Natives in the Now 2019
A terrific turnout of community members enjoyed the first annual Natives in the Now event at MacArthur Park on Sunday, August 18th. Together with a diverse crowd of supporters and friends, the joyous event featured a traditional opening prayer, a live drum performance by UAII community members Hale & Company, traditional powwow dancing exhibited by the UAII Native Drum Dance and Regalia workshop, and world-renowned Hoop Dancer, Sage Romero.
Headlining the event was blues singer and local favorite, Tracy Lee Nelson, and powerhouse folk singer, Raye Zaragoza.
United American Indian Involvement (UAII) sponsored the unforgettable event, together with organizers from the Levitt Pavilion.
“This important event was a tremendous success,” said Joseph Quintana (Kewa Pueblo), Director of Development at UAII. “It helped our agency expand our reach in the community and could not have been possible without the tremendous support of UAII staff and volunteers. We have already been invited to return in June 2020 for our 45th Anniversary celebration. Thank you to everyone involved and we look forward to seeing you next year.”
UAII Workforce Department Associate Tencha Espino (Navajo), was overjoyed. “I am more than excited about being here today,” she enthused. “I feel like this is a way to bring the community together. Because this is Los Angeles. This is where our Indigenous ancestors came to.”
Espino continued, “I started out as a client of UAII. I’m in recovery. So as of today, I have 21 ½ months clean and sober from all substances. For many years, I slid under the radar. I was living a lie. But my route was UAII. They got me started on my journey. They sent me to treatment. People can’t believe how different my life is now.”
She added, “I’ve always known about United American Indian involvement. I’ve known that it was there, but I just didn’t use it. I wasn’t ready. But I would tell someone who thinks they’re not ready now to come out and join us with an open mind. In my program, we say that there are certain things that you have to abide by:
honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness. And when you do these three things, when you practice these principles in all of your affairs, you catapult. Even if you’re not ready. Just come with an open mind.”
Espino continued, “Right now today, what we’re doing in this event, we’re bringing our community together. We’re putting a spotlight on the things that are going on around the world. It’s a place for us to get information. Just vibe with us. It took me 19 years. I had to be out there for 19 years. It took me 19 years to get me where I am today. I give it all to the Creator. To be a part of this, for me, it’s a dream come true.”
She explained, “In our Talking Circle every Thursday at UAII, one of our Elders comes out. We get in a circle, and we ask the Creator to come and to bless the circle. What is said there stays there, and we talk about different things to inspire each other. The first day I got clean, I came to UAII and our Elder, John Funmaker, spoke to me. Since day two of my recovery, all of the thoughts, wants, and obsessions to use were gone. John Funmaker told me that the Creator gave me a very rare, spiritual gift. He told me that in order for me to keep my gift, I have to keep coming back and giving it away. So, on Thursdays, I come back. Even though I’m in college full-time, I still come back. My Thursday lunch is dedicated to Talking Circle so I can come back and I can share with the newcomers that are coming into UAII for the first time my experience, my strength, and my hope. Because I want to show them that you can do it too.”
Nolan Eskeets (Navajo), Case Manager and Transporter for the UAII Robert Sundance Family Wellness Center, was hopeful for the event. “UAII is pretty tight knit,” he said. “I expect to see a lot of our families today. My hope for today is community connection, and everyone having a good time. Because we’re in a pretty prime moment in our culture. Indigenous people are really getting a voice. And I really appreciate the work that Joseph (Quintana, UAII Director of Development) is doing on behalf of UAII to get us to a point where Native people are not seen as something from the past; something in the history books. We’re still here. We’re thriving. We are very present. And that is my big dream for today. To be a tentpole in that theme, that we exist in the here and now.”Eskeets continued, “I work with the UAII W.I.N.D. (Walking in a New Direction) Program, and the work that we do is mainly youth substance abuse prevention and suicide prevention. Since we focus on 14-24 year old’s, we try to provide lots of resources connecting them to educational institutions, developing resumes, and just fun, empowering events around the community. Our youth network is pretty far-reaching.”
He continued, “Los Angeles is really interesting and cool in that the community, even though we don’t see each other too often, everyone is here. When we have events like this one, everyone comes out. The community is right here. I’m originally from Arizona by way of New Mexico, but Los Angeles is where I found the deepest connection with the Indigenous community. I grew up in a rural area and we were surrounded by our communities. I grew up in the Navajo Nation. Your closest neighbor is a couple of miles away. But UAII is responding to a community need. The community here wants to connect with other Native people. And so UAII is a unique institution where the organization was created in order for the Indigenous community to meet one another. And to have events like this to celebrate what it is to be Indigenous.”
“The main thing with our Indigenous communities back on the reservation, back in our homeland, is getting together,” he said. “That is one of the values that we carried with us into the cities. The people are our medicine. We take care of each other. So events like these are just expressions of what we’ve always done. This is the exact thing that UAII emerged from – us wanting to take care of each other.”
Phillip Reed (Navajo) from Window Rock, Arizona, was one of the first in the audience. “I’m excited about coming out to this event. I’m excited to hear some Native music. And there are a lot more people to communicate with. It’s good to be here, with the Great Creator’s understanding.”
He added, “Sobriety and education brought me to Los Angeles. UAII has helped me with my sobriety and with my employment. And the counselors, with their wise words. To be aware of things coming my way in the city. They’ve helped me a lot. I’ve been involved with the organization for over 10 years.”
When asked how he’s been able to maintain his sobriety, he was clear: “Sobriety gets easier when you learn what to do and what not to do. You’ve got to have an endurance. You got to have focus, and you have to paint the big picture before you start changing your ways. You have to have honesty in your life. You have to have clarity in order to walk the road of sobriety. It’s a life change in a good way. Some people’s blessings are faster than others. I understand that mine are slower. Therefore, I’m not worried about it. But there are blessings that come your way that makes things better. Being in the city, you have more opportunities for education, more opportunities for transportation. If you stick with sobriety, you’ll feel the blessings. I want you to stay sober. It makes your awareness a lot clearer. You’ll feel better about yourself. If you’re coming out from a hangover, or detoxing from drugs, you won’t feel good about yourself. The reason people keep themselves down is that they create a glass ceiling. They can’t understand, and they can’t see past that glass ceiling. But when you get sober, the glass ceiling disappears. You can do a lot. Be a singer, go to college, get your bachelor’s degree. The skies the limit.”
Award winning singer-songwriter, Tracy Lee Nelson, was the first headliner of the event.
“I sing about Native American issues because it’s where I come from and it’s about what we have been through and what we’re going through,” he said. “I try to be up front with my music. With the blues, I believe the truth needs to be said, and that’s funny, because years ago that’s what B.B King told me. He said, ‘Tracy, tell the truth and keep playing your blues, and people will listen. R.I.P.’”
Nelson is a member of the Luiseno division of the Lajolla Tribe and the Diegueno from the Mesa Grande Reservation, both in the San Diego area. He started playing the guitar when he was 11 and joined a band when he was 12. One of his friends gave him a Les Paul guitar and he was smitten with the instrument.
“I believe the music was in me already,” he said. “Because later on in life, I found out my real father played guitar up here on the La Jolla Indian Reservation with my uncles. My father passed years ago, but feel blessed to still have his old guitar on my wall today.”
His advice for youth going into music or other professions is to focus on their dreams and not let anything stand in their way. “Anybody can do it if they put their mind to it whether it’s music, basketball or skateboarding,” he said. “I would say never give up on your dreams. Believe in yourself, feel it in your soul, keep away from drugs. Be a leader, not a follower. My father would say.”
One of the highlights of Nelson’s career was performing with Redbone at the Superbowl in Tempe in 1996. “When playing shows I try to spend as much time as I can with friends and fans. Because they are the ones that keep me going. I so appreciate and am honored that they would take the time out of their lives, just to come and hear me perform. I wish I could do more! To see their smiles and happiness that I can bring to them in their lives. Even though it’s just for a moment. I love to see them dance away. It’s the natural high of life that I feed off. Please enjoy yourself, bring your families, friends and have fun. Life is too short.”
Award-winning singer-songwriter, Raye Zaragoza, concluded the Natives in the Now 2019 event.
Zaragoza is perhaps best known for her quiet yet powerful song, “In the River,” written in response to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. The song resonated with listeners and went viral in late 2016, garnering half a million views on the video, national media coverage, and a Global Music Award and Honesty Oscar.
There are hidden meanings in her music. “Every song has so many meanings, many of which are hidden,” she added. “Sometimes I realize a hidden meaning of one of my own songs years after I write it. I also love when people tell me the meanings of my songs. I believe the true meaning of a song lies in each listener.”
Her advice for someone hoping to follow in her footsteps was “to have tunnel vision, and never let anyone talk you out of your dream,” she said. “It’s going to be hard, but life is hard in general. You might as well struggle at achieving your dream than put the same work into something you don’t love. And also, work harder than anyone else.”
Concluding the unforgettable Natives in the Now 2019 event, Zaragoza thanked her fans. “Your presence is a gift to me,” she said. “I feel every single one of you out in the crowd when I’m performing.”