Tillman Scholar Voices: Challenging Cultural Stereotypes with Jonathan Yellowhair

Blog, Tillman Scholar Voices | 09/11/2020

“Advocacy doesn’t start at a rally. It starts at the dinner table. It starts by educating yourself.”

Our Tillman Scholar Voices blog and video series amplifies the work of Tillman Scholars who actively work toward equity and justice and showing us every day the importance of leading through action. This week we highlight Jonathan Yellowhair and his work as an Indigenous advocate striving to showcase the resiliency of Native individuals while dismantling harmful stereotypes that continuously plague their communities.

Jonathan Yellowhair is a 2018 Tillman Scholar, U.S. Marine Corps veteran, substance abuse counselor and member of the Navajo Nation. He obtained his Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Georgia State University, leaning on this background as well as personal experiences to help alleviate the stigma surrounding mental health and those recovering from substance use disorders.

Journey to Advocacy

While Jonathan eventually found his calling in advocating for those working toward sobriety and speaks passionately about the work he does today, his path to this point was not always clear. He explains that his time in the Marine Corps helped shape who he is as a person and allowed him to form strong bonds but that the adjustment period after leaving had its difficulties.

“You have to change your whole mindset. You have to rewire your thinking and change your whole perception of reality when you readjust to being back into society,” he said.

After leaving the Marine Corps, he faced personal struggles adjusting back to civilian life too quickly. The transition impacted his behavior and mental state, which led him down a path of addiction and recovery.

“When I got my DUI,I felt really ostracized as a veteran and like I didn’t fit in with anybody,” he said. “I felt heavy aspects of imposter syndrome, and then I felt typecast as a Native going through that.”

However, Jonathan did not allow this hardship to dictate his life. Instead, he used these experiences to drive the purpose of his work.

“Once I did sober up, I wanted to give back. I was very fortunate that my family was extremely supportive of me and a lot of friends supported me, but I recognized that not all people have that,” he said. “The moment I got my stuff together, I wanted to give back to my community, and in my community it’s much needed. I want to help people grow or help them progress and be what they can and be what they deserve to be by helping them through their addictions.”

Dismantling Stereotypes Around Indigenous Communities

As a Native, Jonathan knows that stereotypes around substance abuse heavily affect how many non-Native people view Indigenous communities. He sheds light on how the conversation around substance abuse places the fault with individuals rather than the larger structures that contributed to these issues.

“There is this stereotype that Indigenous people are drunks or troublemakers. That traverses stereotypes, but it also goes into aspects of the infrastructure of this country as well. In my hometown, Indigenous people represent about 8 percent of the population, yet Indigenous people represent 52 percent of the arrests. And then that same 8 percent of people represent 87 percent of the arrests for public intoxication,” he said. “The reality is these misconceptions that are put on us are unfair, and they’re really unjustified.”

Jonathan points to how studies correlating high substance abuse with Indigenous people actually show just how resilient they are and how invested they are in their communities, sharing his approach to how he helps Natives fight against these challenges.

“Since Natives do come from a communal culture, a lot of times, it’s hard for people to recognize and address aspects of self. Sometimes it can make people feel selfish for wanting to get help,” he said. “So first I work with the individual because there are these systems. Indigenous people are walking around with a target on their backs. A lot of clients are surprised when I’m like, ‘Tell me about your childhood. Tell me about your family. Tell me about your grandparents. Tell me about all these systems that are a part of your life.’ And as you work with them and step into these systems with them as an Indigenous person, and you see where potentially someone has faltered.”

Changing Preconceived Views

While Jonathan is a strong advocate for his community and wishes more people would know about their culture, he says that, for non-Native individuals who want to learn more about Indigenous people, education starts with oneself.

“Look into changing your relationship with Indigenous people. It does start with interrogating yourself and interrogating your implicit biases. Interrogate the stereotypes that you may have grown up with,” he said. “If you want to know more, you can know more on your own accord. The resources are out there. The authors are out there. There are some spectacular Indigenous authors. Look into them, look into Indigenous people.”

He also offers that all it takes to understand any marginalized identity is not relying on those voices to do the work for them and for people to identify how much they expose themselves to those particular groups.

“Have the humility to first look at yourself,” he advised. “Think about things that have come up with Indigenous people that you didn’t speak up about. And that goes for trying to relate to any marginalized community or community of color, is first recognizing your relationship with them.”