Expanding Collaborations Within and Beyond Native Nations




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Nov 29, 2018
by Anna Rawe
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Expanding Collaborations Within and Beyond Native Nations

Young Cultural Innovators from different Native Nations reflect on their heritage, inspiration, and challenges From Left to right; Adrienne Benjamin, Amber Mathern, Alayna Eagle Shield, Lindsey Mae Willie, Christy Bieber (Giizhigad)

In a letter introducing the Bush Foundation’s 2018 annual report on Native Nations Investments, Jenn Ford Reedy, the organization’s president, said, “We believe that the field of philanthropy can do better at acknowledging, celebrating and supporting Native nations and people.”

One way in which the Bush Foundation has already done so is by supporting the inclusion of young cultural innovators from Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and 23 Native Nations at this year’s Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators. This included Adrienne Benjamin, Alayna Eagle Shield, and Amber Mathern, who have become the latest members of the Upper Midwest USA YCI Hub.

With the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, Salzburg Global also welcomed Lindsey Mae Willie, a filmmaker from the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation. Christy Bieber (Giizhigad), an Anishinaabe artist and cultural worker based in Southwest Detroit also attended the Forum with support from the Kresge Foundation, as Salzburg Global seeks to connect and empower a critical mass of creative change-makers across the world.

Alayna Eagle Shield is the health education director for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and is the chair of the Native American Development Center. Eagle Shield applied for the YCI Forum after hearing about it through the Bush Foundation, whose programs she had attended before. She felt it was an “amazing opportunity.”

Eagle Shield has recently focused much of her energy on a beading business which she runs with her mother. Her daughter has also started to get involved. She said, “[It gives] her this avenue that our people have used for centuries to be able to create and have a lifeway that way…  [and we] create beautiful works of art that our people can wear in resistance, that we’re still carrying on our traditions; we’re still able to wear our jewelry in modern days and meetings.”

Adrienne Benjamin (Amikogaabawiike) is a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) in central Minnesota. Her work is centered around taking pride in her heritage and encouraging others to do the same. Benjamin recently co-created a youth leadership program called Ge-niigaanizijig - The Ones Who Will Lead – where 25 young people received leadership and language mentoring.

Benjamin herself was mentored by a local elder and greatly values all she learned about the language, stories, and practices. She was brought up with a grandfather that still spoke the Ojibwe language and was exposed to some of her traditional Anishinaabe culture, something she is very aware that others did not.

She remains concerned about how “many youth grow up being unable to dream larger dreams outside of the reservation or even within because of a lack of access to arts, higher education, and information. There are very few if any arts and culture programs available that showcase Indigenous/Native American [culture] and celebrate our heritage in ways that make our community youth feel proud.”

As a participant at the YCI Forum, Benjamin said she valued the connections she made with other indigenous participants working in the cultural, education, and health sectors. She said, “It was nice to have that familiarity in such a foreign space, and because we all deal with similar issues with sovereignty, land-based issues, government recognition, and so on; it was a great place to have deeper discussions about those issues in a world lens.”

Throughout the program, participants learned how others had experienced similar challenges in their personal and professional lives. For Eagle Shield, the idea of treating herself as a “precious resource” particularly resonated as she struggles to balance her commitments.

How to best use your time was a concern shared by Amber Mathern, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa who currently teaches at Northern State University. Outside of her teaching work she does freelance consulting, working with reservations on marketing analytics and auditing casinos. She said, “I always think ‘Oh I could be doing more… [sometimes I have to remind myself] no, [what I do] does make a difference whether it’s something small or big.”

The importance of being yourself as being a way of making change is important to Mathern. Living in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Mathern knows many there have never been to a reservation, which she suggests can lead to outdated views of what a Native American community is like.

Mathern said, “I remind myself that ‘Hey, maybe that’s why I ended up in Aberdeen, South Dakota’ around people who don’t know the culture because maybe that’s my opportunity and [the] reason for me being there is to help share that.”

It is in her work at Northern State University that Mathern feels she has the biggest impact, encouraging her students to think differently. What’s her ethos? She said, “Every single interaction - as minute as it might seem - at that moment it has an impact… and I don’t want to say in the future [my students will] make an impact; they’re making an impact right now.”

When thinking specifically about Native American youth Mathern suggests there is a need to learn both about their cultural heritage and learn how to cultivate a global mindset. She said, “A lot of times our children don’t get the chance to travel out of the state, even to travel across the United States… [I think it’s] important [that] we tell them ‘Oh you can do this; you can connect with people internationally.’”

Benjamin also praised the value of hearing from different voices.  She said, “I think that it is so valuable to understand that not everyone thinks like you, nor do they understand the world in the same context that you might, and to have the opportunity for discussion and understanding around that is truly what the world needs.”

Eagle Shield also thought participants understood each other and stood on the same level. She said, “Coming here and getting to meet people from all over the world… it wasn’t like the Oppression Olympics… So many people here at Salzburg Global are still very connected to their culture; they still speak their languages, they’re still fighting oppressive forces. There was no comparing, it was like a deep level of understanding that is just beautiful to me, and I really hope to be involved and facilitate these types of learning at home, too. There’s so much we can learn from each other even though we aren’t necessarily the same.”

The Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators V is part of a ten-year multi-year series. This year's program is supported by the Albanian-American Development Foundation, American Express, Arts Council Malta, Arts Council Korea, Asia-Europe Foundation,  Bush Foundation, Cambodian Living Arts, Canada Council for the Arts, Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy, Foundation Adelman pour l’Education, Fulbright Greece, Japan Foundation, Korea Foundation, the Llewellyn Thompson Memorial Fellowship, Robert Bosch Stiftung, The Kresge Foundation, Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, The Nippon Foundation, World Culture Open, Adena and David Testa, and the U.S. Embassy Valetta, Malta. More information on the program can be found here. More information on the series can be found here. You can follow all the discussions on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram by using the hashtag #SGSyci.