By Mischa Webley, NECN Staff Writer
After years spent bouncing between her biological and foster parents, between her home town of Coos Bay and other parts of Oregon, there was a lot that Ei-Shah didn’t know about herself or her people. In fact, it wasn’t until she was nine years old that she truly understood that she was Native.
Now fifteen, the specifics of her tribal identity rolls off her tongue like a badge of honor: enrolled in the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs; descendant of the Siletz; Klamath Modoc, Paiute, Nez Perce and Yakama tribes. But with that knowledge of self and culture comes great responsibility to her community. Ei-Shah, a freshman at the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), welcomes it.
By the beginning of eighth grade, she was starting to find her voice.
By her own account, Ei-Shah has faced many struggles in her life. She endured violence, racism and abuse while inside the foster care system; has seen countless friends and relatives fall victim to addiction; been bullied at school and been the bully herself; been forced to grow up faster than a young person should ever have to. All of this would be enough to make even the strongest person give up hope, but in Ei-Shah’s case it has had the opposite effect.
She hasn’t done it alone. After an elder noticed her delinquency back in middle school, they took Ei-Shah aside and reminded her in harsh terms that she had a duty to herself and her community to get her life together and start doing better.
That year, seventh grade, she got the message loud and clear and turned things around quickly. Before the school year was out, she had joined the choir and drama clubs and made the honor roll. By the beginning of eighth grade, she was starting to find her voice.
A key moment for Ei-Shah was when she came to understand that her experiences – abuse, neglect, racism, invisibility, self hate and shame- are not unique to her but are instead a pattern of symptoms that are experienced by Indigenous people, inherited throughout the generations, as a result of the systemic and violent dismantling of their cultures.
This is known as inter-generational or historic trauma that Indigenous peoples worldwide are confronting with an eye towards reframing this shared experience to build resiliency for the future.
Understanding this bigger picture gave her the perspective she needed to realize that her role in life was bigger than herself; it was about stopping that trauma from continuing in her community. “As indigenous people we’ve all gone through a hard past, but I want to show the youth that you might come from that past but you take that in a positive way and do something better for yourself,” she says.
she wants other indigenous youth to know one thing: you are not alone.
To lead, sometimes you have to fight. In her first year back in Portland, while attending Mount Tabor Middle School, she became frustrated with the simplistic narratives about Native Americans being shared by a teacher. After a blowout in class and then with the principal, a counselor there encouraged her to put that voice to use.
The following week, dressed in full tribal regalia, she made a total of four different presentations to classes there about her heritage and culture, correcting the record and shining a light on her people.
Her community has taken notice and blessed her with increasing responsibility and respect. She was crowned Royalty through the titles of 2018 Miss City of Roses by the Bow and Arrow Culture Club and currently as Miss Naimuma by Portland State’s 2019 United Indian Students in Higher Education.
They are both prestigious titles and roles which acknowledge her positive contributions to the Native community. It also endows her with the responsibility to serve as an ambassador to represent her people at important cultural events and causes.
In this role she has travelled to Salem to testify on behalf of her community in support of the creation of Indigenous People’s Day and lobbied the Portland City Council in support of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Act, which marked May 5th as a citywide commemoration of the little-known plague of unprosecuted violence against Indigenous women.
Of her work she says, “I want people to know that we’re here. Our voices matter, our lives matter, we’re taking a stand. To see us as people. Recognize us. See us. Hear us.” More than anything, she wants other indigenous youth to know one thing: you are not alone.
As she looks to the future, Ei-Shah sees herself playing a larger role in her community. She knows that education will be a key to her succeeding in what she wants to do and already has set the goal of earning a double degree from Portland State in Native American Studies and Public Administration.
Ei-Shah says that the state of the Native community in Oregon is strong, and sees it as on the verge of thriving. “I’m gonna kick some ass in the future and do something good. Serve my people. Thinking about that makes my heart feel good. I hope in the future that we can be closer and rise up together.”
With her in the lead, no doubt that will happen.