November is Native American Heritage Month, a celebration of the 574 federally recognized tribes that represent our nation’s first people. Author and activist Allie Redhorse Young, a citizen of the Diné Navajo Nation, and film producer Jhane Myers of the Comanche Nation joined the MAKERS stage last month to discuss the current state of the country’s indigenous peoples.
In 2020, Young noted that Native youth in Arizona felt disenfranchised before the presidential election. “It was asking the question, ‘Why do we continue to participate in a system that was not designed for us and has never worked for us?’ Young told MAKERS. “I wanted to find something that would motivate them to get out the vote.” Young and her father created a Ride to the Polls initiative to unite her community and take people to the polls on horseback. “It was really his vision to see all of us reconnect with our relationship with the land and with the horses,” Young said. “It’s a spirit that’s very strong, that’s a symbol of our resilience and our strength and our survival.” Their efforts brought in over 60,000 indigenous votes that year. As a result, President Biden became the second Democrat in 70 years to win the state of Arizona, defeating former President Trump by just over 10,000 votes.
Young now hopes to repeat that effort for this year’s Nov. 8 midterm elections. “We are determined to reclaim our power through the vote and stand in that power,” Young told the MAKERS audience. “If we want things to change, we have to be the ones to make sure that we are represented and that we show up in those numbers.” There are currently eight Native Americans in the US House of Representatives, and for the first time in more than 230 years, Congress fully represents the country’s indigenous peoples, including Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.
Young’s activism comes from a personal space. Her younger brother committed suicide when she was only 17 years old. Her family lived in a half-white, half-Navajo neighborhood that she said created a lot of racial tension for her brother. “I was 18. And I was going through it and processing it and figuring it out — trying to figure out what happened. There are all kinds of factors that go into a decision like that,” Young said. “But ultimately, I knew he was struggling and going through an identity crisis.” She said her brother’s death inspired her to create opportunities for other Indigenous youth. “To show them that they have a huge contribution to make in this world and that they matter, that their voices matter. And I want them to see and be seen.”
The mission of inspiring future generations is also the mission behind Young’s Protect the Sacred program, which he founded in March 2020. During the pandemic, the Navajo Nation suffered the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases in the nation, and Elders of the tribe were at the greatest risk of getting sick. “We were telling our young people to stay home and protect our elders,” Young said. “They hold this sacred knowledge of our languages, our healing ways, our songs, our prayers.” Young used storytelling and community engagement to train and empower young Indigenous leaders and help preserve the rich cultures of their origins. He told MAKERS, “My goals going forward are to expand across Indian country and focus on Indigenous youth leadership development because I truly believe our Indigenous youth are powerful. They are the future.”
Another area Native Americans are pushing for more representation is the media. Jhane Myers is the producer of his newest film Predator privilege, Smooth. The film tells the story of a Comanche warrior woman and is the franchise’s first film with a majority Native cast. This summer, it was also one of the highest-rated premieres on Disney’s Hulu. “It’s really hard when you have native content because people don’t know where to put us,” Myers told MAKERS. “And I, for years, have been saying, ‘Well, put us on top!'” Young said that throughout Hollywood’s history, Native Americans have been cast in secondary parts or roles that simply didn’t portray reality. “We are the most underrepresented community in Hollywood,” Young said. “And for a long time, within that marginalized group, women were even more marginalized.” But Myers said the landscape is slowly starting to evolve. “Now you can turn on the TV and see consistency. You can watch TV shows. You can watch movies, stuff consistently with us. This means there is more content for our native youth to watch. And if we create it right and if we do it right, it will be inspiring.”