On Earth Day: Kiliii Yuyan on Strengthening Ties to Nature Amid the Pandemic

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On Earth Day, award-winning photojournalist and Nia Tero Storytelling Fellow, Kiliii Yuyan (Nanai) offers perspective on telling Indigenous stories, and how we can strengthen our ties to nature amid the global pandemic.

When Kiliii Yuyan visited his grandmother at the end of her life, she reminded him sternly, “Never forget who you are.”

For Kiliii, who is Nanai (Siberian Native) and Chinese-American, this became less about remembering, and more about understanding his Indigenous identity and ancestors — and by extension, a journey of learning about other Indigenous cultures.

As a photographer, Kiliii has worked alongside Iñupiat whalers in the Arctic, Anangu Aboriginal hunters in central Australia, and Inari Sami reindeer-herders in Finland to explore the human relationship to the natural world from different cultural perspectives.

His wilderness survival skills and active approach to storytelling have come in handy while photographing extreme environments and unfamiliar cultures. On assignment for major publications including National Geographic magazine, Kiliii has fled collapsing sea ice, weathered botulism from fermented whale blood, and built relationships in the far reaches of the world.

Kiliii also builds traditional kayaks and contributes to the revitalization of northern Indigenous culture. For his Nia Tero Fellowship, he is in the research phase of a series on Indigenous land-management practices in Brazil, Australia, Mongolia, and the Arctic.

Flora Aiken gives a silent blessing to the first bowhead whale of the spring season. The Iñupiaq have a rich spiritual life which centers around the gift of the whale to the community. Photo: Kiliii Yuyan

What do you think are the greatest lessons you've learned about Indigenous peoples' relationships to the land?

A single lesson is a bit like putting a stick in a river to try to change its course. For me, the most defining notion among Indigenous cultures is that our worldviews depend on relationships. Relationships between people; relationships between humans and the land; and relationships between the land and other animals. Every action involves strengthening or relying on your relationships in balance with the other element or person involved.

For example, ideas like property ownership are just not fathomable in Indigenous communities because we tend to think of ourselves as belonging to the land or as stewards of it. In most Western or non-Indigenous models, the driving force is acquisition or dominion over the land. A good example of this is in Greenland, which is one of the few countries formed primarily on principles and values of Indigenous peoples. You see this in action where they have no private property ownership, and the system works. If anyone wants to drill there, there is a national referendum. Every person votes on it. Every Greenlander has a say in how the land is treated.

Photographer Kiliii Yuyan reveals the hidden stories of polar regions, wilderness, and Indigenous communities.

Can you give an example of where you’ve seen Indigenous communities most impacted by climate change or the degradation of our natural environment?

One of the problems I see is that we generally victimize, not just Indigenous people, but the people most affected by major things like climate change. But Indigenous peoples are hugely resilient. This is not to say that Indigenous peoples are not often on the frontline of experiencing the most dire of consequences of climate change. The stories that I want to see told are about how well they’re dealing with this, and how they’re able to draw on traditional technologies and community-based thinking to adapt and survive. I do not want to center settler colonial frameworks to say that we are still here and we are not victims; instead I simply want to assert that we are here and will be here for many generations to come. This is why I always approach my stories with this notion of resilience.

We generally victimize, not just Indigenous people, but the people most affected by major things like climate change. But Indigenous peoples are hugely resilient.

So you’re a Nia Tero Storytelling Fellow.… What do you see as the role of storytelling in the urgent work to curb the effects of climate change?

Early on I had the distinct goal of trying to get people more engaged with the natural world through my photography and projects. But it’s almost hard to even talk about traditional knowledge without people understanding a little bit more about nature in general. I think because we’ve urbanized so much around the world, many people’s experience of nature is just a city park, so the engagement is really shallow. I guess my hope is to be able to show people the possibility, not only going out into nature, but of really engaging with it in this deep way.

An arctic river flows down through the Brooks Range in Alaska as it thaws in the summer. The Brooks Range marks a transition from the forested taiga to the south, and the tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Kiliii Yuyan

What has it been like to be part of the Nia Tero Storytelling Fellowship cohort?

It’s a fantastic group. I find it really fascinating to learn about the different global perspectives, because there are so many parallels between our worldviews — but also many differences.

In our cohort, we come from the Arctic, Colombia, the United States and the Pacific. It’s really cool to see how different things are between our regions. Until the Nia Tero Fellowship, I really had no idea about what was going on with Indigenous issues in the Pacific. For example, the Pacific Islands have a very high percentage of Indigenous peoples who are proud and rooted in their ancestral identities. So the problems they face are often experienced by the entire country, whereas in the colonized countries of the United States, Canada, and Australia, the populations have been decimated by genocide and displacement. As a result, the representation is small, and the oppression is on a more pronounced scale.

At Nalukataq in Barrow, Alaska, the Iñupiaq whaling festival, the village comes out to celebrate a successful whaling season and to give thanks to the whale for its gift. Photo: Kiliii Yuyan

Today is Earth Day: what’s one call to action you would raise?

I’m on assignment right now for High Country News, covering the pandemic and how people are spending time outside. The pandemic has slowed the world economy down and everything is just a little bit nuts. But at the same time, for some of us, we've come to see what’s possible.

I’ve been inspired to see how people are getting out to heal and spend time in nature while finding creative ways to do it safely. There’s a sense of solitude, where you’re paying attention and watching what’s going on. Spring is still happening, even with the human world shut down, and it’s just marvelous to watch that unfold.

We must make some urgent choices regarding capitalism to deal with climate change. It’s dramatic and eye opening to see what's possible. I think it’s a really good time to pay attention and slow down and remember what caused this. We must imagine what it could be one day, 30 years from now, if all that nature is gone and the climate is burning up, if the seas inundate all the coastal cities.

I hope we can hang on to how beautiful the natural world is. We can’t waste this opportunity for change.

I hope we can hang on to how good the natural world is.