Native Land, Youth, and The Future

by Special Correspondent Jessica Yee

Much of what people know about historic Native issues has to do with land on some level. Indeed, much of what we are about today has to do with our land also. Our Mother Earth is the ultimate living entity, something that sustains life and guides us as a people. They say that without our land, we are nothing.

Nowadays, the news that is frequently dispelled from our communities if you are involved in any left-learning circles are about things like land claims, environmental degradation and destruction, and the suffering and plight of our people as a result of our Mother Earth being taken away from us. While this is all true and essential to acknowledge that we need land for the people, we also need people for the land. I know for myself that whenever I enter an activist space of some sort, I’m constantly being asked about whatever land struggle that is currently going on in some Native community, to which I’ll often reply “I work in sexual and reproductive health. Do you know the latest statistic on AIDS in Aboriginal communities?”

People ask me this I think for maybe a few stereotypical reasons (like they think that we all know everything about each other and send smoke signals the other way to find out), but mostly because it would appear that these are very key issues for us to be involved in, and in reality, we do need this place for the prophecies of our next 7 generations to come true. While I am still a learner when it comes to subjects like environmental justice and food sustainability, I know I cannot separate myself from my community whatsoever, and these are the simultaneous realities we must deal with when even discussing things like sexuality and violence prevention in our communities. I have to be informed.

We cannot pit one issue on top of the other as being more pressing; it’s all affecting us somehow.

Even my own heroine of heroines, Katsi Cook, from my home community of Akwesasne, a leader in reproductive justice and traditional midwifery, starting the Mother’s Milk Project and the first Haudenosaunee Birthing Centre at Six Nations, is now an internationally renowned environmental activist, who (among many of the other corporate squalors she has exposed in her time) had to simultaneously bring light to the fact that PCBs from the General Motors plant were getting into our fish and waters and gravely affecting the women and the way they birthed babies in my community. This is how I know that as a young First Nations woman, I have to care about all of this at the same time and don’t have the luxury of just picking one sector to be vocal on. I wouldn’t want to anyways.

Interestingly enough however, when it comes to understanding the 7 generations teaching, it’s important to remember that we are actually on number 7 right now. This generation and the people my age and younger are supposed to be the catalysts to effect concrete, positive change and send ripples of transformation throughout our nations to be stronger, better, and to live longer. Ironically when it comes to looking at what is going on with youth across our lands, we are certainly failing them the most.

For example in the US:

    • Native American youth represent just over 1 percent of the U.S. population, yet they constitute 2 to 3 percent of the youth arrested for such offenses as larceny-theft and liquor law violations..
    • Alcohol-related deaths among Native Americans ages 15-24 are 17 times higher than the national averages. The suicide rate for Native American youth is three times the national average.
    • Over 30% of Native American youth do not graduate from high school

And in Canada:

    • More than 27 000 First Nations children are in state care
    • Aboriginal youth ages 15-24 have the highest rate of sexually transmitted infections in the country
    • 40% of Aboriginal youth live in poverty

I won’t even go into how much youth-focused programming and youth-led initiatives are lacking across the board. This isn’t only due to funding and racist constraints from government; this has to do with a lot of older people still not getting it that it has to be about the youth now. You need to give up some of your power and privilege for the next generations to continue on the important work you think you are doing.

But fortunately all around me, I have the privilege of witnessing youth who choose a different path to make both land, social, and health issues a priority for themselves to do something about. They are breaking the cycles of marginalization and standing new ground on their own that is all-encompassing, which is really old ground since they’re being traditional in doing so, and proud of it. And the youth from the Swinomish Tribe who recently starred in the amazing “Match Point” documentary are no exception.

I had the honour of watching Match Point during the Youth Program at imagineNATIVE in Toronto this year, and it aired on PBS’s Independent Lens this past week.

From the imagineNATIVE Voices of Tomorrow film description:

For centuries the Swinomish people have relied on fishing and clamming as a way of life. However, the nearby presence of two large oil refineries has threatened this age-old tradition, negatively affecting the water, land, and overall health of the community. Told through the eyes of three teenage boys, who use humour and candidness to confront the politicians behind the scene, they travel to Washington to make a move about the environmental destruction facing their community. As the boys experience a need to tell their story, they produce an incredibly empowering and youthful coming of age story.

Produced by one of my favourite media companies in the world, Longhouse Media, this was a project of theirs called Native Lens, and it allowed the three young friends to be active together in something after attending drug rehab treatment. I totally relate to their initial groans on “But it HAS to be about the environment?” but in the end, it wasn’t really about the “environment” so much as it was about their culture and survival of their community, which related to every single item going on in their lives, in some capacity. Being green isn’t a new thing for us, it’s who we’ve always been, and where we need to go back to. March Point is a highly effective tool to teach audiences young and old the strength of the youth voice and how important it is to hear, since if there is no one to carry any of this on, what are we’re really all fighting for?

This past summer my partner and I embarked on doing a traditional diet for one week, where we only ate the foods grown on our own territories, in the old way (so yes, that meant no electricity). This came after many-a-late-night conversation on the importance of our culture, how fed up we are about the destruction on Mother Earth, and we decided that if we are going to continue to complain we have to actively do something about it we haven’t done before. We blogged about it here, and it taught us not only about the colonization of foods and the severe impacts to our people, but about being full just from the land, and all that it really means for us as youth who need to continue on for our Nations, both spiritually and physically.

It is my hope to continue to write and learn about these issues on environmental justice and food sustainability in my community, and share with you along the way. But in the meantime I’ll remind myself that I’m not just an Indigenous feminist reproductive justice freedom fighter. I’m Native, and it’s my inherent duty to care about the earth, in every way that I can.