‘We are still here’

Native Americans dispel myths by living their truth

Introduction by Dana Hedgpeth, a local reporter and member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe of North Carolina.

“But you don’t look like an Indian!”

I’ve heard that response more than a few times from people when they learn that I am an American Indian. I am a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe of North Carolina. I grew up in the D.C. suburbs, not on a reservation. In fact, our tribe doesn’t have a reservation, but my family often travels to Hollister, N.C., where the Haliwa-Saponi have their tribal homelands, for cultural gatherings or events.

It’s a common frustration for many of the country’s American Indians and Alaska Natives: People react with surprise or disbelief when we tell someone that we’re from a tribe that is Indigenous to the United States.

Many people assume all American Indians are dead; they have an image in their heads of old black-and-white photos of some western Plains Indians who performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. Or they wrongly generalize that we’re all confined to reservations, living in poverty or flush with casino cash.

For many of us, the message to the rest of society is simple: “We’re still here.”

The city of Anchorage sits on the homeland of the Dena’ina tribe. The Anchorage Museum installed “This is Dena’ina Ełnena” on its facade as part of its land acknowledgment efforts to recognize the Indigenous people of a place. The Indigenous Place Names Project has come up with 30 locations to place new signs, like the one seen here in Muldoon Park/Chanshtnu (“Grass Creek”).

There are more than 570 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages in the United States. According to the 2020 Census, fewer than a quarter of American Indians and Alaska Natives reside on reservations or other tribal lands. Most of us — close to two-thirds — live in major cities or smaller metro regions and suburban areas.

We are represented in a wide range of professional jobs, such as doctors, lawyers, scientists, artists, authors and politicians. Many of us also continue to practice the cultural traditions of our specific tribes, teaching them to the next generation.

For Native American Heritage Month, my colleague Rachel Hatzipanagos and I talked with several American Indians and Alaska Natives about their work to remind nonnatives that we are still here.

They represent different tribes and varied professions, some working on reservations and some at major institutions in big cities around the country. They acknowledge the struggles of their people and are determined to educate their children and the public about their history and their current lives.

We invited Inupiaq photographer Brian Adams to create a visual response to our theme of “we’re still here.” He chose to document the efforts of the Indigenous Place Names Project, which looks to reclaim these Dena’ina spaces. The movement creates place markers throughout Anchorage with the names of the locations in the native Alaska language.

My husband and I have been taking our girls, ages 7 and 9, to our tribe’s annual powwow since they were babies, and a few years ago, I watched with immense pride as they independently stepped into the arena and danced on their own, without coaxing.

As my mom says, they understood that this is where they come from, and this is who they are.

As we say in our Tutelo-Saponi language, lé: maini:naǫse — “we are still here.”

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Aaron Leggett, 40, the president of the Native Village of Eklutna, has made it his life’s mission to change assumptions that natives are long gone in Anchorage, the city where he grew up and where his ancestors have lived for thousands of years. During his senior year at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, he and a professor organized a class for youth about Dena’ina history and culture. They challenged students to find public recognition of the Dena’ina people in the city. It would be the beginnings of what would become the Indigenous Place Names Project.
“If other young Alaska Native people, some of whom had grown up in Anchorage, had no idea that this was a native place and that Alaska Natives existed in this place and still exist, then I’ve got a huge problem.”

Aaron Leggett

Nikki Bass

Member of the Nansemond Indian Nation of Hampton Roads, Va.

Nikki Bass, who lives in D.C., said people are often surprised that she’s a Native American whose tribal community is in the D.C. region.

She’s a member of the Nansemond Indian Nation, which has a population of roughly 600 and is one of several tribes in Virginia that received federal recognition in 2018.

“People who live here don’t realize there are Native American communities living throughout the Chesapeake Bay area and we’ve never left,” said Bass, a chemist and the associate director of the science policy division at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Bass, 39, said one of the most common myths people have about American Indians is that “Native American identity is divisible.”

“They think you can be a fraction of a Native American,” Bass said, referring to a controversial practice of trying to determine the amount of “Indian blood” a person has. It has been used to determine whether individuals are eligible for federal benefits, and some tribes still use it to determine membership.

“Our identities are not based on a myth of racial purity,” which she calls harmful. She said many Native Americans, including her own family, have “been living as part of a blended society for centuries.”

Bass said she has African, European and Native American ancestors. “I’m proud of the whole story of my family,” she said.

“Our land was stolen, and we survived in blended communities,” she said. “There’s nothing in our survival story that weakens my Native American ancestry.”

Bass has served on her tribal council for two years, and she often participates in events to teach and showcase her heritage.

She also does Eastern Woodland women’s traditional and jingle dress dancing at powwows and makes her own regalia, a traditional type of clothing worn by Native Americans for special ceremonies. Recently, Bass finished a project that tells of her tribe’s relationship to the Nansemond River, a 20-mile-long tributary of the James River in southern Virginia, and how they were displaced from living near the river.

Bass said she’s concerned about keeping Native American communities close and culturally connected, as many like hers have watched their members move away for jobs.

“We were forced away, but then that rippled out as people followed job opportunities,” she said. “That’s still affecting our people today. I’m constantly wondering how to keep our people close as the world spreads out.”

Jordan Dresser

Chairman of the Northern Arapaho Tribe of Fort Washakie, Wyo.

When the elders of the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming were reunited with items they hadn’t seen in a very long time, like rawhide bags adorned with special designs, they had tears in their eyes.

“That brought me hope that this is something that’s important for all of us,” said Jordan Dresser, 37.

Jaqueline Brixey

Member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

Jaqueline Brixey’s great-grandmother, who was Cherokee, did not want her children to speak any Indigenous languages.

“She wanted them to speak English, possibly for economic opportunities, or just because of racism and oppression, and thought that would ease their lives,” said Brixey, 33.

The Indigenous Place Names Project drew knowledge from Dena’ina elders, who for the last 40 years have worked to document over a thousand place names throughout south-central Alaska. Colonizers have historically ignored Indigenous place names to their detriment, Leggett said. For example, developers in the 1950s built a community of high-end homes in Anchorage on an area that in the Dena’ina language is called Nen Ghiłgedi — “rotten land.” The homes were destroyed in a 1964 earthquake because they were built on unstable soil. Seen here from Cook Inlet, Leggett hopes to soon have a place marker for Dghelishla (“Little Mountain”), or the mountain known as Sleeping Lady. A new place name for Chanshtnu, meaning “Grass Creek” in Dena’ina, was installed in August and was one of the first to be displayed in Anchorage as part of the project.

Dakotah Lane

Member of the Lummi Nation of Bellingham, Wash.

Dakotah Lane never forgot his grandfather telling him when he was growing up that he needed to come back and do work for the tribe.

Initially he got a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Washington and worked for AT&T and IBM. But he decided the best way to serve his tribe was as a doctor, so he went to medical school. After graduating from the Weill Cornell medical college in New York, he went back to work as the medical director at the health clinic for his tribe.

Lane, 41, is the first doctor from his tribe to serve his people since 1978, and he is part of a small cadre of Native American doctors in the country. Less than 1 percent — 0.3 percent, to be exact — of the roughly 918,500 licensed working doctors in the United States are Native American or Alaska Native, according to 2019 data from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Lane was born in Bellingham to a White mother who worked in commercial real estate and a Lummi father who is a retired commercial fisherman and now does maintenance work at the tribe’s casino. Before his arrival at the clinic, Lane said, many people within the roughly 5,300-member tribe were nervous about coming there because there wasn’t a Lummi doctor in charge. He said he’s been able to build a trust over the years with his tribal patients. That relationship, he said, was crucial when the covid-19 pandemic hit, as the disease has been especially hard on Native American communities. At least 80 percent of the Lummi Nation are vaccinated, Lane said.

He said that in the “post-George Floyd era,” many Americans have become more focused on “different minority groups that everyone ignored before.”

“Now people are learning and asking,” Lane said. He said other doctors or health professionals will ask him what it’s like working on the reservation. Once coronavirus vaccines were distributed to all Lummi tribal members who wanted them, the rest went to people in the surrounding communities who came to their casino for a free shot.

“We were distributing them to non-tribal people because we knew [that] to protect Lummis, we had to protect those around us,” Lane said. “The virus is nondiscriminatory.”

A common misconception, Lane said, is that Native Americans don’t pay taxes and “all get a lot of money from casinos.” False and false, he said. “We do pay taxes, and there are only a few casinos nationally that make enough money to distribute small amounts to their individual tribal members.”

The Lummi reservation sits just off Lummi and Bellingham bays, about 10 miles outside of Bellingham. Lane said he recalled growing up there and how people made a living fishing and catching crabs. To keep his cultural traditions alive, Lane said he participates in his tribe’s canoe races, where teams compete in a long-held tradition.

Lane said he’s most concerned about Native Americans “finding ways to deal with the generational trauma that dates back to the beginning of our relationship with the federal government.” He said he believes that much of the historical trauma leads to mental and medical conditions that “need to be treated.”

Secondly, he said, he hopes tribes can diversify their economies so they can improve job opportunities near their homelands for their people.

“To fight poverty, you have to have good-paying jobs,” he said. “Tribes have to figure out what they’re going to look like in the 21st century and determine their own economy.”

Joseph Connolly

Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and a citizen of the Six Nations of the Grand River in Canada

When Joseph Connolly tells people he’s an American Indian who works as an aerospace engineer at NASA, they usually react with shock.

Then out of awkwardness, he said, some people respond that their great-great-grandmother was Cherokee or they had a cousin who was a Blackfoot.

Artist Melissa Shaginoff, who is Athabaskan and Paiute, helped design the place names, drawing inspiration from the Dena’ina fire bag that was used to carry a fire starter and other objects. “It’s very much digging deeper than just renaming a place. It’s about this sort of reclamation of an incredible, incredibly old and relevant information system that is Indigenous languages,” said Shaginoff, 34. “Our language is the most perfectly designed language for that space, for that area, and there’s so much knowledge embedded in that.”
“It’s about making a statement that Indigenous people are here and continue to be here and that acknowledging their history is just acknowledging the truth.”

Melissa Shaginoff

Jae Littlebear

Youth organizer of the Santa Ana Pueblo in New Mexico

Jae Littlebear, 20, was at an airport departure gate, heading to the nation’s capital for a climate protest, when the woman checking her bag remarked: “You’re really pretty for a native girl.”

Littlebear, of Santa Ana Pueblo, didn’t want to say thank you. She knows all her people are beautiful. So she let the airport worker finish talking, asking stereotypical questions like: Do you speak your language? Do you live in teepees?

Finally, Littlebear had enough and asked the worker: “How long have you been in New Mexico for?”

“She said her whole life,” she recalled.

Littlebear is a youth organizer with the Pueblo Action Alliance, but said she doesn't usually speak up like this in public. On this day, she felt the need to push back:

“How do you not know what my people’s culture is?” she asked the airport worker.

Littlebear then said she gave her a brief lesson, pointing out how the state flag is a Zia sun symbol, representing one of the pueblos. The experience reminded her how she wished people knew more about her people, about their resilience and smarts.

Throughout high school, Littlebear, who also speaks her native language of Keres, had tried not to “act too rez,” referring to living on the Santa Ana reservation.

She stopped wearing her favorite native-design clothing because she was bullied and she remembers how scared she was hearing that at a neighboring school, a teacher cut a native student’s braided hair.

When Littlebear finally stood in front of the White House last month, joining hundreds of other Indigenous protesters calling on President Biden to stop approving fossil fuel projects and declare a national climate emergency, she felt proud, her hair twisted in two long braids.

“Thank you, water protectors,” a protester yelled to the cheering crowd.

Natives had to learn how to abide “by a White man’s world and still learn our cultural ways, and as a youth, that’s hard,” Littlebear said in an interview at the rally. “And you have to be very smart, you have to be very strong to do that. And that’s what our people exactly are.”

In the crowd of protesters, Littlebear thought of the issues affecting her community — like the Earth’s warming, missing and murdered Indigenous relatives, and the treaties and rights of Indigenous people — and how they motivate her to be an activist.

Her grandparents have told stories about being able to go to the river to get clean water, but Littlebear grew up needing to buy clean water from stores. She has never even seen the flowing river near her pueblo full.

Now, she said, they also have to pick crops like cotton, corn, squash, tomatoes and watermelon early before the first freeze. Many people on the reservation, she said, are suffering from cancer.

“We’re the future leaders of our communities,” Littlebear said. “We have a right to be at this table and to decide what happens to our future, our lands for our future kids, our future nieces and nephews. So hear our youth out.”

Sierra Teller Ornelas

Member of the Navajo Nation

Ornelas is best known for being the executive producer and co-creator of the comedy “Rutherford Falls,” which is streaming on NBC’s Peacock. The half-hour series focuses on two best friends, one White, one Native American, who find themselves on opposite sides of a debate over the history of their small town.

Originally from Arizona, Ornelas is also an award-winning, sixth-generation Navajo tapestry weaver. Weaving is a long-held Navajo tradition.

Nicholas Galanin

Tlingit and Unangax̂ ancestry

Nicholas Galanin wanted to make sure passersby didn’t miss his recent art display, so he chose the same lettering used for the iconic Hollywood sign to spell out his message: “Indian Land.”

The 45-foot-high installation titled “Never Forget,” which was erected in Palm Springs, Calif., from March to September, was primarily “a call for settler landowners to return land back to Indigenous communities,” said Galanin, 42, who is of Tlingit and Unangax̂ ancestry and lives in Sitka, Alaska.

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About this story

Topper image credits: Brian Adams for The Washington Post; courtesy of Dakotah Lane; Aaron John Balana; Zoe Friday; Reginald Cunningham; courtesy of NASA; Lolita Bass.

Additional reporting by Ellie Silverman. Story editing by Vanessa Williams. Photo editing by Natalia Jiménez-Stuard Copy editing by Mike Cirelli. Design and development by Frank Hulley-Jones.

Dana Hedgpeth is a Washington Post reporter, working in the early morning to report on traffic, crime and other local issues. She joined The Post in 1999. She's American Indian and an enrolled member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe of N.C.
Rachel Hatzipanagos is a staff writer at The Washington Post.