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Youth Identities in Process: Learning Through Indigenous Arts

By Emily Aguilar and Roxanne Schroeder-Arce


This paper engages trends in racial and ethnic self-identification amongst indigenous youth in relationship to an examination of the impact of an indigenous arts-based, week-long summer program. This paper articulates the objectives, challenges, and successes of the camp. Surveys conducted with youth participants and caregivers point to the program’s potential to have a positive impact on the youths’ identity development. The authors employ theory around culturally responsive and social justice pedagogies in conversation with data collected from different constituencies in the program. The paper ultimately seeks to invite other indigenous arts practitioners to consider structures and methods of fostering similarly inspired programs elsewhere for a national impact.


The sacred scent of burning copal fills the air. The lights dim as families and community members sit patiently within Cuauhtemoc Hall, a community center in San Marcos, Texas. On this last day of the Sacred Springs Summer Arts Camp for indigenous youth, this community center is transformed into a space of ceremonial performance. Thirty-two youth squeeze together behind the stage, buzzing with excitement, dressed in T-shirts with their hand-painted Aztec birth symbols such as Tochtli (rabbit), Xochitl (flower), and Ocelotl (jaguar). The youth don red regalia on their heads and waists, which they have learned symbolize protection of the third eye and the belly button, where humans connect to the womb.  Brown feathers that the youth have individually earned over the week of the camp trail down their backs, a symbol of pride. We hear the drum beat start, the heart of the ceremony, and the youth walk in two lines into the center of the hall to form a circle.  We pray to the four directions, and the danza begins.

The transformation of Cuauhtemoc Hall this day is representative of the transformation that the Indigenous Cultures Institute (ICI) aims for youth to experience through their annual week-long summer arts camp. The institute, located in San Marcos, Texas, is a nonprofit organization focused on the “research and preservation of the culture, arts, traditions, ceremonies, and languages of …[the] Coahuiltecans” (Indigenous Cultures Institute, 2014). The ICI further explains,

More than 200 Native American groups were populating what is now central and southern Texas and northeastern Mexico when the Spanish invaders first arrived. Some historians erroneously report that these bands “disappeared.”

The Indigenous Cultures Institute dedicates its work to educating people of the history and current significance of the Coahuiltcan people.

The ICI recognizes that the 2010 United States census demonstrates that more people in the U.S. who identify as Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Hispanic or Latino are beginning to self-identify as indigenous, American Indian or Alaska Native. However, this identity reclamation appears to be happening more readily among adults who find their way into indigenous communities. In contrast, youth who might be categorized in these same ways spend much of their time in hegemonic spaces and lack the access to culturally responsive educational opportunities that foster a positive sense of their own identities.

Historically, schools encourage indigenous students to assimilate to white American culture, including the values systems (often Christian), language (English), and traditions of white American culture. This traces back to the Indian boarding schools, beginning in 1870 and continuing through today, when Native youth were forcibly removed from their families by the U.S. government and placed in boarding schools run by white American Christians. Teachers and administrators in these schools were instructed to “kill the Indian” in their students, a task that was taken seriously. The belief that indigenous students were lacking in acceptable knowledge, values, and skills, simply because their culture was different from that of European Americans, deeply affected the ways that indigenous students were taught, by whom they were taught, and the kinds of knowledge they were given access to (Bear, 2008).  As a result of centuries of cultural genocide, Indigenous and Latinx youth today struggle to piece together their own sense of identity in schools that still do not teach with indigenous knowledge systems in mind.

This study engages these challenges in relationship to an examination of the impact of an indigenous arts-based summer program, articulating the objectives, challenges, and successes of the program. Surveys conducted with youth participants and caregivers point to the program’s potential to have a positive impact on the youths’ identity development. The authors employ theory around culturally responsive and social justice pedagogies in conversation with data collected from different constituencies in the program. Through this work, we invite other indigenous arts practitioners to consider structures and methods of fostering culturally-responsive arts programs for indigenous youth in their own communities.

Colonization and Identity

For our purposes, we will use the terms indigenous, Native American and American Indian interchangeably to refer to people indigenous to the Americas whose history pre-dates European colonization. We also posit that this indigenous history often belongs to people who identify as Latinx, Hispanic, Chicano/a and Mexican American in the U.S. The ICI offers that:

The Institute presents educational programs on the identity and ancestral legacy of these Native Americans who have millions of descendants― currently labeled Mexican American, Latino, or Hispanic―still living in Texas and the U.S. Many of these descendants continue to practice their indigenous ceremonies, pray in their Native languages, and hold true to the values of their ancestors.

Through our work with indigenous youth throughout the state of Texas, we have noticed that indigenous youth often struggle with questions of identity, cultural belonging and cultural pride. As a country, the U.S. is plagued with xenophobia and denies the historical, systemic, and systematic racism that continues today. The U.S. Census Bureau requires every U.S. citizen to check a box for “race,” without attending to the confusion that subsists for cultural groups whose “race” has historically been the target of colonization.

 As authors of this paper, we find it important to acknowledge our own identities and positionalities in relationship to our research. Schroeder-Arce identitfies racially as white and ethnically as non-hispanic. Her spouse has recently begun to acknowledge his indigenous heritage and her 11-year-old daughter has participated in the summer program. Aguilar identifies racially as indigenous or Native American and ethnically as non-Hispanic and Chicana. She was youth director of the ICI and taught in the summer program. The ICI is committed to ensuring that the teachers and facilitators share identity markers with and serve as positive role models for the youth. For this reason, Schroeder-Arce does not directly teach within the program.

Indigenous youth in San Marcos and beyond, who may identify or be identified as Mexican American, Hispanic or Latinx, and/or White, remain confused about their identity and place in society. Hispanic-identified students in San Marcos experience a significant lag in achievement in elementary school compared to White students, and have a high school dropout rate significantly greater than the local and Texas state average ( The Texas public school system has not addressed this reality that inevitably leads to a continued cycle of underachievement. Louise Derman-Sparks speaks to the misguided approaches many schools in the U.S. take in educating underserved youth. In effect, in an effort to help students to achieve more, schools expect assimilation and deny non-white students’ cultures, languages and experiences.  Derman-Sparks states,

There are serious dangers here. Under such a misguided approach, education is        used to eliminate cultural difference by teaching children and parents new cultural habits and thereby curing their “cultural deficits.” Further, this approach is in direct contrast to a multicultural curriculum that recognizes the positive things that all children bring to school and that encourages children to be proud of their cultural background and identity. (1995)

For many, this denial of cultural heritage was also enacted upon the children’s parents. Therefore, families are also unaware of their own ancestry, or, if they are aware, have little access to educational opportunities for their children that privileges that ancestry as a deep source of knowledge.

U.S. presidents have paid some attention to the state of American Indian and Alaska Native education, most recently President Obama. In 2011 the President signed into law the Executive Order on Improving American Indian and Alaska Native Educational Opportunities and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities (Exec. Order No. 13592). The goal of this executive order was to strengthen educational equity by providing support to tribal colleges and universities which would, in turn, create more indigenous teachers. Additionally, the order encouraged schools, colleges and universities to give attention to best practices in the field of American Indian and Alaska Native Education. According to the executive order, American Indian and Alaska Native education should focus on providing young people access to key content areas, which are outlined to only inlude: science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and English language arts.  This becomes problematic as studies show that indigenous youth are educationally successful when they are learning through and about their indigeneity. Central to knowledge systems and ways of making meaning for indigenous people is through their connection to their land, their history and their community. Each community member holds knowledge through experience, and that knowledge is embodied, carried out, and shared with the community. Currently, we know that the majority of public school curricula in the U.S. is curated from the Anglo-American perspective, including the telling of Native American histories.  The latest executive order misses an opportunity to ask educators and institutions to create a space for learning which values the knowledge and experiences that indigenous young people bring into the room.  ICI, whose mission it is to preserve and promote indigenous cultures in and around Texas, recognizes that connecting youth and families to their history while honoring the knowledge they hold, fosters positive identity development and stronger communities.

Objectives and Methodologies

In an effort to respond to the need for relevant, meaningful programs for youth in San Marcos, the Indigenous Cultures Institute has designed and implemented several youth programs in San Marcos schools and recently conducted the sixth annual Sacred Springs Summer Arts Camp for indigenous youth. The objectives of the week-long summer program have remained clearly and consciously articulated:

  1. The youth will develop a positive sense of self identity through understanding their culture and heritage.

  2. The youth will have a positive experience with indigenous art and culture.

Ultimately, ICI set out to offer meaningful experiences for the youth of San Marcos through the arts of indigenous people native to Texas. ICI intentionally focuses the curriculum on the indigenous people of Texas, given that many of the youth and their families are native to Texas and therefore likely Coahuiltecan.

Since the inception of the camp in 2011, the ICI has taken measures to examine its efficacy and to invite feedback from several constiutents in order to strengthen its offerings. In 2013, the ICI invited Schroeder-Arce to serve as the Primary Investigator on an in-depth IRB-approved research study. Since that year, a team of researchers, including Aguilar, have conducted surveys with participants, care-givers and staff. The data is used in several ways, including as an opportunity for evaluation. This helps staff to enhance the quality of the curriculum and methods of teaching the youth. Participants are invited to complete pre-and post-surveys which gather quantitative and qualitative data related to the young people’s racial, cultural, and ethnic identitification, as well as an understanding of pride around identity markers. One hundred percent of the participants, staff, and close to ninety-percent of care-givers have opted to participate in the research study over the past four years.

The number of participants in the program has averaged twenty-eight youth over the past six summers. Each year, ICI conducts a rigorous recruitment process months before the program and offers scholarships to the youth. Prospective participants complete an application and each summer the program has been able to accept every student who has applied. Most recently, the ICI has decided to accept only those that are able to attend the full five days of the program, in order to meet the program’s goals. In 2014, the ICI decided that all staff members would be present the entire day, thus ensuring a comprehensive, consistent approach to program content and to each individual student. With over eight staff members present at every moment, the participants receive a great deal of support and individual attention.

While there have been six unique years of the camp, for our purposes we will focus on the summer of 2014. The transformation of the camp comes out of a process of intentional reflection and adaptation. Each year, the objectives and focus on indigenous identity have remained virtually the same, though the methods and specific content have evolved. Daily reflections with all staff as well as in-depth evaluation of the program by everyone involved has led to a stronger program each summer. The week is robust and rigorous. Many parts of the week have been kept each year, from content like danza (an indigenous form of ceremonial dance) to camp structures and routines like sharing a community meal. ICI leadership encourages indigenous ideals and practices from the beginning, such as reinforcing and modeling respect for everyone in the room.

The ICI has taken care to reflect on the program and continually make improvements on its content and structure. By the third summer, each day of the camp was intentionally designed to balance what had been ascertained as the needs of the youth in years past, allowing for adaptation if necessary. From years past, we learned that students were most engaged and open to one another and new ideas when given time to build community through play. We began each day with an ensemble-building activity which physically and mentally energized the youth, before moving into the theatre component where youth worked together on movement and explored their identity  through image work.[1] Indigenous undergraduate teaching artist interns led the youth through additional ensemble-building activities followed by a danza session led by two professional danzantes from El Paso, Texas. While skill-building was important within each content area, youth also learned the significance and history behind each content area they explored.  In danza, participants learned the ceremonial dance,  as well as its origins, and what each step symbolized. For the music section, youth learned the history behind each instrument and its components, such as the water drum, which symbolizes the womb.  Following this they were led through an exercise which facilitated the discovery of their animal spirits, which were then integrated into other components of the program.

Pride and Community

Aside from the curriculum, the youth were critically engaged in a program inherently dedicated to community. One special part of each day was lunch, when staff and youth shared a community meal. More than a time for lunch, this time was also intentionally structured so that a sense of community was built across all areas of the program. By the fifth year, it was decided that breakfast should also be added to the camp, to ensure that all participants could have a healthy start to the day. This was in response to the realization that some young people were arriving without having had breakfast, which did not allow them to focus or fully engage in activities. These collective decisions supported the objective for youth to have a positive experience with indigenous art, artists and culture. The youth were valued in this program, and they enjoyed this week while they learned.

Pre- and post-surveys reflected that the youth learned significant information that they had not previously known. When learning about the indigenous languages of his ancestors, one student stated, “I didn’t know that there was a language before Spanish.” The surveys await closer evaluation to draw additional conclusions about the efficacy of the program. However, anecdotally, we witnessed that the youth were developing a positive sense of self identity through understanding their culture and heritage and the surveys articulate this growth as well.  In surveys disseminated following the camp, half of the youth utilized the pronoun “my” when reflecting on what they had learned during the week.  The use of “my” when describing, for instance,  “my culture,” or  “my history” showed that many youth were claiming ownership and commitment to their indigenous identity after participating in the camp in a way that they had not claimed before. In pre and post-participation surveys, youth were invited to self-identify as one or more racial or ethnic groups.  At the beginning of the camp, only one person identified as indigenous, Native American, or Indian in the pre-participation survey. In the post participation survey, 16 of 32 youth checked either Native American, Indian, or Indigenous at the end of the camp after previously not identifying as such, illustrating a shift in self-identification amongst the youth.  Additionally, ten of the thirty-two youth who did not identify as either Mexican or Mexican American before the camp recognized their connection to these heritages as well.  In all, thirty of thirty-two youth stated that they were proud of their culture in the post surveys, which was a change from previous responses where many indicated that they weren unsure or did not know if they were proud.

Critical to the success of youth identity development are the views and cultural awareness of the individuals’ family members. Mindful of this fact and in keeping with indigenous respect for family, the ICI places a great deal of importance on how the family members are informed of the camp. When caregivers arrive, they are greeted, spoken to with respect, and given information about the youth’s participation. In 2014, twenty-seven youth caregivers completed a survey after the final performance. Of the twenty-seven surveyed, twenty-two identified as Hispanic or Latino. One person who identifies as a Mestizo central American Indian and White female parent wrote,

“Ay! cuando llego a casa y me dijo que habia aprendido la historia del indio Lempira. El gran cacique hondureño. Nunca imagine que mi hija en San Marcos tendria toda una clase si rica acerca de mi pais y mis ancestros . . . Gracias!” (“Ay! When [my daughter] came home and said that she had learned the history of the Indian Lempira, the big Honduran chief, I never imagined that my daughter in San Marcos would have a whole rich class about my country and my ancestors… Thank you!”).

While the program does not aim to incite change among caregivers of those involved in the program, the institute understands the importance of familial support of  youth as they discover their own identities.


With the copal scent still filling the hall, the youth move from the danza into creating group moving images with their bodies of their birth symbols, followed by a collective song, Mahameyana, the water song. Then they play a native song on the flute together. The camp culminates with a ceremony celebrating the youths’ accomplishments; as each participant’s name is called, they are honored with a framed certificate. In 2014, over 100 caregivers, friends and other community members witnessed the performance and ceremony. In a closing thank you, one youth read a note from all the participants, stating, “Thanks to you I personally learned that I can tell stories, not only that I learned about, but I can make my own and I’m sure someday this will be a story too.” Youth, staff, family members and friends convened in a reception where they shared their appreciation for one another and the experience, and said goodbye for now.

In 2017, the theme of the camp was water, and the week culminated in a ceremony at the Sacred Springs. ICI staff are currently engaged in planning for the next two summers, continuing to evaluate the program to ensure the strongest experience for future participants. The success and momentum of the program has led to more funding sources and the program’s current support and progress holds possibility for the future. ICI hopes to expand the program to San Antonio and Austin. As ICI provides a culturally relevant summer program for its youth and community, we seek to nurture more opportunities and develop the program to ensure that Indigenous youth find personal and communal knowledge, leading to educational success.


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Brayboy, Brian McKinley Jones and Teresa L. McCarty. “Indigenous Knowledges and Social Justice Pedagogy,” In Social Justice Pedagogy Across the Curriculum: The Practice of Freedom, edited by Thandeka K. Chapman and Nikola Hobbel. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Castagno, Angelina E., and Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy. “Culturally Responsive Schooling for Indigenous Youth: A Review of the Literature.” Review of Educational Research 78, no. 4 (2008): 941–93. San Marcos, Texas (TX) Poverty Rate Data. accessed July 1, 2017.

Derman-Sparks, L. “How Well are We Nurturing Racial and Ethnic Diversity?” In Rethinking Schools: An Agenda for Social Change, edited by D. Levine & R. Lowe & R. Peterson & R. Tenorio,  (pp. 17-22). New York: The New Press, 1995.

Exec. Order No. 13592, 3 C.F.R. (2011). Print.

Florido, Adrian. “Here’s Why The Census Started Counting Latinos, And How That Could Change In 2020.” Podcast audio. Code Switch: Race and Identity, Remixed, NPR, 3 Aug. 2017.

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McCarty, Teresa L.  and Sheilah E. Nicholas “Reclaiming Indigenous Languages: A Reconsideration of the Roles and Responsibilities of Schools.” Review of Research in Education 38, no. 1 (March 2014): 106-136.  doi:10.3102/0091732X13507894


[1] Image work is often attributed to Brazilian theater artist Augusto Boal. Participants create frozen statues with their bodies to realize and interpret actions and ideas.

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Indigenous Cultures Institute offers performances for celebrations, educational events and other functions. We collaborate with professional Native American performers and provide them with referrals from presenters and producers who request their services. If you would like to engage one of our performers, please email LaRay Guerrero at