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Native Actors Walk Off Set of “Ridiculous Six”

“The movie has ‘ridiculous’ in the title for a reason — because it’s ridiculous. It is a broad satire of Western movies and the stereotypes they popularized, featuring a diverse cast that is not only part of — but in on — the joke.”        (Netflix response to Native actors walking off the set of Ridiculous Six)

Netflix makes a good argument, absolving themselves of any possible wrongdoing related to the film Ridiculous Six. In their view, it isn’t plausible for someone to find a film offensive when they are in on the joke. But, when ethnic actors feel like the joke is “on them” – as opposed to being “in on” it, some serious implications arise.

Actors Saginaw Grant, Loren Anthony on "Ridiculous Six" set. Source:

Actors Saginaw Grant, Loren Anthony on “Ridiculous Six” set. Source:

It seems Netflix has missed the point of what made about a dozen Native actors walk off set, along with the film’s cultural advisor for the Netflix production. The Ridiculous Six team is suggesting it knows what a “Native American” is, what the stereotypes are, and how to parody them.

Do they? Or do they merely reflect mainstream culture’s definition and perception of Native America?

What led the Native American actors to leave the set were things like female characters named Beaver Breath, Smoking Fox and Never-Wears-Bra, as well as a scene in which a female character urinates while smoking a “peace pipe,” not to mention actors of various ethnicities (including Native Americans) having darkening makeup applied to appear more Native.

Perhaps of greater concern is how mainstream audiences will respond to the supposed satire in Ridiculous Six. Considering how the film may reinforce stereotypes through its attempt at parody, I’m left wondering whether its audiences will be in on the joke.

The film Ridiculous Six starring Adam Sandler has been pitched as a parody of the Western film The Magnificent Seven and the Western genre as a whole. A well-done satire of the genre and the stereotypes it perpetuates would be a good thing as Western films have been anything but authentic in representing Native Americans. (See my earlier blog topic: Not a Reel Injun.)

Native Actors Walk Off SetInstead, Ridiculous Six is most likely going to give audiences more of the same. Despite whatever role the Native American cultural advisor played in the film’s development, Ridiculous Six is still a product from outside the Native American community – the authority and power in representing Native Americans remaining with Netflix, Sandler, and other key players. The film has the potential to fuel a continuing ignorance about Native Americans in Hollywood and throughout America.

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Honoring Native Youth: Preventing Youth Suicide

It seems like it happens in an instance. One moment they are there and the next they are gone. The signs are there, but often no one sees it coming. What we do see is the emptiness left behind… manifested not only in the physical sense like an empty classroom desk, but in the hearts, minds, and spirits of those who mourn their loss… their absence a constant reminder of what once was and what will never be again.Honoring Native Youth - PineRidge_Suicide6

The recent rise of youth suicides on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has left a staggering emptiness and communities on the South Dakota reservation are organizing to prevent this misfortune from spreading.

Youth suicide is not new for the Oglala Lakota on Pine Ridge. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2012 reported that suicide is the second leading cause of death among American Indians/Alaskan Natives aged 15 to 34 years. The CDC also found that the rate of suicide among American Indians/Alaskan Natives in that group is 2.5 times higher than the national average.

Yet, something uncanny is happening on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In the months since December, 2014, nine youths between the ages of 12 and 24 have taken their own lives while at least another 103 suicide attempts have been made.

In response to this recent outbreak, the Oglala Sioux Tribe has declared a reservation-wide state of emergency. The Indian Health Service has dispatched additional mental health professionals to assist its six full-time counselors that regularly service the reservation.

Throughout American Indian communities, it is commonly understood that the issue of youth suicide goes beyond any family disorder and is deeply rooted in the history of colonization and oppression felt by many American Indian communities. The loss of culture and resulting realities (e.g., poverty, geographic isolation, substandard housing, and social prejudice) all contribute to other social conditions such as alcoholism, drug abuse, mental/sexual abuse. All of this paired with a general lack of access to basic resources has created a pervasive hopelessness in some reservation communities.

On top of this, the current generation of young American Indians is experiencing a host of new pressures in their daily lives. Cyberbullying has created an environment where a young person who is bullied at school can now be exposed to cyberbullying anywhere at any time. Compounded with hardships at home, some young people may have no safe place in their lives. Sometimes suicide is seen as the only reprieve. (To learn more about cyberbulling, visit

There is some good news in that groups of young people across Pine Ridge are organizing to find ways to support suicide prevention on the reservation. Young people understand they must have a voice in addressing an issue that affects them directly – even while tribal governments and programs look to address the issue. A three-day summit held at the Oglala Lakota College Piya Wiconi campus in early March brought together youth, tribal officials and programs to start a dialogue on suicide prevention. Collaborative efforts like these will be necessary to bridge youth and adults while working together to decrease the loss of youth to suicide on the reservation.

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What About Food Sovereignty?

In last week’s blog, Murray Lee talked about food insecurity and food deserts and promised more to come on food sovereignty. So, let’s start by clarifying what food sovereignty is and why it’s important. Food sovereignty is about the right of a people to determine their own policies relative to food and agriculture–rather than having their food supply subject to market forces. The U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance states:

“Food sovereignty goes well beyond ensuring that people have enough food to meet their physical needs. It asserts that people must reclaim their power in the food system by rebuilding the relationships between people and the land, and between food providers and those who eat. First framed by the international peasant movement La Via Campesina at the World Food Summit in 1996, food sovereignty is rooted in the ongoing global struggles over control of food, land, water, and livelihoods.”

The indigenous people of this country certainly understand losing their relationship to the land and to their food source, having experienced both through the forced relocation of tribes onto reservations and the hunting of buffalo to near extinction by westward settlers. Many of the reservation trust lands designated for Native American tribes are barren—inadequate for farming. Many reservation communities in NRC’s service area have contaminated water from mining run-off, dumping and natural pollutants—or lack access to local water sources sufficient for crop irrigation. Many communities, too, are an hour or more away from the nearest supermarket–not easy when the community is also short on jobs and transportation. The implications are made clear by this food desert infographic showing affected tribes and why food sovereignty is a must for these sovereign nations.

What is Food Sovereignty - Gardening - AIRC-Grow-PR-John Yellow Hawk-Weeding-2012Food sovereignty is sort of a “bottom up” approach that focuses on what works for people and communities and it involves food providers in the equation of looking at solutions. Growing and processing one’s own food is a big part of it… involving farmers, families, fishers, ranchers, migrants and indigenous people. Harvesting what is naturally occurring and compatible with one’s own environment is also a big part of the food sovereignty equation.

National Relief Charities is doing its part to address the challenge of food sovereignty on Native lands by supporting community investment projects on the reservations. In one long-term approach toward food sovereignty, NRC is tilling gardens, training gardeners, and supporting farmer’s markets, greenhouses and canning classes, in collaboration with reservation partners and their local volunteers. One garden enthusiast, John Yellow Hawk, has gone from “gardener to grower” and tribal members now purchase his produce at local and mobile farmers markets across the Pine Ridge Reservation. (Coming soon, you can read more about John and his role in one Pine Ridge garden in our 2014 annual report.)

By definition, it is important that food sovereignty initiatives be community-led… by the people for the people. One such project involved NRC developing a head start curriculum focused on shaping healthy eating and exercise habits in early childhood—delivered by Crow Creek Head Start program and changing their children and parents’ relationship with food and food sources. This summer, NRC will begin operating a mobile food truck, following our fresh produce distributions across the Northern Plains reservations to conducting healthy cooking demos with fresh vegetables. For tribes in this region, gardening is on the rise, along with farmer’s markets and a return to the traditional foods of their ancestors such as local fish, venison and berries.

Food sovereignty initiatives empower tribal members living on the reservations to grow their own healthy, fresh produce; ease low food insecurity; and realize the additional benefits of healthy eating in the prevention of heart disease and type II diabetes. To learn more about the 7 principles of food sovereignty, watch this video by the National Family Farm Coalition.

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Combined Federal Campaign: CFC Charity Code # 95225

Workplace giving is a significant factor in support of NRC’s work. Over four consecutive years we have been approved as a national Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) charity, from 2011 to 2014. Currently listed under our program name, American Indian Relief Council, our CFC number is CFC charity code # 95225.

The CFC, known as “the world’s largest and most successful annual workplace charity campaign,” is the federal government’s answer to workplace giving and support for philanthropy. Annually, the CFC runs more than 200 organized campaigns to reach thousands of federal workers and raise millions of dollars for nonprofits. The total CFC effort helps postal, military, and Federal civilian workers, nationally and globally, to pledge payroll deductions for nonprofits providing health and human services.

Only some charities can participate in the CFC. Only after completing a rigorous application and review process that culminates in approval and selection by the Office of Personnel Management in Washington, DC is a charity deemed eligible and listed in the annual CFC giving catalog. As a national charity, NRC has to provide detailed documentation on the types of services delivered in at least 15 states, as well as the volume and value of those services and the beneficiaries in each state. This is in addition to meeting all the CFC’s financial and administrative requirements.

We are confident that NRC will also be included in the 2015 CFC and that this important workplace campaign will continue to help us raise more awareness about the American Indian population we serve and the work we do on remote reservations to help end the cycle of poverty. To request a CFC Charity List and/or a CFC pledge form, federal employees should contact their local CFC office. CFC pledge drives typically occur from September to mid-December each year.

In addition to the CFC, our AIEF program is recognized as a Women, Children, and Family Services federation charity participating in state giving campaigns for Washington and Utah. We have also received employers’ matching gifts when their employees have made independent contributions. If your organization is interested in learning more about workplace giving, please call 800-416-8102.

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What About Food Insecurity

Some of you may have heard about or read about “food deserts” and “food insecurity” but are not quite sure what these terms mean or encompass. Yet, they are something that affect many families in America, including many Native American families on and off the reservations on a daily basis.

Food deserts are:

“…urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.” to the USDA, a rural food desert is a community wherein a third of its population is 10 miles or more from a large grocery store. Much work is being done to help improve access to healthy, affordable foods in food deserts and to decrease food insecurity.

Food insecurity “is a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food, according to the USDA, and can lead to a condition called hunger, distinguished as “an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.” Hunger often manifests itself in sickness, pain and physiological discomfort.

Food insecurity is definitely a challenge affecting 23% of Native Americans living on remote reservations at a much higher rate than any other group in the United States. This might be a little known fact since people often expect and thus look to developing countries to be the hardest hit by food insecurity and hunger.

As I mentioned in another blog on social equity, I know first-hand the issue of food insecurity and hunger, and it is important to me that people realize these aren’t only issues in developing countries… they exist here in our own country.

The food insecurity on the reservations is, in part, due to well over 100 years of federal policy that have left many tribes with limited access to arable land, extreme poverty and all the social conditions that accompany such poverty. This perfect storm has also contributed to what we know as “food deserts” on many Indian reservations.

In 2013, National Relief Charities (NRC) alone delivered $6.4 million worth of food and water to reservations across the Northern Plains and Southwest regions of the U.S. In 2014, NRC provided food and meals for more than 145,000 Native American Elders, families and children. Among them were homebound Elders on the reservations. Last year when we rode along on some home deliveries with June, a partner from the Cameron Senior Center, it was clear the Elders were grateful for the food as well as the company and that NRC’s food provisions helped improve the quality of available food and provide some immediate relief from food insecurity.

So, although poverty and economic stress coupled with limited access to nutrient-dense foods can cause perilous conditions, industrious steps are being made by community leaders on the reservations and by generous outside organizations and individuals with the desire to help.

Next week we will talk more about “food sovereignty” and addressing sustainable solutions to food sovereignty on Native lands.

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DNA Testing for Native Ancestry

Native American ancestry

Native American ancestry

Does DNA testing prove Native American ancestry? Well, this is a tricky subject. Modern DNA tests provide information that can be valuable to people who are seeking information about their biological connections and origins… people who may wonder about Native heritage out of curiosity or due to stories handed down through their family.

DNA testing, however, is not an exact science. As with any type of testing, the possibility exists for false positive and false negative results. So, a Native American person might get a test result that they are not Native and someone who is not Native may get results that they are Native. Similarly, genetic markers may identify someone as East Asian versus Native American because these markers are not that precise. Additionally, databases that store genetic information from certain groups such as Native Americans are often inadequate or incomplete; a person is sometimes identified as “other” rather than Native American, which can affect DNA matching.

Genetic markers cannot perfectly predict whether someone is Native and they certainly cannot test or predict a specific tribe. On the question of determining tribal affiliation using DNA testing, Roberta Estes on her DNAeXplained blog states:

“Generally, DNA testing does not provide us with the information needed to determine a tribe, although it can clearly tell, using y-line or mitochondrial DNA testing, whether your direct paternal or maternal line was or was not Native. Sometimes you will be able to infer a tribe based on your matches and their documented history, but the definition of tribes, their names and locations have changed over time. We are working on improving this ability, but the science simply isn’t there yet and the number of Native people who have tested remains small.”

At best, genetic coding information can only offer an idea of ancestry with some percentage of inaccuracy, so interpret DNA testing for Native American ancestry with caution and certainly only consider it one piece of the puzzle.

blood quantum - heartbeatNot all tribes accept DNA testing for tribal membership status, and many tribes have a blood quantum (percent of Native blood) requirement. Among tribes that consider DNA testing for tribal enrollment, other potential obstacles exist, as noted on the National Congress of American Indians website:

“Recent advances in DNA testing have brought with them possibilities for using DNA testing as criteria for tribal enrollment. Many people have found the prospect that these DNA tests can provide a concrete yes or no answer about biological relationships (parentage and descent) to be an attractive and positive aspect of using these tests. However, using DNA testing may limit the understanding of tribal identity to only a biological understanding if it is not supplemented with other tools or methods of determining tribal identity (or enrollment eligibility). Further, there are concerns that DNA testing within families and communities could reveal information about parents and lineage that contradicts other claims or family stories. More specifically, each kind of testing offers particular positive aspects and some challenges above and beyond these basics.”

This statement explores an even larger question:  What is an Indian? Well, for one thing, it means there are many aspects to being a member of a tribe beyond mere genetic makeup. Traditions, family connections, and culture all play a very deep and important role for Native Americans… none of this can be defined or discovered through genetic testing but rather must be lived.

I hope you can see that modern DNA testing can sometimes provide an answer to the question, “am I Native American?” However, it leaves many necessary and related questions unanswered and can even raise conflicts due to test results. Tricky to say the least.

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Tracing Native Ancestry

How do I trace my Native American ancestry? 
How do I become an enrolled member of a Native American tribe?

Tracing Native Ancestry Twitter photoBoth commonly heard questions at National Relief Charities, the simple answer to each is “it depends.”

To be fair, tracing Native American ancestry is just as difficult as tracing any ancestry.  A great deal of information must be gathered before one can even begin the process of identifying your tribal origins. For example:

  • One step is sifting through family stories and then getting official documentation and records of lineage to identify your ancestors.
  • Another step is completing the long process of genealogical research with accurate, verifiable results and documentation before you should even consider contacting the administrative office of the tribe to which you think you might belong.

In other words, before starting the tribal enrollment process, you must be able to prove through documentation that you are lineally descended from an enrolled member of a tribe. Even then, enrollment is not guaranteed as different tribes have different requirements for becoming an enrolled member. Regarding this matter, the Department of the Interior cites:

“Tribal enrollment criteria are set forth in tribal constitutions, articles of incorporation or ordinances. The criterion varies from tribe to tribe, so uniform membership requirements do not exist.”

It is important to realize this and not expect to call the tribal office and receive your tribal enrollment card two weeks later in the mail.  Enrollment is a very long process and there is truly no uniform way of becoming a tribally enrolled member.

So, my best answer to both of these questions is to be patient and to begin with an open-mind rather than expectations. Take time to learn about your family history and from whom you descend and be prepared to gather a lot of research and take as long as it takes to address the issues and meet the criteria of the tribe.

The U.S. Department of the Interior website offers invaluable advice and ways to facilitate your journey of tracing your  Native American ancestry. It also includes a Tribal Directory with contact information for all federally recognized tribes in the United States. If you have helpful experience with tracing Native ancestry or enrolling in a tribe, we welcome your comments here.

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Four Directions Leadership Development

As many of you know, NRC approaches quality of life for Native Americans in a couple of ways:  providing immediate relief and supporting long-term solutions in collaboration with our reservation partners.  Plus, we have long said that education is a key to the long-term challenges facing Native American tribes.President Obama - A New Day - MedicineWheelCMYK

True to cause, our newest service – Four Directions Leadership Development (4D) – takes a long-term view of capacity building, mentoring and training grassroots leaders who want to make a greater contribution to their communities.

Four Directions Leadership Development is unlike any training offered in Indian country. Our 4D participants commit to completing a six-month program, during which they identify personal and professional development goals and work with mentors to attain them.

Our first 4D cohort wrapped up in March. Although we will be tracking and reporting the progress of our partner-participants for up to three years, we are excited about the preliminary results of their personalized training:

9 reservation partners participated in the first cohort of 4D training
100% completed the cohort and reported learning new skills
91% of partners were more equipped and demonstrating new skills by mid-cohort
100% of partners are actively networking with their training cohort & mentor

4D Leadership Development - quotes sized

Among the partners’ self-identified goals were public speaking, networking for resource development, grant writing, financial education and teambuilding, as well as self-care such as personal support systems and healthy eating choices during peak periods of work and other requirements.

NRC has been testing and revamping our training service with reservation partners since 2012. Our unique 4D training service is a direct result of feedback from our reservation partners about what will help them be more effective.

NRC’s second cohort of Four Directions leadership training is underway. NRC’s other Long-Term Solutions include Community Investment Projects and Higher Education services.

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Native American Businesses

When you look at self-sufficiency among tribes, there are many things to consider… many variables that must act together to create a path toward economic and financial independence. And, when you consider that Native-owned businesses “represent the smallest number of minority owned small businesses when compared to African American, Hispanic, or Asian American businesses,” it’s easy to see why financial self-sufficiency is such a daunting undertaking.Native American Businesses - small biz

Besides the obvious topic of sovereignty when discussing businesses on reservations, there is the issue of how businesses might help tribes as their individual members work toward self-sufficiency.  Why do Native people, on reservations or off, start their own businesses? Because they want to make their lives better. They want to provide a service. They want to add economic value to the community.

However, starting a business on the reservation is difficult for many reasons. On the reservations NRC serves, the impoverishment that spans entire communities makes it difficult to build a customer base that can support a business long-term. There is a shortage of college graduates and a lack of entrepreneurial training or initiatives on the reservations that would help Native Americans with little or no experience in the many facets of running a business. Accessing business start-up funding is also difficult, especially when the business would be located on federal trust lands.

Yet, for a group that makes up 1.01% of the total population in the United States, the 300,000 Native-owned businesses are growing, albeit in small increments. For example:

“Although the total number of Native American small businesses continues to increase, those with employees decreased 3.2 percent during the 2002-2007 period (0.9 percent of all U.S. businesses). In 2007, Native American businesses numbered 236,967 for an increase of 17.7 percent during the five-year time period of 2002-2007. These American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned firms accounted for 0.9 percent of all non-farm businesses in the United States, employed 184,416 persons (0.2 percent of total employment) and generated $34.4 billion in receipts (0.1 percent of all receipts).”

Native American Businesses - jobs,jpgThe U.S. Census reports the following scenarios for Native American businesses. Thinking these through, $34.4B in revenue sounds like a lot, but it averages out to $114,667 per business. Further, only eight percent of Native businesses actually create jobs and less than 1/2000 of one percent employ 100 people or more. These businesses do, however, represent a significant amount of self-employment.

$34.4 billion
Receipts for American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned businesses in 2007, a 28.0 percent increase from 2002. These businesses numbered 236,967, up 17.7 percent from 2002.

Number of American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned firms in California in 2007, which led the states. Oklahoma and Texas followed. Among the firms in California, 17,634 were in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana metro area, which led all metro areas nationwide.

Number of American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned firms that had paid employees in 2007. These businesses employed 184,416 people.

Percent of American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned firms that operated in construction; and repair, maintenance, personal and laundry services in 2007.

Percent of American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned business receipts accounted for by construction, retail trade and wholesale trade in 2007.

Number of American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned firms with receipts of $1 million or more in 2007.

Number of American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned firms with 100 or more employees in 2007.
Source for data in this section: Survey of Business Owners-American Indian and Alaska Native Owned Firms: 2007.

The growing self-employment and incremental growth is a good thing for Native Americans across the country. They are seeing the potential for positive change in their own lives, in their communities, and in the world around them as they create self-sustaining opportunities for financial independence.

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Two Worlds: Native Culture Preservation

“I think a lot of people think about indigenous cultures as ancient or backward. But what I’ve found is that Iñupiaq culture — think about how innovative that culture was to be able to survive to now.”
Sean Vesce, E-Line Media

Indigenous innovation is a declaration of survival written by the creative utilization of existing resources in new and sustainable ways. While the mainstream tends to express indigenous innovations as “artifacts” on display in museums around the world, innovation by indigenous peoples did not end when European contact started.

Every day in communities urban and remote, indigenous peoples are innovating and adapting… creating, preserving, sharing, and surviving. Indigenous peoples continue enriching their own communities as well as the world around them.

Two Worlds - Native Culture Meets TechLast week in our Native Language Meets Technology topic, we explored how Native Americans are using technology to preserve Native American languages. Another convergence of indigenous innovation and technology, the newly released video game “Never Alone” (Kisima Ingitchuna) offers a Native Alaskan cultural adventure spoken in the Iñupiaq language.

This video game was developed by a Cook Inlet Tribal Council enterprise (Upper One Games) in partnership with E-Line Media and members of Alaska’s Iñupiaq communities. Using a process known as “inclusive development,” Iñupiaq elders, storytellers, artists and youth worked directly with Western game developers to create the video game experience. It is refreshing that “Never Alone” is free of the racism, appropriation and misrepresentation often found in many mainstream films and games about indigenous cultures. Instead, E-Line Media and the Iñupiaq contributors influenced each other throughout the game’s development, authentically representing Iñupiaq art, music, language, culture, tools, and environment in the game.

"Never Alone" video game screen shot

“Never Alone” video game screen shot

Interestingly, the central tale of “Never Alone” was adapted to fashion an engaging and entertaining game in much the same way an Iñupiaq storyteller would put their own spin on a common story. In the game, players join a young Iñupiaq girl, Nuna, and her arctic fox companion on a journey to find the source of the unending blizzard that is devastating Nuna’s village. The story reflects traditional Iñupiaq themes like humanity’s relationship, connection and reliance on nature for survival, as well as sacrificing for the greater good of the community.

Although based on a traditional story and narrated exclusively in Iñupiaq, the experience of “Never Alone” is delivered via engaging and entertaining play that bridges the gap between Elders and youth. For Upper One Games, Never Alone is about preserving Iñupiaq culture for future generations while sharing the culture with the rest of the world. Subtitled in ten languages, the game connects the Iñupiaq and mainstream as well.


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