When people ask me what the purpose of this research project is, I tell them I’m studying “the long-term effects of colonization on Native American groups, including Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians,” but from the first day of my trip, I learned so much more than could ever be encompassed within that description.
My first stop was Baltimore, Maryland, where I shadowed an organization called Native American Lifelines that connects urban American Indians to health services, social services, and cultural enrichment. From the beginning, the Native American narrative most American schoolchildren (including me) were taught was called into question. More than 70% of Native Americans live off reservations, which gives them different rights in terms of access to healthcare, which is something promised to all registered tribe members by the American government. Native American Lifelines works to help local tribal members understand and access their healthcare rights, as well as helping them navigate other issues that systemically affect Native Americans, including poverty, poor nutrition, and substance abuse. I was lucky enough to sit in on a long conversation between three of the employees in which they discussed everything from decolonialism, cultural appropriation, monetization of their cultural practices, and the effects of cultural trauma to their personal experiences as Native Americans growing up and living both on and off reservations. I learned more about the nauanced and rich history of Native Americans in that one day than I ever learned in school. The conclusion I drew from that conversation, which was strengthened with every new person I spoke to, is that there is no one “Native American experience”, and that portraying these people as a relic of America’s past or as a single modern-day stereotype is one of the biggest players in the silencing of Native American voices and the further perpetuation of these misguided ideas.
After Baltimore, I traveled to Minneapolis, Pocatello, Anchorage, and Honolulu and spoke to artists, activists, parents, townspeople, museum workers, waiters, and more, each with their own experiences and interpretations. I’m writing this from Santa Fe, with only a few stops left in my trip but still a lot to learn.