Featured in: News  |  December 17, 2019

Native Trails

Young Native Americans are honoring their traditions by carrying them into the future.

By ALLAN RICHTER

Two iconic structures in New York City offer two perspectives of the Native American story.

The first is the National Museum of the American Indian, the Manhattan annex of the Smithsonian’s Washington, DC, museum by the same name. A recent New York exhibit displayed Native scientific innovations and contributions—some familiar, others not—from which society at large is benefitting to this day.

We learned that Native people of the Arctic developed a type of sunglasses to protect their eyes from the snow’s glare. There were drawings of a primitive surfboard and snowshoes. Lacrosse, we are reminded, was invented by the Iroquois. And four of the top ten crops that feed the world today came from Native American farmers: corn, potatoes, cassava and tomatoes.

Six miles uptown a statue of Christopher Columbus stands atop a nearly 70-foot column.

In 2017, indigenous rights activists twice defaced the Columbus Circle monument and another statue of the explorer in the city, once with red paint, and another time with pink nail polish. The vandalism followed the removal of monuments of Confederate leaders in several Southern cities, spotlighting other potentially offensive monuments around the country. Native Americans today honor their past through innovations in music, graphic arts and other areas.

Back at the National Museum of the American Indian, one floor below the exhibit on Native contributions to society, Buffy Sainte-Marie—a singer-songwriter, social activist and member of the Cree First Nation—was reflecting on her life and art.

“A protest song lays out the problem,” she said. “A song of empowerment is about the solution.”

On the following pages are stories of empowerment. They tell of the impact of indigenous culture on our lives today, and of the young Native Americans who are reclaiming their narrative and building on it. If history is a barometer, the contributions they are making today may very well benefit all of us tomorrow.

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