how this young native is keeping her traditions alive
Delmar Uqualla returned to the Viejas Reservation to learn the language and ceremonies of her ancestors.
Photography by Aidan Sheldon
When Delmar Uqualla was 18, she decided to leave her life in Kansas City and return to the Viejas Reservation, halfway across the country in San Diego. After 11 years in the city, she had mostly adapted to the pop culture-filled urban life, but after graduating high school, she wanted to reconnect with the traditions and ceremonies of her ancestors, who belonged to the Kiowa, Comanche, Havasupai, and Kumeyaay tribes.
“[The Viejas Reservation] is special to me because I feel it connects me back to my innate DNA. The land. The plants. The animals. The scents. The energy. It’s all reminding me of who I am. Who my ancestors are,” said Uqualla, who is now 24. “I know that it is preservation, not just a reservation.”
Unlike previous generations, many of the young people who live on the reservation with Uqualla weren’t taught their tribal languages or ceremonies. So Uqualla and other Indigenous youth are working to change that. Together they are learning about ancient practices, while also fighting against everything from colonization to climate change. The multi-tribe coalition doesn’t just want to preserve the Native American culture of the past, they want to let people know they are still making history today. In the words of Uqualla, their presence is “a miracle.”
“To be around family. Indigenous. All of us healing and learning and flourishing together. It just feels...at peace,” she explained. i-D caught up with Uqualla to learn more about life on the reservation and how young people are reclaiming their stories.
What made you want to move back to the Viejas Reservation?
I graduated early and then just went straight back to the res. And it was interesting. I never really thought about how special of a community it is to be there until a couple years later when I was still battling with my identity, if you wanna say that. And still traveling all over, not really hanging out with Natives.
Was it hard to return after not living there?
It wasn't until very recently, over this past year, that I discovered ceremony again and really felt the calling to commit to learning the language and not feel embarrassed that I didn't learn it before. Just start it where I'm at and now I'm making more friends. Ever since I shot the documentary, too, I've made a lot more Native friends on the res and we have started going to more protests and learning our languages.
And I’ve been learning water ceremony to transmute the genetic trauma. Yet, I’ve still been hesitant of sharing these things because I’ve felt like an outsider on both sides, on the res and in the city.
How has it been kind of straddling both worlds?
It's been a little weird. Especially before I started this ceremony work a year ago. I had some close friends who, I don't know, we would just go out and party a lot and it was all very social media-based and pop culture-based, which there is nothing wrong with that, but it just felt like it wasn't the path that I needed to be on. And when I started sharing the medicine work and all that with them, it seemed like they were a little scared almost. They're like, "You've changed." And then we split ways.
Are there are many young people on the reservation who are doing the same thing?
We created this little coalition of some of the natives from my reservation from the Yaqui tribe and other tribes combined, too. We're just getting together and realized how much we do these prayers by ourselves or we do prayers for the land and learn these medicine songs and are learning our languages. And we have all these books and we've just been coming together and learning from one another.
What made you want to learn the ceremonies?
I see it as, especially being another generation of Indigenous, that it is a miracle that I'm here among these four tribes and it makes me wanna do something about it to keep the lineage strong. Also seeing family go through these addictions and things that they don't really need to be going through, because we forgot about ceremony, reaching out because we know there's something there but we just may have forgotten.
Have you noticed more young people getting involved with activism?
I think just with all the, with Standing Rock and all of that coming up, to see the land also deteriorate in a way, it is causing a lot of action, for the youth and for myself to do something about it.
How has it been to reconnect with your culture in this way?
I feel inspired to come out and share the things I have, the gifts I have, and for a while it seemed like I isolated myself because I didn't know what outlets there was, especially for a Native woman. So I've learned that I have to create my own outlets, and coming together with this coalition we do a lot of prayer and go on hikes and try to visit our sacred sites and tell each other about what means what and share our creation stories. And we wanna also bring other tribes together to meet so we can learn different dances from each other and different languages and almost create this universal tribe.
Has life changed for you at all since after the documentary was shot?
Since we shot it, I've learned a lot about colonization and the colonized mindset and even I'm working through that, too. And to learn how movies and media has shaped the image around Native Americans… with the casinos and all that, I don't know, it feels a little like something is off. So if we could all just acknowledge that, I feel like we can move on, start moving on from that colonized mindset.