Working to Counteract Indigenous Erasure

As an Indigenous student, Tylee Nez, E24, finds ways to educate the Tufts community about Native American issues, both past and present

Tylee Nez, E24, is an environmental engineering and political science major from Tucson, Arizona, located about an hour from the U.S. border with Mexico. As a Native American, she has witnessed the effects of the dueling pandemics of racism and COVID-19 on Indigenous communities.

Nez, a member of the Diné tribe, said that she talks about these and other issues as much as she can with the people around her to counteract what she described as a “huge Indigenous erasure and under-representation in society.” Now that she’s at Tufts—the farthest she’s ever been away from home—she said she has found a sense of community with the Indigenous Students of Tufts (ISOT) organization.

Tufts Now sat down with Nez for Native American Heritage Month as she described many issues facing Native American communities and how she embraces and shares her culture with her fellow Tufts students.

Tufts Now: Living close to the border, what effects have you seen from the construction of the border wall?

Tylee Nez: There’s a tribe—the O'odham people—and the wall literally intersects their land, which is part on the Mexican side and part on the American side. The wall is supposed to go through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which is very biodiverse, and Monument Hill, a sacred mountain with ancestral burial grounds. Earlier this year, work crews blew up the mountain.

A movement called Defend O'odham Jewed has been protesting the building of the border wall by standing in the roads and in front of construction vehicles to halt progress. The people fighting this are the Indigenous people that it affects; there are not many allies there. It's such a big issue to me, but it's like it's not on other people’s minds.

Why has COVID-19 affected Native American communities more than it has other communities?

COVID-19 has disproportionally affected Indigenous communities, but we only have data from tribes that are federally recognized. There are so many more Indigenous people in America who are not counted because of colonial concepts, under-representation, and not getting the amount of funding they should be receiving. Navajo Nation and White Mountain Apache Tribe had the highest per capita cases of COVID-19 for a while, topping even New York. To speak to how bad it's going, Doctors Without Borders were deployed to Navajo Nation, and they’re not normally sent to American soil.

Another reason they have been disproportionately affected is because of the environmental impacts in Navajo Nation, where they don't have electricity, so they use coal for manual heating. It gets into the air that they breathe, weakening their systems and giving them a risk factor for the virus.

Also, there are limited grocery stores, so everyone goes to one store. Many Indigenous homes are multi-generational, so you have grandparents to little kids, and they can’t isolate. If one person goes to the store and brings the virus back, it's most likely going to infect the whole family. When it comes to medical care, they think, “I'm going to have to drive two hours to get to a hospital, and how am I going to pay for this?”

So much has been racked up against Native Americans, but we have made it through, which just speaks to how resilient we are and how we are not thrown when we're put in a challenge. That's what we have been doing for all these years to survive genocide, oppression, and institutionalized racism.

What is your experience like as a Native American student at Tufts?

I have experienced and continue to experience culture shock.I'm very lucky to have this opportunity for education. It's fun and interesting to be in a new place and try to navigate it by myself. But coming to a primarily white institution, you ask yourself, where do I fit in? Where can I be my authentic self without being judged?

I'm Indigenous every single day, and this is just who I am. When I tell people I’m Indigenous, they want to learn, and I try to teach them and provide resources where they can find out more. But it gets exhausting. I have to find a good balance and figure out how much I can educate people while taking care of myself.

A function of ongoing colonialism is the myth that Indigenous people are not here. However, that is not the case; we are resilient.

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