Word Warriors: An Interview with Whitney Sawney

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Whitney Sawney. I am currently a student at the University of Arkansas, studying International Relations and Political Science. I’m so excited because I GRADUATE IN DECEMBER!!

It’s been a long journey for me personally, but I couldn’t be more grateful for the challenges that college has presented because it makes it that much more satisfying that I’m graduating.

I serve on the National Native Youth Cabinet for the National Congress of American Indians, and that has been an incredible experience as well. Before I never really got to travel much, but the cabinet has allowed for so many opportunities just in these past couple of years to explore, see new things, and meet amazingly inspiring people.

Fun fact about me, people often mistake me for Beyoncé, mostly because of my incredible singing voice. (Side note: that’s not actually true, I can’t carry a note to save my life. Also, I look nothing like Beyonce).

What was your proudest accomplishment this year?

One of my proudest accomplishments this year was being invited to the White House Tribal Youth Gathering. I remember walking into the room that day, and there was an indescribable energy and pride that filled the room. At that instant you knew that Indian Country, and especially Native youth, were being prioritized by a government that for so many generations failed to acknowledge the strength and importance of our communities. It was powerful knowing that the leaders in that room were going to be the voices that would continue to advocate for our people in the future, and that thought was incredible.

I was also very proud of the project that got me there to that event. I am currently working on a video project called “Beautifully Native,” to be released this month. The video is about celebrating the narratives of Native women. It’s about taking ownership of what makes us feel loved, valued, empowered, and BEAUTIFUL! I hope that this project encourages other women to take a step back, allow a moment of vulnerability, tell themselves that they are beautiful, and truly mean it. It’s actually more challenging than it sounds, but hopefully that will change once we open that dialogue.

What motivates you?

My favorite quote is “If we share power, we empower many others, and therefore we ALL become more powerful.” I think that says a lot about what motivates me, because I love seeing others succeed and reach their goals. This concept was once described to me as “lateral goodness”- it’s about not bringing others down in order to reach your own goals, but instead working together to create a better, stronger, more significant end result. So, ultimately I am motivated by collaborative success. That is why I challenge other Native youth to support their peers, because it is really easy to get caught up in self-promotion. It seems like more often than not we are doing things to make sure we have the more impressive resume, but instead we need to be focusing on a greater purpose and a stronger connection to culture as a team.

If you could sit down with the decision makers of America, what would you tell them about Native America?

If I were to sit down with the decision makers of America, I would say that Indian Country should be the ones in charge of determining how we present our story and what best benefits our communities. On a consistent basis, we are being told what is best for us.  For example, we are being told that the Washington Football team mascot is “honoring” us, but in reality it is harming us. It is perpetuating the process of allowing those outside of our communities to tell our story and shape their perception of how we should conduct ourselves. I would argue that is changing with the millennial  generation. I think we are beginning to voice concerns out loud and engage others in our conversation, whereas before things like the tragically high rates of Native youth suicides went unmentioned and unnoticed because it was considered a taboo subject. But today, Native youth are taking charge and saying “No, let’s talk about it!”

What’s the best advice you have for college-bound Native students?

The best advice I could give college-bound Native students is to speak up in your classes. I attend a University with a low number of American Indian students, and as a result Native issues are very rarely mentioned in the classroom. It was always really important for me, especially in my Political Science classes, to stand up and say “Hey wait, what about tribal governments?” It’s always a topic that is briefly mentioned in just one powerpoint slide, and that’s it. Instead it should be a more prominent topic of discussion. Indian country and American Indians are often forgotten and overlooked, but we are an important part of our society. Sometimes bringing up the subject might be “uncomfortable” for others. It’s always interesting to see how little my classmates understand Native policies and governance, but this is your opportunity to educate others and engage them in conversation. Only when you speak up will social change begin.