One of NATIVE(X)’s main goals is to build awareness around contemporary Native culture and break down the lack of knowledge or misconception that many Americans have of Native culture. When explaining NATIVE(X) and the vision, I for the most part, receive positive feedback, but in the few instances that I don’t, it is frustrating to hear responses like Natives don’t need to work because they get checks from the government’ or ‘don’t they have casinos?’. I’d like to give Natives and informed activists a chance to dispel such rumors through the NATIVE(X) blog and tell the stories of Native communities around the country.
Sarah Lawson, a Tufts 2008 graduate and a former Kiva Fellow in West Africa, currently serves at Southwest Youth Services (SYS) through the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Sarah is working mainly as a grant-writer, but also as a middle school soccer coach and coordinator for the food pantry and clothing bank. She is also in the very beginning stages of learning Navajo language (Dine).
What is Southwest Youth Services?
SYS is a non-profit organization inspired by the belief that Native youth are our most valuable community resources. When empowered, Native youth bring about powerful social change among their peers and within their communities. SYS has worked with Native youth through organizing the annual Indigenous Soccer Cup (ISC), an event featuring a recreational soccer tournament, skills training, wellness and college prep sessions. SYS also places young adult Native volunteers with Native organizations to focus on positive youth development. These dual programs, sport and general youth programming, work in tandem to create positive social change in 20 partner tribes and Native organizations.
What Native communities do you reach?
SYS is able to reach a great diversity of Native American communities. There are 19 Pueblo communities in north and north- central New Mexico numbering 63,196 members in the 2010 Census. SYS directly serves five Pueblos, whose total residents number 19,072. The Navajo Nation is a strong presence in the north and northwest of the State, numbering 65,764 members. Youth from many Navajo communities attend the Indigenous Soccer Cup. In previous years, we have attracted participants from all over North America to the ISC including Canada and U.S. States such as Mississippi, Alaska, Montana, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and many other states. SYS is located on the campus of the Native American Community Academy (NACA), a charter school which serves both urban and reservation groups encompassing 50 tribes.
A photo of the Pueblo of Acoma, Sky City, the older section of a Pueblo about one hour from Albuquerque. Spanish explorers first used the term “Pueblos” (derived from the Latin word populus, meaning “town”) to describe the Native people living in the adobe and stone structures that they encountered in the U.S. Southwest.
How did you become interested in Native culture?
I’m an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, but it is more my Native heritage than that guides me here. My dad, who is from Oklahoma, took the family out there every year where I developed an awareness for Native culture and heritage. My great-grandmother was a prominent activist and leader in the Delaware tribe. The Delawares later were integrated into the Cherokee Nation. I also worked for the Cherokee Nation Washington Office a couple summers ago as a Legislative Intern and received a great introduction to Native issues. Cherokees are a descendency tribe, which means they determine membership from direct descendence from a full-blooded member as opposed to blood quantum (percentage of Native blood). Out here in the Southwest where most tribes use a high blood quantum to determine membership, I’m not necessarily considered Native, but people have been kind and extremely open in integrating me into the culture here. It’s been a unique experience.
One step back. I know some people think using the word ‘Indian’ is politically incorrect, but I know Natives who refer to themselves as Indians. What do Natives prefer to be called?
For the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Indian is an acceptable term, but in New Mexico ‘Indian’ has a pretty negative connotation. We say Native down here, but as you can see it varies by region. You just need to be aware.
How receptive are the surrounding tribes to your programming in terms of the Indigenous Soccer Cup?
Since 2004, we have carefully built up relationships with the surrounding Native communities. Soccer is not a popular sport on the rez where basketball is the clearly dominant sport, but we have sought to popularize it. SYS uses youth soccer as a deterrent to obesity- a huge health problem in this area and one that is closely linked to Type 2 Diabetes.
What else could you use? What is the social context?
Everything. The wellness statistics are well below the national average on reservations. According to the N7 Fund, a branch of Nike that works closely with Native youth, 1 out of 4 Native Americans live in deep poverty on reservations and the suicide rate is 127% above the national average. Almost 70% of Native Americans have diabetes and 32% are obese.
There is a fundamental distrust of US government dating back to the removal of Native land hundreds of years ago and mandating the assimilation of Native children through boarding schools, a practice which ended fairly recently: Kill the Indian, Save the Man
What is something inspiring going on?
Natives are fighting to rebuild their culture and uphold their traditions. Language revitalization is really huge here. All over New Mexico, and across the U.S., tribes are seeking funding for programs to teach youth their Native languages, sometimes writing them down for the first time. This can be done in really creative ways- such as by creating apps on iPads for teaching Native languages (TMI) or Crowdsourcing languages. I can’t really speak on behalf of the community, but I’ve been struck as an outsider with Native communities’ relationship with the natural world and elders’ paramount role in passing on stories and teaching the language. Native communities have many worries, but tradition and culture is one thing tribal members have and will hold on to forever.
Does art play a big part in that?
Art supports the community and is a popular hobby and occupation. For some, art is deeply spiritual and an important part of cultural heritage. In the southwest we are known for our pottery. One of the most famous venues for selling Native art is the Santa Fe Indian Market. A good and less expensive way to directly patronize the Native Americans that actually make the art are purchasing art at Feast Days. Feast days are religious ceremonial days with traditional dances and art markets held on Pueblos mainly in the summer and fall. Pottery, basketry, jewelry, weaving, painting, and carving doesn’t only support the community from an economical standpoint, but also a psychological perspective. Working with traditional Native practices and feeling a sense of ownership brings pride to not only the artist, but the family, and community. (Sarah recommended Milo jewelry that you now see in our jewelry section)