EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been updated to reflect that Haatepah and his brother discovered they were of Chichimeca descent (Oct. 26, 2021).
LOS ANGELES — Everyone has a story to tell, but the personal story of 23-year-old Native American activist Haatepah is a truly unique one — and he's using his story to help other Native American and Indigenous people heal from generational trauma.
At 1 year old, two white fathers in San Francisco adopted Haatepah and his identical twin brother. Their birth parents were struggling with drug and substance abuse. Growing up, Haatepah said he and his brother did not know about their Native background but were always aware of how different they looked from everyone in their suburban San Francisco neighborhood.
What You Need To Know
- In May, the mass graves of an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Indigenous children were found under the sites of former residential schools in Canada
- The California mission system, which operated from 1769 until 1833, was of similar make and model to Canadian residential schools
- According to LA City/County of Native American Indian Commission, there are 14 federally recognized Native American tribes within the Greater LA Area
- LA County is home to three Native American Indian tribes that predate the establishment of California missions
"Being adopted as a child, you have so many questions, and you just want to do what you can to learn about where you come from and why you look different," Haatepah said. "I wanted to shave my head, have short hair. I wasn't proud of my roots or my features. I'd try to stay out of the sun to lighten my skin."
This kind of response toward Native features, or the desire to assimilate into whiteness, is not uncommon among Native American and Indigenous communities. But with the help and support of one of their dads, Haatepah and his brother located their birth family and discovered they were of Chichimeca descent.
Haatepah explained that the more he learned about his heritage, the more he came to feel proud of it rather than ashamed. But the other father wasn't as supportive about their journey of embracing their heritage.
"One of my dads was really accepting of my roots, pushing us to go to powwows and learn about our culture," Haatepah said. "The other one wasn't so accepting of that. He would tell us, 'You're not native' or this or that. So me and my brother, that kind of pushed us more into learning about where we come from."
To this day, Haatepah's birth mother and family are all still struggling with drug and substance abuse and, as a result, are unable to be part of their lives.
When Haatepah and his brother were teenagers, their supportive parent died of lung cancer. The rift with their surviving father got worse.
"Let's just say he became more intense in his prejudice," Haatepah said.
The brothers then packed up and found themselves homeless in Los Angeles until one day, two years ago, Haatepah was scouted by a modeling agent.
Today, Haatepah is a very successful model, booking major campaigns like Nike and Vogue. His Native features are highlighted in them — his long black hair left loose and flowing, for example. Just a few months ago, he shot his first movie, a major about-face for someone who grew up rejecting his features and an achievement he's proud of.
Haatepah makes the most impact on his social media accounts, with almost 1 million followers on TikTok and more than 15 million likes. On Instagram, he currently has 250,000 followers. His combined audience appears to be people of Native and Indigenous descent, as well as non-Native.
Now that he has this large platform, Haatepah is using it to be the voice of support for other Native American and Indigenous people, the unconditional encouragement and support he wishes he received from his parent.
Haatepah's TikTok videos, which rack up views in the millions, are both encouraging and confronting. One recent video shows him touching his face, tracing the Native features he once rejected, with a message to love the skin you wear no matter the color or shape. Another one shows him in traditional dress with blood on his face, declaring, "We were here first."
These kinds of messages have won him many fans but also drawn a good bit of ire. Haatepah said he's undeterred by the online trolls, and they only encourage him to double down on his message.
This kind of advocacy work for Native and Indigenous communities has always been important but, of late, has a renewed sense of urgency. The recent discovery of mass graves under Native boarding schools in Canada was a triggering event for many in the community and reinvigorated the generational trauma that the community still contends with even today. As an adult, Haatepah knows that a return to roots is important in the healing process.
"When you decolonize your mind, in certain ways, you start to see the beauty of where we come from," he said.
Spectrum News 1 met up with Haatepah on a photoshoot, where he was modeling for the LA-based clothing brand Where's Frankie. Designer Frankie Vegas owns the brand. She is the daughter of singer Pat Vegas from the famed 1970s Native American rock group Redbone. Vegas said she became aware of Haatepah because of his advocacy work in the Indigenous community.
"In all actuality, he's so young, and to see someone who's so young with such a strong voice and opinion standing up for the rights of the Indigenous community, that means so much to me," Vegas said.
Haatepah's advocacy work seems to be reaching far beyond the Native and Indigenous communities he's targeting. He said that with so many millions of people listening to him in the fashion world and on social media, it might indicate that we're approaching a paradigm shift — one in which Native and Indigenous people may finally receive the wider representation they've been fighting so hard far.
"I think that there is a power of breathing the same air that our ancestors breathed, on the same land, for thousands of years," he said. "There's power to that. And I want to show people that power through my activism, through my speaking [engagements], and through my modeling and pictures that I post online."