contemporary, lacking,” said Juniper, who is Sahtu Dene from Délı̨nę.

“We’ve moved from being the ‘noble savage’ to the ‘resilient survivor.’ But it’s still a compartmentalized existence,” he said. 

He wanted to dig into what authentic representation looks like and how to fight for it.

To find the answer, Juniper bought a camera, some microphones and drove from Inuvik to the U.S. border, where he used the Jay Treaty of 1794, which allows Indigenous people unimpeded access from Canada to the U.S., to cross the border while it was still closed to Canada. 

He’s interviewed artists, students, tribal leaders, elders, fancy shawl dancers, judges, youth workers and activists, wellness workers, drummers, aestheticians, prairie land preservationists, electronic dance music fans, archaeologists and even iconic rappers Lil Mike and Funny Bone, from Pawnee Nation in Oklahoma.

Lil Mike and Funnybone are two Oklahoma rappers cast in award-winning FX series Reservation Dogs. (Submitted by Tate Juniper)

Juniper’s been through Washington, Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas and Chicago. He recently drove along the U.S.-Mexico border to El Paso before heading on to New Mexico. 

The project is self funded, said Juniper, and that’s why many of his days begin with him waking up at a Love’s truck stop.

If he’s lucky, there will be no rattlesnakes in the bathroom — he’s not always lucky.

Juniper said he enters interviews without an angle and lets the person sitting for a portrait share anything they like. It’s more of a conversation, than an interview. 

Some profiles are about a person’s advocacy, a story, or simply who they are.

“To me, real representation means allowing the individual to represent themselves. Unsurprisingly, when you give Indigenous people a voice, they speak a powerful truth,” Juniper said. 

“We can kind of move away from this idea of pan-Indigeneity that we are all the same, which is an easy way to view Indigenous issues and people.”

Juniper said authentic representation comes through conversation and listening.

“When you give yourself up to that, when you sit down and you are willing to listen and really, really listen to the words people are saying, these stories, these truths come out,” he said. 

“We can then look back on the broad strokes and then see what is the same, what’s different and what unites us.” 

“I think that we kind of demystify what it means to be Indigenous when you let people just speak about everyday rights,” Juniper said. 

“We’re allowed to have different viewpoints on what it means to be a contemporary Indigenous person.”

In Washington, he profiled young people reclaiming food traditions through a replanting project. 

“Our relationship with food and with the Earth is so important to a lot of different Indigenous people,” Juniper said. “And it’s something that as we develop these lands, as we industrialize through its processes, we’re losing that connection.”

Juniper said people in their 20s and 30s are now cultural leaders making a difference by bringing Indigenous issues to the forefront. 

“It really is a responsibility to push forward the rights and the fact that we are here, and we deserve and demand that land is respected and our cultures are respected.”

‘A lifelong project’

So far, Juniper has taken 60 portraits, including the Rose Creek Singers, an all-female Indigenous drum group from Idaho.

From town-to-town, he’s met up with people who then put him in touch with their connections in other states. 

The drummers connected him with two Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls advocates — Duane Garvais Lawrence, a former tribal officer, and LoVina Louie.

“We were sleeping in the casino parking lot the night before, and it just turned into this amazing session of healing and talking to Duane,” Juniper said.

The duo served Juniper and his travel companion a hot meal and sang for them.

“I cried. It was such a good moment for me,” Juniper said. “I just think of the time I spent with them and what they shared with me and how proud and privileged I am that I got to speak with them.”

He said this foray into portraiture and storytelling won’t end when he crosses the border again.

“As long as I have a camera and the ability to do it, I’ll be talking to people probably for the rest of my life through We Are The First. It’s become like a lifelong project because, you know, representation never really ends and you always have to fight for it,” he said. 

Juniper is hoping to create a limited series run on residential school survivors, and pursue a mentorship with Netflix. And, after learning so much south of the border, he feels compelled to return to Délı̨nę and explore his own culture. 

‘These roots are deep’

After crisscrossing the continent, Juniper says he wants to dig deeper into his own roots and return to Délı̨nę. (Submitted by Tate Juniper)

One of Juniper’s “biggest motivators” is his late grandfather George Cleary, former chief of Délı̨nę, who had “so much knowledge he wanted to share with the world.”

Juniper’s mom wanted to share that in a book, but in 2017 she passed away. 

“When I lost both of them, I realized how important it is to listen, and … people’s voices need to be advocated for and shared.”

He said the project has fostered a greater curiosity for where his own roots lie, with his late grandfather, his grandmother Doreen Clearly and his late mother Cheryl Cleary.

During his travels, Juniper phones his grandma often. He’s reminded to not lose sight of the specificity of his own identity and connections to the Sahtu.

“These roots are deep … I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of my own culture,” Juniper said.

“I want to dive more into what it means to be Dene, to come from Délı̨nę and to hunt and live and learn about my own culture.”

He said when he returns to the North, he’ll be ready to listen.

“If I can’t write those down or I don’t put them online or on my pages with this project, I’ll take that knowledge and I’ll share it when it’s my turn to speak,” Juniper said. 

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