You deserve to be happy. You deserve to be healthy. You deserve respect. You deserve to be loved.
These and hundreds of similar messages have flooded Twitter since last week under the hashtag #DearNativeYouth. Within days of its launch, the campaign, created by University of Washington sociocultural anthropology Ph.D. student Brook Spotted Eagle, accumulated an inspiring collection of life-affirming messages directed at young Native Americans.
Indigenous musicians, teachers, writers, comedians and many others have contributed words of encouragement for Spotted Eagle's campaign, which she created to "recenter our youth," she told Mic in an email interview.
Too often, Spotted Eagle told Mic, these kids "[absorb] online attacks and call-outs from non-Natives resulting from [some Native] coalition-building efforts and fall-outs on Twitter. It got me thinking about all the fighting youth see across all communities. Why would they want to get involved [in activist work] if they fear being humiliated or embarrassed (already huge in adolescents) by being called out?"
"We want them to know," she said, "that we love them so very much."
Most of the tweets are being collected at @DearNativeYouth, but even a brief glance reveals that the simplest way to encourage a generation can just be a matter of words.
Sadly, this beautiful outpouring of support did not emerge without reason. Its necessity implies a troubling set of challenges Native youth face today.
According to the Washington Post, this set of young people face the highest poverty rates of any under-18 demographic in the country, at around 25%. They also graduate high school at lower rates and face a 2.3% higher rate of exposure to trauma, leading to depression and substance abuse; 18.3% of Native eighth graders reported binge drinking compared to the national average of 7.1%, according to a Center for American Progress report.
These factors compound to create an environment often conducive to violence: Fifteen percent of Native youth were involved in gangs as of 2009, according to a National Indian Child Welfare Association report, compared to 8% of Latino youth and 6% of black youth. Combined with a prevalence of youth suicide that "startled" even the Justice Department, these factors make for an especially hostile environment for young Natives.
Of course, a hashtag will not solve all of the problems facing Native youth. Native activists and organizations have been fighting to end these disparities for years, but centuries of systemic violence and degradation leveled against Native American communities by the U.S. government — from mass murder to land theft and troubling rates of police violence — make this a particularly ingrained set of challenges to combat. But they also contain opportunities for greater involvement and advocacy.
"Sometimes there is a tendency to marginalize the perspectives of [young people]," Spotted Eagle said, adding that young activists sometimes are not mentored by elders, which could help end this vicious cycle. "While we advocate for them," she said, "we also need to advocate with them."
The #DearNativeYouth hashtag cannot be the only solution. But, as Spotted Eagle says, "it can send short letters of love to Native youth reminding them that even if they aren't able to see it day to day, we love them so dearly and we want them here. We need them here."
It's an important reminder that Native youth are not in this fight alone.
Correction: April 1, 2015