Authors: Deborah Ellis
The Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest possess a culture unique in the North American landscape. Some of the homes they carved out of the sandstone cliffs were five stories high and had hundreds of rooms. Taos Pueblo is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and also a National Historic Landmark.
Today there are nineteen pueblos in New Mexico, each with its own history, cultural practices and artistic traditions. There used to be ninety-nine. Francisco VÃ¡squez de Coronado of Spain, credited with “discovering” the Grand Canyon, came through the area on his search for the legendary Seven Cities of Gold. He massacred whole families in 1540, tying people to stakes and burning them alive. Eighty pueblos were destroyed, never to be rebuilt.
The Southwest is also known as the place where the United States government tested the atomic bomb. Much of the uranium for those bombs came from a massive open-pit uranium mine on the Laguna Pueblo, causing long-term health problems for the people. While the pit is still there, the Laguna people are working to reclaim it.
The Acoma Pueblo, where Kristin works, is also known as Sky City because of the ancient and still-inhabited city on top of the mountain. The three hundred homes there are owned by the women who, by tradition, pass them on to their youngest daughters. Visitors are welcome through the cultural center at the pueblo and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque (www.indianpueblo.org).
I've been involved with the Ancestral Lands project for three years. I was sort of forced into it to start with. I kept running away from home, having troubles with the law. I don't like to talk about the details of that. It's in the past, and I've fixed up all the things that I did wrong.
But I will say that I was sent to a lot of places by the court system. Some of the places were not too bad, and the people who ran them tried to make them fun. After all, we were kids. We were in trouble, but we were still kids.
Some of the places they put me in were really hard. They locked me up and I hated that. I was trapped.
The court referred me to this project because I had to do some community service hours. I stayed for a while, kind of testing it out, seeing what the people were like. They seemed good, but I'm not used to things going well. I ran away again in the middle of it because I was sure it would not continue to be good. It was going to turn bad somehow and I didn't want to be there when it did. Then I kind of kicked myself and thought, what if this time I was wrong? Then I decided to ask to come back and give it another try.
I see the program as an opportunity to fix the mistakes I made in the past. I finished all the court-ordered stuff last summer and decided to stay with it.
The director, Cornell, talks to us a lot about consequences. He says our actions should reflect our values, that sure we could spend our paychecks on booze and drugs, but there are consequences to doing that, and what does that tell the world about who we are if we make that choice?
Desert around Acoma Pueblo
He talks to us and we talk to each other. It helps us stay strong and on the right path.
A kid will come back from the weekend and say, “I almost got into a car with my buddies even though I knew they were going drinking and were using drugs. But I didn't. Three hours after I left them, they got busted by the cops. They're sitting in jail this morning, and I'm back at work!”
Cornell started this project because he and his wife came home from the casino at 2:30 one morning. He saw two thirteen-year-old girls running around, and in his mind he saw his own daughters. He didn't want children leading lives like that. He wanted kids to have the opportunity to become something.
Ancestral Lands is part of the Southwest Conservation Corps. It has lots of youth programs. They work with Pueblo youth, Navajo, Hopi. All Native youth. As Native Americans, we're taught to respect the earth, but modern culture makes us forget that. The corps has a hiking club for younger kids ten to thirteen. The kids get backpacks, compasses and water bottles â things they need on a hike. They go on hiking trips out on the ancestral land. They meet with archeologists, elders, national park people. Gives them an idea that there's a big world out there, bigger than watching TV or playing video games.
The preservation crew, which is what I'm on, is for older youth. We look after the natural areas. Sometimes we cut down trees that are not indigenous to our area. Someone or something has brought them in from someplace else. They drink up a lot of water, which means the local plants don't get what they need. I've spent a lot of time clearing cactus out of a canyon just south of Acoma. We clear away cactus and other invasive plants and in their place we plant natural local grasses which give the wildlife something to eat.
There's usually fourteen on a team, and we work hard! The work we do helps preserve and clean the water in the canyon. Our ancestors lived on this land. It belongs to us and we want to pass it on to the next generation in good shape.
We all wear yellow hardhats and gray T-shirts, and we start every day with exercises like push-ups to get our muscles ready for the work ahead. Every time there's a decision to be made or information to be shared, we form a circle so everyone can feel they can be seen and heard. It's also so that it's clear we're all in this together.
I love coming in to work in the morning. We laugh every day! Sometimes I don't even want to leave work to go home. We're all here to do a job, and we know that the job is important, and we take that seriously, but we can also have a lot of fun.
Traditional pueblo oven
Struggling with cactus is really hard. You have to be careful not to get hurt or hurt your teammates.
Picking up trash means more plants will grow and the soil will be healthier. Clearing out moss and things from the water means the water will flow better. It might even get clean enough one day that people can just drink right from the river, the way we used to.
We've learned how to work together to make a job go easier. And kids who have never made real friends in their lives have made good friends here. During lunch we put all the food we've brought from home in the middle of the circle. Some kids come with no food. Not because they're lazy but because there's no food in their house. If we pool what we have, then everybody eats, and there's enough for everyone.
I'm much healthier and stronger now than I was when I started, even though I thought I was tougher. There's something really special about taking a place that's ugly and making it beautiful. The first project I worked on, we fixed up a playground that was in bad shape. We painted it, repaired it, cut down weeds, picked up the trash. We made it safe for the little kids. I feel real proud even now when I see kids playing on it.
And the river I'm helping to clear â when I'm an elder I'll take all the little kids in the community out to see it and tell them all about how I helped clean it up. You really feel it's your land if you sweat a little to take care of it.
We cannot give up our rights without destroying ourselves as a people. If our rights are meaningless â¦ then we as a people are meaningless. We cannot and we will not accept this.
Harold Cardinal, Cree, from
The Unjust Society: The Tragedy of Canada's Indians
According to Columbia Journalism School's Dart Center and Amnesty International, one in three Native American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. In the general population, the rate is one in six. Most rape cases of Native women go unprosecuted. Eighty-five percent of the rapists of Native women are non-Native men, and tribal police forces have no legal ability to arrest white men.
The Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center has looked at the barriers Native Americans face in receiving health care, including contraception, leading women who get pregnant because of rape to be forced to give birth to the child of their rapist.
Programs to empower Indigenous women to keep themselves safe are growing popular. Women's self-defense courses on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana are just two examples.
But many Native American and Aboriginal women who report that they have been raped are still simply not believed.
That's what Danielle came up against.
I've lived here for about ten years. Before here, I lived in Timiskaming. But then Mom met someone she wanted to be with, and we moved here. My dad is German. I'm a non-status Native, an Algonquin from the Kipawa First Nation. I've lived in a few places, actually. I was even in foster care for a while.
I like doing the same things other young women my age do, like shopping, hanging out with friends. I work hard in school and get good grades. My best subjects are math and science.
The outside world is not so easy.
I work at a fast food place in the city. Dealing with customers is a real challenge. They'll yell at me because the taxes are too high! I don't set the taxes! I just bring them their burgers. The trick is to stay calm when people are yelling at you, so that you can feel you are in control.
I'm light-skinned. My skin is so light that my non-Native friends don't realize I'm Native. I don't come flat out and say I am. I just let them think what they want. I don't want the hassle of having to answer their questions, but it means I have to put up with anti-Native comments Ââ not from my friends, but from their friends.
My mother wants nothing to do with white people. The world made her that way. She had it hard growing up. She went to a white school in North Bay and got bullied all the time for being Native. She'd get insulted, beaten up, shoved into walls and lockers. She hated being Native because she thought that was the root of all her problems. She turned her back on her heritage, got involved with a white guy, gave up her Native status. She wanted to be white so that she would be treated better. She learned though. Wanting to be white doesn't mean that the white world will accept you as one of their own.
I can get my Native status back through my grandfather. He's passed away now. I'm wearing his cardigan. He was taken away from his family when he was very young because the Canadian government didn't think that Native parents should raise their own children.
I got into drugs and alcohol when I was fifteen. My mom was going through a rough patch then, and she started hitting me, so I started acting out. I moved out to a friend's house. My friend was staying with her aunt who was an alcoholic, so you can imagine how that went. She got kicked out of her aunt's house, so then I had no place to go. I got put into foster care. I stayed there for nine months.
I was put into a foster home with another First Nations family, a single mom and her daughter. Really good people. I wasn't used to living in a calm place where people were nice to each other and things were predictable, like meals on time. It was different. It was good, but I wasn't used to it. My foster mom made me tell her where I was going and let her know if I was going to be late. That's a normal parent thing to do, but it was strange to me.
I had to leave the foster home because I was sexually assaulted. Not in the home, but in that general neighborhood. I went to the police about it, but the cops said I looked promiscuous and I was probably just claiming rape because I regretted a bad decision. I went to the women's shelter. They believed me and let me stay there for a while, but a shelter is not a home. I couldn't stay there forever.
Children's Aid put me in a group home for a few months. The people who ran it were okay, but it was a mixed group home, guys and gals. Why would they put a sexual assault survivor in a group home with guys? There need to be more safe homes for young women.
All of that is behind me now. I don't waste a bit of time looking backward.
Being Native is an important part of who I am, even though I don't talk about it a lot. I believe in the Creator and in having respect for the earth.
I live on my own now, in a little apartment. It's good I feel safe there, and it gives me lots of quiet to do my school work. I'm now in a school where it's considered cool to study and succeed. Imagine that. I'm in the cool group!
In the future I'm hoping to be a sexual assault counselor. I'm writing a book about my experience, about what I went through and the things others did that made it worse.
I struggle not to be a downer. I don't want to think negative thoughts. The Creator has given us a wonderful world, full of beautiful things. When we have a positive outlook, we honor what the Creator has done.