Meet DeLesslin “Roo” George-Warren, an Annual Firefly Gathering instructor and former Firefly Board Member who will be joining us for his 4th year this summer. A queer artist, researcher, and organizer from the Catawba Indian Nation, Roo’s work ranges from performance and installation art to food sovereignty and language revitalization. At the Gathering, you can find him teaching classes deeply rooted in storytelling and performance, and the fundamental role these narratives play in how we relate to history, the land, and one another.
In this interview, Roo shares his background in this work, and how storytelling is a vital component of building authentic relationships to land and community. Read more below, and join him at Firefly Gathering this year, June 20-25, 2023!
DeLesslin “Roo” George-Warren is a queer artist, researcher, and organizer from Catawba Indian Nation whose work ranges from performance to installation art to community education to food sovereignty to language revitalization. Since 2017 he has been the Special Projects Coordinator for the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project where he facilitates the Catawba Language Project, several food sovereignty initiatives, and other community education projects. Alongside offering performances, lectures, and exhibits throughout the US, Roo has received multiple recognitions including “40 Under 40” by the National Council on American Indian Enterprise Development, a “25 Under 25” by United National Inter Tribal Youth, and selection as a Dreamstarter by Running Strong for American Indian Youth.
Roo returns to Firefly Gathering again this year as an instructor with classes rooted in storytelling and performance. His 2023 classes include: Resourcing Our Communities: Grant-Writing, Fundraising, and All That Other Fun Stuff; Colonization and Food: A Catawba Story; and Decolonizing Old and New Songs for the Win with Saro-Lynch Thompson. Read more on our 2023 Class List.
Roo’s path to teaching at Earthskills Gatherings started at a young age. “You could say that I had been involved in earthskills my whole life,” he says. “My grandfather would take me to this farm and I would harvest pottery clay and pull what felt like miles of potatoes- since of course Catawba agriculture was thoroughly destroyed and replaced with the extractive style of agriculture brought over from Europe.”
As he grew up, his connection to the land became strained by his increasingly complicated relationship to Catawba identity. Roo shares,
With the “intensity” of his mother’s support, alongside the professors that helped him see his community and his own experiences within the same historical context, Roo initially came to activism by heading off to DC to “change the world.” Ultimately, he realized “that’s not what happens in DC.” His return home to work on Catawba language revitalization began to reconnect him to his relationship to the land.
Upon returning, Roo shares “I very quickly realized I can’t learn the language if I don’t learn the land. We still have a lot of knowledge within our community, but with the rise of compulsory education, compulsory jobs, and all of these kinds of larger and more capitalistic obligations being put on Catawbas- there’s obviously less room in time for the practice of earthskills.” Roo was able to attend a Permaculture Design course through Wild Abundance on scholarship to focus on deepening his knowledge of the land.
Despite his initial hesitance, and feedback from people in his community about going to non-Catawbas and non-natives to learn, Roo says this uncertainty dissipated as he delved into learning. “We can all learn from the Earth- we can all do it.” In reflecting on the idea that learning is only authentic from one particular source, Roo shares “This is one of those things that really irks me, is this “Noble Savage” myth. Like, ‘oh, they can just hear the wind’ and that kind of stuff. Well, no, we know the land because we’ve been here for 6,000 years…you can’t survive and learn nothing in 6,000 years.”
Since then, Roo’s many interests and skills have brought him into a wide array of roles. He is quick to point out the strangeness of using one title or another in his work;
Roo brings his offerings to Firefly because “it is essential that we reimagine ways to live in reciprocal and sustainable relationships with the Earth, and I think Firefly is a community that is actively working toward that future. I see in Firefly the understanding that to save this world, we must learn the world. We must learn the land. The idea of conservation that the United States has had since the 1850s with John Muir is very much about walling off, or preserving land from humanity- but of course that’s not sustainable.”
His approach reminds us that “we are part of the land, we can’t be separated from it. The best way to preserve species is for us to know them and to love them, and to be giving and taking with them.”