November is Native American Heritage Month, a celebration of the 574 federally recognized tribes that represent our nation’s first people. Writer 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 people.
In 2020, Young noticed that the Native youth in Arizona felt disenfranchised prior to the presidential election. “They were asking the question, ‘Why do we continue to participate in a system that wasn't 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 get people to the polling stations via horseback. “It was really his vision to see all of us reconnecting to our relationship with the land and with horses,” said Young. “It's a spirit that's very powerful, that is a symbol of our resilience and our strength and our survival.” Their efforts brought in more than 60,000 votes from Indigenous people that year. As a result, President Biden became the second Democrat in 70 years to win the state of Arizona, beating former President Trump by just over 10,000 votes.
Young is now hoping to replicate that effort for this year’s midterm elections on Nov. 8. “We're 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're represented and that we're showing up in those numbers.” There are currently eight Indigenous Americans in the U.S. House of Representatives, and for the first time in more than 230 years, Congress has full representation of the country’s Indigenous people, including Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.
Young’s activism comes from a personal place. Her younger brother committed suicide when he was just 17 years old. Her family lived in a half-white and half-Navajo neighborhood that she said created a lot of racial tensions for her brother. “I was 18. And going through that, processing that and understanding — trying to understand what happened. There are all kinds of factors that go into that kind of a decision,” said Young. “But ultimately, I knew that 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 this world and that they're important, that their voices are important. And I want them to be seen and feel seen.”
Inspiring future generations is also the mission behind Young’s Protect the Sacred program that she founded in March 2020. During the pandemic, the Navajo Nation suffered the highest rate of COVID-19 infections per capita in the country and the tribe’s elders were at most risk for getting sick. “We were telling our youth to stay home and protect our elders,” said Young. “They hold that sacred knowledge of our languages, our medicine ways, our songs, our prayers.” Young used storytelling and community engagement to educate and empower young Native leaders and help preserve the rich cultures of their ancestry. She told MAKERS, “My goals moving forward are to expand across Indian Country and focus on Native youth leadership development because I truly believe that our native youth are powerful. They're the future.”
Another area Indigenous Americans are pushing for more representation in is the media. Jhane Myers is the producer of the newest movie in the Predator franchise, Prey. The film tells the story of a female Comanche warrior and is the first-ever franchise movie with a majority Indigenous 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 place us,” Myers told MAKERS. “And I, for years, have been saying, ‘Well, put us at the top!’” Young said that throughout Hollywood’s history, Native Americans have appeared in minor parts or roles that simply did not depict reality. “We're the most underrepresented community in Hollywood,” said Young. “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 you can see consistency. You can see television shows. You can see movies, things consistently with us. So that means that there's more content for our Native youth to watch. And if we create it right and if we do it right, it's going to be inspiring.”
To hear more of Allie Redhorse Young’s story, tune into Yahoo’s Native American Heritage Month livestream special, Honor the past. Shape the future, on November 17 at 3pm EST.