Interview with Native American Scholar, Charlie Amáyá Scott

By Nikhil Sabnis, age 10

Charlie Amáyá Scott is a 28-year-old transgender scholar, advocate and social media influencer who lives in Aurora, Colo. She grew up in Chinle, Ariz., in the center of the Navajo Nation. Charlie, who uses “she” and “they” pronouns, is currently working on her Ph.D. in education at the University of Denver.

Nikhil: You transitioned from living in the Navajo Nation to Brown University at a young age. What was that change like for you?

Charlie: I went from being surrounded by my community where everyone looked like me, spoke a very similar language to me and was Navajo, to being on the East Coast, where most people were not Navajo. Going from being the majority to the minority was really, really big for me. It made me really learn a lot about what it means to be Native outside of my community.

Nikhil: I’m curious what you, as a doctoral candidate, think of traditional Ph.D. programs within the U.S. education system. And would you change the system based on your experiences as a Native American?

Charlie: Oh, yes, I would definitely change it. My program is specifically about education, so I study colleges and universities. And one of the biggest areas of focus for me is really how do I change how we learn about things within education. How can I transform the classroom into a space that reflects my own upbringing, but also reflects the type of values that Indigenous peoples appreciate and honor within their communities? For example, one thing that Navajo people really like is this idea of reciprocity: what you give and what you get back. So there’s this sharing of knowledge between people. How reciprocity might show up in a classroom is that the student is also the teacher and the teacher is also the student. So there is an assumption that we can learn from each other in a way that’s both meaningful and transformative.

Nikhil: As a Native American, what are some of the stereotypes you have encountered that have been challenging to deal with? And how do you typically deal with these stereotypes?

Charlie: I think one of the biggest stereotypes is that Native people are very spiritual. And a lot of times people think very highly of us in a way that doesn’t make us feel human. We are often seen as having to be perfect, and that we are all spiritual people that are tree huggers. When people make these assumptions, they think they can just take advantage of us because they think of us as these peaceful people that won’t fight back. I think this has been a challenge, because a lot of people who are not Native don’t understand that we are not only just peaceful—I mean, yes, we are peaceful!—but we’re also warriors in a lot of ways, and we will fight back. And people can be quite surprised when we use our voice to make some big changes, especially if we protest and organize movements trying to defend our land and water.

Nikhil: Can you say more about your role as an advocate for your Native American community? How do you hope decolonization can be achieved?

Charlie: I speak on a lot of issues on social media like climate justice or justice within education. [I try to] encourage other Native youth who want to go to college, and advocate on their behalf with professors or staff of a college. I want these people to understand that the way that Native people interact and move through this world might be a little bit different, and they might need more support. I also speak a lot about gender and sexuality and about how the Navajo Nation does not support trans people, and I try to explain to people that [the reason for this] is not necessarily our fault, and there are reasons why they don’t support trans people. But that doesn’t mean they can’t change and do better. Decolonization to me means celebrating, centering, uplifting the dreams, desires and demands of queer and trans Indigenous people. And I say queer and trans Indigenous people because those particular relatives of mine were targeted by colonialism in a way that’s different from those who were straight or cis Indigenous people.

Nikhil: How do you think that colonialism impacted the educational system that you went through in the Navajo Nation?

Charlie: The first language that I learned was Navajo, which is my own community’s language. But when I became a kindergartener, and then went through middle school, I had to become more fluent in English than in my own language. And unfortunately, I’m not fluent in my [Native] language anymore, and had to relearn the basic structures of it in high school when I was able to take a Navajo language class.

Nikhil: How do you think not being able to use your first language in school impacted you?

Charlie: Language is really important, because how you understand yourself, how you share yourself with the world is really rooted in how you’re able to speak about yourself. With me being unable to speak my own language, there’s a loss in that, because then I won’t be able to share myself in a way with other people. In Navajo, [when you meet someone], you’re able to tell them who you are, where you come from, but also who your relatives are, just by the way that we introduce ourselves. And yes, you can say it in English, but there is more meaning behind it when it’s done in Navajo. Colonialism also affected our language loss, as there are stories that we are now unable to translate because [many of us] don’t have the fluency needed. As someone who loves my culture and my community, not being able to speak the language can be a really hard thing.

Nikhil: In your opinion, do you think that colonialism still creates problems within our societies today?

Charlie: Yes, colonialism is still a big problem today. And the thing is, it not only impacts Native people, it actually affects everyone within the United States. Think of colonialism as this system which has assumed ways of being and ways of living that really affects your relationship to land and to people. Indigenous people think of land as a relative, like a brother, a mom, or a grandpa. [Within colonialism], land is seen as a resource, as something you can own, keep or steal. This means that land is no longer seen as something to protect and live side by side with. Rather, it’s seen as something we can use. And that type of idea also affects how people interact with each other. So instead of people seeing each other as friends and family, we [begin to] see people as enemies, or only care about how we can use people for our own wealth, our own gain. It makes people feel like they have to take, take, take, instead of give, give, give.

Nikhil: Would you say that colonialism has had a significant impact on climate change?

Charlie: Yes, I do think colonialism is a factor in creating climate change. Because of all the take, take, take, resources are being taken away from people and moved to other places, which changes how the land moves. When the United States government killed all the buffaloes within the Dakotas, for example, that caused a huge problem within the ecosystem, because the animals that rely on the buffaloes no longer have a food source, as well as the Lakota people. And because their hooves were no longer treading the ground, it affected how plants grow, and ultimately the whole ecosystem. Colonialism disrupts ecosystems to the point where they aren’t able to recover. In my community, we were taught that oil is bad for the environment, and that it should stay within the ground. But oil is being taken out of the ground, and it’s toxic to us. Burning oil or burning fossil fuels is also causing more heat to be in the world or to stay in the world, which is not helping us.

Nikhil: What does decolonization mean to you? And what steps can we all take to decolonize our society?
Charlie: Focusing on the dreams, desires and demands of Indigenous people is really important for decolonization. One thing that we can do to really make decolonization happen is that we must start supporting Indigenous peoples and start to celebrate Indigenous peoples and their brilliance. And we’ve really got to listen to what they have to say, especially when it comes to the environment.

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