By Aliyah Chavez
I grew up on the Santo Domingo Pueblo reservation completely sheltered from the problems that plague Indian country. I grew up always taught to embrace my culture and learned my duties as a Pueblo woman from my grandmother. It was there where I learned the beauty of being Indian and henceforth, knew I have a responsibility to protect our way of life. As a child, the reservation I called home seemed like my mountain to conquer. Little did I know then, that there was a whole other world out there: Indian country.
Now I am in college and worked incredibly hard to get there. I’ve witnessed first hand racism, sexism and discrimination because of my identity. I know it all too well. Of course, as many Native American scholars will tell you, there were times where I nearly threw in the towel and gave up. But my passion for showing that Native people are worth so much more than point less insults has given me the strength to get by. Since then, I’ve made it a duty to learn about the tribes that make up Indian country and found that though we speak in different tongues and live thousands of miles apart, our struggles are eerily similar.
I recently decided to the run for the Miss Native American USA pageant in Tempe, Arizona because I wanted to show that it is possible to be a Native woman who succeeds in the classroom and in ceremony. However more importantly, I wanted to show that Native Americans are a hungry people. Hungry, in the literal sense that many of our people live in poverty, but more so hungry to show the world that the same resilience that ran through the veins of our great ancestors still lives today.
Below is an original poem I wrote about issues that are near and dear to my heart. I wrote this out of passion to show the urgency of Indigenous people’s problems. I wrote this because these issues affect Indigenous people from the shores in Hawai’i to our brothers and sisters in Alaska to our family in the East Coast. Please, let us make these issues known because complacency is no longer the answer.
Thank you and keep fighting!
When I was in eighth grade a classmate told me,
“You’re nothing but a dumb Indian.”
I wanted to cry
but I also wanted to correct him
with a lesson in legacy.
My ancestors distinguished the cardinal directions at Chaco Canyon
Without the use of a compass.
They found constellations using their concentration and
before modern day telescopes and space stations.
They dug into the earth to grow corn and beans and squash.
They plowed and irrigated this land
before his ancestors were able to articulate
how much they appreciated the “savage Indians”
saving them at Plymouth Rock in 1621.
They revolted against the Spanish, using a yucca cord in
to save their land from being seized by the acre.
He called me a dumb Indian that day in eighth grade,
And I can still feel how that word vibrated and violated him.
I was on an airplane after I finished my first quarter of college with a 3.5 GPA and a stranger saw my college lanyard hanging out of my backpack.
He said, “My dad is a graduate of Stanford University. So you wanna go there? That’s very ambitious.”
Well sir, let me tell you about ambition.
Tribal administrators desperately writing grants
for things like equity
or sovereign identities… oh and clean, drinking water.
Or Indian owned-companies
making art to raise money for legal costs
for the 57 Lakota children who were doused in beer
and racial slurs at a hockey game.
Or an elderly grandmother
who stood in front of a colossal sized bulldozer
in an attempt to stop an oil pipeline from being built.
Or when Indian activists
are killed by police brutality nearly everyday
but aren’t in mainstream media
because we are the “invisible minority.”
Or when Native youth
grow up thinking that a name like Redskin honors them
because that is the only “Indian” they see on TV.
My education is the product of oppression and genocide.
Of hatred and extermination.
And pure passion
To prove that I am a contradiction
To your perception of an Indian.
I am here to say that we are more than a mascot, a Halloween costume,
Or a fashion trend.
I am here to say #NATIVELIVESMATTER for all of the Rexdale Henry’s and Trayvon Martin’s.
I am here to fight for all of the Indians who drink dirty water,
and for the 57 Lakota children who are sacredly precious.
I am here to protect our sacred grandmothers
who weep because of people who prostitute our earth.
Please, remember our legacy.
We are dancers and singers.
We are stewards and fashion designers.
We are “rez” ball players and educators.
We are soldiers and mothers.
We have a duty to be great for all of those who died for us.
So, brothers and sisters,
Be who you want to be,
Who you were meant to be,
Be a contradiction to people’s perception of Indian.