How a Native American band is promoting Indigenous identity

Joelle Nagemorwanga was daunted by the decision to pursue her dreams professionally. Growing up on Vancouver Island, she felt disconnected from her First Nations heritage and struggled with mental health problems. Her journey into music, dance and drumming has helped her to connect with her heritage.

“I was not well when I started drumming,” Nagemorwanga said. “But once I started to [relax] on the drums, I was able to come into my own. … The drums, this whole community of my drumming — it was meant to heal me, and it saved me.”

That comes at a great cost, however, because Nagemorwanga is only able to practise her traditional Indigenous culture in Portland, Oregon, due to the geographic and monetary distances between Vancouver Island and Portland. Many Nuu-chah-nulth women in the community, such as herself, face a similar challenge due to the territory’s isolation. Additionally, many elders live a significant distance away, complicating the structure of their communities.

According to Nakasoniyikik Anini, an all-Native newspaper, children from remote parts of British Columbia face cultural and economic barriers. Many Indigenous communities in rural Canada struggle with the realities of isolation, poverty and the lack of resources available in their regions. Most of the time, it can be difficult for Indigenous residents to look for support and education around their cultural backgrounds.

“We have to educate our children that our language is our reason for being in this world,” Nagemorwanga said. “We have a First Nations way of being, a First Nations way of thinking. … We have to share it with others, especially other Indigenous people.”

Nagemorwanga and her community—including her husband, children and extended family members — are trying to connect to their ancestry and Indigenous heritage by building the first Indigenous bookstore in the United States. The group built the bookstore with the hope of offering children, young people and elders a pathway to their cultural identity and heritage.

“We are trying to use our culture to help people have their own future,” Nagemorwanga said. “We want to educate people about our history and our language and the cultural identity of our people. That’s what we do, to help people get into their own lives.”

To help promote Indigenous culture to the public, the group produced a documentary film about a dozen teens from different First Nations communities. The teens talked about their feelings and experiences growing up in remote communities. The documentary followed a high school student making his way to graduation while facing financial and physical challenges.

The group also published an all-Native newspaper. The quarterly publication features stories about “the challenges of life on reserve,” according to Indigenous News.

“By the time we turn 30, we are going to be the biggest diversity in history,” Nagemorwanga said. “There is no way for us to stop becoming more and more aware of what we are.”

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