Celebrating American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month


This November, Starbucks is proud to recognize American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. We celebrate alongside our indigenous partners (employees), as they share stories about identity, culture and tradition – how they honor and remember their past, embrace and claim their present and imagine what’s possible for their future.  

Read on for stories of three of our partners:  

  • Through dance, Mikah celebrates her Ojibwe identity, reclaims space and navigates trauma
  • Jesse honors his Pascua Yaqui grandfather by continuing his legacy of service
  • Nelshaylynn hopes to continue the example of strong Diné (Navajo) women leaders

Learn how you can support the Indigenous community

Mikah: ‘See us as we are now’  

Barista, Oklahoma

SPAVINAW, Oklahoma – Mikah slowly walks around the center drum group at the end of a powwow on a recent Saturday night in October, calves and ankles still sore from a round of competitive jingle dancing about an hour earlier, thinking about all the things she’s missed this last year.  

See and hear Mikah dance at a powwow and share her story

When COVID-19 shut down society, it also shut down the powwow circuit. And for Mikah, 24, Red Lake Ojibwe and Choctaw and a third-generation Jingle Dress Dancer – who sometimes lived out of her car as she traveled and entered as many as 30 events a year – that meant being cut off from her best physical, social, spiritual and mental health outlets.

“Honestly, it felt like a limb was missing,” says Mikah, who moved closer to her mother and sister at the start of the pandemic and took a job as a Starbucks barista in northeastern Oklahoma.

Powwows are gatherings held by many Indigenous cultures in North America. Some are public and casual. Some are more sacred and ceremonial. Some feature dancing competitions with winners and cash prizes. Vendors sell food and art, and leaders make community announcements.

The Spavinaw Powwow – a laid-back intertribal social gathering in the heart of the Cherokee Nation – is just Mikah’s second in more than a year. She danced alongside her little sister, Jaida, who competed in the Southern Buckskin category, and other friends she’d grown up with.

“The most important thing about powwows is that it heals our souls,” Mikah says. “It’s a way of celebrating that we’re still here, still thriving, surviving the best way that Natives know how, celebrating and having a good time.”

Joshua Trujillo

Mikah’s been dancing at powwows since she was 2 years old. The two generations on both sides before her were champion dancers, including her mother Erica, also a renowned artist. Her maternal grandfather, in a naming ceremony when she was four months old, gave her the name Ogichidaakwe, which means the one who leads, Warrior Woman or Jingle Dress Dancer.

Mikah and her mother make the intricate jingle dresses she wears (“thousands of hours” of work, Erica says) – an exquisite and complex menagerie of beadwork, animal furs, necklaces, plates, chokers, scarves, earrings, headbands and hair ties. Back when the Jingle Dress tradition started – it originated with the Ojibwe people who settled and lived around the Great Lakes in present-day Minnesota – Indigenous women made jingles by punching out the lids of chewing tobacco and soup cans, rolling them into cones and sewing them onto dresses.

Joshua Trujillo

“I’m really proud of being a Jingle Dress Dancer because we’re known as healers,” Mikah says. “I feel responsibility to my name, to be a good person, to show compassion, to be a leader, to be that healer because I am a Jingle Dress Dancer. I think it’s really important for Native Americans to reconnect with their names and reclaim their names as much as they can.”

Mikah also wants to show up and represent her heritage, as a young modern-day Indigenous woman, and reclaim space during a time when she believes Indigenous people are largely invisible. So she dances, wears her ribbon skirts to work – the ones with traditional Ojibwe patterns – and greets people by saying boozhoo (hello) in Ojibwe.

It’s a constant fight against the harmful assumptions she believes some have about Indigenous people, how all of the hundreds of different Native Nations in North America can somehow be grouped together into a vague historical collage of teepees and horses. For the record, Mikah says, her people lived in wigwams and fished.

“I think a lot of people have a lot of Indigenous people in a backwards point of view. They see us in the past tense rather than the present tense,” she says. “People just don’t see us as a living, breathing, creating entity anymore. A lot of people have us in such a past view, they don’t know how to see the new, to see us as we are now.”

Not that the history isn’t important, Mikah says, because there remain dark legacies of stolen land, broken treaties, Indian boarding schools and laws that prevented dancing. 

“You have to show that darker part, to honor and respect where we come from. We have a duty to remember what happened to our ancestors and to remember how they fought so much for our rights to be here,” Mikah says. “That historical trauma is something that every single Native person carries with them, whether they want to or not. But we have the light, we’re reclaiming our languages, we’re learning where we came from.

“I think dancing allows for us to be in a headspace where we get to connect with our ancestors and those people before us and our families,” Mikah says. “Our history is so full of bloodshed and trauma, and I think it’s so cool that we are celebrating our lives with dances now. That’s all our ancestors ever dreamed of, was being able to dance again.”

Animated GIF of Mikah dancing

Jesse: Continuing a legacy of service  

Store manager, California
Lia Kueck

When Jesse thinks about his grandfather, Raul, he remembers the white hat he always wore that covered his white hair, his soft-spoken voice and the way he raised both eyebrows when he had something important to say.

A member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Raul grew up in the Mexican state of Sonora and later settled in Arizona, near the Pascua Yaqui Peoples homeland that stretched from the modern-day southwestern U.S. to northern Mexico. He made frequent trips back across the border to distribute food and clothing. He helped build churches and counseled youth and families and dedicated himself to loving and serving others. 

This is what Jesse carries on in his honor. 

“The legacy I want to continue is the values I learned from my dad and grandpa and going out and serving the community. Loving everyone around you,” says Jesse, a Starbucks store manager in Fresno, California. 

Jesse's hands holding up a photograph of his grandparents
Lia Kueck

When things shut down during the pandemic and some people in the community lost their jobs, Jesse immediately looked for a way to help. He organized a district-wide volunteer event packaging food at the Central California Food Bank. He also spends time mentoring and counseling youth, like his grandpa did. 

“It’s important to really nurture somebody else’s spirit. You don’t always see the change, but you know they take something with them.” 

Jesse, 36, grew up on the Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation outside of Tucson and moved to Fresno, California about 10 years ago. Jesse stays connected to his heritage through the California Yaqui Association which unites Pascua Yaqui People living in Fresno through events and celebrations. The community is so close that he often meets people that know his family back in Arizona. 

In his store on Fridays, he proudly wears a T-shirt and facial covering that depict a Yaqui Deer Dancer from a traditional Pascua Yaqui dance that honors the hunt. 

Honoring his heritage is important to Jesse as a father. He wants his children, ages 6 and 2, to understand that they are part of something greater. 

“It’s important for them to know they are part of this Tribe because it’s something they inherited from my grandfather.”

Jesse also inherited a deep sense of spirituality from Raul. When Jesse was 9, he was in the hospital with heart problems and his grandfather paid him a visit that has had a lasting impact.

“He sat down on the bed right beside me and gave me a kiss on the forehead,” Jesse remembers. “He said, ‘Mijo, how are you? I’m going to pray for you, but before we pray you need to believe. I truly believe that you will get better, and you will get out of here’.” 

This past year, Jesse had to have another heart surgery. Although his grandpa passed away in 2011, Jesse still hears his voice, speaking to him softly in Spanish, reassuring him. Jesse thought about that visit in the hospital and was able to talk with his own son about faith.

“I told him my grandpa would always come and pray for me and that’s how I got better back then. It’s important that we’re confident and that’s how we get through this.”

Raul’s words live on.

“In my time of need or in my deepest darkest place, I can hear his voice saying, ‘All you have to do is believe. Don’t lose hope. Don’t lose your faith’.”

Lia Kueck/Starbucks

Nelshaylynn: Growing into a leadership role  

Assistant store manager, New Mexico  
Sharon Chischilly

Nelshaylynn felt some real self-doubt in 2018, when she went away to college in southern New Mexico. It was a seven-hour drive away from the Navajo Nation, where she was born and raised, and the people closest to her. 

She’d left to pursue big dreams of being a veterinarian. But when she arrived on campus, everything felt wrong. Values, priorities, social life. It all clashed with who she was. Feeling out of place at school, and helpless as her family went through some issues back home, she came back after a semester.  

“Because it’s all we’ve known and all we’ve grown up with, a lot of Navajo people haven’t ventured out beyond Navajo land,” she says. “For us to go into a place where we’re not familiar with the people, it’s scary. For me, I just kind of shut down.”

Now, Nelshaylynn, 21, is the assistant store manager at the Gallup, New Mexico, Starbucks where she is striving to create a place where all feel welcome, a place where people can be inspired. Nelshaylynn, like many other Navajo, also identifies herself as Diné (the people).

The store, located on the edge of the Navajo Nation, is staffed almost entirely by Navajo partners (employees) and is being remodeled into a Community Store dedicated to the Navajo Nation, one of the most populous tribes in the U.S. A Navajo artist will hand paint a 20-foot-long mural dedicated to the community’s elders and art; a community meeting space will be available for Navajo Nation members and the Gallup community; and a dedication will be written next to the front door in English and Navajo.

Starbucks has a commitment to open 100 Community Stores dedicated to providing economic opportunities in rural and urban communities across the country. The stores focus on hiring locally, reflecting community pride with local art and working with diverse contractors.

Sharon Chischilly

“When I went to school, I felt lost and out of place,” Nelshaylynn says. “When I came back, I feel like I failed myself. That was a hard hit to take. For me to own my leadership and take this step, that makes me feel like I’ve found my place, I’ve found what I’m good at, what I’m able to do, while also being able to be there for my family.” 

For as long as she can remember, Nelshaylynn, has always tried to honor her family, especially the women in it. 

“My mom is the most important person in my life. And to her, it’s her mom,” she says. “With my mom, my grandma, my sisters, as Navajo women, we’ve really tried to stick together. My niece is going to be 3 years old; I’m known as her second mom.”

Some of her first memories include helping cook the big Mother’s Day breakfast at the Navajo Nation’s Lake Valley Chapter House, an event that started about 30 years ago for great grandma Ruth and grew pre-COVID into a full, festive community feed for hundreds of people. 

The Navajo People are a matrilineal society, with descent and inheritance traditionally determined through one’s mother. The pandemic has ravaged the Navajo Nation – already severely disadvantaged by a general lack of resources like running water and electricity – and women have taken on even more responsibilities. 

As a young Navajo woman leader, Nelshaylynn wants to add to that legacy while standing up against the ways she feels Indigenous women are overlooked and victimized. Though women hold an important place within many Indigenous cultures, some studies finding that four in five Native American women in the U.S. have experienced violence in their lifetime.

But she also thinks about some of the strong people she meets every day – a store partner who’s also a very young mom and a customer, a teacher, who’s working with students in a stressful COVID environment while also going through physical therapy.

“My goal is to inspire people, not only in their own self journeys, but in whatever troubles they’re going through,” Nelshaylynn says. “With the store, I hope to do that with everyone who comes into contact with it. Me being in a leadership position, I hope to inspire them to do their best in all they can. We got to make the world a little nicer.”

Sharon Chischilly

Stories by Michael Ko and Lia Kueck  

At Starbucks, we’re listening to our newly formed Indigenous Partner Network, dedicating a Community Store this fall to the Navajo Nation and worked with Arizona State University to create curriculum challenging bias against American Indians. Here are some ways you can support the Indigenous community and learn more.

Supporting the Community

Learn more about The Boys & Girls Club Native Services Program. The Boys & Girls Club is the nation’s largest youth service provider for Native Youth with over 200 Native Clubs across the country (see map) serving 120,000+ Native youth representing nearly 150 tribal communities. 

As part of our commitment to support BIPOC youth, The Starbucks Foundation is working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to promote youth equity. Our grant supports Boys & Girls Clubs in integrating a racial equity lens throughout the organization by training staff and creating strategies designed to break down barriers for youth-serving programs across the country.

Resources

This free To Be Welcoming course from Arizona State University focuses on biases affecting American Indians and Alaska Natives, introducing the complex relationships between Indigenous peoples and the United States.

To continue your learning, engage with the following resources from the To Be Welcoming Curriculum:

Native-land.ca is an interactive map* that allows you to view the territories and additional information about the Indigenous peoples in your area. 

*This map should not be used as an academic or legal resource. Sourcing data on Indigenous territories is a delicate process, therefore the map should be used with an understanding that areas may be incorrect according to local nations and individual interpretation. The organization is in a constant state of research and adjustment to the map in an effort to remain as accurate as possible, however, errors may exist.

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Recipe for reinvention: Starbucks unveils innovations for better customer, barista experiences