Native and Indigenous youth are pushing for change and are reclaiming their heritage and culture, in efforts to heal from decades of White colonization and its ongoing effects.
According to the Center for Native American Youth, as of the 2010 U.S. Census, there are over five million Native/Indigenous people, making up approximately two percent of the U.S. population. Over two million are under the age of 24. There are currently 573 federally recognized tribes.
Pte San Win Little Whiteman, a 22-year-old college student who lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, spoke to The Final Call about some of the challenges among young Native people. Whiteman currently works as the First Peoples Fund’s youth development program co-coordinator and with the organization’s Dances with Words writing and poetry program.
“Growing up, we were more prone to substance abuse, addiction, and substance abuse disorder. And growing up, a lot of us had searched for other ways to cope with our traumas by doing the most unhealthy things to ourselves or to others,” Whiteman said. “I want our youth to step out of that spiral. I want them to be able to heal by practicing a tradition that has helped keep a lot of our cultures alive, has helped keep a lot of our stories alive.”
Some of the ongoing issues among Native youth Whiteman pointed out are substance abuse, teen suicide, bullying and gun violence. According to the Center for Native American Youth, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Native youth ages 15 to 24.
“There are many factors that contribute to mental health disparities and suicide in Indigenous people and youth. This includes lack of access to opportunity, geographic isolation, intergenerational trauma, and more. What is important is to remember the resiliency of Native people. Despite attempted genocide, Native people are still here,” said Nikki Santos, executive director of the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute, via email to The Final Call. She is a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe and the mother of a five-year-old daughter.
Augusta “Gusti” Rattling Hawk, 25, who also works with the First Peoples Fund’s youth development team, noted one of the biggest challenges Native youth face, is a lack of access to resources in education.
Another issue is the prevalence of young people leaving the reservation due to a lack of jobs and abuse in the household.
Whiteman also pointed out that Native youth are also still trying to heal from generational trauma. “People say yeah, we have generational trauma, but they don’t get into the root of what generational trauma is and where those come from and how that lies. And a lot of us will say yeah, colonization has caused a lot of generational trauma. It has caused a lot of us to not understand who we are. We go through imposter syndrome, and we feel like we’re not Native enough or we’re not trying hard enough to be Native,” Whiteman explained.
The young Native grew up in a traditional household and recalled growing up around the sacred ceremony of Sun Dance and with grandparents that are and were medicine men.
Young Native people are currently at the center of a Supreme Court case regarding the Indian Child Welfare Act, a law passed in 1978 to prevent the separation of Native children from their families and tribes. The case revolves around White foster parents who are arguing that the law is discriminatory. Rattling Hawk criticized the ongoing case.
“That removes Native children from our communities, and that further contributes to assimilation and everything, and that very negatively affects a lot of Native youth, because a lot of times these Native youth go to non-Native families,” she said.
“First of all, we are Indigenous peoples. We are not Indians. We’re not your Indians. And secondly, this child, why would you think that they would rather go to a White family than their own people? Because it’s not fair,” Whiteman expressed, arguing that “the White man’s way of life is corrupt.”
“You don’t know what life would have been like if you had left us alone. If you left us alone, you wouldn’t know what our lives would be like today. Native Americans, Black people, Hispanics, Muslims, we are all capable of being geniuses. We are all capable of being tech savvy, or artists and writers,” the college student said.
The Center for Native American Youth released a May 2021 report titled “We are the Future: A Native Youth Narrative.” In the report, between 50 and 70 percent of youth identified the following priorities as extremely urgent: improving mental health; addressing violence against women, children and LGBTQ+ individuals; preserving tribal languages and culture; caring for tribal elders; increasing access to tribal healthcare; environmental concerns; enhancing community infrastructure; providing quality K-12 education for Native children; protecting tribes’ rights to care for the wellbeing of their children and improving physical health.
“Native youth need spaces where they can show up unapologetically, not in fear of being erased, subjected to stereotypes or prejudices. As a society, we have a collective responsibility to reckon with the true history of Indigenous People and commit to healing and transformation that is rooted in inclusion and equity,” Ms. Santos said.
Recommendations in the report included: honoring Native youth self-identification; permanently and fully funding the Indian Health Service; improving access to culturally informed mental health services and to mental health experts and therapists; establishing ways to document knowledge and teachings from elders; supporting Indigenous learning styles and creating safe spaces; supporting and implementing community-based justice reforms and creating accurate representations of Indigenous people.
Whiteman is an advocate for building more housing units and treatment centers on the reservation. “They want to come back, but they can’t because there’s no place to come back to,” the college student said. “I think that housing units would not only benefit our youth to learn how to manage what it’s like to have your own place but to give them that sense of independence and also that sense of community, because one, they’re on their own. They can do things on their own, they can make their own decisions. But they’re not alone. They’re still on the reservation. They’re still with community.”
Despite the ongoing challenges Native youth face, Whiteman expressed that a lot of young people are becoming more artistic and courageous. Those much younger than Whiteman are learning the Lakota language and going to Sun Dance. Whiteman also stated that many young people are standing up for themselves and what they believe in.
Ms. Santos said Native youth are leading in combatting the climate crisis, ensuring proper education is taught, leading movements and addressing the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women. “Our ancestors fought hard for the future generations, and our youth today are laying a strong foundation for the generations to come,” she said.
As time goes on, Rattling Hawk sees art playing a big role. She is a conservation and environmental scientist, but people are made aware of important issues through art, she explained.
“The sciences and culture and art all exist on the same path. All exist in the same sector. And it’s definitely one of the more powerful tools that I see to get to this future that we’re all imagining,” she said.
“I just see a future that’s Indigenous. I see a future where we’re all able to come together and team up with one another to help our communities, whether it be figuring out how to help our communities with a garden or to help our communities with a natural well, so that we have our own water supply, or having our own programs where we’re able to give our youth those opportunities to write poetry, do songwriting, make their own hip-hop beat, do fashion designing,” Whiteman said.
“I am tired of us living in the White man’s shadows. I’m tired of it,” Whiteman added. “And with the amount of Indigenous representation that’s going out everywhere, I don’t think we’re living in that shadow anymore. I don’t see it. … We’re challenging the White man’s way of life. We’re challenging their mindset, and that’s what scares them.”
—Anisah Muhammad, Contributing Writer