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Christina Thomas: Songbird, Healer, Ambassador

Christina Thomas has done more, seen more and met more people in her 27 years than most experience in a lifetime. Of Northern Paiute, Western Shoshone, and Hopi decent, and a member of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Thomas grew up in Wadsworth, Nevada on the Pyramid Lake Reservation. She’s a fund, friend and awareness raiser with a clear goal – help her community, and a student at the University of Nevada-Reno. For her, community equals the world.

Thomas recently returned from the World Indigenous People’s Conference on Education (WIPCE) in Peru, where she acted as one of 16 Ambassadors representing Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO). AIO Ambassadors is a leadership development and community-building initiative based on traditional indigenous values that encourage young people to positively impact their community, strengthen their ability and resolve to improve their communities’ well-being, reaffirm cultural values and identity, and incorporate traditional values into strategies for the future.

While in Peru, she met with representatives of the Peruvian government, local indigenous tribes people and leaders, and learned about the challenges faced by indigenous people outside the United States.

“We talked with Peruvian ministry of education and cultural affairs officials, and others from organizations interested in hearing what Native Americans in the United States struggle with,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network about her first time visiting indigenous communities outside the United States.

“We discussed land rights, food, languages, energy, how we incorporate our core traditions into education systems, and our views on the environment. I learned that though the situation for tribes in the U.S. isn’t the best, we’re so far ahead of other people around the world. Many of them don’t even claim their ancestry because of the discrimination or violence they would face, even prohibition from selling their wares.”

Recognition that she has been fortunate to have a supportive family, education system and mentors in her life has given Thomas a positive outlook on the future. She says she’s close to her family, an older and younger sister and younger brother, two nieces and a nephew on the way, her step dad and grandparents, of course, her mother.

“They’re really supportive, especially in past couple years helping with fundraising. Mom is my biggest supporter and fan. She’s my best friend, and always encouraging,” she said. “Sometimes I do feel a lot of responsibility, but with their support and giving back, I’m lucky to have family that supports me.”

This support has given Thomas the wherewithal to set a good example for others by being a Big Sister in Big Brothers/Big Sisters, teaching the Northern Paiute language at two local high schools, and founding and leading three girls youth groups.

“The groups are called Native Butterflies,” she said. “We study our language, do medicine pouches and beading, learn the dances of the people. Really, I’m just helping the girls be who they are. We meet every week for about two hours and the time flies! Last year we had funding from a grant, but this year, because of budget cuts, we don’t. But I can’t let the girls down.”

Despite a lack of funding, and her own need to earn a living, pay tuition and raise money for future travel, Thomas is unflaggingly optimistic. She points to the parents of the girls in Native Butterflies who pitch in for supplies and food in order to continue the groups. One thing she does know is that she’ll have to sell a lot of tacos to raise the estimated $15,000 she needs to participate in the Up With People Ambassador Program, for which she would be the first person of Paiute and Shoshone decent participate.

This traveling performing group visits cities around the United States and foreign countries for six months participating in community service projects like building houses and planting gardens, while keeping a rigorous three times per week musical performance schedule. They stay with host families in order to share their culture, and learn about the local culture. If Thomas can raise the required funds – through weekend taco sales and writing letters to Native owned businesses and others for sponsorship – she will begin her semester in July 2012.

Thomas is the ideal Up With People person. She’s outgoing, friendly, and has musical talent. She’s known as a singer in both English and Northern Paiute, has sung for First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, and in 2010 garnered attention for singing at a political rally for Nevada Senator Harry Reid.

“I was scrutinized by the media for singing ‘Flag Song’ in my language. I was talked about on the Barbara Simpson Radio Station, Fox News Nation, and online in I didn’t really know about the controversy until someone told me,” she said. “It seems like it was all a misunderstanding.”

Thomas says she was asked to sing “Flag Song” at a rally during the re-election campaign for Senator Reid in fall of 2010, a song she’d sung before at local events. But the announcer told the audience that she’d be singing the United States national anthem. Rather than correct the announcer, she told Indian Country Today Media Network, she said a few words in Northern Paiute, then sang “Flag Song” as she has been requested.

“Now I know how celebrities feel when mean things, racist remarks, and ignorant remarks are said about them. But I don’t respond or get mad. That only gives them more things to talk about. I represented my people as I had been asked to, and got lots of e-mails and comments of encouragement on my website and Facebook,” she said, demonstrating her positive outlook.

If Thomas looks familiar to ICTMN readers, that is because she has been featured in the publication for placing first runner up and winning Tribal Chairman’s Choice at the Miss Indian Nations Pageant in 2010, and for her participation in Miss Indian World 2009.

Washington, D.C. is no stranger to Thomas, either. She was there as a role model in the Patty Iron Cloud National Native American Youth Initiative, a program of the Association of American Indian Physicians (AAIP). Thomas’ studies at UN-Reno are toward entering dental school. The Patty Iron Cloud program is designed to better prepare American Indian/Alaska Native high school students to remain in college as they pursue career in the health professions and/or biomedical research. Role models are college students studying for health professions.

“I was assigned to a group of kids as a role model as we attended classes, met with Native physicians and researchers, visited the National Library of Medicine, and the National Institutes of Health, where medical research is done,” she said. “We met a lot of Native American doctors, physicians, surgeons, and oral surgeons talked to how they got into the profession, their backgrounds. It was good for all of us to hear their stories, because some struggled with academics and some good students. I learned a lot about opportunities available that I wasn’t aware of before.”

Lucinda Myers (Muskogee Creek/Seminole), Health Career Student Programs Director with the AAIP, said that Thomas was a great role model, because of “her leadership, life experience and that she had worked with Native youth in the past, and that she’s taken advantage of scholarships so she could tell the high school students about her experience. We received a lot of feedback that students loved her and benefited from her.”

Many students in the Patty Iron Cloud program stay in contact with their role models as they enter college themselves, and Thomas has, by writing letters of recommendation for some of them, and watching them as they pursue their dreams.

Understanding the power of networking is also important to Thomas. She learned about the Patty Iron Cloud program through a fellow Ambassador with AIO. During the two year Ambassadorship with AIO, Thomas must complete a community project, in addition to attending four gatherings, of which the Peru conference was the third. Thomas’ project involves working with her local chapter of Flying Doctors and the local Indian Health Service’s facility to perform dental and eye clinics.

“I was in Mexico last March with Flying Doctors, but saw that people at home were waiting months on end to get into local clinic to be seen, like in many other Native communities. I asked Flying Doctors if they could do a clinic for my community. We’ve been meeting a lot and planning, and going through the IHS for the okay and talking with tribal leaders. Hopefully, the clinic will be next year.”

If anyone can make the clinic happen, it will be Christina Thomas, the youngest person featured in the Pyramid Lake Cultural Museum. So says Ron Martinez Looking Elk (Isleta/Taos Pueblo), Director of Indigenous Leadership Initiatives at AIO. “That girl is a go getter,” he said. “I wish we had 100 Christinas in the community, because she’s such a great example, and true ambassador. Christina is connected with her community through her personal development as a culture bearer – through language and education and that she wants to be a dentist some day. The wellbeing of the community really stands out for her, and she takes own personal positive direction to challenges and how she expresses herself. She’s a wonderful representative of her community because she lives her core cultural values and her personal message.”

When asked why she has applied for so many scholarships, activities and travel opportunities, Thomas laughs. “There are so many opportunities out there, but they aren’t going to find you, you must find them. I needed to do them now because some of them have age limits. Dental school will take 6 years! But I feel lucky to do what I love now: working with kids, and teaching my language, and traveling. I’ll probably go into the Peace Corps after dental school and visit foreign countries to practice dentistry.”

No doubt Christina Thomas will do anything and everything she wants to do.