By Michell C. Clark
Activism was never a choice for Allen Salway. Like other 21-year-old college students, Salway enjoys listening to Megan Thee Stallion, watching sunsets, and using the right meme at the right time. But he is also a community organizer and a staunch advocate for Indigenous peoples worldwide, who has personally experienced many of the issues that he writes about and works to remediate.
Salway grew up on the eastern part of Navajo Nation, in New Mexico — without electricity, running water, or a home address. The nearest source of drinkable water was hours awayand, in the event of an emergency, calling 911 on the reservation was never an option; in order to survive, Salway and his family had to deal with crises or threats themselves. In August 2017, Salway detailed these realities of reservation life in a Twitter thread that soon went viral.
It was then that Salway realized that he had a responsibility to use his voice and bring light to the issues the people of the Navajo Nation and other Indigenous tribes navigate on a daily basis. Their struggles are exacerbated by the fact that their existence is often overlooked; studies show that media inclusion of contemporary Native peoples is so rare that 95 of 100 Google image search results for “Native American” are historic representations. A 2014 study also found that 87 percent of academic textbooks mentioning Indigenous peoples in America refer to them primarily as a population that only existed before 1900, when in reality approximately 2.9 million Indigenous Americans are alive today.
To that end, Salway uses social media — @LilNativeBoy on Twitter and Instagram — to stand in direct opposition to the modern day erasure of his people, and peoples like him. There, he shares uncomfortable truths from a lifetime of hardships brought by the United States government’s treatment of Indigenous peoples. His feeds, and his work more broadly, serve as a crucial reminder of the United States’s origins: It is a country built on land stolen from Indigenous peoples that the government continues to disenfranchise.
Salway currently serves as an ambassador for DigDeepH2O, a nonprofit organization working to bring hot and cold running water to Navajo homes without access to water or sewer lines. (Out of the roughly 350,000 present-day population in the Navajo Nation, approximately 40 percent of households do not have a tap or toilet at home; the Navajo Nation is also facing the residual effects of a drought brought on by the intensifying climate crisis.) The student is also currently majoring in American Indian Studies, with the intent of using his academic credentials and real-world experiences to teach at a respected university in the future.
MTV News spoke with Salway about how he uses social media to help the Navajo Nation, common misconceptions about Indigenous peoples, and how we can all do our part to support Native communities.
MTV News: What sparked your activism to begin with? How did you begin to harness social media in order to reach more people and amplify the work you and your fellow activists are doing?
Allen Salway: I have been speaking and writing about Native issues since I was young. I’ve experienced the majority of the issues that I write about in my life. I saw social media being used as a tool by other Indigenous people to not only survive, but also to educate each other and share personal experiences that illustrate what we go through. I started to share my story, and eventually people started to take notice.
Most of my Twitter threads revolve around my experience growing up on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, and dealing with Native mascots at my own schools. I think a lot of people are genuinely interested in seeing an Indigenous person openly navigate this society, because it hasn’t been shared publicly before, especially with younger generations.
MTV News: You use your social media and writing purposefully, as a means to advocate for fellow Indigenous peoples. What led to your decision to use social in that way?
Salway: I decided to use social media to help my people because even when I had very few followers, I felt like I had a voice. I was talking about issues that affected me. I saw social media as a means to spread necessary information in order to combat the ignorance perpetuated in regards to our struggle. I also saw social media as a way to find other Natives, since our population is so small. It’s good to connect with others through healing work.
MTV News: What do you do for leisure when you need to decompress?
Salway: I’m attending college away from home, so simply taking the trip back home to see my family helps me to recharge. While I’m at school in Tucson, I love watching the sunsets. I’m not from Tucson, but my blood is — this is O’odham land. I feel it every time I sit on a cliff at Gates Pass looking out at the desert.
I have [also] been listening to Megan Thee Stallion. I love her flow, the way she carries herself, and how her music makes you feel — she’s superior to many of the artists who are out right now, and I think she deserves a lot more recognition.
MTV News: You're currently going to college and majoring in American Indian Studies. What led you to choose that focus?
Salway: Majoring in American Indian Studies allows me to learn as much as I can about Native issues and Native history. This opportunity holds a special place in my heart, because so much of our history has been lost. I also realized that there aren’t many Native educators in any institutions. I’d love to be able to use my knowledge and work to teach my own class at a university one day.
MTV News: Have you noticed anything incongruent to what you've experienced as a Native citizen while focusing on American Indian Studies at a collegiate level?
Salway: All the time. I oftentimes find myself correcting my own educators and peers about the true nature of the original inhabitants of this land.
One time a professor stated that he only considers those who are full-blood Navajo to be part of Navajo Nation, which offended me. I am Navajo, O’odham, and Lakota and grew up on the Navajo Nation, living the Diné way of life. I explained to the class how the concept of blood quantum was instituted to destroy Native Nations. The amount of Native blood that you have doesn’t matter. What matters is your connection to the community, and the community’s connection to you.
MTV News: You grew up on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico — what were some of the most unexpected adjustments you had to make when you began to attend college off of the reservation?
Salway: The biggest adjustment I’ve had to make is in regards to the significant disconnect that I feel from the land that made me and the culture that shaped me. I’m not around my family the way I used to be. I’ve noticed that the more I learn out here, the more I forget my own language — which is scary to me, because language is the heart of any culture.
MTV News: In your viral Twitter thread about growing up on the Navajo reservation, you told us that you grew up without water, electricity, or a home address. Today, nearly 40 percent of Navajo don't have tap water or a toilet at home. Did you expect that thread to resonate so deeply with other people when it took off?
Salway: I honestly didn't expect that Twitter thread to resonate with so many people. I had been hiding this part of my life for so long. I was ashamed of it. I had to realize that it wasn’t my fault for being in the position that I’m in, and to realize that America is at fault for how they’ve treated us for centuries.
MTV News: Today, you're working as an ambassador for DigDeep, a community-managed utility alternative that brings hot and cold running water to homes without access to water or sewer lines. How did you become involved with them?
Salway: I found DigDeep through my own research about Navajo Nation issues. After seeing the work that [they were] doing in the community that raised me, I started to share their story and support them in any way possible. Eventually, we got in touch and I worked with them to create and amplify a fundraiser that raised over $20,000 to help Navajo Nation families gain access to running water and electricity for the first time. I hope to continue working with them until all of my people have access to basic necessities like water and light.
MTV News: What are your immediate goals as a Navajo Nation citizen?
Salway: I want the United States to support the sovereignty of my Nation and all Native Nations. This action alone would protect land and water, along with other basic rights, all over North America. Every day, we see a new article about how limited our window of time is to save the Earth, so I’m not sure if we’ll ever see our basic rights upheld.
MTV News: Your goal is to "be who you needed when you were a little boy, and to help your people." What does that look like to you today?
Salway: I want to be there for the youth and for my people, in any way possible. I know that I’m nowhere near my goal, and have a lot to learn and unlearn. When I was younger, I needed to know that someone was there who had experienced struggles similar to the situations that I dealt with. I needed to see people who had overcome, found happiness, and discovered healing. I needed to understand the steps they took to find healing in their own lives.
MTV News: To be an ally requires action. Can you suggest a few ways that everyone can tangibly support Native activists and communities?
Salway: The first step that everyone must take is to acknowledge that the land they live on may have initially been inhabited by Indigenous people. That acknowledgement is important. Additionally, everyone should seek to uplift the Native voices that need to be heard. Those voices may be hard to find, but believe me — they are there.
It’s important to support Native-owned businesses, many of which can be found with a quick Google search. Finally, it’s important to call out people and companies who steal from Native artists — and Native people in general — because if you don’t, who will?