When 19-year-old Yale college student and award-winning poet Kinsale Hueston, Navajo, received an email from TIME Magazine asking for an interview, she thought it was a spam email. But the email was the real deal.
Little did Hueston know, she was one of 34 people selected by renowned movie director and artist Ava DuVernay and TIME Magazine as one of a select few ‘People Changing How We See the World.’
In an interview with Hueston, she describes how she got the recognition and where her aspirations will take her into the future. She also talks about meeting such icons as Ava DuVernay and Bethany Yellowtail, discusses how to utilize social media as a young person, and offers words from her generation for those who would wish to listen.
Vincent Schilling: So wow. Time Magazine's 34 People Changing How We See The World.
Kinsale Hueston: Yeah. It's still a little surreal. They didn't give me a lot of information about how the article in the issue would look. When it came out, I opened it. My portrait was there. It was wild. I got the email at the airport when I was going home for a break, back in October. It just said, from, or request for Time Magazine or something. I was like, "This is spam mail. This is not a real email."
Vincent Schilling: So, what did you do to become one of the people changing how we see the world?
Kinsale Hueston: Last year I'd done a lot of poetry in high school, and won a few awards. One year the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards had something called, The National Student Poet’s Program, which appoints a national student poet each year. It's the nation's highest honor for youth poets. The Obama administration's President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and the Library Institute, and Library of Congress teamed up with Scholastic to make this program. One year, when I won one of the awards, it qualified me to become one of them. So from 2017 to 2018, I served as the National Student Poet for the west coast.
So I went to the Aspen Ideas Festival last summer to do this filmed reading with the other poets. I met Ava DuVernay because she had this talk about art and activism with us. She heard some of our work. After that, she followed me on social media, and kind of kept in contact, which was very strange for me. I love Ava DuVernay. So I guess she was plotting to have me in the TIME article.
Vincent Schilling: I don’t think she was plotting as much as planning.
Kinsale Hueston: (Laughs) Oh, okay. Yeah. She basically just asked. They were asking for her personal suggestions about, who to have featured for the issue. She suggested me.
Vincent Schilling: Wow, fantastic. So what did you learn as a National Student Poet?
Kinsale Hueston: Most of my work with poetry and my year as a National Student Poet had me around a lot of adults, who worked in education and the arts. That was amazing in terms of seeing what I could do professionally. I also worked a lot with Native youth, which was amazing. That was what I was originally planning on doing. I never really saw myself as doing poetry professionally. My year as a National Student Poet really gave me an idea of what that could be like.
Before my year of service, I had won some awards, but I wasn't really a big presence on social media. Once I started doing talks and stuff, I was talking to Native students. I realized that a lot of them wanted to keep up with my work, and wanted to know what I was doing. I guess, there's not a lot of young Native poets and activists, who aren't very represented in media.
It was kind of bizarre how much of a connection I had with Native youth during my year or service.
Vincent Schilling: Now you are a student at Yale. How is that for you?
Kinsale Hueston: Coming to Yale was a little, bit different. I was like, "Okay college. I need to see what I wanna do. I need to see what I can do professionally, but also I wanna keep doing poetry."
At Yale, I still do spoken word. I'm in the group that is the oldest spoken word group on campus. That's amazing. Yale means I can interact with a lot of people who are very passionate about what they do, especially in terms of poetry, which I love. I'm taking a class right now with Claudia Rankin, who's one of my favorite poets. That's incredible. I never saw myself in the same room as her and giving her my poems to workshop.
Vincent Schilling: Do you have any videos of live poetry you do?
Kinsale Hueston: Yes, there is one poem I performed he that was posted by a couple of outlets. It was about Sherman Alexie. While I've been at Yale, the whole thing with him and accusations was definitely very disheartening. I grew up reading a lot of his stuff. As a young Native writer, I didn't have a lot of role models. It was hard for me to find them at school. The only person they taught was Sherman Alexie. The poem I performed was dealing with that fact. We can't look to him anymore as the prominent Native writer in America. A lot of non-Natives didn't see the problem with continuing to use and look to his work.
Also, being involved with the Native American Cultural Center here has been really great. I also grew up in Southern California, splitting my time between there and the Navajo reservation where my mom was from. It just was very, very difficult, dealing with the isolation. Less than one percent of the population is Native and going somewhere, where pretty much everyone is Native, there's a very nice support system, with the Native community.
Vincent Schilling: So tell us about your poetry.
Kinsale Hueston: A lot of what my poetry is about has been navigating my identity. Most recently, while I'm actually at Yale, I've been reflecting on what it was like to work in Los Angeles, and interacting with the Native community there, but also having to deal with the fact that, that was also tribal land. Even though there's a big Native population in LA, there's also so much historical trauma with assimilation, and forced assimilation, and forcing Natives to move to cities. I've been kind of exploring that more now.
Vincent Schilling: So, as a young Native person, you have managed to bring yourself into the public light. What's the secret to that? What do young people need to know today to get their voices out?
Kinsale Hueston: I think using social media, not purely as a form of activism. I've talked about how such things as Twitter activism, being an activist, organizing protests, and being an advocate is very important. I think the key is also supplementing that with using social media to its advantage.
You have access to so many people. Anything you can say can become viral, which is amazing. That means that so many people can see your stuff.
I guess there isn't really a secret. For me it's been establishing relationships through social media with other young artists and activists, and maintaining those relationships. It's kind of like networking through social media. It connects all of us in a stronger way, reinforces the fact that maybe you met this person once. But for example, Ava DuVernay, who I met once, but then she followed me on social media, it helps you because you're able to keep up with them and communicate with them and share your idea.
It’s also important to use social media to share your art because there's such a strong connection between art and activism with my poetry. Using social media to share your words, your art, I think is such a powerful way of reaching people who would not normally have access to that. That's usually how I use social media. I've seen a lot of young artists and activists do the same.
I also fuse the visual with my poetry and what I'm doing. I'm a big fan of Bethany Yellowtail, the Indigenous designer. She's amazing. I met her in LA, when I was doing readings in person. It was very cool, but it was also because I had worn a lot of her things to my readings. I posted them on social media. She started to notice me through social media.
Vincent Schilling: That’s very cool, I have interviewed Bethany Yellowtail for Indian Country Today many times.
Kinsale Hueston: Yeah, it was great to meet her. Something like that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't used social media to take pictures of my readings and share them. It's the fusion of what I wear and what I'm writing and what I'm doing, plus social media kind of shows this almost unabashed kind of pride. It establishes an image of who I am and what I'm trying to do.
Vincent Schilling: Are Native Americans allowed to have pride in 2019?
Kinsale Hueston: Yes, of course. I think ...
Vincent Schilling: I say that as a bit of a devil’s advocate, It's tough because many Native tribe cultures tell us to be humble, but social media tell us to do the exact opposite.
Kinsale Hueston: Yeah. I am very proud of where I come from, of my family and everything. My work is inherently very full of love and pride for my people and my mother's family. I think my social media and how I present myself on there, is very aware of that and is not afraid to present myself in that kind of way.
It's also very interesting. Usually, why would you be proud of something like that? You're proud to be somebody who is a minority. You're proud to be someone who is a woman in doing this. The answer is yes. Here's me being unafraid to express that.
Vincent Schilling: All said, you have this voice to young people and voice to your peers. What do the elders need to know or hear perhaps from you as a young person?
Kinsale Hueston: I guess what's great about the younger generations is that we've become, in a way, very honest and unafraid to speak our truths, which is great for art.
But also because we're so connected with each other. And we have a lot of knowledge about different people from different backgrounds and identities. It's much easier to establish these connections. That's what art does. It establishes connections. Sharing art over media is just reinforcing this idea of our world becoming intricately more interconnected. I think especially with Indigenous youth and artists, there is such a strong connection to elders and our community still. Art is just ... Art and social media are just ways of reinforcing that. For me ... The reason I started writing poetry was because of my grandmother, Stella Drake. She was a huge influence on my work. For Indigenous people, it's a matter of honoring ancestral love and your ancestors, but also having one foot there and having one foot in the present in the age of technology and social media. It's this unique fusion of remembering who we are and honoring our past, but also bringing that into the present and connecting that with our peers.
What I emphasize always is, we never forget or replace these things that we've learned from our elders. They will always be so important to us. What we do now on social media and with technology is, we empower our voices and our values, to just strengthen this connection to our communities, our land, and our elders.
Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling