• Ngaio Simmons

What Our Ancestors Want(ed)

The contrast between the cool and calm air of Ka Waiwai versus the busy, non-stop, hot summer rush of Moiliili outside has been experienced multiple times this week. Today, however, everyone seems to be feeling it just a little bit more. Who knows the reason. Could be everyone on the same temperature frequency, the air conditioner could be a little colder today, or it could be the nerves of the participants as they work on the finishing touches of their films and try to get them exported before 4:00 pm rolls around.


Everyone seems to be relaxed for the most part and a few folks have even been through this process already having been to other camps before this one. But even with experience in our back pockets, people can still get nervous. We can still get jumpy. More sensitive to our environments than before. And why wouldn’t we with something like art? Like creation? With something one has spent hours working at, honing, sharpening, fine-tuning, and finally releasing into the world for everyone to see? To look at with different eyes and different minds? It’s big.


And that’s where we find ourselves today at the showcase for the Reproductive Justice (RJ) Reel Camp for Girls. Watching what was created in this beautiful space over the course of a week by two production teams, one sharing the space with us in person and the other tuning in remotely.


It’s fitting to use the word ‘creation’ for this camp in particular given the theme is RJ. While most folks hear the word ‘reproductive’ and automatically assume the field has mainly to do with birthing people and their rights, Tanya and Grace reminded us throughout the week that RJ is so much more than just the act of giving birth.


It is a movement originally started by Black women in the American south in response to their history of being considered commodities and essentially just bodies used primarily for breeding. RJ comes from the need to assert that Black women have agency over their bodies and that they should be allowed to choose how they go about living and taking care of their bodies without the unwanted intervention of the reigning, colonial apparatus.


This need to have full autonomy over one’s body has gone on to extend to all marginalized groups throughout the world who also find their bodies becoming the subjects of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and other harmful legislation and actions. Birthing people who want to decide how they give birth but also people who don’t want to give birth. People who simply want the ability to wake up and be able to walk outside without fear. This act of living, thriving, and doing it in all of the ways that fit our beliefs and what we feel in our naʻau: that is RJ.


And these films illustrated those points so beautifully because, well, of course they did.


The first film we watched was made by the remote team. The film “Mālamalama,” was a poetic journey through RJ from an Indigenous lens. Through the joined mediums of poetry and animation, we see what it RJ means for an Indigenous woman, specifically a Kānaka Maoli woman living in her homeland of Hawaiʻi.

The film shows us the impact of colonization on this woman’s homeland, her ancestors, and the following generations. It shows us the ways in which colonization and the wrongful, as well as the nonconsensual occupation of Hawaiʻi by the so-called U.S., continues to harm Kānaka Maoli and result in persistent physical, mental, and spiritual sickness. We see the importance of RJ as a movement for securing safety and healthiness for birthing people but we also see it as a movement for securing safety and healthiness for the ʻāina. For water. For the sky. For native languages, traditions, religions, and relations. We see it as a movement for #landback and whenua being returned to those whom it was stolen from. We see it as a movement to raise families and live individual lives in ways that make sense for Indigenous peoples and are completely antithetical to what the joint evil of capitalism and colonialism would have us think. It is the right to be at home in the piko of one’s lineage, to stand strong in our tūrangawaewae, and not fear any wavering.


Speaking from the perspective of a takatāpui Māori, this film so powerfully shows us that RJ is something deeply imbedded in our blood, our naʻau, and our histories as Indigenous peoples. That Indigenous sovereignty, stewardship, tradition, and relation-making are directly tied to healthy ways of living, loving, birthing, and thriving. That we have always done it this way. That policing, restriction, and violation are forced interventions by the colonizing power but agency and autonomy are traditional. That everyone deserves the right to access and enjoy their bodies, birthing or not, without judgement or intervention. This film shows us the ways in which RJ truly does encompass so much more than we realize and that it is such a powerful tool for engaging in decolonial world-building.


In the last film, “Defining Womanhood” by Snap, Crackle, Pop (SCP) Productions, we are introduced to some of the fundamentals of RJ once again by Tanya and Grace. These fierce and mana-ful leaders in the work of RJ walk us through this fight for justice once more, beginning with the importance of remembering the lineage of RJ as a movement created by Black women in the American south as a means to fight back against the legacy of slavery in the so-called U.S. that made an industry out of abusing, exploiting, and commodifying Black people and their bodies. The relationship between Tanya and Grace, their unique perspectives as folks from different cultural and racial backgrounds, and their separate but also similar experiences in this world are also a direct reflection of RJ itself and the many intersections that it houses within that label.

Throughout the film we not only learn from Tanya and Grace as practitioners and warriors in the fight for reproductive justice as community advocates, educators, outreach workers, and midwives, but we also learn from them as people who have experienced the injustice firsthand. That they know what it means to be growing up and experiencing the transition from girlhood to womanhood/childhood to adolescence and not having anyone there to guide them through it and answer the questions they had. They know the heaviness of shame, guilt, and secrecy that society and the women/adult figures in their lives who have been conditioned, place on that transition and how they were made to feel as if they had to learn about themselves and their bodies in unproductive darkness. They know what it means to go to the doctor’s office or a trusted adult and not receive the care, concern, and advice that young people should receive when looking for resources and assistance with questions about sexual and reproductive health. They both also know what it means to approach each of these injustices while existing in a Filipinx body and a Black body, respectively. As women. As people who can give birth. As people with fraught, damaging, and traumatic relationships with the so-called U.S. that continue on to the present day. As people with children but also just people. People with relationships to family, community, and land. People who can look to each other and see similar struggles, kinship, and a shared desire to want to have better for themselves and future generations. People who recognize the importance of RJ as a movement for birthing people but also as a movement for life as a whole and the right to live it exactly how we want to.


These films show us how having agency over one’s life, autonomy over one’s body, and being equipped with the knowledge to ensure we live authentic, healthy lives is what our ancestors wanted for us. That these human rights were taken from people with the invasion of Indigenous lands in the so-called U.S., theft of Black people from their homelands and enslavement, and the continued exploitation in the present day of Black, Brown, and Asian bodies and spirits in the name of American “innovation” and “freedom.” That we have so many battles to engage in, roads that wind and have to be re-routed when we stop at dead ends, worlds that demand building and rebuilding over and over in the name of a more just and loving world for all. And that despite the long fight ahead, RJ is committed to re-instating what was taken from our ancestors. It is committed to re-gifting what was always ours: the right to do what we want and live how we want with our bodies. That we will keep going till there is justice. And with Tanya, Grace, and these young people there to help guide us and with the wisdom they shared with us in these films, I have no doubt we’ll get there.