A project of the Institute for Human Centered Design

Celebrating Indigenous People’s Day

Ella, wearing her traditional  Navajo outfit consisting of a  tiered skirt and blouse, sits in  front of her makeshift home,  surrounded by five of her  great-great-grandsons.

In celebration of Indigenous Peoples' Day, The New England ADA Center honors Indigenous Americans by delving into their rich histories and cultures. Through these interviews, we aim to foster understanding and uplift those impacted by disability.

Our celebration begins with storytelling, a cherished cultural tradition that unites communities and shares histories and experiences. Allow us to introduce you to Althea John, a Navajo-based Native American in Colorado. Althea, is a Digital Inclusion Specialist at the Institute of Human Centered Design. She aims to empower her community by intertwining her Native American heritage with technology.

In addition, we wanted to introduce you to Madeleine Hutchins, a Mohegan storyteller and scholar from Connecticut. A recent graduate from Yale Divinity School focusing on Indigenous lifeways, literature and philosophy, Madeleine enriches her community through storytelling and spiritual care giving. 

Photo description: Ella, wearing her traditional Navajo outfit consisting of a tiered skirt and blouse, sits in front of her makeshift home, surrounded by five of her great-great-grandsons. 

Virginia Byjoe lovingly  cradling her grandson Noah  (toddler) with a joyful  expression on her face.

Can you start by introducing yourself? Share your name, tribal affiliation, interests or hobbies, and tell us how you got connected with the New England ADA Center.

Althea John: Hi! My name is Althea John. I am from the Navajo Nation. My interests include hiking, photography and journalism. My connection with the Center started with storytelling when I lived in Boston, Massachusetts. My peers were interested in my reservation life; I lived there for a majority of my life. I would share stories about my day-to-day, traditions and ceremonies. Through storytelling and networking, I was connected to Institute of Human Centered Design and later learned about the New England ADA Center. Their experts shared resources, and I immediately knew I wanted to help expand awareness not only for my community but all Indigenous communities.

Madeleine Hutchins: I'm a Mohegan storyteller and scholar. Some lovely friends connected me to the New England ADA Center through the Institute for Human Centered Design. I just graduated from Yale Divinity School where I studied storytelling and ritual, and how storytelling can be healing or harmful. We call this concept story medicine. I mostly focus on plays, and I've had the pleasure of helping develop some new Native theatre. I love to read and write. I love plants, cooking and eating [chuckles].

Photo description: Virginia Byjoe lovingly cradling her grandson Noah (toddler) with a joyful expression on her face. 

Madeleine burning a wooden mortar, a  traditional practice, inside the longhouse  at the Tantaquidgeon Museum in  Uncasville, CT.

Personal experiences with disability vary greatly, and language plays a significant role. Most Native languages do not have words equivalent to "disability" because of a very different sense that it "others" people, but there is also use of disparaging slang related to people with disabilities (Keltner et al., 2005; Lovern, 2008; Nichols & Keltner, 2005). Can you share your journey with disability and how it has influenced your identity and connection to your tribe?

Althea John: I've been diagnosed with ADHD and manic depression. Sometimes it gets really high, sometimes I get really sad. It happens so fast and out of the blue. I’m currently taking medication for both to help with my daily activities and workflow. My journey with disability has been a long one, because, culturally, people aren't “disabled.” We just have a different journey, a different way of doing things. Accepting the word “disability” is to say, ‘there's something wrong with you’ versus ‘there's an alternate path for you.’ That’s why we don't use that word in my community. Also, a lot of people see disability as just physical. When I share my disability, the typical response is, “No, you don't! You're physically fine.”

Madeleine Hutchins: My tribe is doing a language revitalization movement. Our fluent first-language Mohegan speaker died 1908. Hopefully, we will have a fluent first-language speaker in the next 20 years, but that's a huge undertaking. How Mohegans view disability and our place in the universe is encoded in our language. We’re missing an understanding of ourselves without access to that language. My whole life I've experienced some level of chronic pain. I was diagnosed with Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder, then I acquired Lyme disease and tick-borne illnesses. During the pandemic, for the first time, I could give myself accommodations I had never thought to ask for. When my pain was better managed, I was able to learn better.

Photo description: Madeleine burning a wooden mortar, a traditional practice, inside the longhouse at the Tantaquidgeon Museum in Uncasville, CT. 

Funeral floral arrangements on a  stand, accompanied by a framed  image of Asa Harvey, Althea's Brother.

Given that colonial structures often go unquestioned, what stereotypes or misconceptions have you faced regarding both your Indigenous identity and disability? How do you tackle these challenges, and is there a particular moment that stands out in your journey?

Althea John: For the longest time, I didn't talk to anyone about it. Mostly because of the stereotypes given to Native Americans: we’re alcoholics and only depend on welfare, so seeking help felt like I was adding to that. I'm the age that my father was when he committed suicide. My family didn't know he was having mental challenges. He was a big, jolly man, always making jokes and deep belly laughing. He never showed his sadness. I think, because of the stereotypes and needing to frequently leave the reservation for work, he faced that judgement often. In a moment of standing in my deep, dark thoughts his experience came to mind. Should I take his path? Then I thought about my nieces and nephews, and how I felt when my father passed. I decided to seek help. It's a new world we live in, and you need to put misconceptions aside, because if you don't the cycle will continue. It's okay to get help. I started by making a phone call to the crisis hotline.

Madeleine Hutchins: I don't look like what people expect either a disabled person or an Indigenous person to look like. The idea of what an Indigenous person looks like is shaped by old Hollywood movies. Ideas of disabled people are often limited to someone with a cane, walker, or a wheelchair. I haven't been challenged on my identity as a disabled person, because I don't bring it up much outside discussing accommodations. As an Indigenous person, I have dealt with identity challenges since I was a kid. It was always uncomfortable defending my identity. When I took a break from grad school and worked for my tribe’s museum, I became solid in my knowledge of our culture and understood the pressure colonization put on our people. That experience taught me how to respond to misconceptions and stereotypes. Now, I can respond with tact, as long as the person wants to listen.

Photo description: Funeral floral arrangements on a stand, accompanied by a framed image of Asa Harvey, Althea's Brother

Madeleine with her family: to the left is  her financé and fellow Mohegan Kaiser  Leuze, to the right is her parents Angela  and Thayne at her graduation from Yale  Divinity School, May 2023.

We've talked about how colonization can lead to disability, but decolonization can counteract this process. Could you share some cultural practices that reflect the resilience and strength of Indigenous people?

Althea John: We counteract colonization by remaining intact with our culture, community and family. Continuing the ceremonies, telling the stories of our ancestors and prayer. Some cultural practices that reflect our resilience are powwows, ceremonies, and traditional music. I partake in the Native American Church, which also includes Christianity. Rather than pushing against what is supposed to tear us down, we’ve accepted and brought it in. Native Americans are very adaptable in this way, and that's how we've survived all these years. It's keeping balance of walking in two worlds, meaning that we have to balance our traditions with the modern, Western civilization. It’s important to stay apart of the community even when living off the reservation. Native Americans are social people: we have huge families, large gatherings, and living away from it all can be very isolating. I have to continue to find community everywhere I go.


Madeleine Hutchins: I feel like disability is normalized by most in my tribe. For example, you see people using mobility devices at powwow! And some dance! It’s remarkable because it’s not remarkable. This person is here, because they are part of our community. That said, we’re not perfect. Many Natives are in their own process of decolonizing, and that includes new views on disability. There’s always room for improvement.

Photo description: Madeleine with U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, and her father, Treasurer of the Mohegan Tribal Council Thayne Hutchins at the Mohegan Cultural Preservation Center, March 2022. 

Madeleine with other Mohegans at the  Mohegan Wigwam Festival, August 2019.

How does your disability fit into a culture where interdependence is highly valued? What is your perspective on independence vs. dependence?

Madeleine Hutchins: Interdependence is foundational in Mohegan spirituality and lifeways. It’s a common theme in most Indigenous cultures. In contrast, U.S. culture values independence and reviles dependency. I think the only neutral use of “dependent” is on taxes [chuckles]. The reality is we cannot exist as fully independent beings. For example, on a basic level, if there are no trees I can't breathe. I do not function as a solo biological being. I, certainly, cannot function as a fully independent social being. Many of our joys in life derive from other people. Hyper independence as a cultural value is extremely new. Throughout history, interdependence is how people survived. 

Photo description: Madeleine with other Mohegans at the Mohegan Wigwam Festival, August 2019.

Siblings, left to right: Asa,  Lydia, Kendrick, and Trina,  pose for a photograph next to  a dirt mound in the desert  during their childhood.

What advice would you offer to other Indigenous individuals who might be going through similar experiences?

Althea John: When you feel something is off, trust your instinct and seek help. We have to put our pride aside to heal. Native Americans have a lot of pride culturally. Most people, in general have a lot of pride, but pride is not our friend all the time. Seek help and community. Great civilizations were built by communities, not individuals. It’s hard to trust the outside world when we look at our history, but that weight can’t keep hindering us. 

Madeleine Hutchins: I just want folks to not feel like they have to justify themselves when others question their identity. They should absolutely find the tools that help them feel comfortable existing as an Indigenous person and a disabled person. Look at your community’s values and see how that can help. Culture will set a solid ground to root yourself into it.

Photo description: Siblings, left to right: Asa, Lydia, Kendrick, and Trina, pose for a photograph next to a dirt mound in the desert during their childhood. 


Section 1 – Local Resources (New England Only)

  1. Maine - American Indian And Alaska Natives Benefit Program: https://www.ssa.gov/boston/ME_aian.htm
  2. Connecticut Indian Council: Serving the tribal community of Connecticut with career assistance and job training. Address: 82 Norwich-Westerly Rd. North Stonington, CT 06359. Telephone: 860-535-1277. Email: bwaldron@rhodeislandindiancouncil.orgWebsite: https://www.rhodeislandindiancouncil.org/connecticutoffice
  3. Mohegan Tribe, Mohegan Community & Government Center: The Mohegan Tribe is a sovereign, federally-recognized Indian tribe situated with a reservation in Southeastern Connecticut. Address: 13 Crow Hill Toad Uncasville, CT 06382. Telephone: 800-664-3426 or 800-MOHEGAN Website: https://www.mohegan.nsn.us/
  4. Mashantucket (Western) Pequot Tribal Nation: It is one of the oldest, continuously occupied Indian reservations in North America. Address: Tribal Government Communications P.O. Box 3060 Mashantucket, CT 06338. Telephone: 860-396-6571 Email: MPTNCommunications@mptn-nsn.govWebsite: https://www.mptn-nsn.gov/ihs.aspx
  5. Mashantucket Pequot Tribal National, Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation Program: Assists American Indians in Connecticut and Rhode Island with disabilities to prepare for, find, and keep good jobs. In addition to vocational rehabilitation services, we can include in your rehabilitation plan, traditional Native American services and supports. P.O. Box 3310 Mashantucket, CT 06338. Telephone: 866-399-112(toll-free) Email: tribalvr@mptn-nsn.gov Website: https://tribalvr.mptn-nsn.gov/TVRConsumerServices.aspx


Section 2 – National Resources

  1. Federally recognized Indian tribes and resources for Native Americans: https://wwwusa.gov/tribes
  2. Social Security information for AIAN: https://www.ssa.gov/people/aian
  3. Native Elder Service locator: https://www.nrcnaa.org/service-locator
  4. Native American Disability Law Center (video content): https://www.nativedisabilitylaw.org/videos
  5. Executive Order on Improving Public Safety and Criminal Justice for Native Americans and Addressing the Crisis of Missing or Murdered Indigenous People: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/11/15/executive-order-on-improving-public-safety-and-criminal-justice-for-native-americans-and-addressing-the-crisis-of-missing-or-murdered-indigenous-people/

Through out the month of October, please share your stories and resources with us and check out resources on our social media @NewEnglandADACenter

#IndigenousPeoplesDay #NativeAmericanHeritage #StorytellingTraditions #CommunitySupport #ADA #PwD

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New England and Center a project of the Institute for Human Centered Design
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Access New England features topics related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), originating from the ADA Center, our state affiliates, the ADA National Network, and national sources.

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