We Are Still Here: A Look at Contemporary Native American/Indigenous Identities Through Photovoice

Boozhoo (Hello) Reader,

What you are about to read are six stories from Native American/Indigenous folks. These stories are part of a small photovoice project I completed on the topic of contemporary Native identity. The goal of the project was to explore how Native/Indigenous people make sense of their identities in this day and age by sharing photos that they feel represent these identities and writing a description of each photo explaining its significance to them. As you read the stories, you will encounter themes such as strong familial and ancestral connections, respect for and connection with land and culture, and the importance of passing on stories and traditions to ensure the continuation of various Native cultures. I hope that reading these stories sheds light on the fact that there is not one way that a Native person looks, acts, or exists.

I would like to thank each of the participants in this project. I appreciate all of the time and effort you put into your photo selection and storytelling. Your stories are a testament to the strength of Native people that that has persisted through generations, and the resistance and resilience that allows us all to say, “We are still here.”



This photo was taken in November 2016 at the Oceti Sakowin Camp on the Cannonball River on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. I went to ND in November 2016 (for about 10 days) with the “Detroit Anishinaabe Standing Rock Delegation;” and then again with two other Anishinaabekwe in March 2017. The delegation was organized by Diana Copeland (professor at University of Michigan SSW, Research Director with Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council, & PhD student at MSU) and Kaela Harris (President of NASO at Wayne State University, MSW graduate from WSU). The group consisted of Indigenous students, activists/organizers, and community members around the Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Detroit area.

A few of these people I was already very close with when we started this trip but I made very strong, life-lasting, indescribable connections with each of these individuals through this trip and the work we did in ND. For me, this photo depicts Indigenous resistance and resilience. My trip to ND is not something I can easily speak about; it was emotional and mentally draining, it triggered some historical trauma within me that I hadn’t quite known how to deal with, and the complete disregard for Native people and sovereignty was disturbing to say the least. But this trip changed my life and the connections I made here with my People and the land and my role as an activist have influenced the rest of the trajectory of my life. Each individual in this photo has their own unique story of Indigenous identity and each person is influencing Indian Country in their own way. We all look different and come from different walks of life but our connection to each other and our ancestors are stronger than anyone who wasn’t there with us can ever understand.


This photo was taken at the “No DAPL, No KXL” protest at University of Michigan in January 2017; organized by the Michigan Indigenous Action Council. The Michigan Indigenous Action Council was created by a group of Anishinaabe students at University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, including myself and the women pictured in the picture.

This photo includes my four best friends. All of these women are strong ass Anishinaabekwe. I love them. They carry parts of me and will forever. We know the deepest parts of one another. I didn’t meet these women until later in my undergraduate career, but our connections feel beyond this life. Three of the women in the picture went to Standing Rock with me. We created this group with other Native students to participate in direct action concerning issues in Indian Country. We did not feel represented on Michigan’s campus and wanted a space that was our own to express ourselves unapologetically. This moment captured a very powerful moment during the protest where we were leading about 300 people through the streets of Ann Arbor in protest against the environmental racism that Indigenous people were currently facing with pipelines in North America. Also, important to note, the two women behind our sign, carrying the larger signs, are mothers of two of the women in front. I have spent a lot of time with these women talking about anything under the sun, but connecting through our Native identities.


This is an old photograph of the Native women in my family. Left to right in this photo: my grandmother’s sister, Rose; my great-grandmother (my grandma’s mom), Grandma Susie; my grandma, Violet, who is holding her oldest daughter (my aunt), Virginia;  my great-great grandma (Grandma Susie’s mom), Hattie; my grandmother’s sisters, Lena and Laura.

These are the most influential Native women in my life. In the picture on the left is my cousin, Doreen, and my Grandma again; taken at my mom’s family christmas party she has every year. In the picture on the right is my mother and my her best friend, my Auntie Sarah; taken at my brother’s graduation party.

My Auntie Sarah, my mother, and my Grandma all raised me and made me who I am today.

My cousin Doreen, though not super involved in my life directly, has always been a rock of support and wisdom. Doreen has helped me navigate through my identity and has always supported me in my endeavors. She inspires and encourages me to be a champion for my community. She is respected greatly by our People and is one of the kindest, most inspirational women I know.


This is a photo of my Tribe’s winter powwow in the year 2011, I think. At this powwow my grandma was one of the honored elders; the other is my friend’s grandfather, Blue Misegan. In this photo, I am in my regalia and bending over to kiss my grandma; my mother is behind me.

My grandma… I can’t even begin to explain. She raised me. Not because my parents were unable to but because they were young. We lived with my grandma when I was a kid, she watched me and my brother when we were little, she loved me unconditionally. She was the plug. She had so many damn snacks. This woman let me drink Coke out of a baby bottle until I was like, 6 years old. She let me stay up late and watch TV. She taught me the art of the sponge bath. When my grandpa died I stayed the night at her house almost every night so she wasn’t alone. Like, she was my hero. My rock. My mom and I fought a lot and I was a little defiant when I got out of high school and my grandma was the only person I felt comfortable talking to about a lot of stuff. She had so much wisdom and guidance.


In the purple is my brother, Austin Ayres. In the green is my cousin, Cody Haataja. In the red is my cousin (my mother’s brother’s son), Dylan Friisvall. These are the Native men in my life. My brother was graduating from high school, while Cody and Dylan were graduating from college with their Associate’s Degrees. They took a few photos for my mom and posed for this goofy picture last. Cody stood in the back because he wasn’t wearing socks or shoes and didn’t want to be barefoot in the picture.

I chose this picture because of the importance these men have had in my life. My cousins are the firekeepers at our annual powwow for the sacred fire. And my brother is usually a camp counselor at our youth culture camp at the end of every summer. It has been beautiful to grow up with these men and watch them reconnect with our culture as adults now. We grew up playing in the woods together, building forts and chasing animals. I also think this picture depicts the many facets of Native identity. Lots of people have ideas of how Natives are supposed to look. My cousin Cody is super dark, my cousin Dylan has really distinct Native features, and my brother has mostly Finnish features; but they are all the same “blood quantum” and we all grew up on the same Rez and in the same environment. I love them all with my entire heart. They have been my protectors in love and life. Native men bother the fuck out of me– these men bother the fuck out of me. But their fierce love and passion for eachother, me, and our culture is inspiring.


photovoice-Johnny02Both of these images reflect the love that indigenous families have for one another. That love of family extends beyond the immediate family and into the community and the culture of the tribe.




From the time we are young we recognize that it is our responsibility to carry on the teachings of our ancestors, participate in our community and our culture, and create a better world for the next generation, just as the previous one did for us.




photovoice-Becca01Being an auntie is a very central part of my life because these kids constantly remind me of what’s important. They motivate me to make the world a better place so when it is time for them to lead, it will be a little less painful for them to make their way. Their laughter and unconditional love always bring me back to reality.


Being a young Native person today often means being the first in your family to go to college. My parents didn’t know how to prepare me for college- financially, academically, or even socially. Attending a primary white, upper class university was extremely hard and isolating. Most people at UM didn’t understand my obligations to my family or community and my family didn’t understand why I had to be gone for such long periods of time. They couldn’t relate to the things I was going through and I regularly felt as though my education was creating a barrier in our relationships. Despite these obstacles, they’ve supported me the best they knew how and it meant the world to me to have them come down for my graduation last spring. It was especially important for my oldest nephew to see that where we come from does not define where we are going.

photovoice-Becca06Holding both queer and Native identities is a very complicated place to be in this society. Native people are already invisible and queer Natives are basically non existent to the public. It’s always been hard because Anishinaabe people traditionally respected and embraced two spirit individuals, yet there’s so much homophobia and transphobia in Native communities due to harmful assimilation efforts (Native American Boarding Schools, compulsory Christianity, etc.). Knowing that your ancestors would have accepted you but some people in your community deny your right to be who you are has often left me longing for a reality that no longer exists. You’re stuck between hiding your Native identity in queer spaces and hiding your queer identity in Native spaces.


A strong kwe (woman) group is essential to survival, especially in a university setting. There’s a strength found in Native women that I have yet to find anywhere else. This is a picture of my two best friends and I can honestly say I don’t know if I’d be alive without them. They’ve helped me through my deepest depressions and loved me unconditionally through it all. Together we’ve traveled the country, fought for our sovereign rights, experienced love and heartbreak, learned from our elders, and developed into the strong Anishinaabe women we are today.


In a society that values dollar signs over the environment, it’s all indigenous peoples’ responsibility to be the voice of the land, the water, and the animals. The NoDAPL protests was one of the biggest indigenous movements of my lifetime. Going out to Standing Rock, ND as part of a Detroit Anishinaabe Student Delegation was one of the most powerful experiences of my life in both beautiful and traumatic ways. After a week out at the Oceti camp, coming back to campus was awful. All of my peers and professors wanted me to talk about what it was like out there without understanding how much energy I was using to just make it to class after such a spiritual experience. Trump signing the executive memo to push through the final easement of the keystone xl and Dakota access pipeline and saying that he had not heard any objections to either of them was one of the most heartbreaking moments I’ve ever had. It was in that moment that I realized that our beautiful nations were only as sovereign as the US government allowed us to be. Honestly, being a contemporary Native means feeling powerless a lot of the time. It’s in those times that you have to realize that our ancestors have endured far worse than those like Trump and their power will always be with us.


Being a Native student on a campus like UM feels like you’re constantly fighting for your right to exist in higher education. People often forget that this university is on Anishinaabe land. We have to protest (like this picture) and fight administration every step of the way. UM has a particularly heinous history with Native people (1817 Treaty of Fort Meigs, Michiguama, failure in repatriation of Native bones, etc.). Dealing with all of this while trying to be a student- not to mention all of the mental health, substance abuse, and health problems that many Native youth face- makes getting your higher education unbearable at times. You’re constantly fighting for your right to be here and met with obstacles at every turn.


This is my tribe’s flag and it represents our strength and sovereignty. No matter where I am in life, Waganakising (land of the crooked tree) will always be my home. It has been the home of my family for hundreds of years. Seeing this flag in places like Standing Rock and the American Indian museum in DC fill me with a sense of pride and resilience.


As a Native person my identity is always being challenged, erased, or invalidated. Having these two and many other Native women in my life helps me combat that. These are the people I go to for validation. These women give me hope and remind me that I don’t have to face life’s challenges alone.


These photos were taken in standing rock at the Sacred Stone camp where I joined people from all over the world to protect the water and protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. During my time at Standing Rock I feel I came into my identity as a Native person in a way that I had never before. Staying at the camp showed me how beautiful a Native community centered around the earth, respecting one another, and contributing to the good of the whole can be. My whole life I have only had an unhealthy representation of a Native community to look to. Things were not perfect at Standing Rock but it gave me a glimpse of lifestyle my ancestors lived and all that has been taken from Native people.photovoice-Sarah01


Last but not least frybread. Frybread is a modern staple in Native communities across the country. It’s something we all have in common but everyone has their own way of making it. To me frybread shows the ability Native people have to take what they have and make something great. Frybread isn’t something my ancestors made but a modern part of my culture. It shows how Native cultures have changed mostly by force and yet we create new traditions and ways of life. I often times feel that my ancestors way of life is something I can never have, but I can have frybread, pow wows, and beadwork… I can enjoy the culture we have preserved and the culture we are always creating as Native people.


The first participant I worked with was Samara, and I was lucky enough to get to talk with her and hear her story in person. The following is a recollection of Samara’s story written collaboratively by the both of us based on our conversation.

Samara and the moon

Samara is Mashpee, Wampanoag, and Cape Verdean, African. Through her, these complex ethnicities form a union. But more than what runs through her blood ignites her purpose. She has spent her life testing what it means to be Wampanoag. What it means to be an Indian, an Ambassador of her peoples. Her collegiate experience has provided a chance for her to understand what her life means. The Mashpee Wampanoag Nation is primarily located in Mashpee, Cape Cod, and Samara spoke fondly of her People’s land and its immense beauty. She is particularly fond of the whale and creatures that surround the island. While Mashpee Wampanoag people are Native American, Samara describes her personal marker as Mashpee Wampanoag to be, “An expansive term that is still developing as I learn of our whanau (family)  in Aotearoa as well as our many African Ancestors running through our blood.” Aotearoa is the Māori name for New Zealand, and the Māori people are indigenous Polynesians of New Zealand. “My ancestors are travellers. We were not stagnant. I owe my adaptability to my ancestors who have come before me and made living today a little easier.”  Through all of this she sees understanding the mix of land and blood of one tribe allows her to appreciate her people even more. It ultimately makes her feel whole.


A flyer for culture class featuring Samara and her Lakota granny

To add another dynamic to Samara’s story, she was raised in Native Hawaiian Culture. She is thankful for the Kanaka Maoli and works to preserve the culture for her younger brother “Tunka” and older sister Lakira. “It has taken me 18 years to understand how grateful I am for my grandfathers, all of them, and be in a place to say I could not have made it without them. I want to make sure that my family near and far are able to know there is someone here to support them. If no one is there to ease the pain of confliction in physicality, I am.”  Samara has come to interact with and explore her Mashpee Wampanoag identity through her Kanaka Maoli identity.  When she was little she dealt with the tumult of finding her place in life. Growing up in a split home, she felt obligated to mediate and often had little time to not think of her actions.

Samara, Tutu, and Lakira

“My escape from this all was my Tutu and my Mothers.” Her blood mother gave her up to live with her grandparents for a few years. This took a toll on her spirit. But she does not blame her mother. She just loves her mom a little more than most people can understand or make sense of. Being so far away from home made her research the things she could once go home to receive. “I did it to heal, but I really did it to prove how much I loved them. Even when I couldn’t find the words to say it. I chose to dedicate my life to finding a way to make my second mother and father full time parents. Regardless of distance.” For Samara, Kanaka Maoli is how she was raised and what she learned the ways of growing up, it has become a part of her culture, her tribes culture. Samara also acknowledged that not everyone lives in the way that she lives with regard to claiming different cultural identities. She chooses to respect the ancestors she is bonded with through her mothers, fathers and grandparents. She pays her respects to God for guiding her and then her ancestors for making her question and seek answers.

Samara and her sister, Lakira

Thinking about the future, Samara said, “My children will be Mashpee.” That is her culture and her ancestry, and that is how she would like to raise her children. Her Kanaka Maoli ties have influenced her studies comparing Hula to the Drum Dance of the Inuit people.  Hawaiian culture has left impressions on her that have ignited a flame, that eventually turned into a wildfire. She is on a mission to find the cultural practices of her peoples that have been lost through history. Practices that have been adopted and tweaked through migration, traditional medicines, and forms of dance. Samara is someone who is not used to being comfortable. When she attends PowWow she often feels out of place. She was not given the blessing of knowing jingle dance. But she can speak with hula. She can recall with hula. Give thanks and remember the people who have come before her. Her inability to stay stagnant pushes her to follow her heart. A key component of being able to claim a cultural identity, Samara explained, is how you interact with the land. Her first interaction with the land was through the food of her late Mimi. And her first appreciation of land and spirit was through hula, which she was given the blessing to practice by her Tutu.

Samara and Lakira

One experience Samara described was learning how to hula with her sister. She and her sister were not as close back then. But Samara admired her nonetheless. “I idolized her. My sister is so perfect and still is. No matter how badly she would treat me I would do anything to protect her.”  She spoke fondly of her sister and their developed relationship, stating that she and her sister are a duo. “When you practice hula with somebody, they become your hula sister – she is with me forever. There is no blood needed to express the impression she has left on my life,” Samara said.

Samara, her uncles, and Lakira

Samara has faced many trials in her life, and feels that the wrongs people have done to her have made her who she is today. “I find it a waste of my time to regard the pain I have felt from people’s actions as a direct reflection of their character. I realize how much my step parents and blood parents love me and their language of love says more than any struggle, If it was not for the things I was able to realize at such a young age, I would not be willing to test my strength as much as I do now.” It is time they knew that. Today, she is in a place where she can move past negativity. The first person who Samara recalls guiding her spiritually was her Mimi, who she now regards as her Spirit Guide. She finds the role of a grandmother, mother, and aunt to be highly admired. Samara referred to Mimi as her “other half” – they had the same skin tone, and Mimi was the first one to introduce her to lobster, an important Mashpee Wampanoag food. Samara said she still sees Mimi today when she recalls certain scents and memories.

photovoice-Samara04Samara has sometimes had doubts about the fusion of her Mashpee Wampanoag and Kanaka Maoli identities, but described a moment where she felt a connectedness between the two and everything fell into place. Wayfinding has recently had a revival in Hawai‘i, and some Kanaka Maoli from Hawai‘i went on a journey in a wayfinding canoe. One of the stops they chose to make on their journey was Mashpee land in Cape Cod. The Kanaka Maoli wayfinders greeted the Wampanoags and raised their flag with them. Samara described this moment as a spiritual affirmation for her, witnessing her people connect with the prophecy that her father had already fulfilled with her stepmother.

Samara, Lakira, and their little sister Naomi

Samara stated that she feels she has a duty to her people to live in the best presence/way. She informed me that the Mayflower came to her peoples’ lands initially, and that before it arrived, her people had a sense that people were coming to their land. Because of this, her ancestors sent their practices and medicine “spiritually” and physically out into the world to prepare for this arrival. Samara feels that today she is receiving the medicines that her people put out.


Louise, an undergraduate student, also met with me and shared her experiences. Both of Louise’s parents are Native, but she did not grow up on her tribe’s reservation and is not sure which tribe(s) her ancestors were a part of. Reflecting on her interactions with other Native people, Louise expressed a longing for more information about her heritage, much of which has been lost due to disappearances of relatives and family conflict. Louise feels she is having a sort of identity crisis and spoke of questioning whether she is “Native enough.” She wondered where the line of being “Native enough” is, if it exists at all, and questioned what the credentials of being Native enough are. Louise likened her doubts about her own Native identity to imposter syndrome.

This photo is a broken window that Louise came across while wandering in the woods north of Ann Arbor. To Louise, this photo symbolizes loneliness. “The loneliness that comes with having a shaky sense of identity and not knowing where you belong.”

When discussing appearance, Louise noted that people see you and decide a lot of things about you before getting to know you. She described her own appearance as “racially ambiguous,” and explained that she has not experienced as much pushback on her Native identity as others who have a lighter complexion. Thinking about the general public’s perception of Native people, Louise said, “What is a Native American supposed to look like? How are Native people supposed to act? Should they be wise, stoic, know a lot about nature?” Louise and I discussed that what many people think about Native Americans is based in stereotypes portrayed in films and popular culture. We discussed how many people do not see Native Americans as “modern” people.


We Are Still Here: Photovoice Analysis & Reflection

What follows is some analysis and reflection on my final project, “We Are Still Here: A Look at Contemporary Native/Indigenous Identities Through Photovoice.” Please note that I use Native, Native American, and Indigenous mostly interchangeably throughout this post.

Personal Significance:

6197My inspiration for this project came from my exploration of my own Native identity. I strongly identify as Native American, but also feel a lack of cultural connection, which sometimes makes me question my own identity. Adding to this doubt is my appearance – no one (except for one person one time) looks at me and thinks that I am Native American. I pass/present as white, and thus experience white privilege that is very important for me to acknowledge. Many of my Native peers also pass as white, so I was interested in how they make sense of their racial and ethnic identities.

To give a little background on my Native identity, I am Ojibwa, from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in Baraga, Michigan, which is in the Upper Peninsula. The above photo shows me when I was about four years old wearing fancy shawl regalia at my tribe’s annual powwow. I danced in our powwow every year growing up, but stopped when I was in my later teenage years. I did a few other cultural things growing up – for example, taking Ojibwa language class in my elementary school, making my own regalia and moccasins with the guidance of my Auntie, and occasionally attending events with ceremonies and teachings. I definitely could have been more involved in my Ojibwa culture growing up, but once I was old enough to desire more connection with my culture I had a sense of shame and embarrassment about my lack of knowledge. Something I have been wanting more and more lately is to ask for my Indian Name, which would be a name in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwa language) given to me by a medicine man or other spiritual leader in my tribe. Something that this project has helped me to do is start building a stronger Native community for myself here in Ann Arbor, so perhaps as I continue to strengthen these bonds, I will get the courage to pass tobacco and finally ask for and be given my Indian Name.


While there were many themes woven throughout the participants’ stories, I have chosen to focus on three: ancestral connections, the importance of being in community with other Native people, and the fact that there is not a certain way that Native/Indigenous people look.

Ancestral connections was a topic that every participant incorporated into their story.  All of the participants recognized the importance of ancestry in connecting with their cultures, whether that be through knowing their ancestry or lacking this knowledge. Samara explained that she has realized that she could not be where she is today without the help of her grandparents and ancestors at large. I think it is important to point out the loneliness that Louise experiences because of the uncertainty of who her ancestors were and where they were from. Connecting with ancestors was a source of strength for many of the participants. The participants who had went to Standing Rock expressed the sentiment that their ancestors had endured such harsh conditions and still made it through. These participants expressed feeling the strength of their ancestors within themselves when fighting for Native rights.

Another theme that participants touched on was the strength, healing, and validity they experience by being in community with other Native people. Many of the participants spoke of familial relationships – some good, some difficult – that made them who they are today. Samara pointed to the instrumental role her parents, grandparents, and siblings had on the emotional, spiritual, and cultural aspects of her life. In addition to relationships with family, Johnny pointed out that familial love “extends beyond the immediate family into the community and the culture of the tribe.” This statement points to the importance of interpersonal relationships that extend to communities and beyond, connecting through culture. Three of the participants in this project know each other and have a pretty strong relationship – Sierra, Becca, and Sarah. Sarah wrote about the validation and hope that she feels from her relationship with the other two, knowing that she is not alone. Becca and Sierra both talked about the deep relationship between the three of them that has helped each of them develop into strong Anishinaabekwe – (in this case) Odawa and Ojibwa women.

Finally, this project shows that Native/Indigenous folks have many different appearances. Just by reading through each participant’s story, the reader encounters people of many different skin tones, facial features, body types, hair and eye colors, and other physical markers. One interesting photo look at that exemplifies this point is Sierra’s photo of her brother and her two cousins in their graduation caps and gowns. She explains that all three of these men are from the same tribe with the “same amount” of Native American blood (determined by the problematic concept of blood quantum, which I will not go into here), but their heritage comes out in their appearances in very different ways. Something that I heard from many participants were that their Native identities are often rendered invisible in certain spaces. Both Becca and Sierra touched on having to struggle just to be seen and heard on U of M’s campus, which does not make space for Native/Indigenous students. Becca also tied in her queer identity, explaining that her queer and Native identities often conflict in these respective spaces so she is not able to fully be herself in either space, which can feel isolating due to the lack of queer Native spaces and representation. In my discussion with Samara, she mentioned that even in Hawai’i people would assume she was Polynesian as opposed to Native American, which goes to show that Native American heritage and ancestry do not contribute to one specific type of appearance. Samara and I also discussed how people typically expect Native folks to look like the stereotypical “Plains Native” – dark skin, dark eyes, long black hair, braids, etc. I am hoping that this project has helped to dispel this myth for the readers who have encountered it.

Social Work & Societal Implications:

The stories shared by the participants gave rise to a number of social issues. The discussion of the Dakota Access Pipeline and protesting at Standing Rock highlights issues of environmental racism and Native sovereignty. Issues such as affirmative action and educational justice surfaced with the conversation about the lack of space and representation for Native/Indigenous students on college campuses. The importance of cultural preservation and transmission; especially for identity development, self-esteem, and emotional wellbeing; was brought up by all of the participants in various ways. Finally, the participants’ observations and insights about appearance sheds light on the lack of knowledge and lack of respect that our society has for Native/Indigenous people and cultures, which results in stereotypes, microaggressions, and outright racism.

I will not go into detailed explanations of all of the social issues I have listed above, nor will I lay out a comprehensive guide or action plan for how social workers should deal with these issues – I do not believe that this is work that one person can do on their own. I believe that coming up with ways to address these issues could have been done in a project like this one had I had time to gather all of the participants together so we could engage in dialogue. Even getting this group together would pose an issue because of the lack of representation of Native/Indigenous folks from other age groups, socioeconomic statues, and life experiences with regard to education.

In lieu of discussing ways to address the issues mentioned above, I would like to note something I have found problematic with regard to Native people and cultures in the School of Social Work this semester – the use of the word “savage.” (Please note that this paragraph reflects my own personal view of this word. I did not discuss the popular use of the word with the participants of this project.) I am still unsure of why this term has become so popular and what the majority of people think of when they use it, however, it was not a term that I expected to hear coming from the mouths of future social workers. I find the use of this word, especially with a negative connotation, highly offensive because it reminds me of the genocide of my ancestors and Native/Indigenous folks from all over the country. This word has been used against Native Americans in a derogatory way and also to justify heinous practices such as murder, forced assimilation, and rape and pillaging. I think it is important for people to consider the historical meanings and connotations of this word before deciding to insert it into their everyday vocabulary.


I learned at various levels and within numerous disciplines while completing this project, but I will focus on my learning with regard to gaining a deeper understanding of identity and diversity, and conducting research. I was surprised by a couple of the themes I identified within the participants’ stories. I had expected that participants would reference heritage and traditions, but I did not expect that each of the participants would cite the importance of ancestors. The connection to ancestors felt by many of the participants and the subsequent strength that this has given them is a beautiful and powerful thing. This is not something that I have experienced very much in terms of my Native identity. When I spoke with Louise, I felt a lot of similarities between her experience and my own. Even though I have access to a bit more of my heritage and ancestry, I still feel a lack of connection with my culture and worry that I may not be “Native enough.” I had honestly expected that I would encounter more of this sentiment from other participants, and was pleasantly surprised to hear about how personal and cultural connections have strengthened other participants’ racial and ethnic identities. Samara’s story in particular gave me a deeper understanding of diversity. As I have grown, I have come to appreciate the significance and the beauty of diversity. Within diversity, there are often multiple conflicting identities and world views, and these stories have given me an appreciation for the difficulties that go along with navigating multiple, conflicting identities. Samara’s discussion of her fusion of races and cultures and how she navigates these identities has helped me to see how one can exist within various, sometimes competing frameworks/world views/belief systems and hold all of them to be true.

In a research sense, I learned about the importance of personal and professional connections when recruiting people to participate in a project or study. It seems that it is generally most effective to send a direct, personal message to people you know or are acquainted with, which was one of the strategies I used. I also reached out to the Native American Student Association (NASA), but had I not been familiar and previously associated with NASA, I would not have known how to get in contact with Native students on the campus at large. In my interviews with participants, I was able to practice active and empathetic listening, as well as note taking and correspondence on the accuracy of my notes. is  I learned that starting a project early, especially one that requires participants to invest a substantial amount of time and thought, is essential to producing the best result. Taking this one step further, I believe that best practice would be to start reaching out to participants even earlier than you think is necessary because the busyness of people’s schedules often requires planning to set aside time to participate in the project. I definitely could have reached out to participants sooner. Even though I reached out before finals started, the timeline I gave for participants to get back to me stretched into finals and resulted in me receiving many submissions later than I had hoped.


I set out intending to do a photovoice project, and while I have classified this project as photovoice, it is important to note that I did not actually follow the photovoice method. In fact, my project deviated substantially from the methodology. With photovoice projects, participants typically take their photos after they are recruited to participate. The participants in my project were asked and allowed to share any photos they wanted to, and I believe that most, if not all, of the photos were taken prior to the start of this project. Another part of the photovoice process is having participants engage in focus groups to discuss the issue at hand both personally and on a larger scale, share photos and experiences, and identify common themes in participants’ stories. Given the timeframe in which I had to work on the project, I was unable to set up any focus groups to get the participants together. Finally, photovoice is often used as a means to empower marginalized communities and enact some sort of policy change. While this project could be empowering to the participants in that they got to share their stories with me and a larger audience, not being able to gather the participants as a group was definitely a drawback. (Click here for more information about the photovoice method of research.)

Another limitation of this project was the fact that I reached out mostly to Native people that I know, and that all of the participants are either students or recent college graduates. This limited the breadth of Native/Indigenous experiences that I was able to learn about, explore, and share with others. This being said, the varied life circumstances and experiences of each of the participants, even though they are all in the same age range and have experience in higher education, is a testament to the broad range and complexity of Native/Indigenous identities.

Dialogue & Nonviolent Communication

This blog is going to have both an academic and a personal component to it, and I think that the way I write this blog will exemplify both a “discussion” and a “dialogue” framework, respectively. First, I would like to write about how dialogue and nonviolent communication are related to social work values and ethics. The Facilitation Resource Guide gives some great examples of the role of intergroup dialogue facilitators that I see as closely related to the role of social workers. Here are a few examples and how I believe they illuminate social work roles, goals, and ethics:

  • Listening alertly – Social workers must actively, attentively listen to the clients, groups, communities, and other professionals that they work with in order to facilitate understanding, trust, and collaboration.
  • Noting reactions to your comments – This is important especially when working with clients in order to ensure that social workers are aware of themselves and the impact they are having on people with different identities and life circumstances than them. One example specific to my concentration of Interpersonal Practice (IP) is noticing how a client reacts to you in a therapy session because clients will make assumptions about you and project things onto to you, and noticing and bringing these things up can help with understanding the client’s world a little better.
  • Noticing sub-groupings and alliances – This is helpful in working with groups, for example, in community organizing work. If there is tension within a group, identifying different sub-groups within the larger group can be a good first step in addressing the issues and working toward a common understanding or goal. Sub-groupings and alliances can also be important tools to leverage when trying to make larger-scale change such as in policy work or securing funding for organizations.
  • Expressing warm feelings – It is important for IP practitioners to express warmth and empathy toward their clients in order to develop trust and rapport.
  • Recognizing different cultural expressions of feelings – In IP practice, this is essential to understanding clients’ perspectives and how they interact with the world. In macro practice such as organizing, this helps social workers to get to know communities, demonstrate respect, and potentially advocate on behalf of marginalized groups.
  • Ability to stand silence – In therapy, IP practitioners must be comfortable with silence because leaving space for clients to think and process instead of immediately responding to what they say is best practice.
  • Commenting on process – In IP, discussing the therapeutic relationship and process is often an area of great personal growth for clients. In community organizing, this can allow for individuals to reflect on their experiences and grow both personally and professionally.
  • Sticking with uncomfortable situations – Social workers are bound to run into uncomfortable situations. This is especially relevant to social workers who hold a lot of privileged identities and work with clients who hold a lot of oppressed identities. When situations are uncomfortable, not only is sticking with them an opportunity for substantial personal growth, it is also necessary to build rapport with individuals and communities. In order to sustain social work practice, social workers must recognize, reflect on, accept, and learn from discomfort.

I believe that my thoughts in the list above are reminiscent of a “discussion” framework. As mentioned in the Facilitation Resource Guide, my goal in producing this list was to increase understanding and clarity of how dialogue principles relate to social work practice. I wrote the statements from a social work framework with the assumption that the principles of social work constitute a stable reality.

Now for the fun part…

As I was preparing to write this blog, I ran into an old friend from undergrad. I was sitting working on my computer and looked up because I saw someone staring at me. At first, I did not recognize him and smiled a little bit, but after realizing who it was I smiled more genuinely and got up to give him a hug. After our embrace, he immediately called me out by asking if I realized that I gave him the “white person smile.” I was slightly embarrassed, but agreed that I did indeed give him the smile that he has noticed many white people give to Black people. He asked me if I thought it was because he is a Black man, and I gave him an honest answer of, “I don’t know.” I said that it definitely could have been part of it, and also noted that I looked up and smiled because I noticed someone who I didn’t recognize right away staring at me. My friend thanked me for being honest with him and owning up to what may have been a racially biased action on my part. He has told me a couple of times now that he feels most comfortable talking with people who are transparent and real with him.

I told my friend that I am always trying to be very politically correct, which he already knew, and that I would like to work on being more honest and real, which he agreed was a good goal. This situation relates to principles of dialogue because while political correctness is typically born out of a desire to respect others’ identities and not offend anyone, it all too often prevents people from really speaking to their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Dialogue requires respect, but extreme political correctness has no place in dialogue. I know that I am racist and I can pinpoint some deep-seated problematic views that I hold. When speaking in a dialogue context, if I am politically correct and withhold my views and my feelings surrounding them, I do not give myself a chance to debunk the stereotypes and discrimination that allow these views to persist.

Another thing my friend and I talked about was one of my friends whose pronouns are “they/them/theirs.” My friend was trying to figure out what gender this person was assigned at birth and asked me honestly and non-confrontationally about the importance of using people’s correct pronouns. I responded in a sort of lecture-y tone that calling someone by incorrect pronouns is disrespectful, just like calling someone a name that they do not want to be called. My friend responded that because I was talking to him, he did not get upset or defensive, but that I probably shouldn’t speak in such a tone to other people who have had experiences being called things they do not want to be called. He said that he is called many things he does not want to be called, one example being “thug.” He also said, after clarifying that it is not a competition, that he takes bullets for his identity. I took a step back and realized that I had sort of preached that it is bad to disrespect someone’s identity to a person who holds an identity that is also disrespected and can result in physical danger (I want to note that being trans also puts people at an elevated risk for physical harm).

This interaction is unfortunately indicative of the way that I approach people who have values and beliefs that differ from my own (I mean this in terms of social justice issues). Even in this interaction with a friend who asked an honest question non-confrontationally I got slightly aggravated and responded in a lecture-y, perhaps even condescending tone. When I am talking to people who openly express racist/sexist/classist/heterosexist/etc. my anger and subsequent response are exacerbated. This is something that I have been trying to work on for quite some time now. Whenever I am talking with others who hold problematic views, I have a goal in my mind (even if it is unconscious) of changing the other person’s mind and getting them to see that they are wrong. I listen to others to find flaws in their logic and make counterarguments, indicative of debate as described in the Facilitation Resource Guide. Something that just rang true for me in writing this is the assertion in Speech as Nonviolent Action that aggression is typically caused by fear. I am not totally sure what I am afraid of, but after reflecting on what I just wrote, I definitely noticed that I felt fear. This is something I will have to take the time to explore more in-depth outside of this blog.

I would like to end this blog with a quote that spoke to me from Speech as Nonviolent Action. To me, the quote makes sense and succinctly describes what I want to work toward in my communication with others and why.

“By assuming that the people we are speaking with are decent human beings who will surely want to relieve the pain we suffer from unjust discrimination once they understand it, we leave room for them to join us with their dignity intact.”

Week 8: Internalized Oppression & My Reflection

As I watched the video by Dr. Manu Meyer and read Mullaly this week, I realized that this post was going to be a very reflective one. The question Mike posed to us, “How have you learned what you have learned?” took on a whole new meaning when I read about socialization of internalized oppression in Mullaly. The question is not about what I have learned in school…well, at least not the course content (except maybe how American history is taught, which is another whole can of worms). To me, this question is asking me how I have come to believe the things I believe and see the world in the way that I do, and actually, a lot of this did happen in school.

I did not struggle with the academic part of school as a child. In fact, I was what some would call a “goody two-shoes” (maybe that’s my own internalized oppression speaking). I prided myself on getting my assignments done on time, getting good grades and knowing the answer. Later, in college, I would realize that for most of the choices we face in life there is no such thing as the answer, but rather there is an answer (shout out to my field professor, Stacy Peterson, who says this in almost every class). Looking back, I realize that I kind of looked down on the kids who didn’t get their homework done or didn’t understand the material. I wasn’t outwardly rude to my classmates, but I think that in my mind I felt a bit superior to some of them – and right there, as an elementary school kid, I had already developed some internalized domination. I was doing the “right” things as a student and succeeding; I was “good.” Where did I learn that I was good? Well, from my teachers and other school staff, of course. The teachers would get on the “bad” students about doing better, and they would unconsciously (I think) bring forth the “good” students as examples, praising us for being “right.”

The concept of “false consciousness” from the reading really resonated with me. I think that I developed this in school, as well. I knew I was Native American ever since I was little, but I don’t remember ever checking the “American Indian/Alaska Native” box for my race on standardized tests until upper elementary school. Even then, I kind of felt like I was lying. I did not see too many other Native kids in my school succeeding like I was. Some did very well, but they weren’t the ones I was friends with, or if they were, our Native identities were not what brought us together or connected us. In school, I wasn’t a Native American. I mean, of course I was, but I didn’t see too many teachers or staff that were Native, and the teachers I did have just didn’t know too much about the local Ojibwa culture, so it wasn’t something that was a big part of my education. I really looked up to and respected my teachers, and I was socialized into a false consciousness about my identity as a student being incongruous with my identity as a Native person.

I think that my Western education has impacted the way I learn pretty negatively. Ever since 11th grade, I have struggled with school. I do a lot of work that I think I should be doing in order to learn something that someone else tells me is important. This was easier to do during my last two years of high school because I was in a small school and all of my teachers knew me, so I had accountability. Once I went to college, I started to question a little bit why I was learning what was being taught in my classes. This mostly looked like a lack of motivation to do my work as opposed to critically thinking about knowledge and utilizing my assignments to learn about what I wanted to know. Being in a “traditional” classroom setting all my life taught me that there was a certain way to learn, so I came to see that way of learning as most valuable, and thus saw other ways of learning as less valid. I am actually struggling with my feelings about our MSW program, and part of this is probably due to my expectations of how I should be learning and what I should be learning.

The video by Dr. Manu Meyer was more engaging that I had thought. At first, I saw what looked like a person getting ready to lecture behind a podium. While she was behind a podium, I didn’t feel like I was getting a lecture. Parts of the video felt like I was getting what people in my tribe would call a “teaching” about culture. Other parts were a little more lecture-like, but the information being presented, for example, the idea of place-based knowledge, was disrupting the very medium of presentation. My favorite thing she talked about what the importance of relationships in learning and sharing knowledge. I often feel like I should be able to learn what I need to know in whatever way it is presented and expected of me, however, especially in social work, I am learning more and more that knowing myself and how I am approaching different topics and being able to engage with others who I have a relationship with during my learning process is a more effective way for me to truly take in many different forms of knowledge.

I will end with one phrase that stuck out to me in Mullaly Chapter 6 was a quote from Bulhan (1985, 123), “The oppressed learn to wear many masks for many different occasions; they develop skills to detect moods and wishes of those in authority, and learn to present acceptable public behaviors while repressing many congruent personal feelings.” This idea has been something that I have been grappling with in my own life. Because I have the privilege of passing as a white, heterosexual person, I am able to decide whether I want to disclose my ethnicity or sexual in every new situation. This is often a difficult decision that I wish I didn’t have to make. On one hand, I want to be true to who I am, but on the other hand, I am constantly unsure of how people will perceive me if I share my identities with them. Even in my field placement, which is very supportive of queer-identifying individuals, I questioned whether I should be engaged (to my fiancee, Jessica, who is also a woman) during time at field. Thankfully, I was able to talk through this with my field instructor and am feeling a lot more confident about being who I am at field.

Final Project Proposal

eagle http-::ndtreatment.com:
Photo Credit: Shelafoe Designs – ©KBIC – http://ndtreatment.com/

I am planning to do a photovoice final project. The topic I want to focus on is Native Americans in the 21st Century. Specifically, I would like to know how Native people identify with their cultures and with mainstream society and how they navigate these different experiences. I will likely enlist Native people from younger generations to participate in this project, but would be open to including older Native people as well. I am not sure if I should focus on a particular age range or not. Any suggestions?

I will ask participants to take photos that relate to their Native identity, their experiences in mainstream culture, and how these different parts of their lives work together, cause conflict, or both. I will also encourage participants to share photos relating to Native identity that they have strong feelings about (for example, portrayals of Native Americans in popular media). One theoretical framework I think will be helpful in understanding my issue is critical race theory. I actually do not know much about this theory at all, so this project will be a catalyst for me to learn more about it. Does anyone have any ideas of other theoretical frameworks that might be helpful for me to utilize?

Looking at the identities and experiences of Native Americans in the 21st Century is a social justice issue for reasons including, but not limited to, the invisibility of contemporary Natives in mainstream society and the resulting stereotypes that come into play due to false and outdated depictions of Native American lifestyles, the disproportionate mental health problems of Native youth compared with the rest of society, the lack of resources faced by many tribes and individuals, and the federal government’s disregard for Native sovereignty and tribal ownership of land. This topic is important to me because of my own identity as a Native American and the internal conflict I have struggled with regarding my identity, my perceived lack of a strong connection with my culture, my participation in mainstream culture, and my appearance, especially the color of my skin. I believe that social work as a whole can begin to address issues that Native people face by gaining an understanding of contemporary Native people and the struggles that they face, repudiating stereotypes of Native people through seeking adequate education on Native history and contemporary Native identities, and learning about and respecting the rights of Native Sovereign Nations. This photovoice project will assist in these beginning stages of social work addressing Native American issues.

Oppression & Social Justice – My (Current) Theory

I don’t think there is a single, concise way to define oppression that is the be-all, end-all, “correct” definition. I concur with Bob Mullaly (2010) and Marilyn Frye (1983) that there are certain things that oppression is not – that is, there is a wrong way to define oppression. Oppression always involves a power imbalance – there is one identity, worldview, culture, language, and lifestyle* that is seen as “normal” and elevated above all others, and fitting into this constellation provides one with privilege and power. (*For the purposes of this blog, I will refer to this list collectively as “culture” or “cultural norms.”) Oppression occurs when people who do not fit the dominant cultural norms are silenced, made invisible, and excluded from participation and representation in society. I appreciated Mullaly’s inclusion of Iris Young’s (1990) set of five forms of oppression, and the type of oppression just described would fit Young’s “marginalization” category. Oppression also occurs when people who do not fit dominant cultural norms face barriers to achievement and success that people who fit these norms don’t face. This would probably fit in with Young’s “powerlessness” category. Negatively stereotyping groups of non-dominant culture, capitalizing on the disadvantages of  these groups (Young’s “exploitation”), and devaluing or punishing non-dominant cultural practices are some other ways that oppression is carried out.

To explain why oppression is a social justice issue, I have to explain my conception social justice. I would define social justice as the eradication of systems of privilege and oppression and the respect and honor of different cultures, individuals, and communities and the unique gifts and perspectives they possess. I do not think that social justice is about equal opportunity, nor do I think it is about equal ability or even equality in the things that people actually do – I would say it transcends all of this. Social justice is about acknowledging that there are many worldviews and lifestyles that are equally valid, and about not believing or acting as if one is dominant or superior to others, on an individual, communal, and societal level. I emphasized acting because social justice isn’t just about “liberating one’s mind,” but also, and probably more importantly, about doing something to dismantle systems of privilege and oppression. Oppression is a social justice issue because the existence of oppression represents social injustice.

Now that I’ve conceptualized my theory on oppression and how it relates to social justice, I’d like to discuss “The Fabric of Our Identity” interview with Imani Perry. Working to end oppression within our current societal structure is an ongoing, never-ending process due to the fact that our social and institutional systems operate to produce and reproduce oppression – this is the only way to keep these systems in place. I think that Dr. Perry illuminated this idea well in her interview, especially in her discussion of what happened after Brown v. Board of Education. While this ruling was seen as a victory, Dr. Perry explained how it was also a loss for the Black community in that Black professionals lost their positions in schools because even thought the students were now “able” to be integrated, the faculties did not have to be (and weren’t). This goes to show that even when we make progress within the current system, there is still much more to be done, and the new progress sometimes comes at the expense of progress in other areas. I particularly appreciated when Dr. Perry spoke about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a nation in which people would be judged by the “content of their character.” This makes a lot of sense, and I think this is something many of us would want, but within our current social system it seems unachievable, evidenced by Dr. Perry’s explanation of how judgments of others’ characters become clouded by things like “the impugning of Black character.”

Something Dr. Perry discussed that I had not thought too much about before was the politics of language. Take this quote from when she was talking about the South Bronx: “To talk about spaces in a diminishing way actually means that you devalue the people there, and it becomes very easy to treat them and their neighborhoods as fungible.” With this quote and the surrounding conversation, Dr. Perry reveals that what we value informs how we talk about places and spaces, and if “rich, vibrant, and cultural” aren’t valued characteristics of spaces, the dialogue surrounding these spaces will probably be focused on the negatives and/or on the value of the land irrespective of the communities living there, and the space and the people in it will lose their value. This point hits close to home for me, because since European invasion of North America, space and place being valued in terms of monetary worth has supplanted my Native ancestors’ values of respecting and co-existing with the earth. To cite a reading from last week, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012) explained how decolonization for Native Americans and other indigenous populations requires a change in, or perhaps complete annihilation of, our current societal structure. The change that Tuck and Yang call for does not make sense operating within our current system, just as “achieving” social justice for oppressed groups of people will never be fully realized in this system.

I often find myself at a loss when I think about how to fight for social justice with various groups of people. To be transparent, I have become pretty closed-off to the state of our nation and of the world in the past year or so, being mostly preoccupied with school and my own problems. This is something I am trying to work on reversing this semester. I think that a change in worldview is necessary to facilitate social change, especially in the area of race and ethnicity. I guess I could say, though I hesitate to use this word, a “decolonization” of our perspectives and lifestyles is in order. I am not totally sure how to get there, but I have become rather attached to the principle of “ahimsa” we discussed in class. This is something that I need a lot of practice in, and is a principle that I would like to incorporate more fully into my own life. I will leave you all with this question, or call for guidance: When reading through the comments on Imani Perry’s interview, I came across an adversarial comment to the concept of racial inequity, and it included the sentiment, “[A]t this late stage, everything [Perry] says about negative impressions of blacks is equally true of all the poor white people in this nation who are never even addressed, as if they do not exist.” This comment inspired rage within me, but rage isn’t going to help me or anyone else, in fact, it will probably do more harm than anything. How do I approach this comment, or people who hold beliefs like this, with ahimsa?