In recent years, Native American writers, academics, and activists have used their voices to speak up on important issues — including erasure, cultural appropriation, mascotry, the Dakota Access pipeline, and the fate of Bears Ears National Monument — and have shared their perspectives through news media, blog posts, poetry, literature, and more. Their insights are compelling, but not everyone is listening.
Like many countries around the world, the United States has a history littered with accounts of colonizers abusing Indigenous groups. From coast to coast, white Americans have long forced Native American groups to resettle and assimilate, all too often using violence as a brutal means to a tragic end.
We’re publishing this article on American Thanksgiving (a day that pays lip service to the Wampanoag but also commemorates colonialism), but Native visibility is bigger than this holiday, and it deserves much more attention. These four writers will tell you why.
Graham Lee Brewer
Who he is: “I am a fifth-generation Oklahoman. My family was forced onto the Trail of Tears by the federal government, and we have called this place home ever since. In the five generations between then and now, my tribe — the Cherokee Nation — has flourished. Before forced removal, our tribal government had a constitution and laws. We were scholars, writers, farmers, and diplomats. Today, our tribe governs a 14-county district and impacts the state economy with billions of dollars. Before the Trail, our leaders lobbied Congress and the White House to stop genocide against Native Americans. Our tribe was not only the first to form a written language, but we were the first to start a tribal newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, which is still in print today. Our goal was to not be forgotten, and we succeeded. It is a remarkable story of resilience that I draw strength from every day.”
What he does: “I am a contributing editor for tribal affairs at High Country News. We are the only national publication that is not Native-owned with a desk fully devoted to coverage of Indian Country. A very small percentage of newsroom employees are Native American, and coverage of Indigenous communities and the issues facing them commonly relies on and perpetuates stereotype and myth. Building off of the example of generations of trailblazing Native journalists, we at HCN strive to be a good news source for Indigenous readers and present those stories in a nuanced way to non-Native readers. I am also a board member at the Native American Journalists Association, where we bolster the work of our Native colleagues through training and advocacy, as well as advise non-Native media on how to cover Indigenous issues.”
Why his work is important: “When the media reports stereotype as if it were fact, or when reporters ignore or overlook epidemics and their causes, it can have devastating consequences. That problem is compounded in Indian Country because Indigenous communities are largely invisible to and misunderstood by the average American. You can’t solve any problem effectively if you don’t understand it, and Indigenous people have been marginalized and misrepresented since well before the founding of this country. As my ancestors have shown through their work as journalists and scholars, and through our continued resilience, one way to inspire change is by simply holding up the truth, putting it in front of people in a way they cannot ignore.”
How he thinks society at large can better support Indigenous people: “In short — listen to us. Listen to Native American writers. Include us in conversations that involve us. And once you’ve listened, try to understand how your story is a part of ours. I don’t think it’s easy for people who have benefited from oppression to recognize this, let alone acknowledge it, but this country became what it is today in part by destroying what was here before, and the effects of that violent origin story continue to ripple throughout America. But also, recognize that we are not defined by that trauma. There are more than 600 Native communities, both federally recognized and not, and we are all different. And while we have unique and thriving cultures, we are also lawyers, teachers, accountants, and artists, who are a part of your community as well.”
Jacqueline Keeler (@jfkeeler)
Diné (Navajo) and Dakota journalist
Who she is: “With a Diné mother and a Dakota father, my dual Indigenous cultural backgrounds have always provided me with an alternative way to view the world, both from a historical and a political standpoint. As I note in my piece ‘Thanksgiving and the Hidden Heart of Evil’: ‘As a child of a Native American family, you are part of a very select group of survivors, and I learned that my family possessed some inside knowledge of what really happened when those poor, tired masses [the Pilgrims] came to our homes.’”
What she does: “I write, think, and lecture. In 2017, I also edited a book titled ‘Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears,’ which compiles the works of Native poets, activists, teachers, writers, students, and public officials, and shares their passionate feelings about the Bears Ears.”
Why her work is important: “Writing in mainstream media allows me to put a Native perspective on newsworthy events in front of Americans who have never considered that point of view. It also allows me to intellectually address the issues Native people face and help our people process these experiences. We do not have a media that does this for us, so every article I write is putting ideas in the public sphere that would not normally be there.”
How she thinks society at large can better support Indigenous people: “Publish the writing of Native journalists and pay attention to the issue of sovereignty. Tribes are Indigenous sovereign nations within the United States; they have a federal relationship that includes treaties, which can only be entered into by sovereign nations. We are not a race or minority group — we are citizens of nations that precede and persist through the creation of the colonial state.”
Lee Francis IV (@indigenouscomiccon)
Laguna Pueblo entrepreneur and founder of Indigenous Comic Con
Who he is: “My dad’s side of the family is from the Pueblo of Laguna (Paguate village) — located in New Mexico. I spent my summers there with my grandmother and was very much grounded in the culture and community throughout my life. I returned in 2002 to teach at Laguna-Acoma High School, and it was there that I had the chance to reconnect with my community and my culture through my work with some incredible students.”
What he does: “I run Native Realities — An Indigenous Imagination Company. Our goal is to change the perceptions of Native and Indigenous people through popular culture, so we promote and produce Indigenous pop culture in all shapes and sizes — everything from comics to toys to collectibles. I handle the publishing side of things and also oversee our shop, Red Planet Books and Comics. In addition to that, I also direct the Indigenous Comic Con, which just took place for the third time!”
Why his work is important: “By using popular culture, we are able to tap into the imagination of our young people and show them materials that represent who they are — the best of who they are — as superheroes and space rangers. We help to unleash that imagination for our youth and communities, as well as show how we are more than just stereotypes and can exist as any hero in any situation.”
How he thinks society at large can better support Indigenous people: “Society must understand that there is an invisible struggle for Indigenous people within popular culture. The majority of movies and television shows and mass media portray Native people as elements of a past culture, one that is dead or dying. We want folks to know that there is so much more, that we have an amazing and bright future and many more incredible stories to tell!”
White author and professor with Cherokee ancestors
Who she is: “While I was growing up, my father told me stories about our Cherokee heritage, although the lineage wasn’t perfectly clear. After a DNA test linked me with relatives in Arkansas, I made a visit to see them. They had done extensive research. Michael Waters, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, is listed on the 1835 Cherokee rolls. It was corroborated at the Family Research Center at the Cherokee National Museum in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. I am now a member of the First Families of the Cherokee Nation. However, I do not have Native language or ceremony. I live at a distance from the culture.
“Nonetheless, my heritage affects my worldview. For years, I have written about Native history, and I have done research to uncover unrecognized and overlooked parts of that history. I have traveled to the places where that history happened. I have written about the importance of land, of being, of presence.”
What she does: “I am professor emerita at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I taught Native American Literature and creative writing for nearly 20 years. I have continued to teach as a visiting writer or professor at several colleges and universities.”
Why her work is important: “I hope my work empowers Native people by documenting historical voices and characters who did not have a chance to speak. In my work, I’ve written about everything from the Cherokee Trail of Tears to the removal of the last Plains Indian warriors, the Native American boarding schools, the impact of Christianity on Indigenous peoples, and the Spanish missions in California. I’ve also written about individuals like Sacajawea, Kateri Tekakwitha (a 17th-century Mohawk woman converted by the Jesuits), and David Pendleton Oakerhater (a Cheyenne man and Fort Marion prisoner who later became an Episcopal priest).
“Native heritage has given me a world awareness as well. When I learn about my Cherokee ancestors and other Indigenous groups, I feel much more connected to the wider world, and I hope I’m helping other people feel more connected to me.”
How she thinks society at large can better support Indigenous people: “I suppose non-Native Americans can help support Native Americans by buying books written by them and inviting them for readings. By including their books in book clubs. By remembering that many states and place names are Native American in origin. By recognizing that Native Americans are still here, and that acculturation has been a long and painful journey. Native Americans are a small group and easily overlooked amid all of the other blazing current events. There is a troubled past (and sometimes present) between the U.S. and Native Americans, but a responsible nation acknowledges its history, even the discomforting parts.”
If you’d like to learn more, you’re in luck. You can turn to the writings of Ojibwe (Chippewa) poet Heid E. Erdrich, Diné (Navajo) journalist Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Muscogee poet and musician Joy Harjo, Cherokee writer and professor Adrienne Keene, or many other thought leaders. You could also pick up a copy of “There There,” an award-winning 2018 novel by Cheyenne and Arapaho writer Tommy Orange about life as an urban Native American.
We hope that this article has helped you better understand Native visibility in the United States. And while this is an important topic for everyday life, we couldn’t think of a better day to join the discussion than Thanksgiving. Let’s keep the conversation going.
Header image by Ethan Weil