The Cafe at On The Issues Online Magazine is deepening the conversations by continually adding the insights of progressive writers, thinkers and artists on the topics we address. Check back frequently for new commentary. If you wish to contribute to the Cafe, email cafe@ontheissuesmagazine.com.

We’re now taking comments in The CAFE! Join the discussion.

 

I am proud to be Native. I am also proud to be a woman. I am proud to know that I have so much to honor in my ancestors teachings that show me how to live as a young, strong, proud, Native woman in this world. It is something that excites me every morning when I open my eyes, and something I realize I could not live without.

It was not always this way. Like many First Nations youth today, I grew up unaware of my culture and felt disconnected in the big, thriving metropolis of Toronto. I was fed up of people outside the community dictating to Native youth how to be healthy, but not actually involving us as youth on any sustainable level. Information was rarely disseminated in a culturally relevant manner.

I founded the Native Youth Sexual Health Network three years ago. Being involved in sexual and reproductive health and justice affirms that we are now taking back what has been so harshly exploited, and letting it out on our own terms. I believe it is all of our responsibilities to put it out there as it once was: strong, sexy, powerful, and unapologetic.

My work has blessed me with diverse opportunities to meet amazing youth from coast-to-coast -- from leading task forces in South Dakota to protect Native womens reproductive rights to busting sex myths in Inuvik, Northwest Territories and training teachers college students on the essentials of peer-based sexual education.

Utilizing cultural competency in this work means using what we already have in our culture to empower our youth to lead healthy, strong lives. SEX has become such a dirty word in our communities, when, in fact, it is the foundation of all humanity and is related to every social issue on some level. The time has come to bring it back to the basics and strengthen our identities from the ground up. As I have listened to my grandmothers explain to me, sex used to be sacred and even upheld as an enjoyable part of our life as First Nations people.

Colonization, Christianization, and genocidal oppression have drastically severed the ties to traditional knowledge that would enable us to make informed choices about our sexual health and relationships. The fact is that many of our communities are reluctant to go anywhere near the topic of sexual health because it is viewed as dirty, wrong, or a Whitemans thing. We carry a long history of being sexually exploited from the early Pocahontas and Squaw days right up to the modern oversexualization of easy Native women that permeates so much of the media.

So what is our reality today First Nations youth are among the fastest growing populations across Canada and the United States. At 15 to 24 years, we are the most impacted by domestic violence, as well as having the highest rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). We also have one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy, no doubt related notably lower use of condoms. Culturally-insensitive, one-size-fits all, or nonexistent sexuality education programs do not use relevant traditional knowledge in teaching Native youth about their own bodies. These programs fail equip youth to set and respect limits when it comes to relationships and conflict, or to give them the language to report sexual violence when it occurs.

At the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, we strongly encourage youth to self-determine their rights over their own bodies and spaces by understanding their inherent connection to both land and spirituality. It is then that empowerment, both self and social, can happen. There is so much knowledge and strength to draw on in our past that is directly related to what we now term as healthy sexuality. We must become the stewards of the information going out about us, and not allow anybody to take claim on what our people actually started.

The truth is that the positive strides being made far outweigh the negative in our First Nations communities, and we need to celebrate our achievements as much as we possibly can. In generic sexual health campaigns, I often hear the slogan Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself -- which I have always found to be incomplete. In our communities, I say Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself, and Be Proud of Your Culture because that last element will enable us to accomplish the first two.

January 4, 2010