By Alyssa Shapiro
Youth To The People is skincare for all—but we’re more than that. Youth To The People is a platform to raise up all voices, and we cast our latest campaign with this notion in mind. Featured here is 21-year-old model and Indigenous rights activist, Haatepah Clearbear, who advocates for the protection of our earth and of Native identity. “It’s 2020,” says Clearbear, “The time to reclaim who you are and to be proud is now.”
I wanted to ask you about your childhood and your relationship with your family—you were adopted? In another interview, it sounded like you had a really good relationship with one of your parents and not with the other.
Yeah, one of my parents is really nice and pushed me to learn more about my culture and my heritage, being a Native American person. I was adopted at a young age, at one year old from the Santa Clara County Foster Center. Because I was only one, there wasn't much to remember.
Growing up was interesting. I have two dads, by the way, I was adopted by two dads. My pop was always telling me and my brother, “Oh, you’re not Native, you don’t want to be a part of that. Don’t be a drunk Indian. You don’t want to be a wetback.” Because I’m Mexican Indigenous and I’m a California Native. I have other tribes in me from the Southwest as well. So being this Indigenous person, it’s hard when someone's trying to get you to be something that you're not. A lot of that had to do with his own [discomfort], knowing that it hard for him to maintain a relationship because of how he was raised. He's an older man, he's almost 70, so I didn't really blame him. He was raised in the 1950s. How you gonna, you know, think? Not very well! So I don’t hold too much animosity in my heart towards him. But at the same time, it was fucked up.
But my dad always pushed us to learn about our Native heritage by taking us pow wows. Actually, his cousin is from the Mohawk rez in Canada. And he has another cousin who is Inuit. My dad is part Seneca, himself.
How did you find out about your roots and your Indigenous history, especially coming from an adoptive home?
When you're young, and you see people who look like you, you're kind of just in awe and amazed because you never I've been around those people before, you know? So I'd say probably in my early teens, like when I first got into high school, that's when I really got obsessive knowing about Indigenous history and culture. I wasn't even sure back then what tribe I was, you know? I just thought I was like, Spanish or Mexican, right? That’s what my pop tried to tell me. But it wasn’t until I turned 18 I was actually able to meet my biological family. I learned I'm a California Native. My ancestors have been here for thousands of years. That's something I hold dear to me. That’s something I’m proud of. That's not something that I’m going to smooth under the rug for someone's comfortability ever. It’s 2020: the time to reclaim who you are and to be proud is now.
Because of the boarding schools that [existed] here in the United States and south of the border, a lot of Indigenous people were taught that it's a bad thing to be Native, that it’s savage, it's dirty, that they were heathens, that their ways were bad. And that's just not right. A lot of the churches would come in and implement things to strip the Native of the their culture—cut their hair, beat them if they spoke their language, physical and sexual abuse was common—and the ideology behind it was “kill the Indian and save the man.”
So basically, we [the Indigenous Alliance Movement, founded by Haatepah and his twin brother] want people to learn about their history through language, through ceremony, through education.
Can you describe some of the initiatives undertaken by IAM with language and ceremony?
Well, since we're in Los Angeles, the populace here is highly “Latino/Hispanic,” but a lot of those Latinos and Hispanics, the reason why they're dark and their features look Native is because simply they are. The main language that we teach them is called Nawat, which is an Indigenous language. For them to relearn their language is important. You know, your language is part of your culture.
Absolutely. I often think that one of the reasons it's so important is that the more language you have, the more words you have to describe what you know, or how you feel it only makes it easier to move through life.
Exactly. And I'm not saying you have to learn your language, or you have to forget English, or you have to go back to the ways of the past. That's just not it, chief. It's not. When I say decolonize, I mean we're gonna evolve in a way [that works] with what surrounds us. Because the fact of the matter is it’s not the same as it was 500 years ago. We don't have the same resources. We don't have the same land that we did back then. We can't work from this land here, you know, What are you gonna hunt? Nothing here. So it's about evolving ourselves as individuals, learning about our people, learning about our past to make a better future.
I want to go back to what you wrote for us a couple of weeks ago. You said, “Indigenous rights don't just affect Indigenous people but all people.” Can you elaborate on that a bit? Do you mean about the environment and the climate, that we're all connected?
As an Indigenous person, I can tell you that my religion is literally this earth. So, this environmental impact is basically attacking the heart of our religion, of our beliefs. Because we worship Mother Earth, we worshipped this land because it was divine, it was sacred. When this earth dies, this ecosystem, this nature that feeds so many different types of animals... when you poison the water, when you poison the land, whether it's the pipelines that are being built and the oil leakage that comes, or there's the uranium mining that's going on in different areas that are affecting reservation communities—but it doesn't affect just reservation communities, it affects the towns that are nearby the reservations, it affects all people. Because what happens when you have poisoned water? Who's gonna survive with that? When everything's dead? When the trees are all cut down and the air is bad? That's just how I think of it, though. You kill land you kill yourself, honestly. You know?
I do. When you learned more about where you come from, specifically when you met your biological family, did you discover traditions or rituals that helped you feel more connected to yourself?
Yes, one that really helped me, I wouldn't say it's ritual as it is prayer... It's called sweat lodge. And everyone's welcome to the sweat lodge, not just Native folk. But it's mostly Native folk, it’s our tradition and religion to go there for our ancestors. Pray for ourselves, pray for our families. You pray for everyone first, and then you pray for yourself last. And basically the idea is to pray, and just you sing Indigenous songs, honor songs, prayer songs, any song really you want to offer, and there's a space there that you can be Native. You can practice your songs, you can practice your language. It's a place that I like to clear my mind.
Do you feel more of a connection to who you are through your activism and advocacy?
I do. I feel like sometimes it's hard being an activist. Because there's always people that don't agree with you. I’ll give you an example. We went to this march, and we were protesting against the concentration camps for the kids [at the border]. And I feel like it's my duty because my tribe is on both sides of the US/Mexico border. in San Diego and the surrounding areas, because it's all Baja California. So, when I see those borders, and I hear about what's happening there, it just makes me sad because it reminds me of the Missions. And it reminds you the boarding school is what my ancestors had been through. Because there's kids there, there's people seeking a better life. A lot of them are Indigenous people, and back way back when, there was no border. They were Indigenous people just basically doing what they needed to do to survive. It’s just sad to me, what's happening, the abuse that's going on in those camps.
How can non-Native people be supportive and better allies?
I’d say, don't speak for Indigenous voices, but uplift them. Give them the platform to speak, even if you don’t agree. That’s it. Some respect. Basic respect. We’re just asking to be heard, and for our voice to be respected. You don’t have to agree with what we believe. We’re just asking for respect, because we have had hundreds of years without it.
So if someone makes a misstep with how they speak, like they unknowingly say something that might be offensive, do you correct them? Do you want people to ask you questions? Because I think when it comes to anyone who someone's unfamiliar with, there's room to accidentally misspeak, just because you don't know.
There’s a lot of people like that.
Well of course, people have to learn one way or the other and of course we should all do our own reading and research history. But do you feel comfortable answering questions? Would you rather people ask than not?
It depends on the person. If you're if you're being kind and respectful, and I know you're not intentionally choosing to be ignorant, but you actually just don't know, I would take time out of my day to educate you and teach you about my people and what has happened here on this land. I will, because I feel like everyone should know the base history of it. But if you've been ignorant on purpose, and you're kind of ignoring who I am, or you’re ignoring any of our Indigenous people, just trying to be confrontational or rude, I'm just gonna walk away from you, I’m not going to educate you. Just walk away. Like, when someone's being kind of like a smartass… but if you try to come in a good way—that’s another Native teaching, just to be good, just to be nice to one another. Because our ways always say “community first.” It's the people before yourself. That’s the way I was taught.
What would you say to someone who finds themselves in a position like yours, growing up without direct access to their culture and heritage, trying to learn about who they are?
I would say, seek community. Seek someone within the Native communities who is familiarized with our ceremonies. And then from then, when you meet them, then you'll know who they know. And then you build a community that way. Or you could just go to pow wows and you'll see a lot of that there. Remember to come respectfully, to come in a good way. You know, you don't want to be like demanding information from people you don't know. But at the same time, if you want to ask, I say ask, because life's too short. You gotta if you want to know something. You gotta ask. So just do that.