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Images & Voices of Hope | December 2, 2020

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Meet Liana Aghajanian: ivoh fellow examining the intersection of Native American sovereignty & science

Meet Liana Aghajanian: ivoh fellow examining the intersection of Native American sovereignty & science
Liana Aghajanian during her first year of the Write A House residency. The wall is decorated with paintings and illustrations related to her Armenian background, including an original typographic poster from the Ottoman Empire and Dr. Kevorkian, who is both a Metro Detroit native and Armenian-American.



While working on her ivoh fellowship project, Liana Aghajanian has interviewed anthropologists and visited an ancient DNA lab that houses indigenous remains. Her project, which is inspired by the collaborative efforts of Native American tribes and scientists to help indigenous communities reclaim the bones of their ancestors, has driven Aghajanian to follow ethical anthropologists and a Native American tribe in Alaska. As pictured below, she must suit up and get her DNA swabbed in order to enter the lab, Aghajanian told ivoh.


Aghajanian in a lab coat standing in an ancient DNA lab that houses indigenous remains with one of the anthropologists for her ivoh project.


This is the kind of journalist Aghajanian is. She dives deep and immerses herself in research and experience. As stated on her site, the Armenian-American journalist has traveled extensively to cover everything from medical marijuana use in assisted living facilities to visiting the world’s only forensics lab that solves crimes against animals. She has a knack and passion for covering under-reported communities and issues. Case in point, Aghajanian’s fellowship project raises awareness of the deep-rooted generational trauma of the indigenous people of America.

In addition to being an ivoh fellow, Aghajanian has been honored by the International Reporting Project Fellowship in Global Religion Reporting, Metlife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, and Hrant Dink Foundation Fellowship for Turkish-Armenian Dialogue. In 2015, she won a Write A House residency, which placed her in her current house in Detroit, Michigan.

ivoh recently spoke with Aghajanian about her progress as an ivoh fellow so far.  


Gloria Muñoz: What initially drew you to ivoh’s Restorative Narrative fellowship?

Liana Aghajanian: I felt like I had always sought out stories that fell into the Restorative Narrative framework, whether it was to report on them or read them, but I never knew how to define it, or if such a category even existed. I think this interest stemmed from the fact that so much of my own background — both my family’s story of coming to America as refugees and historical nature of my ethnic Armenian identity — is one big Restorative Narrative in itself, so it was something that felt familiar and intrinsically true to who I was.

I was attracted to the idea of what it means to rebuild, and how the realities of rebuilding are often messier — both in their challenges and resiliencies — than we tend to see. I felt that this fellowship would really give me an opportunity to explore that complexity in a holistic way.


Photo from Aghajanian’s Al Jazeera America story on how black midwives are attempting to reduce maternal mortality rates. Photo credit: Liana Aghajanian


Muñoz: Tell us about your story and where you’re at in your reporting process.

Aghajanian: My story is about the repatriation of Native American remains and the often fraught relationship indigenous communities have with scientists and educational institutions. It involves the lingering modern day impacts of historical trauma like genocide, ethics in science, policy like the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, DNA, and [examines] how these two groups are attempting to repair that relationship. It explores the ownership of the past: Are these remains ancestors or artifacts? Who gets to decide? And, is it possible that they could be both?

My story follows a group of ethical anthropologists and a Native American tribe in Alaska as they take steps in a pioneering project to see if both cultural healing and understanding the world through science can be achieved, when often those two things are pitted against each other. I’ll be accompanying the anthropologists on a trip to Alaska this summer to see the process first hand and spend time with the tribe. I’m hoping to document this delicate process of trust, and all the challenges that come with it as they attempt to partner with each other.


Muñoz: How is the fellowship helping you develop and tell this story?

Aghajanian: The support this fellowship has provided has been crucial when it comes to this story. Being given the opportunity to interact with such a dynamic group of journalists, to bounce ideas off each other and learn about our respective projects, has been so valuable to me as a freelance journalist who often does not interact on this level with my peers. The guidance from ivoh staff has been immensely helpful.

Jacqui Banasyznki’s invaluable coaching has allowed me to focus and hone in on not just the central themes, but the structure of my story. Her presence, constructive feedback, passion and expertise in the craft of journalism has truly made this fellowship the best I’ve had.


Photo Aghajanian’s Guardian and New York Times story on in Berlin about Iranian refugees and asylum seekers who were converting to Christianity from Islam. Photo credit: Keegam Shamlian.


Muñoz: What have you learned so far about Restorative Narrative?

Aghajanian: I think the most important thing I’ve learned about the Restorative Narrative [genre] is that these stories are messy, they encompass both resilience and reality, they are an accurate reflection of life in a lot of ways. If told correctly, I think Restorative Narratives really do have the power to make an impact in people’s lives. One other thing I’ve learned is how powerful they can be for the people whose stories you are telling through this framework. This approach, which forces you to slow down your reporting process and figure out why you’re telling this story in the first place, also has an impact on the people who allow you the privilege of documenting their lives.


Muñoz: Throughout the fellowship, we’ve (the ivoh staff) enjoyed learning more about your Write A House writing residency. Could you share about how your time in Detroit has informed your creative life and writing projects?  

Aghajanian: Being part of the Write A House residency, a unique non-profit that gives houses away to writers in Detroit has been one of the most profound, life changing experiences of my life. Detroit is a city with no easy answers, but lots of questions. I wanted to come here because I knew it was a place you could not understand from afar. The complexity and contradictions of this place (not to mention the incredibly rich history) often remain under-reported or not reported on at all on a national level. People have stronger opinions about Detroit than any other place I’ve been, no matter how many thousands of miles away they live. So being here, day in day out and trying to make sense of a place that really feels like it encompasses the complicated story of America has made me really think about the kind of work I pursue. I love slow journalism. I love getting to know people and places over time and being in Detroit has really helped propel me in the direction of those stories.


Photo from Aghajanian’s story about how an invasive species is destroying the black ash trees of an indigenous tribe and what individual members were attempting to do to stop it. Photo credit: Keegam Shamlian.


Muñoz: What advice do you have for other media practitioners who want to tell Restorative Narratives?

Aghajanian: Though I don’t think that every single story can be or needs to be a Restorative Narrative, I think taking the time to examine what a Restorative Narrative means is important. By that I mean, it’s really easy to assume it means telling a nice story with a happy ending, when the reality is that it is the opposite of that — it is telling a story as wholly as possible, it is highlighting the way in which people and places try to juggle life and engage in a recovery process that is both frustrating and fruitful. I also believe that because of the challenging times we face in journalism and in society as a whole, these stories are more necessary than ever. They need to be given as much room in publications as possible, because they spur dialogue and reflect universal themes that readers can really connect with.


Related: Meet Ally Karsyn: ivoh fellow and founder of live storytelling series Ode | The artist as journalist: Meet Jennifer Crandall creator of ‘Whitman, Alabama’ | Meet Jed Lipinski: ivoh fellow covering the opioid epidemic in Louisiana | Meet Jaeah Lee: ivoh fellow covering police violence in America | Meet Alice Driver: ivoh fellow capturing stories of migration across Mexico |‘Newtown’ documentary sheds light on community resilience after tragedy | Jodie Jackson challenges the media to #PublishThePositive