Native Americans are finding a renewed since of pride and community with #NativeTikTok, a hashtag that has almost 4 billion views on the platform.
Marika Sila has over 300,000 followers on TikTok and says the hashtag is "a unified expression of our culture. It's a way that we're able to come together and show pride for our culture and who we are."
Sila said this unfiltered expression is significant because for generations, Indigenous people were forced to hide their culture from others or assimilate altogether. But #NativeTikTok has paved a way to talk proudly about their heritage without fear of retaliation.
#NativeTikTok shares a message
With this hashtag, Indigenous creators often use their platforms to share Native American history and traditional practices alongside modern trending content. Posts range from makeup tutorials and workout routines to calling out structural racism and double standards between Native Americans and other groups of people.
One creator, who prefers to go by Coyotl rather than his legal name, has nearly 1 million followers and said he's using his platform to specifically teach the vastness of Native American roots and its profound impact on the world.
"When we talk about Native American history, we can not just center the United States and Canada, because the Americas encompasses North America, Central America, South America and the surrounding islands, correct? And that oftentimes gets overlooked," he said.
After the Trail of Tears and Spaniards colonizing the Americas in the 1830s, a lot of culture and history was lost to forced assimilations and concerted efforts by the Indian Residential School System to "kill the Indian" in kids. Sila and Coyotl said the community is still recovering from that generational setback. Sila said the schools are "a very touchy subject."
"Very triggering for a lot of folks because it is basically the root of all trauma in the Indigenous communities because a lot of children were lost, a lot committed suicide, many children's remains are being discovered in and around the Indian residential school grounds," she said.
But despite that trauma, #NativeTikTok is thriving in retelling history and calling for action.
Theland Kicknosway has 400,000 followers on TikTok and dresses in tradition garb while calling on people to acknowledge the "stolen" land they occupy. And he says the digital world has helped him share his message.
"Whenever I do anything, I always just think about the generations before me that never had the opportunity to have the access to what we may have now in this digital era," Kicknosway said. "As indigenous folks growing up in the 21st century, we also carry our traditions and our culture. We also are understanding how to make it in this modern civilization. And so we still continue the true parts of who we are. And for myself, I always do everything for my ancestors and the generations before me. But because we are doing that we are holding such a big responsibility. It's not just for the past, but also for the future. So what are we doing today, that impacts the future generations as well."
Sila, for her part, promotes Indigenous-owned businesses on her page and said the easiest way to support Indigenous people is by supporting their businesses as well as their fights for justice.
"I think that it's important for the Indigenous community to have as much support as possible in order for us to get the justice that we need for the children that were lost in the residential schools and the murdered Indigenous women. It's important that we have as (many) non-Indigenous allies as possible."
A community of tribes
Coyotl, Sila and Kicknosway said it can be difficult to connect with other Native people because there are so many tribes with different beliefs that cover several different countries.
In some cases, there are disagreements about who's welcomed in depending on how they were raised.
Sila is Inuvialuit from Tuktoyaktuk in Canada and said the hashtag has made it easier to come together.
"Even though there's thousands of different tribes across the world, I personally find it really easy to connect with other Indigenous people because many of us have had similar upbringings," she said.
Coyotl and his twin brother were adopted by two white dads and grew up in a predominantly white community. Coyotl was unsure of his identity as a small kid, but as he grew into his heritage, one of his dads "became more ashamed of us claiming it. He never said for one second or even humored the idea of me and my brother being Indigenous, even though it was very obvious that we were."
Coyotl eventually found community in his biological uncle and other family members who taught him about his culture.
"I consider myself a detribalized Native American Indigenous person — there's millions of us in foster care, who have been severed of the ties of their roots," Coyotl said, adding that his story is "so unique but not unique" in that he and others have been pushed away when trying to claim a tribe and instead opt to identify as detribalized so they don't "step on anyone's toes."
Coyotl thinks division between tribes stifles progress. "There's some identity politics ... a little bit of a clash of certain things. And people butt heads, and it can be a lot of crabs in a bucket. So it's kind of hard," he shared, adding that he's hopeful that the hashtag can turn into a movement on the same scale of #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter.
Coyotl, Sila and Kicknosway said there are unifying common threads that transcend debate and bring the community together, regardless of tribe, such as singing, drumming, praying to the ancestors and dancing in traditional garb.
"There's this teaching that I was taught at a very young age," Kicknosway said. "And it's that when our children are first born and they have their first cry, those are the first songs that they sing. So when people ask me how long I've been singing, I always tell them since the day I was born."