sheyenne sky is bringing navajo culture to generation z

This 21-year-old YouTuber saw a lack of representation as an opportunity to empower and create.

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Apr 4 2017, 3:55pm

"I went to third grade in three different countries," Sheyenne Sky, a 21-year-old YouTuber, says with a giggle. Born to a Navajo mother and a father in the mining business, Sky was constantly relocating to countries like Indonesia, Colombia, and Zambia. "Eventually you get used to being the new kid and it's actually kind of fun starting over." This charming optimism is the contagious energy that makes her YouTube channel — though only in its first year — a staple for positive Native American representation.

After graduating high school in Mongolia, Sky moved to New York City to pursue a dual degree in advertising and art history from the Fashion Institute of Technology. But the overwhelming lack of indigenous representation in art, fashion, and general American culture left her feeling distraught and marginalized. As an indigenous millennial, her instincts led her to the one cultural constant in her diasporan lifestyle — YouTube.

A Native-centric platform, Sky's channel ranges from playful clips like frybread recipes to complex discussions about indigenous female empowerment and Native blood quantum politics. She's educational without being condescending or boring, she's relentlessly supportive, and she's genuinely excited to share her process. With a predominantly young Native American audience, Sky is a visible forerunner of a new, proactive generation of indigenous thinkers and doers. "I like to think of myself as a little sister with good advice," she says in earnest modesty.

We caught up with the Navajo YouTuber between classes and video editing to talk artist representation, growing up around the world, and the future of Native media.

What made you decide to start a YouTube channel?
In high school, I started learning about the history of our people. I was researching Navajo history specifically, which was really shocking to me, and I just kept learning about it. When I got to college, I realized how many people just don't know indigenous history at all.

I got really upset one day -- I had to get the statistics out of my head -- and I made my first YouTube video. It was really emotional and I actually cry in it. One of my university professors inspired me to do it. He was like, "With all of these political conflicts, you can chose to be angry and let it come out in a negative way, or you can use your anger productively."

And what about your blog?
I started working for this minimalist boutique, and my whole job was to help compile blogs for a newsletter. After reading the content, I found that there were things that I really resonated with within minimalism -- trying to reduce consumption and trying to be mindful about the things that I'm buying, where they're coming from, who's benefiting from my purchases. I wanted to try writing about minimalism and started my blog. It's also a personal place where I just want to share thoughts about life and relationships.

As a Navajo woman growing up abroad, what is it like to consume and produce media?
Because I've moved around so much, the only consistent media I've had in my life is YouTube, which is why I love it so much. I never really had a negative relationship with [mainstream media] as much as I just don't pay attention to it. But I see certain things in movies and the casting situation of movies -- not necessarily with Native Americans, because we're hardly represented -- but it just seems like [Hollywood] is a dying industry.

It's a really empowering thing to make my own content because I feel like I can do exactly what I want with it -- there's nobody telling me who to be, what to say, what to do. I'm working on being authentic and showing people that it's okay not to be 100% Native but that doing something positive is what's important. I really encourage other Native people to make their own content. If you're Native and want to see more Natives in media, do it yourself.

Your "Marketing for Native Artists" video series is such an incredible tool for indigenous creatives. What inspired the series?
There's a really soft spot in my heart for artists. That's the whole reason I went into art history and museum professions specifically because they're the gatekeepers to getting into galleries and museums. If I had the inside knowledge of how to guide artists into this road, that would be really beneficial to them.

I went to the Indigenous Fine Art Market East [IFAM(E)] at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and made a video asking all the artists that I found most marketable what their biggest struggles were. Their main complaint was that they just don't know how to get into these establishments. I guess that really resonated with me.

With these experiences, what do you want to see changing in the indigenous art world?
My main goal is to get more indigenous artists represented here in New York City and overseas. I talk to a lot of artists in New Mexico, and their main goal is to get featured in Santa Fe galleries. And I'm like, why wouldn't you try to get featured in a gallery in New York City or Paris? You have to think way bigger than that.

Right now, I'm working towards making an artist exchange between Mongolia and the Navajo nation. It wasn't until I lived in Mongolia that I understood what it was like to be Native because they're a population that's really committed to their traditional ways that are similar to my own culture -- their gers look like Navajo hogans, they have lapis lazuli and we have turquoise, they have shamans and we have medicine men. There's this younger generation of Mongolian artists who are experimenting with style and incorporating their traditional Mongolian beliefs, which I think is amazing. I want to find the two right artists to pair up, and once that happens, I feel like we're on the cusp of something very cool.

You've also interviewed indigenous designers for your "NATIVE FASHION NOW: Advice for Native Artists" video. What was that experience like?
I went through the Smithsonian Museum of American Indian's VIP preview for Native Fashion Now and really got a feel of what they were going for. Then I gathered some questions and interviewed the featured designers -- I was wearing my squash blossom so I felt ready for anything. [Laughs]

Who are some other Native creatives outside of fashion that you follow?

GM Davis (Navajo) has a brand called NDN Inspired where she makes mugs, water bottles, little inspirational postcards and things like that. They're really cute and well-designed. She's a poet and she doesn't even know it.

Then there's the YouTuber Hon'mana Seukteoma from the Tohono O'odham tribe. She's one of my friends and she's way funnier than me. [The Tohono O'odham] are really worried right now because Trump's wall is supposed to be going straight through their reservation. As someone with a platform, she has to come forward with a political message - she made a video that gives you an inside look at what it's like for her tribe right now and how they're trying to stop the wall.

What are you hoping to accomplish with your own YouTube platform?
I want to document the process of going about my goals to show people that it's not a quick thing, it's not easy, it's not something that you just know how to do. It takes a long time, it takes a lot of steps, it takes a lot of scheming and trying and failing and trying again. If you have a whole chronology of someone's process, then maybe you would feel inspired to do it yourself. At the same time, I just want to incrementally share some issues that I find important and perspectives that I see are really changing Native America. I really want to see more Natives pursuing their dreams on a larger scale

Credits


Text Braudie Blais-Billie
Photography Ebb Bayarsaikhan courtesy Sheyenne Sky