What it’s really like to be a Native American teen today?

By: Emanuel Vigil (the Jicarilla Apache teen who introduced Michelle Obama at the Santa Fe Indian School commencement, on the complexities of indigenous life.)

[Edited for brevity.]

Like a lot of recent American high school graduates, I spend way too much time on Twitter, and I can’t wait to go to college in the fall. But instead of spending my first few days of summer break going to the beach or partying with my friends, I’m in the midst of taking part in a Bear Dance, a four-day-long healing ceremony where we sing in our traditional Athabaskan language and dance in a wild, heavily wooded part of New Mexico.

The Bear Dance is one of the sacred ceremonies of my Native American tribe, the Jicarilla Apache Nation. I am from Dulce, New Mexico, the most populous town on our reservation, where I lived until I went to the Santa Fe Indian School in seventh grade. A Native American boarding school, the institution was thrust onto the national stage this year when Michelle Obama spoke at our commencement. As the valedictorian, I had the honor of introducing the First Lady, which was extremely surreal.

On commencement day, I dressed in my traditional regalia and met my classmates in one of the classrooms, all in their own unique tribal clothing. For many of us, this was the last time that we were going to see or speak to each other, as we’re from reservations across the United States. Because many Native Americans wear lots of turquoise and silver jewelry, we had to take all of this off to pass through the security checkpoint.

While graduates across the country donned black caps and gowns, I wore our puberty ceremony clothing: buckskin leggings with beaded loomwork designs, a silver ribbon shirt, a midnight blue velvet apron with ribbon designs, a bone breastplate and choker, beaded armbands, abalone shell earrings, beaded moccasins, and turquoise and silver rings. My two long braids represent longevity, the jewelry (made by my uncles) indicates wealth, and the designs and colors represent the four changing seasons and growth on earth.

Ms. Obama’s visit to our school brought the experience of being a Native American teen today back into the public consciousness. Many people probably didn’t even know about the existence of the Santa Fe Indian School until the first lady’s visit. Despite the fact that our ancestors were obviously this country’s original inhabitants, and that we are still over 4 million strong, in some ways Native Americans are an invisible minority in this country.

Modern Native American teens I know prefer to be called “indigenous.” There is also a growing movement called “native youth” with a #nativeyouth hashtag on Twitter, which speaks to the indigenous teen experience. When Columbus first colonized the Americas, he thought he landed in India. We are trying to distance ourselves from the term “Indians” as Columbus is often associated with the genocide of native peoples, the taking of resources, and the detriment of our existence as a people.

Some young people stay on their reservations to attend Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, and others — like me — travel to boarding schools to get what is often a better education. Schools on the reservations are usually underfunded and it is difficult to find good teachers that work for low wages.

What I most valued from attending a boarding school is interacting with the smartest and brightest indigenous kids from across the country. Boarding schools bring together teens from many of the hundreds of tribes that still exist across America. I have friends from the Navajo Nation, the nineteen Pueblos, and the Mohawk tribe.

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