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September 2, 2021

Movement Maker Profiles: Tai Simpson

Tai Simpson is known as “The Storyteller” in the indigenous language of the Nimiipuu nation (Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho). She is a direct descendant of Chief Redheart and serves her community as an organizer, activist, and advocate.

Who are your people?

Well, I always want to start with being a citizen of the Nimiipuu nation. We say iin wees Nimiipuu. I am a Nez Perce woman. That comes with generations of matriarchs and generations of lawyers and healers and educators, the first harvesters, the first stewards of this land. My people are also the animal people and the mountain people from whom I also descend, that were here long before humans were here. They are also my people.

In my nation, I am a descendant of Chief Red Heart, Iinim neexc'eese hiiwes timiine ilp ilp kiniix and he is one of the chiefs that disobeyed and dissented against the government during westward expansion. I always love to own that I'm from a chief who was disobedient from the very beginning, and I now exhibit some of that behavior. I also am a descendant of very powerful, incredibly dynamic Black scholars. Both of my Black grandparents were educators, and definitely trailblazers in their fields, always being the first Black appearance in some space, which I'm very proud of.

I am sad that I don't and cannot name my ancestors beyond my Black grandparents, because of adoption and because of mass exodus, but that doesn't mean I feel disconnected to the generations of enslaved indigenous Africans that built this country also. My people are also my descendants for whom I work very hard for. I hope that I'm writing a good story with my life, so that my life is worthy of my descendants' altars generations down the road. 

I think it's worth noting, because I'm in a matriarchy, I am very much my mother's daughter, part fury, part love all the time. She's a healer, though, and I'm a storyteller. The way that we move through the world is a little bit different, but I am all of the best things of my mother I think, and I really want to honor her and name that I hope to emulate the level of influence and impact she has on our community in the way that she has in the way that her mother before her has also. Those are my people.

What brings you to this work?

I think a lot of this work for me is about my own survival and my own wellness. I felt very drawn to the work, anti-violence work, anti-oppression, anti-racism work because it meant being able to heal myself and heal generations that came before me that carried a lot of trauma and pain as a result of settler-colonial violence. I want to take an active part in doing this work, not only for myself but for my people as well, to set an example of how we can heal and dismantle, at the same time, how we can interrupt the trauma and interrupt the violence, while simultaneously holding a healing journey, because we don't know how, we've never been shown how to do that.

It's always been a cycle of violence, generation after generation and I think that being a part of this work with the lens for decolonizing, returning to our old ways, and returning to who we were before violence and white supremacy, is really the goal. It gives us a unique advantage in journeying towards liberation in a unique way, because that journey has been written for us, again, generations for us prior, and generations down the road. Holding on to that intergenerational wisdom while doing this work in the immediate space and in the now is very meaningful to me and I think that I can contribute to that because I carry so much intergenerational wisdom. There's a privilege in that, and I want to be able to honor my people that way.

What aspect of your movement work brings you the most joy?

Well, we share a lot of laughter in movement spaces, a lot of laughter, a lot of dance. We crack jokes on each other, we celebrate the loudest, Blackest, Brownest, Reddest parts of us. We laugh at the sound of our own laughter, which is its own joy. Everybody's small wins are worthy of celebration and my beloved community does that. Any time we need to hold each other, for grief, for tragedy, for sorrow, we always seem to find moments of joy even in heartbreak and that's telling about who we are as people in anti-violence work and in movement work.

I love our moments of joy and how they're created for us and how nobody's left behind. How can we celebrate everybody's joy? Because there's enough. There is joy in abundance, there is love in abundance. The beloved community that I've built for myself, created and nurtured for myself, doesn't ever leave anybody behind and I love that. That's very joyful for me also. 

Our everyday regular check-ins, the basic human needs, "Have you drank water? Have you ate food? Have you taken a nap? Have you paused your work?" There are moments of joy in that for me knowing that somebody else is thinking of me when I'm not necessarily thinking about myself, and that's also very joyful, so people, laughter, celebration. There's a lot to be appreciative of when it comes to joy.

What moves are you making to end violence?

I'm trying to be as loud as I possibly can when it comes to violence against Native American women. Media continues to erase us. The law and law enforcement, criminal legal systems continue to erase us and silence our voices. State legislators and policymakers continue to erase and silence us. The moves I make are always very loud. They always draw a lot of attention, just to remind people that we are the baddies from seven generations ago embodied now, and we will continue to be here, taking care of the land and taking care of each other even when our descendants of settler-colonial neighbors don't necessarily know how to do it.

Part of that work looks like creating indigenous-specific community care or mutual aid, making sure that vaccine clinics are set up specifically for indigenous young folks and elders. It includes celebrating and advocating for language rejuvenation programs. I do that even for myself. I can speak but I'm not a fluent speaker. Making sure that I'm leaning into as much language rejuvenation and cultural rejuvenation as I possibly can. What other moves are we making? That's the other piece to it too. There's nothing I'm doing where I'm moving alone, either, and that feels really good to me because nobody can do movement work alone. We don't move alone. We definitely move in a collective. Knowing that I have partners and co-conspirators in this work to celebrate indigeneity in all of its varying facets and dynamics and that I'm intentionally creating spaces where our voices are always centered and our voices are always the loudest.

How would you describe your leadership strengths?

Loud. I'm just loud. I think that's been helpful. I always say the thing that people are thinking but may not be brave enough to say out loud. I think my leadership is courageous. I think my leadership is bold. I think that my vision, because it's intergenerational, is really strong and that is captivating for folks who don't necessarily carry intergenerational wisdom, who don't have strong ties to the land that I carry, that aren't from a matriarchy. My leadership is also very matriarchal, nobody left behind, do no harm to the planet, keep everything in balance, move from a place of abundance because there is enough, and naming those things. Also moving from a place of openness.

My mom always tells me that she worries about me because I have such a big heart, but it's also always broken because I just put it out into the world. She raised me to be resilient, and she raised me to know that somebody prayed for me and loved me into existence, which means I have a responsibility to share that love and those prayers with folks who were in the work with me and for those who are coming after me. I think that that level of community focus strengthens my leadership skills also. Nobody's ever left behind.

What keeps you in this work?

I've done a lot of the mainstream white supremacist capitalism jobs. I've done state jobs, and nothing ever gives me purpose in the way that movement work gives me purpose. I've never been in a space where I can just show up as exactly who I am, high capacity, low capacity, joyful, depleted, whatever. However, I need to show up, I'm able to show up, and when I need to take a break, I can take a break. That matters a lot to me in this work. I think it's just everyday knowing that no matter how big or small my contribution for that day is, it is a meaningful contribution. All of us in movement work have a similar lens in that however we contribute is enough. We're making huge strides, whether we're together or whether we're apart. I feel a responsibility to keep coming back to that every day.

I wondered about your identity with "The Storyteller," and where that came from, or how that came to be for you.

Oh, a story of my name. Ahtitwatit is my fifth great-grandmother. She traveled a lot with the trappers and white men who were part of Westward expansion, following Lewis and Clark's expedition to the northwest. What was interesting about her, as a little girl, she lived amongst her people, there were no reservations then yet. She traveled as a young person and a team with these trappers and learned how to speak English and French from what I understand, and then seasonally would come back to her people and teach her people what she saw and what she knew and what she was learning. There are parallels in my life--that I was not born and raised on my Indian reservation. I have always traveled the world and done my best to come home and tell my people about what's happening, what to expect, how to think bigger than the reservation, how to imagine a world for ourselves, that is not the prison that is our reservation.

As a storyteller, she leaned into her responsibility, because it's about teaching, it's about making room for other folks to tell their stories. It's about carrying language because so many of our old stories are in our old language, so there's a lot of different facets to it. I think that for me being the storyteller is a spiritual practice, and a cultural practice, and my love language, that stories are a way for each of us to connect with one another and find common ground. Storytelling is also the way that we can envision all of this work. We tell the story of our future by the way that we're living our lives. I think showing other folks how to do that is really what it means to be a storyteller to me.

How are you dreaming big, how are you dreaming past violence and dreaming past cops and dreaming past capitalism? What's past that? What's beyond that? It's not enough. Those things leave people behind and marginalize and oppress. I don't ever want that to be the limits of people's imagination when we're capable of so much more. We have done so much more. We will continue to do so much more and be so much more. Somebody has to be the storyteller to keep all of that going.

Art by lizar_tistry