On October 10th, 2020, in Paris, the CSIA-Nitassinan held its annual Solidarity Day. One of the guests was Stefan Yazzie Herbert, Austrian/Navajo. Interesting story about identity and about European romantic prejudices on Native Americans. His mother is Navajo and his two clans are: Tódích’íí’nii – Bitter Water Clan and Tó’aheedlíinii – The Water Flows Together clan. Most of his family lives in Lukachukai but there are quite a few in Shiprock and Farmington as well. He grew up in San Diego, California, and moved to Austria with his parents when he was 13 years old.

Stefan Yazzie Herbert
Recording by Pascal Grégis, CSIA-Nitassinan
October 10, 2020
Transcript by Christine Prat, CSIA-Nitassinan

Hello, thank you all for coming. My name is Stefan Yazzie Herbert, I am a half Austrian, half American, Navajo Tribe member. For those who don’t know, the Navajo Nation is, in North America, the largest tribe, with 330,000 enrolled members. It’s taking up a space around Arizona, Colorado [sic – New Mexico] and Utah, around 70,000 square kilometers. Today, I am here to talk to you about a few things. About my tribe, about the strange relationship that Native Americans have with German speaking cultures, and more specifically about the COVID crisis.

I grew up in San Diego. I moved to Austria when I was 13-years-old. I never really thought of being Native American as anything important because in America there are many, many different cultures that are constantly mixed together. But when I came to Austria, I noticed something very strange. I was one of the only brown people around, but all of the other brown people I knew were getting a lot of racism against them, and for some reason, I was not. I started to wonder why that’s the case. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, until I started to find out a little bit more about the relationship between Native Americans and the German speaking cultures.

Does anybody here know the author Karl May? One, two, three… Cool! For those who don’t know, Karl May is the most popular German author of all time. He sold 200 million books worldwide, he has been translated into over 30 languages, and he only wrote about Native Americans. But he never met a Native American. He never went to America. But he is a good author. He wrote those stories, they are about friendship, they are about honor, they are about the Native American blood brother who has his white blood brother. So, as a result, those books have permeated the culture. Everybody in Austria, in Switzerland and Germany love Native Americans, because they only know this one, romanticized version of our story. There is no history, it is all about how we don’t feel pain, how we have honor, how we can track animals and have these almost magical powers. And there is nothing negative in our story. So, as a result, everybody loves Native Americans. It seems to be something simple to say, but you’d be surprised how far it goes.

Once I was out at night and somebody was being quite drunk, and quite aggressive towards everybody around. He was going up to different people saying “you should go out of here, you brown go back to Turkey”. He turned to me and said “you go back to where you come from, go back to Turkey”. He thought I am Turk. I told him “first of all, it’s not cool, second, I am not from Turkey, I am Native American. When I said that, he said “oh, my God! That’s so cool!” Imagine a very angry white guy, changing his complete idea about you, strictly because where you’re from! That’s the definition of racism, right? But for him, he couldn’t see it. He was all about “no, no, no, it’s positive racism. It’s good, I like you, right?

So, after this experience, I realized that racism can take many, many forms. It doesn’t have necessarily to be hatred, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be mean. So, I started to go into activism. I started tying to change the narrative of my culture in German speaking culture. Sometimes I go on TV, I talk about cultural appropriation, I explain why certain things shouldn’t be worn… But in general, I try to explain to people that our culture is more than just a costume, it’s more than just a box, that there is a deep culture complexity. And, more importantly, right now there are deep rooted problems in our society, that have to do with how we have been treated in the past, and these need to be solved.

I am not fighting for rights of Native Americans in Austria, there are not enough of them for us to have rights. But I do want to change representation. I do want to change our image. This is most clear in the recent pandemic. When the COVID pandemic hit the Navajo Nation, the Navajo Nation quickly became THE place with the highest infection rate. If you would see the Navajo Nation as a state – which I think you should – then it has the highest infection rate than any state. Many people started to ask me why is that the case. Why? It has many reasons, and all of them come basically from colonialism. 35% of households on the Navajo Nation don’t have access to running water, which means that it is incredibly difficult for people to wash their hands properly, which is absolutely necessary in this pandemic. 10% of the population doesn’t have access to electricity. Many families are living in multigenerational housing. So, they have three to four different generations living under one roof, which is a great thing, but not when you’re trying to social distance, not when you’re trying to prevent generations from staying together and possibly to getting COVID. We have high rates of diabetes. We have high rates of poverty. It’s very simple to just start thinking “maybe those Navajo are not that great”. But when you start to really look at the causes of all these problems and just see why we have such high infection rates, you realize that most of this as to do with how the Navajo Nation has negotiated with the United States over the past, well, over a century now.

In 1868, we had something called ‘The Long Walk’. There was a treaty that was made, and after scorched earth policy and many wars, conflicts, battles, many Navajos dead, we decided to come after the treaty and to negotiate with the American government and to leave our land. As a result, we lost quite a bit of our land. Later, in another treaty, we were able to negotiate quite a bit of that land back. This is one of the reasons why we have the largest Native American Reservation. We gave up a lot of our national resources. When we gave away a piece of our national resources, we negotiated, this was not just us giving things away, we negotiated for health care, or infrastructures, roads, hospitals. And none of these things ever really happened.

We still have issues with our health system. There are only around 100 hospital beds on the entire Reservation. The Reservation is about a tenth of the size of France. That’s gigantic. Having only 100 hospital beds for a population living there, of around 135,000, is quite depressing.

So, as a European, as somebody who has started to have a stronger and stronger identity of being European, and seeing part of my identity, the Navajo Nation, suffering so much, I thought to myself, “this is not O.K.” What can I do? What can I do from Europe? Solidarity is great, but solidarity is not enough. So, I decided to start a fundraiser. I wanted to collect at least 2000 euros in order to give to the Navajo Nation. It’s not a lot of money, but none the less, because of our terrific relationship with the United States government, we still had not received any emergency funds. All 50 states of the United States of America immediately had received emergency relief funds. But the Navajo Nation, as well as all of the other Native American Nations, had to wait over one and half month until they got any relief funds at all. So, the pressure was on, and I decided to do what I do best: I am a filmmaker, I work in advertising, I know how to make campaigns, I know how to make people care about something by using all those little storytelling mechanisms. And I did. But this was something that took a lot out of me personally. When you have a skill that you know how to use, and all of a sudden it has to be done for something so personal and so emotional as your tribe dying, you start to put a lot of pressure on yourself. What I was doing, I considered doing a campaign, you have a goal, you try to basically make sales, and get the people to donate. But the other day, it feels very weird interviewing your grandma, interviewing your uncle, interviewing your cousins, and try to get them to say the things you know will actually make people care. And you start to feel like an imposter, you start to feel very cynical. It wasn’t just me. Within my own family, some people started to think that I was using my family in order to generate money. Despite the fact that it was directly being used for our tribe, it created a lot of conflict with my family. That puts a lot of pressure and you really start to feel just terrible about that kind of things. I was doing PR, I was going to TV channels, I was talking to newspapers. For me, I know that when you’re trying to make people care about something, you want to make sure that you attach a face to it. In this case it was my face. Why should an Austrian care anything about Native American culture? For me, it was important, like “I am a Native American, I am also an Austrian, you should care about this because you guys read the books, you guys claim that you care about this culture, so it’s time you put your money where you mouth is.” And it worked! We were able to raise 12,000 euros, but it really took a lot out of me, out of the relationship I have with my family. By the end of it I barely could talk about it anymore although we had the money. Because of so much going on in the Navajos’ life, the insane amount of pressure for them. This is not about me, this is about my tribe. I just got an email back “Thank you for your donation”. On one hand, I am not expecting any kind of funfair, but this kind of display of solidarity that you are doing today, by sitting here, by showing that you guys care, it can actually help people. When people give me words of encouragement after all of this, when you’re feeling really terrible after this kind of things, it can actually help.

I am just somebody here, in Europe. I am fine, I live in Vienna, I am still going to have a great health system, I am still going to have food, I am still going to have a shelter. But acts of solidarity are incredibly important, and thank you guys, first of all for being here tonight.

And now, the Navajo Nation has the corona crisis, I would not say completely in check, but they’re doing a lot better. Currently, we’ve had 564 deaths, and 10,000 cases on the Reservation. It’s not good. But the hospital system is working a lot better, they fly people out, they’re doing contact tracing, we have 57 hours lock downs in the weekends. In general, we have a much better grip now than we did two months ago, on the crisis.

And that’s thanks, in part, to the people in Austria. 12,000 euros is not that much, but it is a sign and it is helpful. I always like to think that, when approaching any kind of activism, that anybody can help. I wish that I could be there, I wish I could be doing more for my tribe. The issue that many of us have is: what can we actually do? It always brings me back to the question: why did anybody donate? Why are you sitting here today? What is interesting about watching me here upon stage? I think we all need to look inside ourselves and ask ourselves our own reasons for why we do pretty much anything. I think self-reflection is really important. Often, I noticed that those who donated the most – I wrote to them, I asked them, why did you do this, why did you feel it was necessary? A lot of times the answer was that they loved reading Karl May as a child. There is no shame in reading his books. There is no shame in romanticism of a culture. As long as you take time to look underneath the surface. Those who write the books and give an interest for Native Americans, that came from a genuine interest. And if that would inspire you to do something more by donating or getting involved or participating in acts of solidarity, that’s a good thing. One of my friends asked me if it would be O.K. if his son dressed up as a Native American for Halloween. For me, it is not a bad thing, I think it’s great that that kid is interested, but as long as he does it properly. I asked him to just take five minutes to Google to what it looks like, how you can do it in a respectful way. That is not bad. Sometimes people think that they are fetishizing a culture. Yes, maybe, sometimes you are. But as long as the net benefit is better than it was before, as long as you are slowly changing the way that the culture is perceived in your culture, then you are doing something good, I guess.

I would like to thank everybody who is involved in organizing this entire wonderful night of representation of solidarity, because it means something, it actually does something.

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