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When I learned to love the desert, I learned to love myself

UNITY Healing Indigenous Lives Youth Submission: Damien Carlos
My whole life until I was fifteen, I didn’t know much of anything about my culture besides the fact that I belonged to the Tohono O’odham tribe. I knew nothing about where I came from. I went to schools on and off the reservation. My family dealt with alcoholism. I was in a dark place for a long time. When I was fifteen I moved back to the reservation and found people that were willing to take me places to learn about my culture. I learned songs, stories, and helped in ceremonies. I haven’t looked back since. When I learned to love the Tohono (Desert), I learned to love myself. For the last two years, I’ve been working with other youth from my community that have stories similar to mine to create a program to create opportunities for more youth to experience and learn out culture. I believe my culture saved my life and can help many more kids.

My Struggles are my Strengths: With my childhood struggles, it led to both depression and anxiety for my sister and myself. We turned to unhealthy coping skills in our routes to ending the pain. Her’s was alcohol and drugs while mine was food and I developed an eating disorder. Where she unsafely used alcohol and drugs, and I gained weight, and we were hurting our physical wellbeing. These are common among Native youth. We found our way wellness one song at a time. It is part of our healing.  All the things that I went through made me an angry kid. I hated the world. I was hurt. I felt like my parents were always choosing a bottle over me. I felt like I didn’t want to be a part of this world anymore. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to accept everything I went through. I can’t change it but I can make those struggles my strengths. I’ve let go of all that hurt.

What would you tell a Native Youth who struggles to see themselves as a leader?:

I know how it feels. I’ve been there. There’s so much going on that makes you feel like you’re not “good” enough. It’s hard to see anything beyond what you’re going through right now. One day it’ll be over and when you look back you’ll be amazed by how much you put up with. Then you’ll see everyone else behind you that is stuck in the same place you were. Right now it’s hard to think of yourself as a leader, but you are. The fact that you are still choosing to keep going is amazing itself.

Community Challenges: I feel like the kids that are forced into the system are forgotten or pushed to the side. I’ve seen the way teachers, police treated the ones I went to school with. These kids always getting in trouble are usually going through a lot. They hold onto a lot of pain. They have been taught that the world doesn’t care about them so they fight against the world. There is no one helping them handle their pain, instead we are tossing them into detention centers.

Solutions: In my community I want to set up mini-camps of 4-5 youth that work on culturally relevant projects like creating community gardens for example. These camps would be 2-3 days long. During the camp there would be time for youth to complete school work. I am currently a tutor at the High School in my community and I feel like I could help youth during these schoolwork sessions during the camps.

I am proud: At a camp I helped organize I was able to ride a horse for the first time. It was an elder from the community who rode another horse with me and taught me. At this time in my life I was very energetic and always wild. This was a moment where I learned I couldn’t be like that all the time. As a founding member of the I’oligam Youth Alliance i’m a little older now and work with youth 13-17 years old. There have been plenty of moments where they have made a mistake, not followed my directions, or have said very inappropriate things. These moments make me remember when I was the same way and have taught me to be patient and teach.

Role Models: When I was in high school there was a culture teacher who started teaching me. He taught me traditional stories and took me places to share them. He taught me about the songs and started taking me places to sing. He taught me about how O’odham used to live and took me to do those things myself. I learned about the beliefs of our people and the work that they did to survive. There are many lessons within the smallest details of culture that have deeply impacted the way I view myself and the world. I have grown so much as a person since then. I learned more from those nights in the desert than I ever did in a class room.

It’s important for your peers to see you live the lessons that you help instill in them. I also believe that the values we are taught in these programs are always put to the test in our personal lives. – Damien Carlos Jr