Essays Give Voice to Native American Teens

Posted July 19, 2010 at 4:28pm

Myacah Sampson saw obesity as a problem in her community. A native of Kirkland, N.M., and a member of the Navajo tribe, the 15-year-old constantly told her family she didn’t approve of the processed foods in their kitchen cabinets.

So when she saw the prompt for this year’s 2010 Young Native Writers Essay Contest (“Describe a crucial issue confronting your tribal community today. Explain how you hope to help your tribal community respond to this challenge and improve its future.”), she knew exactly what she wanted to write about.

“It’s important for people to know that it’s not so much a social issue as an economic issue,” Sampson said. “People don’t usually realize that.”

Sampson detailed how the “traditional” Navajo diet had changed from mostly grains, beans, vegetables and mutton stew to less-expensive potato chips, soda and instant soups.

Sampson won recognition for her essay and is one of five teenagers coming to Washington this week for the annual essay contest trip.

The other essay winners are Ferguson Nez of Mesa, Ariz.; Julian Brave NoiseCat of Oakland, Calif.; Tashina Swalley of Mission, S.D.; and Ashley Vance of Austin, Texas. They will spend their week touring museums, participating in an honor ceremony and meeting with Native American leaders.

The annual essay contest, which began in 2006, is sponsored by the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, in partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

The idea for the contest came after the March 2005 shooting by Native American youth Jeffrey Weise in Red Lake, Minn., which resulted in the deaths of five students, a teacher, a security guard, members of his family and the shooter himself. Holland & Knight had clients and partners from Minnesota, including former Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D).

Sikorski, along with Philip Baker-Shenk, a lawyer at Holland & Knight, and Holly Cook Macarro, who was with the firm in 2005, proposed that Holland & Knight sponsor an essay contest similar to the firm’s annual Holocaust survivor essay contest. But instead of focusing on the trauma created by the shooting, the contest would encourage Minnesota students to take a critical look at issues facing their communities and work through them in a thoughtful manner.

“It was very meaningful for us to be a part of the rehabilitation effort,” Baker-Shenk said.

After its first year, Holland & Knight received a lot of letters about how successful the program had been. The firm decided to continue the contest and expand it to include Native American students nationwide.

As a part of the firm’s Indian law group, Kathleen Nilles has worked closely with the contest for the past two years. She hosts the students at her home for a dinner, and during their time together, the students tell tribal stories and share their personal experiences.

“It’s just an enriching experience to be involved in this,” Nilles said.

Nilles, who helps judge the contest, noted the unique insights the students had in their writing.

In his essay, Nez detailed the trashed environment he saw growing up in a Navajo community.

“I see mountains, full of rocks and trees and dust,” he wrote. “I see endless sky, full of white cotton balls and smoky billow forms of clouds. I also see the garbage left by passers-by — empty liquor bottles of various shades of green, plastic bags of a multitude of stores, and soda cans of every possible flavor, all littered carelessly, poisoning the land of the people of the world, destroying it slowly yet surely.”

Vance’s essay described her yearning to understand her own Native American background.

“My Great-Grandfather was one-half Chickasaw and Choctaw Indian,” Vance wrote. “Now his title is given faintly to me, what little remains of it. I am one-thirty-second Chickasaw and Choctaw Indian. One problem for my tribal community is an unfortunate side effect of the dwindling blood quantum: how to be Native American when your genes almost deny it.”

Brave NoiseCat, a member of the Shuswap tribe, recognized that the importance of nature has dwindled in his and other Native communities.

“As Native people, we come into conflict with traditional values when we exploit natural resources, even though doing so may be to our economic advantage, or in some cases necessary for our economic survival,” he wrote.

Swalley’s essay goes back to the matter that originated the essay contest in the first place: suicide among Native American teenagers.

“Suicide is the leading epidemic on the reservations,” wrote Swalley, a member of the Sicangu tribe. “Native youth are more prone to commit suicide than any other race in the age group of 15 to 24.”

Renée Gokey, the NMAI student services coordinator, has been involved with the contest since its inception. She has helped judge entries, organize ceremonies and posted writing tips to help students craft their entries.

“I’m always amazed and impressed with how remarkable these students are,” Gokey said. “They have all these unexpected things to share about the culture, in both their essays and when they are here on their visit.”