American University welcomed Afro-Indigenous activist and poet Autumn Rose Williams to discuss Indigenous awareness and appreciation. Hosted by the Students for Change and Indigenous Initiatives, the Oct. 10 conversation was centered around empowering the Indigenous community and increasing visibility of Indigenous people.
Williams recounted her transition from life on the Shinnecock reservation to college in Richmond, Virginia and the disparities she felt between her self-image and the one projected onto her by her college peers. She said her cultural shock quickly turned to anger, as she was exposed to the wider ignorance around Indigenous communities and struggled with fighting against the stereotypes associated with her identity.
“There was this experience that was very painful and angry for me because I didn’t realize how many people truly did not know, or have any association with Indigenous communities,” Williams said.
Williams said this frustration became the foundation for her platform, geared around education and advocacy for Indigenous communities to fight against the systemic erasure that has led to the ignorance surrounding Indigenous communities. Williams said she was most struck by the lack of positive media representation of Native Americans, and was inspired to become the representation she wasn’t seeing and became involved in Indigenous pageantry.
Her involvement in Indigenous pageantry was one focused on culture, which forced her to think about her involvement with her tribe and the resources available to her. She said her proximity to her culture was celebrated, inspiring her to foster that same interest and pride among young Indigenous peoples today.
Williams said her advocacy work is something that took practice and intentionality, advising young people to take their time and truly think about their interests. Showing up for other movements is just as important as undertaking projects as an individual, and support across the field of advocacy is key to advancement.
“When I first got into advocacy, I wanted to do everything,” Williams said. “I wanted to stand up and advocate for everything that I felt connected to but the reality is, you’re only one person”
Williams also touched on the importance of social media in activism and advocacy work today, as well as the importance of intentionality when posting on any platform. Creating positive representation and challenging the existing stereotypes against Native Americans is essential to lowering the ignorance of the wider American population toward the Indigenous communities in the country, she said.
For those who are not Indigenous, Williams said the first step to productive activism is education, doing the work to inform oneself on the issues at hand and to understand the nuanced nature of minority groups. She said self-understanding is a powerful first step in creating proactive connections with those around us.
“I like connecting with youth,” Williams said. “In my culture, there’s something called you do everything for the seventh generation.”
Williams said there is an Indigenous tradition of bridging past generations with those to come and taking conscious actions with the long term in mind.
Williams ended the discussion by talking about the legacy she hopes to leave through her advocacy.
“The legacy I want to leave is … a legacy of love,” Williams said. “I really do want more people to be able to be connected to who they are and feel love.”