Please upgrade your browser for the best Refinery29 experience. Read more.

Saved! Access Favorites in your account profile. Removed from my favorites

"We're Not A Costume": What This Native American Woman Wants You To Know

Photographed By Nathaniel Welch/Redux.
Cherrise Reyes wants to elevate the voices of young Native American women like herself.
As the daughter of a single mother, Cherrise Reyes moved around a lot.

"In the beginning, life was tough, because she had me when she was still in college," Reyes told Refinery29. "We didn’t have that family support system. So my grandparents would fly out to come see me, but I didn’t really get to see my cousins at much."

As her mom moved across the country to pursue her degree and career, Reyes said she didn't have the opportunity to grow up around other members of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, of which she is an enrolled member (some of her relatives are also part of the Colville Indian reservation). But when the 22-year-old started college in Washington, she began to learn more about her heritage and connect more deeply with her culture.

"For me, bouncing around everywhere, powwows have been a big thing. I actually get kind of emotional when I attend them, just being around my people. It’s a spiritual thing," Reyes said. "We’re all gathered there and we dance, there is drumming and music and our foods. It’s just a good time to share our culture and be there with everyone. And everyone is welcome — it’s not just Native people, it’s non-Natives as well."

But she was also taken aback by how little some of the non-Native students at her college, Washington State University in Pullman, WA, knew about Native Americans like her. That's why she's working to call attention to the real issues Native American youth face while also combatting some of the stereotypes. Recently, Reyes, a member of the Native American Women’s Association, joined other students from across the country in attending the Democratic National Convention to make their voices heard.

Ahead, what Reyes wants to hear more of on the campaign trail and what she wants non-Native women to know.

A couple of friends of mine have received questions like, ‘Do you live in teepees?’ Even in the classroom, they think we’re extinct.

What is it like to be a young Native American woman in the U.S.? Are there any stereotypes you confront?
"Yes, there are, Native Americans, we are the minorities of the minorities. We have the lowest enrolment and graduation rates. So being on campus, even though I haven’t personally experienced the stereotypes, I do have friends who have experienced them. It’s the whole teen pregnancy issue, having kids while in college. A couple of my friends do have kids, but they are in school and they’re getting their education and providing for their children. So they’re the lucky ones. Not everyone has the opportunity to go to school and provide a better life for themselves and their children.

"There’s also the stereotype that Natives are alcoholics, drug users, and things like that. I know it’s still alive in our community, but it’s a very negative stereotype. Not every Native is like that, they’re not all drunks. We have some very brilliant people in our community, not just in my tribe, but across the United States and across Indian Country, who are trying to make things better for us."
Has someone ever said something to you that made you feel they just didn’t get it?
"A couple of friends of mine have received questions like, ‘Do you live in teepees?’ and stuff like that. They’re just uneducated. Even in the classroom, they think we’re extinct. They say, ‘Oh, you’re Native? We thought you all were dead.’ And we’re like: ‘No, we are still here, we have 567 federally recognised tribes and even more that aren’t federally recognised.’ Because our issues don’t pertain to them, they don’t pay attention, they don’t really care, so that’s the unfortunate thing.

"They don’t really get it because how could you get it if you’re not interested in the culture or our history? That’s the impression I have gotten for a lot of people. And not just about our community, but the Hispanic and Latino community, the African-American community. At my school, the multicultural community, we are very in touch with each other. We go to each other’s events and we support one another. But what we have had a hard time with is bringing non-people of colour into our communities. I mean, we have a couple. But we haven’t been able to reach out to them and get them involved with us, which is tough."
One of the issues that we’ve covered in the past has been the cultural appropriation of Native American patterns, designs, clothing, and jewellery. Is that something you want to see change?
"Yes. There have been a couple instances where that’s happened and it’s been online and in the news. The tribes are very angry about it. Each tribe has their own unique designs. For [other people] to take them without permission and use them and sell them as their own when they don't belong is an issue...I know that some of the tribes have wanted to sue because of that. And I think they have a right to.

"Oh, and don’t get me started on the headdresses! You know, that’s very — it’s an honour to receive a headdress and it’s usually only on the chiefs of the tribes, or maybe a warrior or something like that. So how can you wear a headdress when you haven’t earned it? Especially if you’re not Native, if it has nothing to do with your culture. It’s not like a fashionable headpiece or hat, something you can wear casually. Usually, they’re only worn at graduations, ceremonies, or powwows. You see the warriors wearing them when they lead all of the dancers at the beginning and at the end. If you’re not a warrior, you should not be wearing that!

"It’s the same for Halloween. On my campus, I’ve seen it multiple times. They’ll be wearing 'Poca-hottie' costumes and I’m like: 'That is so disrespectful.’ Pocahontas is a historical figure. You can’t just dress up and try to be a Native American woman. We're not a costume."
Do you think that either of the presidential candidates have really talked about Native American issues? Do you want to see that change?
"I feel like they could definitely talk about it more. I don’t think they’ve been doing enough in that area. I’m hoping in the future, if and when Hillary is elected, that she will make more of an effort just like the Obama administration has to address Native American issues all over the country. For Hillary to come to our reservations and sit down and talk with us, or have us go to the White House — either one would be fine. Just so she can really see and hear the stories of the issues we face and come up with a strategic plan to remedy them."
What are the biggest issues facing Native Americans that you want to see the next president tackle?
"I have a top three. Violence against women is still an issue. The Violence Against Women Reauthorisation Act in 2013 has helped a lot, giving tribal communities the right to prosecute non-Native offenders on the reservation, because before we couldn’t do that. And actually, we had mostly non-Native, Caucasian men coming onto the reservations and terrorising the women sexually and with domestic violence. They were getting away with it for many years. We have many missing and murdered indigenous women — hundreds — and a lot of those cases are still unsolved. That’s an issue not just on the reservations, but everywhere.
"The second issue I would say would be the poverty on the reservations. It doesn’t happen on every reservation, but some tribes, they don’t have electricity, water, or infrastructure. They have nothing. And even if they did get money for certain programs to strengthen their education system, there’s still an issue with not having people to hire. So we need outside people coming in to help improve these communities, educating the children, because the children are the future. My generation is the future.

"And the third issue is youth suicide...on the reservations, they see what’s happening in their communities. [They] think: There’s no way out. How am I going to get out of here? It’s hopeless, we have no money, no food, nothing. I don’t know what to do. They think: Oh, I just want to die.

"It happens with children, with teenagers, and with kids in college. I know we have programs and institutions that address these problems. They bring the kids in and they do everything they can to teach them how to get involved in their community, with sports, or they teach them healthy ways to cope with stress and things like that...but that’s an issue."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.