Youth Called to Action at National Aboriginal Youth Conference
The young Navajo woman broke down in tears as she described how southwestern tribesmen had unsuccessfully fought the construction of a border wall at sacred ancestral sites.
“When you lose this fight, what do you do?” she asked, standing in an audience before a panel of Indigenous elders. “What are you doing after all this?”
More than 1,600 people from across the country came to the Minneapolis Convention Center in recent days for a conference on tribal youth, and they eagerly sought the opinions of activists they had heard so much about growing up. The panel sympathizes with its interlocutor.
Winona LaDuke shared that she herself had just lost a year-long fight against the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline running through northern Minnesota.
“I licked my wounds for part of the winter and then I said, ‘Damn it, let’s go,'” recalled LaDuke, an Ojibwe activist from the White Earth reservation. “[Now] they’re trying to run the pipeline through Wisconsin and Michigan, and we’re moving right behind them.”
She added, “Mother Earth and everyone and all the ancient spirits watching over us…know how we got up and did the right thing. Always do the right thing.”
The younger generation at the United National Indian Tribal Youth Inc. conference listened intently to reflections on Native American activism dating back to the late 1960s. The American Indian Movement (AIM) that began in Minneapolis captured national attention 50 years ago in November when its members marched to Washington, DC, and took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Months later, the occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota – in part to protest the government’s failure to honor treaties – drew attention to the plight of the natives.
Clyde Bellecourt, AIM founder and leader of the two matchups, died in January after decades of advocacy, including successfully pushing the Washington NFL team to drop its “Redskins” name.
Judith LeBlanc, sitting onstage with LaDuke and Madonna Thunder Hawk, noted that today, Natives have the first restaurant to win a James Beard Award (Owamni in Minneapolis), the first Miss Minnesota winner (Rachel Evangelisto) and their first written Native American and TV show (“Reservation Dogs”).
“There are so many firsts for us right now – it’s a moment of magical movement,” said LeBlanc, executive director of the Native Organizers Alliance and member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma. “But without the leadership of our ancestors…we wouldn’t be here right now.”
She remembers working on behalf of people facing criminal charges related to the Wounded Knee occupation. LeBlanc and others applied old grassroots organizing lessons to secure Deb Haaland’s appointment as the U.S. Department of the Interior’s first native secretary by sending a flurry of letters from tribes and a petition with thousands of signatures.
The Biden administration wanted someone else, she noted, “and you know what we did? We organized hell.”
LaDuke urged young Indigenous people who wanted careers in community organizing to find allies because they would not win alone.
“There are a lot of people out there now…especially with the uprising and the murder of George Floyd who are like, ‘Oh, we better work with the indigenous people. Well, bring them to the table. Have them bring their money to the table. Have them bring their lawyers to the table.
“You are our retirement plan – remember that,” LaDuke said towards the end, drawing laughs and applause. “We put everything with you. We believe in you.”
As for the Navajo woman discouraged by the lost battle for the border wall? Thunder Hawk told her she understood.
“It’s long, okay? said the Warrior Woman Project founder and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. “But we are indigenous. This wall has risen. It can fall.”
Karen Guise, 18, came from Red Lake Nation to host part of the event and will move to Minneapolis next month to start her freshman year at the University of Minnesota.
She left motivated.
“I really liked how they ended it — that their retirement plan was us,” said Guise, communications director for the Red Lake Nation Youth Council. “Because they did their job, they made their way, they paved the way, and now they just need young people to follow like them.”