How Clubhouse is engaging with Native American communities

Daughters Dachuneeh Rising Sun Martin and Tewakeedah Rain Spirit Martin
Pete Sands

Kevin Martin, an enrolled member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, never thought an invite to the audio social networking app Clubhouse would lead him to form a nonprofit. However, his lifelong dream to build a regenerative homestead for his family has flourished into an international effort to rebirth the Navajo Nation.

A school counselor by day, Martin uses his evenings to log onto Clubhouse and convey the struggles and hopes of living on a reservation. Since joining in September 2020, he’s cultivated a coalition that evolved into StarLife, an organization to restore indigenous livelihoods through the intersection of tech and native culture. Clubhouse—composed of rooms reflecting conference panels—enables him to mingle with high-level CEOs, people in regenerative technology, and philanthropists, all of whom are generally not accessible to him from the Navajo reservation in Montezuma Creek, Utah. 

“Clubhouse has provided a platform for people who may have never met otherwise. I don’t attend meetings in business or diplomatic circles,” says Martin. “And it’s fair to say most people in those circles would never have attended our ceremonies. The social, business, and spiritual traditions all fade by choice in an instant when you join a room.”

The invite-only app launched in early 2020 and now accommodates a global community of millions eager to congregate. Akin to talk radio, members scroll through various live, moderated conversations covering environmental issues, health, politics, books, grief, cryptocurrency, celebrity gossip, and humdrum topics that fill the void of pandemic isolation. In February, Elon Musk invited Vladimir Putin via Twitter for a fireside chat. Bill Gates recently partook in a Q&A about COVID-19 and climate change. As with all social apps, Clubhouse endures its toxic moments (trolls interrupting sensitive discussions, for instance). But, it also sheds light on the humanitarian resilience and deep-rooted unification of oral storytelling. 

Clubhouse and its thousands of rooms are like sharing circles where humans gather to express ideas and experiences. “It is the perfect example of technology intersecting with the ancient ways,” says Jessicka “Joosey” Chamberlin, who met Martin in a Star Wars room and is now the acting organizer of StarLife. “[The app] is the reinvigoration of oral tradition.”

The dream

Amid centuries of broken promises, Native Americans have learned dreams aren’t tangible for them. As the Dreamweaver of StarLife, Martin’s job is to paint a dream for the Navajo people, so they see possibility where it seldom exists. He articulates hope of a prosperous future while threading ways for industries to cooperate, specifically on native land. The mission is a “soul to soil” endeavor, where capturing the soul is intrinsic to breaking ground. 

“He lives in both worlds, meaning the modern and traditional,” says his wife Mabel, a Navajo language and culture teacher and witness to Martin’s budding vision. “He knows how to express for the Navajo people, our people. He knows how to talk to non-natives and express his dreams.”  

Mabel Martin, a Navajo language teacher who is advocating for language and cultural revitalization.
Pete Sands

However, as with most reservations across the country, unreliable internet hinders Martin’s virtual ventures. According to a 2020 report Cost of Connectivity by New America, due to outdated infrastructure and lack of funding from the federal government, the Navajo Nation suffers from slower, more expensive services when compared to options beyond reservation borders. This leads to a disparity in access to new technologies, remote work and school, selling art, and other online commerce. It also has Martin involuntarily dipping in and out of Clubhouse rooms trying to tell his story. “I guess we lost him,” is typically heard after a sudden departure.

With Clubhouse, Martin and other tribal members gather knowledge and aid by joining rooms and harnessing resources to actualize their cause. “They are using Clubhouse to help bridge the digital divide that exists on reservations,” says Peggy Liu, a societal change activist who invited Martin onto the app. “Especially in the age of COVID, [StarLife] found a solution to express what it is that we are asking, which is a certain amount of money to connect a whole household to the world and jobs, education, and life. And look how beautifully Clubhouse has connected hearts to hearts, humans to humans.”

StarLife—which inherently needs to begin with bringing dependable modern technology into the fold of reservation life—is a biotech project that offers stewardship to natives across the country. Since each reservation’s biome differs, StarLife will first help communities articulate their needs and provide an à la carte menu of services to help systemize their environment. For the indigenous people to thrive in the modern day is to ensure that community resilience (food, water, and Internet), cultural revitalization (language, arts, and tradition), and economic development (jobs, survivability, and business) are intertwined.

Chamberlin portrays the efforts as a figure eight, in which each sector supports one another. “It’s much more inclusive and expansive than just one component,” she says. “It’s an overall connective ecosystem.” Once the necessary infrastructures are in place, other commodities can trickle down and reinvigorate communities. As StarLife evolves, they plan to incorporate healing and wellness, clean water, permaculture renewal, cultural revitalization, nurturing of the elders (and with the endangered traditions, including healing ceremonies and medicine), and ushering in sustainable businesses that rely on modern technology.

Engaging industries

False prospects of the past demonstrate that corporations often drop into reservations and leave without proper training or planning. Or, they take resources that poison the water and land, such as uranium mining. StarLife will work with companies of good to adapt to the community’s needs and then thoroughly guide residents to become self-sufficient.

“If we’re going to engage with the reservations, we also have to engage education,” says Martin. “And training has to be lockstep with whatever company partners with reservations.” Conceptualizing a more organic, regenerative system such as this will ultimately reduce costs and create longevity. Natives will then be empowered to take part with participating businesses and create economically-viable market in which they can revel.  

“It’s an opportunity to rebirth America from within America,” says Liu about long-term goals of partnering with sustainable businesses. Because the Navajo Nation—and all 574 federally-recognized tribes—are sovereign, there are opportunities specifically designed to incentivize business development. Once the systems are in place, the StarLife eco-villages will become “accelerators” encouraging economic development.

First the soul, then the soil

Martin uses the storytelling format of Clubhouse to share the prospect of Native prosperity. “Historical trauma has been well documented,” says Martin, who believes that healing is a critical component in any flourishing ecosystem. “If you’re going to do this, you need to put as much effort into restoring native culture as you did in destroying it. I came to realize that, yes, if you have all of these ecosystems and eco-villages come to life, and it’s fine-tuned and humming like a perfect engine, you can drop that system into a fairly sick population.” 

To help to heal, StarLife plans to allocate health and wellness centers that incorporate traditional practices. For example, enabling the medicine men to engage in a multicultural way by integrating their practices in a healing center with sound healing, mindfulness, and different modalities to strengthen a traumatized population.

Mabel sees StarLife as a seed they can plant. “Navajo people believe that corn is our sacred food. Every time we revolve back to life, we identify ourselves as the corn people. So this is very important because when you plant it’s going to grow roots, branches. It’s going to grow out, so I see it as a kernel that is starting to form, and we get to plant it.”

Mabel’s Aunt Bessie Hugh crafting the bottom of a traditional corn cake, called alkaan, which is baked in the ground for the coming-of-age ceremony of Martin’s daughter Wachaykeah Rosemarie Martin.
Pete Sands

One challenge is doing this as traditional populations—medicine men and elders, for instance—are declining. This means reviving endangered rituals now, so they don’t get lost in the fray. One integral component is revitalizing the language. Today, only a few young native children speak the language of their elders. In Mabel’s district, she has yet to come across fluent students. Mabel, who didn’t learn English until kindergarten, believes the native language will stimulate their culture as a whole.

Worldwide connection through language and storytelling can help people feel listened to and be seen. Martin’s connections via Clubhouse are fostering resilience that brings past, present, and future together.  

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