By EVANGELINE COMEAU-KIRSCHNER, age 10
Meet Taté Walker, Editor of Native Peoples magazine. As a Lakota woman, Taté advocates for many issues, including fair and accurate media representation, to uplift Native American communities.
Evangeline Comeau-Kirschner: How did you get involved in Indigenous rights activism?
Taté Walker: For me, being Indigenous (an enrolled citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota) and being an Indigenous activist are one in the same. If I claim to be a part of my Native community, then I must also advocate for our issues and seek to make the community better.
That said, I became more aware of some of the issues facing Native people while I was a student in high school. In 11th grade, I wrote about how hurtful and harmful mascots that depict Native people are (like the Washington, D.C., professional football team) and so many people called me bad names and made fun of me for what I wrote. Those classmates (and teachers!) didn’t care about the feelings of Native people, they only cared if their football, hockey, or baseball team won.
I almost gave up writing then and there – why would I continue to write about Native American issues if readers were just going to call me names? But my newspaper advisor, Ms. Montgomery, told me that writing about hard things, like racism, isn’t always popular, but it’s always important and the more people read about those kind of issues, the more they’ll learn and things will get better.
Over the years, I’ve learned that in addition to writing about issues, showing up is important, too. I’ve participated in countless marches, demonstrations, and legislative hearings. Knowing I am doing what I can to make Native lives better is a big part of my identity.
ECK: What are some of the major problems faced by Indigenous people today, and what are Indigenous rights activists doing to address them?
TW: This is a very broad and hard question to answer, like asking someone to describe all the problems people face on the Asian continent. There are 567 federally recognized tribes (meaning they are sovereign nations and can establish their own governments) in the United States, plus hundreds more that aren’t federally recognized. Each of those tribes has its own, unique issues to deal with. Beyond this, the word “Indigenous,” at least for me, includes those living north and south of the U.S. border.
Lumping Native or Indigenous people all together is one of the many ways we’re erased, especially in the media. It’s a lazy way to say, “Oh, I spoke to one Native American for this story and that person represents everyone in ‘the Native community.’” It is inaccurate and unfair to assume we all have or face the same issues.
That said, I, personally, advocate for a few specific issues, though I support and uplift the messaging from other activists whenever possible.
As you might expect, I’m a big proponent of fair and accurate media representation of Native peoples. Under this umbrella, I advocate to end the use of Indian mascots, and push to get Native producers into newsrooms (and magazines!), TV/movie studios and publishing houses. I also help school districts incorporate Native culture into their everyday core curriculums (and not just take it out for Columbus Day and Native American Heritage Month in a historical context).
Beyond this, I am also extremely concerned with how little is being done to help tribes combat youth suicide. Across the nation, our Native teens and young adults are killing themselves at a rate that in some Native communities is TEN times the national average. You’ll find in communities with high suicide rates that there is desperate lack of adequate health care and treatment professionals and facilities, lack quality education systems, lack of employment opportunities, lack of safe and affordable housing and access to fresh, healthy foods — all things the US government legally (via treaty) promised to provide in exchange for all the land America now enjoys.
One of my teenage cousins recently told his mom he felt suicidal. They live on a reservation in South Dakota. Because there are no hospitals for him to get treatment, he was sent to a facility four hours away in a bigger city. You might think, “Oh, that was so awesome they could send him somewhere!” But then consider how hard it was for his mom (and his other family members) to get time off work to drive the four hours to see him in the hospital, how my cousin doesn’t know anyone in this big city. And what happens if he needs help again? What if he doesn’t go to his parent next time and tries to seek help on his own? How will he travel four hours by himself to a big city where he doesn’t know anyone? A kid living in any other community would be able to access the help he needs, but for Natives living on reservations, it’s nearly impossible.
There are books and books and books detailing Native “problems” (I like to see them as challenges that we can overcome). Like any community, Native issues are vast and varied, sometimes positive and sometimes negative. I’ve written about several for the online magazine, Everyday Feminism.
ECK: You are the Editor and Foundation President of Native Peoples Media. Why is it important for Indigenous people to have fair and accurate representation in the media?
TW: Think of the last five or 10 movies you saw: Were there any Native Americans in them? What about the last 20 movies? Thirty? Okay, let’s move away from Hollywood. What comes to mind when you think about Native Americans in general?
Most people will describe someone with long, dark hair, dark skin, lots of feathers, riding horses bareback and living in tipis. Others might talk about what they’ve come across in museums, such as arrowheads and drums.
These images are stereotypes and portray Indigenous people as if we only lived in the past– that we’re a past-tense people.
And that’s not fair.
I don’t know about you, but I guarantee there was a white person in every single one of the last 30 movies I’ve seen. In the last 30 books I’ve read. In the last 30 TV shows I watched. I tend to seek out diverse media and I still don’t find many Native Americans featured.
When we are cast, we are very rarely portrayed as contemporary people of today. Unless we’re talking about a historical or fantastical tale, you don’t see us as the main character (or even a side character) in a movie, or a book, or a TV show. If we make it in the news, it’s very rarely for anything outside of a powwow or a crime.
It is inaccurate to depict Native Americans (which, as a reminder, represent thousands of unique tribes) as cultural byproducts or society’s criminal element.
We are more.
Having a place in mainstream media is important on many levels, but for me, the biggest reason is that it’s really easy to forget about something – someone – who isn’t there. And if someone is invisible, so are the issues – the challenges – they face, like suicide, health care, employment, and all those everyday things Native communities experience.
Beyond this, it’s important Indigenous people have fair and accurate media representation so that we not only get questions asking us about “problems,” but accomplishments and positive things, as well. There are so many good and exciting things Native people are doing!
ECK: As an active blogger, filmmaker, and photographer, what advice do you have for youth who want to engage in social justice activism using these media?
TW: Practice using the media you have available, whether that’s a pencil and paper or a DSLR camera. Or maybe you’re an artist and use paints or crayons or mixed media. Whatever it is, practice everyday. You can practice producing for an audience (your parents/guardians, or classmates and teachers), or just for yourself. Keep doing it. You’ll find yourself not only becoming more aware of the social issues you’re passionate about, but also more savvy as a writer, artist, photographer, blogger or tweeter.
My daughter is 7 years old. She has marched at rallies and protests and has given testimony at the state legislature. The more she participates in these activities, the more aware she becomes of issues like Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#mmiw), Indigenous Peoples Day, Indian mascots and more. We are constantly talking about current events and how they relate to her life or the lives of the people she loves and cares about. For her, she is practicing being an active participant.
One way to get more involved with social activism is to seek out mentors who are passionate about the same issues you are. These can be teachers, or friends of your parents/guardians, or activists you and your parents find online. Part of the reason my daughter is so involved is because I surround her with strong, Indigenous women she looks up to – grandmas and aunties.
Finally, keep asking questions. Always (respectfully) ask why. People (adults) like to shut down kids who ask a lot of questions and say they’re annoying or distracting. Don’t listen to them. Your questions are important, getting the answers is important.
And – above all – YOU are important.