Quannah Chasinghorse is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
Environmental activist, model and Native American advocate Quannah Chasinghorse didn’t see faces like hers staring back at her in the magazine and catalogs she pored over as a young girl. With her Native jewelry and her Hän Gwich’in facial tattoos, a tradition that dates back thousands of years, Chasinghorse has redefined what beautiful looks like and who gets paid to represent “beautiful.” And Chasinghorse knows that representation matters. A lot.
Her groundbreaking work isn’t limited to the pages of fashion magazines. The Indigenous model, a member of the Hän Gwich’in and Sičangu/Oglala tribes, is also an outspoken advocate on issues of environmentalism, sustainability, women’s rights and Native American rights.
Chasinghorse grew up inspired by her mother and her aunties – women who she says weren’t afraid to “take up space and share their experiences.” Her mother, a single parent, was rooted to her Indigenous community and worked tirelessly as an advocate for their community. Today, Chasinghorse is taking up space, using her platform to advocate for the environment and for the rights of Indigenous people and people of color, and women and girls. She says that things weren’t always easy – and sometimes they still aren’t, in spite of her success – but she encourages young people to know that they are beautiful and that their voice matters.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Quannah Chasinghorse chosen as one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year honorees
Activist and fashion model Quannah Chasinghorse knows how much Indigenous representation matters. She is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year.
Our people have been on the frontlines for generations – those are the people that paved the way for me in my advocacy work. And I think, more specifically, my mom and my aunties really paved that trail for me because my mom is also an incredible advocate. I learned everything from her. She was a single parent raising me and my brothers. We always had help from our community, and one thing that I’m very thankful for is having a great connection to my community.
I have been blessed with some amazing opportunities. But some of the proudest moments are when I go back to my community and am surrounded by Native children and elders who are excited and happy and who feel proud of who they are. A lot of our people carry shame due to generational trauma.
Seeing these young kids have healthy representation and have healthy people they can look up to and, when they go to the store, see a Native person on the cover of a catalog or a magazine.
It’s just a dream.
We have some of the highest statistics for suicide. I have been at that point. That is something I have contemplated. When you are a young person experiencing these traumas, whether it be generational or your own personal traumas, you don’t have hope. And if you don’t have any sort of representation to show you that there is a whole world out there full of beautiful things and beautiful experiences.
And that’s one thing, you know, that I really love to voice to our youth is just showing them that the world is beautiful and it can get better.
My definition of courage is someone who is courageous enough, brave enough and open enough to just take up space. It takes a lot of courage to take up space unless that space was just given to you. But for people like me and, honestly, Indigenous people, our voices, our perspectives and our experiences had been pushed out of the media – out of every narrative.
We are reclaiming that narrative. We’re reclaiming our identity and showing people who we truly are as a people, not just what Hollywood stereotypes were created about Native people.
There’s been so much shame put on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) communities for different reasons. But that’s not ours to carry.
My mom repeated this to me growing up: “Always remember who you are and where you come from.”
I look up to my mom. Why she has been such a powerhouse in so many different ways. She’s had so many different careers in her lifetime: She’s won awards for protecting women. She was in law enforcement for a long time; she was the only Native woman in her line of duty in Alaska. She has told her truth, told her story, her experiences, and shared traditional knowledge that has been passed down for generations.
We were living out of a car when I was a toddler. And (my mom) was able to bring us to a place where we had everything we ever wanted and needed. And I think about those moments when things were horrible. She made it seem like nothing was wrong. And she still made sure that we were happy, and we were good, and we were fed.
And in moments when I feel like I am struggling, or I’m having a hard time with the work, I always think about my blessings; I have to count my blessings. And I have to really take a step back and be like, “Look, this is a challenge, you are going to be challenged. But we have been through worse, and we will overcome this.”
And I just really pray, you know, I have to ask my ancestors, my creator for guidance. I think it’s really important to stay connected and grounded within your culture. Because growing up, you know, I grew up with my culture and my ways of life. And whenever I feel disconnected from that, I don’t feel myself and then everything else becomes harder.
But in moments where I do feel weak, I have to remind myself how much strength it took for me to be here. How many attempted genocides my people have overcome.
My people aren’t even supposed to be alive. I’m not even supposed to be here. But I am. And I’m thankful for that.
I would tell myself that things get better. I have had some pretty dark moments, especially going into my teen years. I was bullied on and off for having different facial structures, or being too skinny, too tall, or having long hair. I was really hard on myself. I tried to become that beauty standard and after a while, I realized I had to create my own beauty standard. There is beauty everywhere in everyone. I am in a place where I look back I wish I could tell my younger self, “You are beautiful,” because there were so many times I didn’t feel that way. I wish I could tell that to every young person that is struggling. Because I know everyone at one point needs to hear it.