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Stanford Student Driven to Revive Culture and Prevent Youth Suicide

Navajo Stanford University student Lyla Johnston is concerned about preserving sacred sites, preventing youth suicide and reviving Native American culture.
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Stanford University senior Lyla Johnston’s commitment to bringing her indigenous perspective to anthropology has led her on many journeys: from studying menstrual taboos surrounding Ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru to working with the Mapuche people in Chile.

Yet her most memorable moment in the field occurred only a few hours north of Palo Alto, California where this summer she accompanied a score of Winnemem Wintu women to a sacred whirlpool on the McCloud River in Northern California, the tribe’s ancestral territory.

Although no one had brought a bathing suit, Johnston, 22, said they could not resist jumping into the river so tied to their identity. Johnston watched as 60-year-old women jumped into the churning, glacial waters with their daughters and granddaughters, laughing with joy.

“Not one of them could resist it,” she said. “They are a part of that river. It knows their bodies, and their bodies know it.”

After more than a year of research with the Winnemem, a federally unrecognized but deeply spiritual tribe of 125, Johnston plans to release a report this fall detailing the tribe’s cultural and emotional connection to nearly 40 sacred sites that would be drowned or damaged by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s plan to raise the Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet. The agency is currently in the scoping process for the project and says the raise is needed to improve water storage and provide more cold water for salmon, though the tribe and environmentalists argue there are far less expensive, environmentally harmful ways to achieve those ends.

After spending hours in the field taking GPS readings and conducting ethnographic interviews with the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, Johnston said she believes there must be thousands of small indigenous bands on the verge of extinction, and she wants her work to focus on helping to preserve them.

“Wherever you go there is always a people and a culture attached to the land, and I find that environmental destruction and ethnocide can amount to the same thing in many areas of the world,” she said.

A self-declared product of an “indigenous melting pot,” Johnston is Navajo by birth, she practices Lakota spirituality and was raised in Taos, New Mexico, which is home to the Taos Pueblo Tribe.

Many Navajo, including her parents, have immigrated to Taos in recent times, and she said it was her background as an “uprooted indigenous person” that has spurred her to learn more about her own culture as well as those of other indigenous people.

“At the Dutch Christian Reform school where my grandmother was Christianized, she was forced to write ‘I will only speak English’ 100 times for speaking her language,” she said. “So I have this drive to retrieve and understand my culture, and help other people do the same.”

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This is what led her to the Winnemem, and it was during her first summer with the tribe that she learned from her mother that there had been a rash of four young people committing suicide in Taos in less than a month.

After hearing the shocking news, Johnston said she awoke one morning and knew she had to do something. Initially, she wanted to have a small prayer group, but eventually as community support built, it mushroomed into a four-day, town-wide festival meant to help heal the youth and spread a message of hope, she said. It included a community skill share, a free dance party and members of different spiritual communities laying down prayers for the health of the young, she added.

Called the First Annual Taos Celebration of the Young, Johnston said her main goal “was to send a unified message to our young people, loud and clear, that we loved them and we understood that they were having a hard time.”

This year, the event was rechristened as the Regeneration Festival, and is again a response to tragedy, as Taos has seen three youth homicides and another suicide just this summer, she said.

It will be held August 31 to September 3 in numerous venues throughout Taos, and a sister event will also be held in Boston, said Johnston, who hopes more communities will hold their own youth festivals.

“In the Lakota philosophy, children are wakan, they are sacred. They are closer to the creator than we are and they should be honored and loved with all of our hearts each and every day,” she said.

Related articles:

Sacred Sites Along the McCloud River Endangered, Winnemem Wintu Fight For Coming of Age Ceremony Privacy

Raising Dam Would Drown Sacred Site

Video Spotlight: Student Promotes Regeneration Festival to Show Youth They Are Sacred