In Santa Rosa, California, Indian culture is being cultivated and shared, thanks to the business savvy of a new generation, and a project with the motto “Selling education and creating opportunity.”
Teens at the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center are taking part in Tribal Ambassadors Through Business, an initiative that teaches young people business skills through both online courses and the opportunity to open and run a museum store, showcasing and selling Native arts and crafts.
With funding from First Nations Development Institutes’ Native Youth and Culture Fund, these young adults are revitalizing their culture, learning from their elders, and shedding light on a history that has not always been recognized.
Correcting the Misperceptions
Nicole Myers-Lim, executive director of the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center, knows the value of this education. She grew up experiencing first-hand the lack of knowledge and awareness about Native Indians in California.
Coming from a tribe that was spread out across multiple counties, she was often the only Indian in a classroom. Natives like herself would have to listen as their culture was appropriated, and a new “version” of their history was taught and shared. The real story was dismissed, or teachers would look to the one Indian in the class to be an “expert” on their culture, highlighting the child’s differences and calling attention to them at a time when they just want to fit in.
California’s Native culture was further compromised due to their small population, and the sensationalizing of stories like Ishi, who was known as the “Last Wild Indian” in all of California.
This lack of awareness and appreciation for the truth about Native culture led to outcomes that have been typical throughout Indian Country – high rates of suicide, substance abuse and increased drop-out rates – according to Myers-Lim.
“Growing up in an environment where negative experiences about who you are and how things really happened is harmful. It can produce anxiety and anger,” said Myers-Lim. “Kids don’t feel like their education is relevant or meaningful.”
A New Perspective with Tribal Ambassadors
The Tribal Ambassadors Through Business program set out to reteach this history, and generate pride in Native culture through the confidence-building vehicle of business.
In the year-long program, 23 students took part in online business planning courses, and then called on their new skills to launch a microenterprise of selling Native arts. They evaluated product concepts, considering factors of expense and availability of supplies, assembly and packaging, along with demand, price points and prototyping. As they learned the business end of this microenterprise store to be opened at the California Indian Museum, they also focused on another key component: educational value and cultural relevance.
“As ambassadors, the kids have been empowered to represent themselves,” said Myers-Lim. “The program gives them the privilege to learn about their heritage and share it. It gives them pride, and they draw strength from that.”
At the heart of the overarching Tribal Youth Ambassadors program is the knowledge that people everywhere have different stereotypes of Indians. And in California, there is a lot of diversity in terms of where tribes are and what they’re doing.
“But we teach kids that the only definition of who you are is the one according to you,” said Myers-Lim. “I want them to be able to define that for themselves. They have to be exposed to a multitude of resources. They can learn the information, and learn the culture, and then they can decide.”
Developing Education, Reaching Youth
The Youth Ambassadors in Business program celebrates this strength.
“The program connects Native youth to each other,” said Myers-Lim. “They create a bond, and they’re able to support each other in different roles.”
And where once culture was frowned upon and repressed, now they have a neutral place where they can share and learn.
The museum store reaches visitors, as well as young people, introducing a culture that has been ignored and misrepresented. “Everyone comes to the table with biases. But we can start chipping away at the bias at an earlier age,” said Myers-Lim.
It’s progress that is transforming lives, and shedding light on the real story of Native Americans in California, and it’s being nationally recognized. This year, the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center was announced as the winner of the 2016 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards. The Tribal Youth Ambassadors project was selected as one of 50 finalists out of more than 350 youth education programs throughout the country by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and its cultural partners – the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
A Return to the Language
The project builds on additional efforts of the California Indian Museum, including re-engaging with elders to pass down the Pomo language, a project First Nations has also supported.
According to Myers-Lim, being open about their history and experiences was emotional for many of the elders at first. For years, they saw defamation of California Indians and many attempts to eradicate the Native culture. Speaking out as an Indian and drawing attention to themselves brought negative consequences, and elders had been reluctant to share. As a result, the language was not passed down, but was instead, protected.
Now, youth and the community have begun to realize their right to learn about their heritage and culture and have looked to the elders to keep the language alive. Through the California Indian Museum, a Tribal Ambassadors Through Language program launched, resulting in the production of Pomo language educational kiosks, an elementary education curriculum, videos and a mobile application, which has already reached over 500 downloads.
Myers-Lim said the goal of the resources is not fluency, but awareness. The project aims to put the language out there where people can access it – to spark an interest and get people wanting to learn.
“Being able to share the language and keep it going speaks to the tenacity of our people.” Myers-Lim said. “We made it through all that turmoil, and we’re still here.”
A Past that Moves Forward
Myers-Lim sees the work of the Tribal Ambassadors and the Museum Store, as well as other initiatives of the California Indian Museum, as progress in not just sharing history, but in fostering an ongoing story. “I want people to come here, recognize the culture, and celebrate it, for what it meant then, what it means now, and what it means to the future.”
Myers-Lim is grateful for First Nations in sharing in this vision. “They’ve given us the flexibility and opportunity to effect real change over time.”
She said First Nations has provided resources and funding to build on their success over time, recognizing that change doesn’t happen overnight.
“It takes perseverance and pride, and time. But we’re doing it,” said Myers-Lim. “Through education and opportunity, we’re planting the seeds and watching them grow.”
To learn more about the California Indian Museum and Culture Center and the Tribal Youth Ambassador project, visit http://cimcc.org.
By Amy Jakober