When the Institute of Liberty launched its Native Kids First campaign on April 1st, it largely went unnoticed among native communities. It wasn’t until April 7th, when Indianz.com ran an article with the headline, “Otoe-Missouria Tribe wages campaign to protect online lending” that it reared its ugly head in Indian Country. Despite the name of the campaign being Native Kids First, it is painfully clear that it has absolutely nothing to do with our native youth and everything to do with soliciting support for the payday lending industry.
The Native Kids First campaign is nefarious and stands in stark contrast to the work that our youth are doing through programs like NERDS, CNAY’s Champions for Change, Gen-I Native Youth Challenge and the NCAI(National Congress of American Indians) Youth Commission. It is also worth noting that the NCAI has a youth initiative and newsletter called First Kids 1st. All of these organizations work closely with native communities and, more importantly, with the youth that they are supporting. Unlike the Institute of Liberty, they actually care about the well-being of our youth and understand the difference between exploitation and representation.
These are the messages that the Institute of Liberty is sending out on postcards, billboards and ads that feature photos of native children looking forlorn. It is an all too familiar tactic known as poverty porn and its purpose is to exploit our struggles and to show us as defeated, powerless, and hopeless people for the perpetrator’s own financial & political gains and entertainment.
It strips away the truth of who we are and replaces it with whitewashed and stereotypical generalizations that create skewed and harmful perceptions of native people. It is disempowering and only helps to further silence and marginalize our voices. It is disparaging and detrimental to the work and progress that we, as native people, are making within our own communities.
The Institute of Liberty claims that the Native Kids First campaign is “to raise awareness for Native American tribes that are being attacked by the State of Connecticut”, but neither Connecticut nor its Governor is perpetrating a “war on Indian Country”. If our communities were under attack by Connecticut, we would be the ones standing up and speaking out as we continue to do when our sovereignty, land, water, and communities are under attack. There is, however, a lawsuit involving the online tribal lending services of the Otoe-Missouria tribe, but in no way does it equate to actions being taken against all native tribes as implied by the Institute of Liberty and chairman of the Otoe-Missouria tribe. The Native Kids First campaign is simply an excuse for the Institute of Liberty to hide behind images of our native youth and even the Otoe-Missouria tribe to attack the Governor of Connecticut to further their own cause.
Interestingly enough, the Otoe-Missouria tribe was unaware of the campaign nor were the parents of the children in the photos aware that their images were mailed as postcards to a countless number of residents across Connecticut.
The Otoe-Missouria Chairman, John Shotton, states:
“I have recently learned of a campaign in Connecticut to bring attention to the State’s actions against Native American tribes. Neither the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, nor myself, are engaged in this campaign. We are not financially supporting this campaign, the Institute for Liberty, or their executive director in any way. We had no knowledge of this campaign before learning about it from media sources.”
Melodie Hunt, pictured below with her daughter, was also surprised to learn that the Institute of Liberty was circulating their photo. She had never heard of the Institute of Liberty or the Native Kids First campaign as she is not from the Otoe-Missouria tribe or the U.S., but rather a First Nations woman from Canada.
Both the Mohegan Tribal chairman, Kevin Brown, and Mashantucket Pequot Tribal chairman, Rodney Butler, have spoken out against the Native Kids First campaign in an effort “to ensure that Connecticut residents don’t mistake the flyers that they’re seeing, the billboards that they’re seeing with these two tribes in the state of Connecticut”.
As Taté Walker, wrote in her article, “4 Things Your History Teacher Didn’t Know About Native Americans – But You Should“:
“Too many people (lawmakers included) know little to nothing substantial about Natives, which makes our issues – from cultural appropriation to access to birth control – tough to advocate.”
When Indigenous people and our issues are misrepresented by those who have little to no knowledge of who we are, it continues a long legacy of systemic abuse, discrimination and racism. It is absolutely abhorrent that the Institute of Liberty is misrepresenting and exploiting our native youth and the Otoe-Missouria tribe. It is even more reprehensible that they are doing so by co-opting the name of the NCAI’s youth initiative, First Kids 1st. The way that the Institute of Liberty is portraying this issue and campaign is deceitful and damaging to both the Otoe-Missouria tribe and Indian Country at large. It needs to stop.
Until now, the Institute of Liberty and their Native Kids First campaign has been able to fly under the radar and escape the notice of Indian Country. But make no mistake. We see you now.
Johnnie Jae is of the Jiwere-Nutachi and Chahta tribes of Oklahoma. She is the Executive Managing Partner & Midwest Regional Director @ Native Max Magazine.