by Clear Sky Native Youth Leadership Council interns Kayla Harstad, Lailani Norman, Tim Shay, and Akichita Taken Alive
Since time immemorial, Indigenous people have celebrated storytelling as a way to connect the present to past lessons and future dreaming. Narrative sovereignty is a form of land guardianship, and Nia Tero supports this work through its storytelling initiatives, including the Seedcast podcast, as well as in this monthly column for media partner the South Seattle Emerald.
During Native American Heritage Month, we have a unique opportunity as Native teens to reflect on what the world expects from us and hopes for us. It can be overwhelming and exciting to think about what the future holds and the responsibilities we might take on, but one way we’ve each been able to gain clarity is through our involvement with the Seattle Clear Sky Native Youth Council, a youth-focused and directed program of the Urban Native Education Alliance (UNEA). Clear Sky provides opportunities for deepening our connections with our intertribal community, while also affirming our cultural values, worldview, and traditional knowledge systems as well as empowering us to navigate racist colonial systems through advocacy, activism, and action. As individuals, we are teenagers, students, siblings, daughters and sons, and grandchildren as well as neighbors and friends to all in our community. But together, we have joined with our peers to take advantage of lessons in order to build the knowledge we need to stand in our truths as future elders.
We meet every Sunday with our fellow interns to check in with each other and to participate in co-planning, organizing, and facilitating events, cultural activities, and various programming for our community. Over the past few years, we’ve been honored to drive advocacy work to support several Indigenous-focused initiatives, including the designation of Licton Springs as an historical landmark and the recognition of Billy Franks Jr. Day in Seattle Public Schools (SPS). For the latter initiative, Clear Sky internship students not only coauthored a Billy Franks Jr. Day resolution but also advocated for SPS to adopt the Billy Franks Jr. Day resolution to honor his legacy and life and contributions to our society. Over a very intense three-month period, we and our peers engaged in resolution writing and other advocacy activities, including delivering public testimony, writing and gathering signatures on petitions, and obtaining endorsements from partner organizations. We learned from our tribal elders and other mentors as we were going, and while it was satisfying to see positive results from our efforts, we also understand that we not only carry with us the successes but also the knowledge we gained from our advocacy efforts. We get to carry these new skills with us into everything we do for the rest of our lives.
Mobilizing resources and support for our community during COVID became our fuel to combat the isolation, fear, grief, and depression many suffered throughout this pandemic. If we’re honest, it was challenging for each of us to switch to online school, not be able to see our friends, and worry about our elders. However, in our weekly Clear Sky meetings, which moved to Zoom for our safety, we supported one another and explored the ways we could show up for our community. During this trying time, we came up with several ideas for supporting those around us: a new way to connect with our elders, a food delivery program for local urban Native families, and increasing our focus on cross-cultural allyship.
Our Elders Care Project was initiated by Clear Sky cofounder and alumni Julia Wilson-Peltier (Turtle Mountain Chippewa/Oglala), who early in the pandemic designed a culturally based framework as part of her graduate school practicum to support urban intertribal elders during the pandemic. An essential component of her work centered our efforts on culturally responsive wellness checks and engaging elders with community for accessing resources, support, and helpful connections. Inspired by Julia’s design for reaching elders in our community with care and curiosity, we discussed how to combine her elder-focused outreach with our youth-focused program, and we designed a solution that created reciprocal opportunities for meaningful connection and understanding. We prepared for our Elders Care Project by participating in specific elders protocol training. We learned about cultural considerations, strategies for rapport building, and how to best approach our elders with utmost respect and kindness. Our training helped us remember that our elders carry experiences and generational trauma that can make relationship building and intergenerational connections difficult. Community elders and UNEA facilitators encouraged us to engage elders with questions that felt more friendly rather than making them feel like they were being interviewed. It was especially important for us to treat our elders in a good way, because they are not just people in our community: Our Native elders are our family, no matter what our tribal affiliations are or where we come from. In our community, we commonly refer to all other Native people as our relatives, and we mean it: We don’t have to be related by blood to call each other cousins, aunties, or uncles. We connect on that personal level, because, as traditional people, we are here to uphold everybody, connect with everyone, and help answer each other’s prayers, regardless of our individual heritage or customs.
Once we completed our Elders Care protocol training, we were each paired with tribal Native elders in our community. Supported by grant funding, we delivered COVID care packages, made weekly phone calls or texts, and, most importantly, listened. We entered into our interactions with the elders with humility and respect. Over time, we developed friendships with our elders that often led to them sharing important life lessons and advice on how to navigate life in a good way. We were reminded that our elders not only bring wisdom but also humor, and many of them expressed their sincere support for us and beliefs that we play important roles in our community.
Toward the end of the summer, as vaccination rates rose, we celebrated our elders with an elders gratitude event where we got to express our collective appreciation, give gifts, and share a meal with many of the elders we’ve been talking with for months, meeting many of them in person for the very first time. This in-person exchange was special for all of us because we finally could sit together and join in ceremony, prayer, song, dance, and take photos together. It was an important day, as we were aware that many of our elders had lost friends and family members and experienced a lot of disconnection during the pandemic. Our Clear Sky mentor Sarah Sense-Wilson (Oglala) reminds us that what we did during this time will be with us for the rest of our lives, and we will always carry with us the knowledge that during a time of great struggle and heartbreak, we contributed to the health, wellness, and safety of our Native community.
In addition to our elders program and in the spirit of pandemic mutual aid efforts we saw across Turtle Island and beyond, for about 14 months we also participated in community outreach resource/food delivery for Native families in our community. Our individual involvement was impacted by our family situations and vaccine status, but many of us and our Clear Sky peers helped with this program, which involved gathering shopping lists from families, shopping according to their specific dietary needs, and delivering supplies once a month. This program has also ended, but we’re glad to know that if future emergencies or needs arise, we have the tools and ability to do this kind of work when it is needed.
In the course of the pandemic, we not only reached out to our community to lend a hand, but we created space for learning across identities so that we can be better allies to other historically marginalized people. During the past year, we’ve engaged leaders and elders in the Asian American community, African American, and Two-Spirit and LGBTQIA+ community members, to share their experiences and hopes for the future. The more we learn, the better we can support our wider community, and we’re grateful that these leaders, activists, community builders, and educators, and elders were willing to spend time with us and help us grow as good relatives and leaders.
Now that the pandemic is in a new phase, we are looking forward to more in-person leadership council meetings with each other and also more events supporting our intertribal urban community. In particular, we’re looking forward to a trip to Washington, D.C., and ribbon skirt making sessions. We’re also continuing our support of the student-led Legacy Council at Bishop Blanchet High School in their efforts to change their school moniker and incorporate Indigenous perspective textbooks with accurate Native history into their curriculum. This has been a great relationship that grew out of our work with educator Jesse McFeron and past and current Clear Sky student leadership. We are excited to see the new ways that we get to build on our past accomplishments for future growth.
Everything that we’ve been able to do in the past couple of years, including during the hardest parts of the pandemic, is helping us strengthen our skills as individuals and community members, and Clear Sky has been a big part of helping us learn how to speak our minds in a thoughtful way, speak out when it’s important, and drive actual change. We are future educators, first responders, healers, historians, politicians, scientists, leaders and that’s in part due to our mentors, peers, and partners at Clear Sky encouraging us to feel confident and empowered while also remaining rooted in our cultural values and traditions. As the next generation’s future elders, we are ready for what’s next.
This piece was written with the support of Sarah Sense-Wilson, the chair for the Urban Native Education Alliance (UNEA), as well as Julie Keck, a consulting producer with Nia Tero.
Kayla Harstad (Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Assiniboine Sioux), Lailani Norman (Blackfeet), Tim Shay (Yakama), and Akichita Taken Alive (Lakota) are all current and former interns with the Clear Sky Native Youth Leadership Council. Keep up with the activities of the Council by reading their self-produced newsletters on the website for the UNEA.
📸 Featured Image: Clear Sky interns drumming at an event celebrating Licton Springs in the summer of 2021. (Photo: Felipe Contreras)
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