Restoring the Land, Restoring Ourselves

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #15 in December 2015]

Chi-Nations Youth Council (CNYC) started at the end of 2012, as youth asked for an Idle No More movement and the commu­nity came together in response. Idle No More began as a First Nations movement to prevent the Canadian Government from taking Indigenous Rights away and to bring attention to Native Peoples issues. These movements were mostly focused on environmental issues, against the use of fracking, tar sands and pipelines on Native lands and treaty protected harvesting lands. Idle No More inspired us to begin fighting against injustices when it came to the land and Native peoples. The mission of Chi-Nations Youth Council is to create a safe space for Native youth and raise awareness of cultural identity while pro­moting health through arts, activism and education. The name came from wanting to pay homage to former Native youth groups in Chicago. “Chi” means big in Ojibwe but also it’s short for Chicago and we come from many nations – so we are Chi-Nations. This text is based on a recording of a group conversation among CNYC members on October 4, 2015. Participants: Naomi Harvey-Turner (Lakota), Co-President CNYC; Adrien (AJ) Pochel (Cree/Lakota), Chicago-Citywide American Indian Education Council (CAIEC) Youth Ambassador; Anthony Tamez (Cree/Lakota), Co-President CNYC; Janie Pochel (Cree/Lakota), CNYC adviser; Raven Roberts (Potawatomi, MiqMaq, Oneida) adviser.

Q: What is your favorite thing about the Chi-Nations Youth Council?

My favorite part of the Youth Council is protesting. One thing I like is that after that you get to see what changed, if anything changed, and if not what you can do better for the next time.

I think protesting is important because you get to be around so many people who are enthusiastic about the same issues that you are.

My favorite part about protesting is the feeling you get about knowing you make a difference in the world and even thought it might not affect you, it is about generations to come.

Q: What did you protest?

We protested at Idle No More Chicago. At the March Against Monsanto we were invited to open the demonstration with a song. We traveled to Red Lake to visit a campsite Native people set up in protest of the pipeline that runs through their home. We traveled to Bad River to visit the Penokee Hills protest camp against a company (GTAC) that wanted to open the largest iron ore mine and would subse­quently poison Lake Superior. We went to New York for the People’s Climate March, and to Washington DC to protest the use of Native peoples as logos and team names.

Q: How did you engage in protest?

In Penokee the people exercised their treaty rights; they began living off the land and having continual occupation. They lived off the land until the mine company said it would be too much and just left. We spent time at this camp, learned with them, and made a documentary about the experience. We informed other people about what was going on and that was our way of protest­ing. At the Monsanto protest, we got to sing on our hand drums with Bill Smith, it was pretty cool and then we did a march afterwards.

The CNYC also learns about the land through traditional harvesting practices. We learn about how to take care of Native plants, from soil restoration to planting to harvesting. For example we harvested maple syrup, instead of going to the store to buy GMO maple syrup.

Something that the youth group is big on is teaching ourselves about Native plants; but also we hold workshops and teach people about native plants and medicines. And in a way restoring the land or planting native plants or restoring Native food systems, is a form of protest.

On our trips to reservations, we went beaver trapping and ice fishing and we got to meet other native people and learn about their experiences. Many people say that being alive and practicing our culture is a form of protest because we’re resisting assimilation.

One favorite trip was going to Washington DC for the Change the Name rally against the Washington Redskins. The funnest part was getting yelled at just listening to some of the ridiculous stuff logo supporters had to say. In Ashland, Bad River, we learned how to make videos and have made many since then.

In Chicago, we opened up the INCITE Color of Violence conference and spoke in front of 1,500 people. We were the opening act in quotations, ‘cause there was someone before us. But we got to speak about what the youth group does and we got to sing them a song. The majority of people there were in the LGBTQ community and they were also people of color, and that’s where most violence is focused at.

I also think it’s important getting the youth group’s name out there and having people recognizing us. It is nice to make these connections while we’re young, and people remember you. And when you’re older, they’re like oh I remember this kid, he’s been protesting, he’s been sticking up for his people since he was 10 years old, so he’s gonna do it now when he’s 35 or 50 years old, so he won’t sell us out.

Q: You guys are looked at as young leaders in the community. Do you think that’s good or bad?

Being a leader in the community is a good and bad thing; it’s a good thing because people know you’re not afraid to stick up for yourself, and when you get older you don’t need people to back you up; but having people to back you up is a good thing because you can’t do anything on your own. But being a leader is bad because you can be looked at as a target; they say this kid he sticks up for himself, we’re not gonna want him around when we talk about this because he’s gonna raise a little bit of hell and we just want this to pass quietly. It’s also kind of bad because we’re all human and we all lose our temper, and we all get excited once in a while; but as a leader everyone is looking at you all the time and if you do one thing bad then they really crit­icize you, even though they’re even doing it, whatever is they might have done.

People hold you higher than people your age when you step up and take leadership, so if you slip here and there than they’re gonna be like, I see better in you, you’re better than that. And it gets annoying.

Q: Since it’s a council and not individuals, how is that different? Do you think that is more pressure , less pressure?

I Think it is more pressure because you’re not just representing yourself, you’re representing all your friends; you’re rep­resenting your group, your family. You’re basically a reflection of your upbringing. There’s no such thing as representing just yourself, you’re always representing someone wherever you go. I would say it’s hard because it’s all or nothing.

Q: What about cultural activities, like drumming and dancing?

Individually some of the kids in the group are really big on dancing, drum practice, singing; but in the group we mainly focus on activism. But you know, part of activism is knowing your culture. We’re big on growing our own plants, learning about our medicines, big in that area – we know a lot of things most city Indians don’t know.

As far as learning languages, I know words here and there. I was also learning the creation stories – so I know about our origins.

From going to reservations and speaking with elders from their communities, we pick up on words – they’ll be talking and they’ll say a word and explain what it means. That’s as far in learning the lan­guage as I can get. There’s not a lot of Native speakers in the Chicago Indian community

Q: You also host events, dinners, BBQs, scavenger hunts…

Those are just days to come and hang out and be with other Native people. Since we don’t get a lot of exposure to Native people, and usually in Chicago we’re the only ones in our class, or the only one in our school, going out and being with Native people feels good.

Q: So how does it feel to be at a school and there’s no other native children?

You just try to be yourself, and what hap­pens a lot, there are racial clicks and you tend to be alone or on the outside, because no one else is Native American.

When you’re the only Native, you feel out of place because you are out of place… no, no, because you’re the only one in place

Being the only one in the classroom, it puts pressure on you, especially if you are learning about natives in your class, everybody looks at you as if you’re the Indian expert, as if you know about every single tribe, every single thing about being Native, when you’re not, you only know the stuff that you were taught.

I think it’s hard because not only do people look at you and expect you to know things, but then when you start talking about stuff you do know, people give you a look like you are an alien, like what the heck are you talking about?

I’m not the only Native in my class, I have Native students in most of my classes. But when I was the only Native kid in elementary school, there was definitely no support to say I guess, because if you say something, the teacher says you’re wrong, everyone looks up to the teacher, they are the experts. But when a 10 year old student comes and says no that’s not right, every­one’s gonna look at you and say how the hell do you know, you didn’t go to school like our teacher did, so you don’t really have support and you don’t have backup either. Now that I have other Natives in my class it’s easy. I guess the school system has gotten better, because they walk on eggshells when you say something about being Native and they don’t really know how to go about it.

Q. When you raise your hand to say something is not right do you look over at the other Native kids and say hey back me up?

Yeah, but most of the students in high school, if you say that’s not right, a lot of your friends, they know better now. I go to a diverse high school, most of the students know how it feels to be the odd man out – so you don’t have just Native kids backing you up, you have the Black kids backing you up, you have Muslim kids backing you up…  you have a bunch of kids backing you up telling them that they’re wrong and the book’s not always right. Books lie. Most of the kids that go to school there, the colored kids, we’re all the losers of history and history’s usually written by winners, which would be mainly white people cause they write the textbooks; they’re always the winners.

Q: What are your perspectives on Columbus Day, which is coming up in a few days?

I think we should be more focused on the day that is for us, Indigenous People’s Day. Abolishing Columbus Day would be a great thing, we shouldn’t be celebrating a murderer and a rapist. This is Native land, it forever will be. I think Indigenous People’s Day is a great idea, because it’s positive, you’re not going out there getting in people’s faces screaming. Half the people out there that celebrate Columbus day, they’re not doing it for Columbus, they view it as Italian Heritage Day. When you go watch the parade they’re not cheering on Columbus saying hey you murdered people, you raped people good job! They’re holding up Italian flags, everyone gets excited like oh my Gosh, they’re celebrating a day just for us, that’s super exciting, that’s great! So everyone’s gonna get passionate about their country.

When people talk about Indigenous People’s Day in a broad way, and that’s OK because everyone’s indigenous from somewhere. But when you talk about Indigenous People’s Day, the people that say that, you can tell they’re not thinking about the African Americans they’re just talking about us Natives and they really should include them…

Q: What are your perspectives on the use of Native mascots in Chicago?

The Black Hawks? The image is racist, it portrays a stereotypical image of a Native American – what an upper class white woman thinks when she hears the name Native American. And that’s not us, we don’t wear green and orange feathers in our hair, we don’t all have black hair and we don’t wear face paint.

The Native community in Chicago is split. It’s not really split, it’s 1 against a thousand other people. Some elders in quotations – you’re not an elder unless you are respected as one – some people try to break the youth group up. We need to call these people out because they are tyrants.

The people who get kickbacks from the Blackhawks are people who are for the Blackhawks. Some of the people who are saying yeah, the Blackhawks are honoring us and respecting us, they’re brainwashed… they get tickets to the game, they get money, they’re bribed. And it’s usually these selective people who get these tickets and speak for the whole community. So they’re sellouts basically.


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