Campus Interfaith Coordinator, GVSU
Protecting the sacred: Native American activists speak out
Bless the mouth, lips and speech of this land, for the land is a speaker, a singer, a keeper of all that happens here, on this land…
Bless the arms and hands of this land, for they remake and restore beauty in this land
These stanzas from Joy Harjo’s “Bless this Land” remind us of the beauty of the earth and for those who hold our stories. Harjo is our current national Poet Laureate and is the first ever Native American to have that position. Harjo’s appointment and work reminds us of the long history and culture of Native Americans that started in this land a long time before “Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue.” Her work invites us to reeducate many Americans on what being Indigenous means.
That is the also the work of our 2021 Interfaith Leadership Lecture speaker Allie Young. Young is a member of the Diné (Navajo) Nation in New Mexico. She is a storyteller and writer on a mission to increase authentic representation of Native Americans in TV, film, and mainstream media by sharing the stories and traditions of her people – stories that helped and continue to help them persevere in a world where they are largely invisible, underrepresented, and misrepresented.
She is a writer helping to empower the next generation of Native Americans to help move us all away from caricatures to fully developed native characters. Young saw firsthand how Hollywood still misrepresents Native Americans on the silver screen when she walked off the set of a movie after learning the names given to the characters in the movie.
When COVID-19 struck, Allie rushed back home to the Navajo Nation in order to help spread awareness about the deadly virus. When she returned home, she quickly saw the devastating impact of the virus. By May, the Navajo Nation had the highest per-capita infection rate in the United States. Allie knew she wanted to help. In the Native tradition the elders (those most at risk from this virus) are the holders of stories, languages, and so much more. As she writes, “for my community and others like it, much more than death was at stake: all that we hold sacred hung in the balance.”
Reflection Question: How do we treat those things that we consider sacred? It might be in not depicting the Prophet Muhammad or in serving everyone a Langar meal when they enter your sacred space. There might be other nonreligious things that we hold sacred, things that we hold up or make sure we protect.
Allie started to work on a public health campaign to help curb the disease. When she was asked if she could help, she quickly responded, “This felt like a glimpse of hózhó (beauty and balance) – an opportunity to help change the trajectory of the virus in Navajo Nation.” She worked to enlist young Diné people in the fight against COVID-19. Empowering the next generation, she told stories about why native elders were important and allowed Navajo youth to show their own culture through Native graduation ceremonies. She pushed Native youth to protect their land and protect their elders, just as their ancestors did for them. At the end of these challenges, she had over 500 youth participate in her projects.
Reflection Question: How do we empower our youth? Do we help them see their ancestry as something to cherish and be proud of, help them see that they are part of a larger part and teach them how to be advocates and allies?
Allie is also a bridge builder. Recognizing the importance of allies, she reached out to Mark Ruffalo and other celebrities in order to boost her voice. She knew that the Native community would feel seen if The Hulk, Ant Man, or Luke Skywalker (Mark Ruffalo, Paul Rudd, Mark Hamill) celebrated them as well. Allie continues to call on allies to help broadcast the plight of the Navajo Nation during the COVID pandemic, and in helping them get PPE, vaccines, and other medical supplies to tribes all across America. Because of these videos and calls for help, Allie was able to get over 30,000 people to view her website and was able to recruit 50 medical volunteers to help those in the Navajo Nation.
Reflection Question: How do we make bridges across difference? To paraphrase Eboo Patel, president of the Interfaith Youth Core, how do we make our bridges stronger than the rocks people throw to try and break them? How will we reach out to our neighbor or friend and realize that our liberation is wrapped up in their liberation?
Allie continues to tie her activism into the sacredness of the Navajo people and land. Looking at voting data, Allie recognized that many Diné people weren’t voting. Polling places weren’t close, portions of the Navajo Nation lack electricity, and the roads could be difficult to travel. Allie organized a 10-mile “ride to the polls” event. She also encouraged fellow Diné people to get on horseback and ride to the polls. She did so in order to honor their ancestors who fought for the right to vote as well as those who perished from COVID and couldn’t vote in the 2020 election. She said in an interview with Native News Online that she is most proud that “my spirituality and culture are at the core of everything I do and manifest in all of my work.”
Reflection Question: How does our spirituality impact our social justice and advocacy? How can we continue to act justly and to love mercy? How will we continue to protect those who are sacred to us?
May we continue to care for those who guard our stories and traditions. May we empower our youth to be proud of their culture and work to get their voices heard.
You can hear more about Allie Young and her work at our online Interfaith Leadership Lecture Tuesday, March 9.