Beyond Tradition: Today's Native Youth Organizing

Stanford Powwow

"9 out of 10 people think that as a Native American woman, I'm supposed to look like either that Land-O-Lakes butter girl, or Disney's Pocahontas," says Charlotte Chinana, a 22-year-old, New Mexico-based Native youth activist of Dineh and Jemez Pueblo blood.

Understandably, these stereotypes don't sit well with many of today's Native youth. Images in the mass media (and mainstream culture as a whole) are just one of the challenges Native youth face however. Factor in high rates of poverty, joblessness, alcoholism, and diabetes, and one gets a sense of what's fueling the new brand of youth organizing going on in Native communities.

By 2000, less than 20% of Native Americans still lived on reservations. Though the shift to more urban and suburban areas has introduced its own challenges, it has also opened up a whole new realm of possibilities to Native youth. They are embracing urban-based cultures more than ever, and though this has introduced a kind of gap between today's Native youth and their more-traditional elders, it has not necessarily led them away from their heritage. If anything, despite identifying with a number of non-traditional cultures, today's Native youth are more aware of how important it is that they preserve and maintain personal connections with their traditional culture.

"Oh great, what are the Indians doing now?"

Seeing only the degradation of their culture reflected in the mass media has a profound impact on Native youth. But there are a growing number of them rejecting those images, and taking action to prove them wrong.

When Native youth do show up in the media, their activism is often portrayed as hostile and dangerous.

"I don't think the indigenous youth have really seen media that reflect themselves. They're still searching for an identity."

"Here in Canada, when we're portrayed in the media it's just as a pain in the ass. Like, 'Oh great, what are the Indians doing now?' Whether we're fighting for our natural watersheds, or to stop the logging and mining of our mountains," says Simon Reece, a staff writer for "Redwire," a Vancouver, British Columbia-based magazine for Native youth. "It's different from down in the States, because I don't think down in the States they're portrayed at all in the mass media, ya know? Or when they are, it's the cheesy guy with braids, or the whole casino thing. But you know, whether they're portraying us as the typical Hollywood Indian, or the militant Indian, we're all being portrayed as uncultured scum. I don't think the indigenous youth have really seen media that reflect themselves. They're still trying to search for an identity."

Empowered Native young people have been reclaiming the right to define themselves in the public eye. For instance, most Navajo no longer call themselves such (except for the benefit of non-Natives), instead using the traditional term Dineh, which literally translates to "the people." Other tribes are shedding the names given them by European colonists as well: Chippewa people are more likely to call themselves Annishinaabeg. Sioux prefer Lakota/Oglala, Dakota, or Nakota. At schools where "Indians" are still used as mascots, there are student groups organized to change that. According to a resolution passed earlier this year by the Student Senate of Minnesota State University, Mankato, Indian mascots foster "a discriminatory environment which promotes racist stereotypes and dehumanizes and disrespects Native peoples and cultures." And there are precedents for success: an Indian mascot was challenged, and deposed, by students at Stanford University in 1972.

Even the word "Indian" is being appropriated and redefined. In his famous speech given in July 1980 at the Black Hills International Survival Gathering in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Russell Means defends the use of the term, which is European in origin. He says there is "some confusion about the word Indian, a mistaken belief that it refers somehow to the country India. When Columbus washed up on the beach in the Caribbean, he was not looking for a country called India. Europeans were calling that country Hindustan in 1492. Look it up on the old maps. Columbus called the tribal people he met "Indio," from the Italian in dio, meaning "in God.""

Yet there is no highly visible, contemporary Indian icon. Artists like John Trudell command a lot of respect, but seem too traditional for most Native youth, who have been raised in cities and find much appeal in urban cultures and lifestyles. Not surprising because of its roots in decrying oppression, hiphop is one of the urban cultures Native youth identify with most.

Other youth-led movements, such as the hiphop political movement, have a unifying culture. Though born out of the African American community, hiphop has been embraced by African Americans, whites, latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans alike. Like the different groups coming together to create the hiphop political movement, the 561 Native tribes recognized by the U.S. government (and several other the government doesn't recognize) all have seperate cultural values and traditions.

But there are some major differences between Native and hiphop culture as well. For one thing, Native youth aren't necessarily seeing themselves as "Native" first. Hiphop, on the other hand, can often define every aspect of its followers' lives. Bineshi Albert, campaign director for Albuquerque, New Mexico's SAGE Council, says, "When I was in high school, all the Native youth went to three different camps: there was the hiphop crew, the cholo crew, and the headbanger/heavy metal crew. And all the Indians went to one of these three cliques. I think it's still generally the same."

This certainly makes the task of unifying Native youth into a single movement that much more difficult. As Bineshi says, because most of the distinctly Native artists and musicians are older, there is a need for more youth to create their own music and art. She notes that there are more young native rappers coming out. Acts like Manik and Os-12 -- both members of the indigenous hiphop collective Tribal Wizdom -- are discussing political issues relevant to Native communities in their music, and are drawing an ever-larger audience. One native rapper, Litefoot, even has his own record label, called Red Vinyl Records.

"But it's still borrowing," Bineshi says. "It's not our own."

There could, however, be much potential in this borrowing. In cities and on reservations alike, hiphop is resonating deeply with Native youth. Charlotte has been working with New Mexico youth, using Rock the Vote materials to encourage civic participation, and has attended concerts by groups like Public Enemy to register her peers to vote.

Technology is quickly becoming a major tool in the Native organizing arsenal. For instance, many tribal nations now have a web presence. Native filmmaker Chris Eyre exemplifies this trend. He recently told the "New York Times" that he has made it his mission to do "what non-Indian filmmakers can't do, which is portray contemporary Indians." So far Mr. Eyre has made two popular movies, "Smoke Signals" and "Skins," which could help open doors for a new generation of Native artists.

Stanford Powwow

Groups like the NDN Rights Project, an American Indian civil rights organization, are using the Internet as an outreach and informational tool. According to their website, the Project seeks "to unite often isolated student organizations in cooperation, with the hope of supplying them with information and support that will allow them to be more effective both on their campus and in the local and national Indian community." They also offer free email to all indigenous youth at their site.

A similar tact has been adopted by "Redwire," which produces both an online and print magazine to reach its audience, and uses subscription fees from non-Native subscribers to provide free copies to indigenous youth.

The Generation Gap

Tools like these have given rise to a split between the urbanized youth and more traditional Natives. For one thing, many people on reservations don't have electricity or a phone, so hiphop and the Internet are inaccessible to them. In the past, most Native children were raised in boarding schools created by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and run by Christian missionaries. This practice has largely been abandoned, meaning many of today's Native American youth have had a fundamentally different education than their parents.

Simon says that in British Columbia, this generation gap is especially pronounced. When Native youth activists try to organize around social issues like the environment at dances or powwows, the people running the events don't allow them to. "They say 'This is a traditional event, we're not political, we don't believe that we should have people coming around here talking about political issues, because that's not what we're about.' And yet they can dance and march under a flag that's not even theirs, the Canadian flag."

Simon speculates that these traditionalists may simply be "afraid to rock the boat," despite the environmental destruction of their traditional lands at the hands of local ski resorts. These resorts already account for a large portion of Native peoples' land, and are trying to take more. According to Simon, around sixty Native protesters have been arrested, and are being prosecuted on criminal charges in Canadian courts, for attempting to re-claim those lands through acts of civil disobedience. He also says that Canadian officials have gone so far as to compare those Native youth to Palestinian terrorists.

Simon says that he and other activists in the B.C. area organize their own rallies and conferences, sometimes in conjunction with groups fighting for other causes. The Philippino Youth Alliance, for instance, a group that organizes opposition to the U.S.' militarization of the Philippines, often shares time at rallies with Native speakers.

In the U.S., however, there is a much stronger bond between the traditional community and the urbanized Native youth organizations. Youth and elder gatherings are regularly organized on reservations, and are a popular method for passing on traditional knowledge and skills, such as storytelling, dancing, pottery-making, and basket-weaving.

"Powwows and other traditional events are being used to organize around all issues that "Native people have a vested interest in." They are now aimed at educating youth as much as celebrating and worshipping, and have become forums for organizing around environmental and rights issues as much as preserving Native culture."

Stanford student Moroni Benally, a member of the Dineh Nation, helped organize the Stanford Powwow last year, one of the largest traditional events of its kind in the U.S. The Powwow is a good example of tradition and modern political action being joined: it was originally held in 1971 to offset the damage done by the Indian mascot Stanford was still using at the time, which was seen to be making a mockery of Indian culture and practices. Moroni says that powwows and other traditional events are being used to organize around all issues that "Native people have a vested interest in." He elaborates, saying that they are now aimed at educating youth as much as celebrating and worshipping, and have become forums for organizing around environmental and rights issues as much as preserving Native culture.

Charlotte says that in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it is not uncommon for groups to have informational booths or do voter registration at powwows, fairs, and Pueblo feasts, "in order to reach a relatively large number of Native people who aren't always aware of what's happening on a broader level, or how a seemingly unrelated issue ties into something of importance."

According to Moroni, new events and traditional events designed to reach out to Native youth are instrumental in preparing them to be leaders of tomorrow's Native community.

Moroni's brother organizes weekly b-boy/girl jams for youth on reservations in Shiprock, New Mexico. He says his brother, Bert, who is in his 30s, originally came up with the idea because he wanted a way to show children that adults care about them. Moroni says that Bert utilizes elements of both traditional and modern music to appeal to as many youth as he can, and that this has had an "amazing impact" on the youth who attend because they "leave with the desire to be like this man, a man from the reservation with a well-paying job, a nice family, and extensive graduate schooling."

Another New Mexico organization, called The National Indian Youth Leadership Program of Gallup, provides the means for young Natives to reconnect to their traditional culture in order to help them become better members and leaders of their respective tribes. Similarly, the San Francisco-based International Indian Treaty Council's Youth Mentorship Program is designed to teach Native youth leadership skills and help them become more involved with issues vital to their community.

Bineshi, who is Yuchi and Annishinaabeg, says she no longer considers herself a youth at the age of 30. But her perspective on Native youth organizing is unique--she has been involved with Native and environmental causes nearly her whole life. Both of her parents were active members of the American Indian Movement, or AIM, the prototypical Native youth organization that was founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1968. AIM was the first student-led group to emphasize re-connecting with traditional culture while confronting the status quo through direct action. Bineshi spent her first birthday in jail with her mother after an AIM protest, and started working for Greenpeace before she was old enough to vote. She says that she believes most Native youth are organizing around the twin issues of cultural and environmental preservation.

"And I say them as two separate things, but I think in the context of the organizing that they're doing, it's the same thing," she explains.

Aquifers, Sun Dances, and Petroglyphs

Examples of the ways Native Americans' lives intersect with environmentalism are everywhere. For example, in Black Mesa, Arizona, federal agents are attempting to remove some 30,000 Dineh from their traditional land. About 12,000 have already been relocated since 1966, the same year the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs declared the Dineh "trespassers" on their own land. 1966 was also the year the U.S. Department of the Interior brokered a deal giving rights to the massive coal deposits beneath the Dineh's land to the Peabody Coal Co. Since mining began, air and water has been polluted, and thousands of Dineh burial and other sacred sites have been dug up. Even their most sacred religious ceremony, the sun dance, has been disrupted by federal agents who ordered the ceremonial grounds to be flattened by bulldozers.

Worst of all, "Peabody has dried up all the area's traditional springs," Ross Cunningham, the youth intern at the International Indian Treaty Council, told the "San Francisco Bay Guardian." This could be a potentially fatal situation to the 30,000 Navajo and 10,000 Hopi people who live in this desert climate.

"Many times, youth are organizing around environmental issues that have impact on their culture," says Bineshi. She elaborates, saying that youth organizations' efforts are often centered on the quality and preservation of areas -- such as water sources, mountains, or whole pieces of land - that are a key component of their religion or culture.

This is the case with the SAGE Council's fight to protect Petroglyph National Monument. Established in 1990, this national park holds over 17,000 petroglyphs, or carvings and drawings made on rocks, some of which are over 2,000 years old. It is the largest collection of ancient petroglyphs on the North American continent, according to SAGE Counil's website, and is considered sacred by several tribes and indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, local developers and their political backers want to go ahead with plans to build a community on the Western side of the park, then build a road through the park so that the new owners can get to their homes.

This was precisely the cause that drew Charlotte into the world of organizing and activism once and for all. She is an active member of the SAGE Council as well, because the threat to the petroglyphs has shown her that "being involved in the political process is essential to the preservation of my cultural heritage, not to mention the overall outcome of our future society."

"Being involved in the political process is essential to the preservation of Native cultural heritage, not to mention the overall outcome of our future society."

Most non-Natives can't fathom how deeply this threat to the Petroglyph National Monument offends the Native people who use the area for religious ceremonies and rituals, as they've never had to protect their church, or temple, or tabernacle from a hostile bulldozer. In fact, they probably wouldn't believe something like that could even happen in the U.S.A. But this comparison can rightly be made.

"I believe that the Native people in general have been made foreigners in their own country," Moroni says. Which is why, he says, Native people are beginning to "look back into their people's original thought process for the answers and for guidance."

Like the hiphop generation, today's Native youth are building networks and organizing in unprecedented ways.

Charlotte explains that it's easy for Native youth, as members of the first nations of this continent, to remain indifferent to the political process as it relates to their people. But, she says, today's Native youth "have the responsibility to future generations to be more engaged in the political process. We have to be involved in the process, otherwise, not only do we let others decide the future of our people, but we also end up failing all who came and fought and died before us."

Michael Gaworecki is a Texan living in San Francisco. He lost the battle to make this piece 2,000 words longer.

For more information and to get involved in the fight to save Black Mesa, contact the Black Mesa Trust, or Black Mesa Indigenous Support.

For more information on what's going on in the world of Native youth organizing, check out the Aboriginal Youth Network.

For a directory of tribal websites, check out, and for more Native resources on the Web, visit this site.

For more on the Native hiphop movement, check out Native Hip Hop.

Photo of the Grand Entry at the 2002 Stanford Powwow courtesy of Dean Eyre III.

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