InterTribal Youth: Safeguarding Cultural Capital


  • Facebook:
  • Instagram: @intertribalyouth
  • Twitter: @nativelikewater
  • Website:

InterTribal Youth (ITY), also known as Native Like Water, is an organization dedicated to engaging with indigenous communities to prepare “youth and adult volunteers in science, outdoor education, conservation, wellness and cultural self-exploration.” Breaking ground in 2000 under the name Young Native Scholars, the group’s goal is to provide cultural experiences for First Nations persons in the continental United States as well as Alaska and Hawaii.

“In 2005, ITY worked up enough courage to initiate an international program for Native American youth and college-age students. This began our first International Exchange to Panama, Central America, thousands of miles away,” shares Marc Chavez, ITY founder and program director of InterTribal Youth. “It took courage, for the community and youth were not all ready to visit lands so far from home. It seemed dangerous. This was before social media and [the] internet made the world feel smaller. The exchanged experiences between indigenous communities provided a priceless education at home and abroad.”

Initiating “Native Like Water,” ITY participants travel to Jamaica once a year and participate in the Earth Family Gathering. Each year an intergenerational group assembles intending to build bridges of “overstanding” and to “indigenize education.” Since its founding, ITY has quadrupled the number of programs it offers, and now offers experiences in Southern and Northern California, Hawaii, Panama, Jamaica and Mexico. 

DOPE Magazine caught up with Chavez to discuss the important work the organization is doing. [This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

DOPE Magazine: The organization has many names. Young Native Scholars. InterTribal Youth. Native Like Water. Can you tell me a bit about each name and in what contexts you use which?

Marc Chavez: We started as Young Native Scholars, and our goal was to try and get indigenous youth into higher education. But unfortunately, because academic achievement among indigenous youth is so low in schools, that meant we were serving a tiny fraction of the community and further complicating the relationship between indigenous communities and higher education [which has a history] of stripping indigenous youth of their identities. So, we changed the name to be more inclusive. We settled upon InterTribal Youth, and in 2015 we started using the name Native Like Water to include adults, elders and to further investigate our collective relationship to water.

It sounds like there is a tension between your organization’s desire to see indigenous youth succeed, and an equally understandable concern about the effects of university education on an indigenous youth’s relationship to his or her identity. How do you navigate this?

Chavez: No matter what subject a university student chooses to study, there is a lack of the precolonial contribution to the discipline. We’re talking about prestigious educational institutions that are only a few hundred years old at most, and ignoring a land and knowledge that’s been inhabited by the original people for over 20,000 years. Our organization is focused not only on getting kids into college; we are focused on how we engage the community and universities on “indigenizing education.”

How do you put the idea of “indigenizing education” into practice?

Chavez: One example is when we went out on a tall ship, like 40 of us, and we even had an astrophysicist join us. But because his specialty is not wayfinding using the stars seen as the Native Hawaiians do, he was equally there as a student as he was a professor. He joined us in learning and bridging our indigenous knowledge. So, what we’re doing is building bridges of “overstanding.”

How do your concerns with Western cultural hegemony relate to cannabis education, culture and the industry?

Chavez: As the popularity of recreational and medicinal use of cannabis continues to grow on and off the reservation, I felt the community needed a more comprehensive background of its cultural use. Upon an invitation by elders, Native Like Water formed an intergenerational delegation and set out to visit “Yamaye” aka Xamayca or Jamaica. On our Jamaican trip, a group of noble elders and cultural leaders voiced their concern that the “train with our cultural capital is leaving the station, and without the cultural bearers.” Globally, Anglo-European-Americans own the majority of [cannabis] production and retail companies. Folks are positioning around a plant for its medicinal and economic benefits, claiming the cannabis culture but ignoring cultural competency.

As cannabis makes frontline news, we must ask who will play a leading role in addressing indigenous culture, wisdom and sacredness of the plant? Those who consume and grow it may require, or may seek, the cultural knowledge behind its use and production. Jamaica has great fame for its use. Ganja, Reggae and “Rasta culture” are extremely popular and cross all age groups, world-wide. As an educator who service youth, one can make some clear observations. We know that often up to 50 percent of some high school youth are participating in the use of cannabis. It’s a topic in music and even pop culture. Yet, who is talking about it in the classroom with a holistic educational approach? Everybody is talking about it, but at the same time no one is talking about it within formal education and even less in its cultural context.

The word “medicine” gets thrown around a lot these days, as does the word “ceremony.”

Often used, many times cliché. A truth within indigenous medicine is that it must exist with

prayer and ceremony. From Ayurvedic medicine to the bushes of the Americas and Africa, plant medicine requires a deep meditation to fully activate its healing potential. First, with the plant prior to its use in cultivation and harvest. Second, with the patient or recipient and plant during use or consumption. Thirdly, afterward, while the medicine is doing its work. All the while in gratitude to the creator, mother earth’s gifts and an inner communion.

There is more to Ganja then economics and social recreation. There is a fortitude and indigenous “levity,” a feminine nature of leadership, that is at its true core being. However, the latter is so often missing in the equation, in the education around the plant.

At a recent cannabis expo in Northern California, it was revealed that over 50 percent of the medical cannabis sold at dispensaries and on display is non-organic and contains traces of artificial pesticides or synthetics … We must know that there is an increased level of efficiency, healing and potency which comes with education. With cultural integrity and a sacred perspective, I hope we all can optimize our journey.

Related Articles