Tecpatl Kuauhtzin is a twenty-one year old college student at the University of California, Los Angeles whose involvement in youth activism began at a young age. He was “born into the movement” of Indigenous people fighting for Indigenous education, the preservation of ceremony and tradition, and the promotion of visibility for Indigenous people (“I20SP”). Kuauhtzin’s work takes many forms, most notably acting as a translator, representing Anahuacalmecac before the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), and most recently, photography and videography. After completing his undergrad, he plans on furthering his activism by pursuing environmental or Indigenous law while incorporating photography and videography into his interest in Native land rights and environmental protection.
There is often an assumption that Indigenous languages are dying and unsavable, but Kuauhtzin is determined to preserve and document his tribes’ culture through language as well as oral stories and healing through art. While mostly raised as a Nahua, Kuauhtzin is a member of the Nahua, Tsalagi, and Cucapá tribal nations and grew up surrounded by a diverse and rich culture. In addition to his own familial affiliations, he often saw family and elders from many nearby nations which contributed to his knowledge of Indigenous languages. Because of his talent and passion for language Kuauhtzin became a translator and worked for his Nahua grandfather and A:shiwi, Hopi, Haudenosaunee, etc. elders. His involvement as a youth in language revitalization and preservation in association with his participation in the youth’s United Nations group and student council created several opportunities for him, including speaking on behalf of Native youth within his community at the UNPFII (“I20SP”). While representing his preparatory school, Anahuacalmecac, Kuauhtzin presented on his vision of language revitalization and encouraged greater support towards Indigenous communities.
Kuauhtzin’s vision of language preservation is multifaceted and presents Indigenous communities and the diversity of their collective. He eloquently describes his process saying “with every click of the shutter button a story is being told, otherwise, [it] may have never had the opportunity or platform to be shared. I am fortunate to have quite a few friends that create art in a similar way, and with them I heal.” His use of photography and videography represents a visual depiction of his work as a representative and translator. Additionally, as he describes it, his connections to other Indigenous youth encouraging art as a form of healing and communication helps grow his platform. Many of his photographs center around his friends, relatives, and elders to showcase the variance within his tribes. Kuauhtzin’s art is key to his mission of language revitalization and preservation.
Kuauhtzin’s establishment as a representative for Indigenous youth was an emergence for his public activism. The initial UNPFII meeting was organized to address cultural loss, specifically in transnational urban contexts. As a follow up there was an expert group meeting on Indigenous languages as a way to “promote intercultural dialogue and affirm Indigenous peoples’ identity” at the UN headquarters in New York, the second international expert group meeting on Indigenous languages organized by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), designed to build upon a previous meeting held in 2008.
In the meeting there were two points that were proposed by the youth as a recommendation to all states:
“(a) Take adequate constitutional and other legislative measures for the recognition of indigenous languages and develop policies and programs that strengthen the daily use of indigenous languages at all levels, in public and private institutions, within and outside indigenous communities;
(b) Ensure adequate funding for the preservation, revitalization and promotion of indigenous languages and cultures, recognizing the cost of implementing programs and projects in remote areas (“Tlayecantzi”).
Essentially, Kuauhtzin desired government action to recognize Indigenous language and create well-funded programs to help develop and preserve Indigenous language. In the United States, there have been educational programs designed and created to teach students solely in specific Indigenous languages, yet they are uncredited institutions and are not given government backing to sustain themselves. Despite Kuauhtzin’s push for the government to recognize the importance of Indigenous languages and instill opportunities for educational policies that are no longer English-only, the results were disappointing at best. As Kuauhtzin’s father puts it “no known public agency of the state [will] conduct and accurate census” of the children who speak Indigenous languages and all reports ignore impacts of state violence or acts of genocide as they pertain to the loss of language (Tlayecantzi). The combination of ignoring relevant issues and continuing fear of differences made it almost impossible to both gain any funding or legislative measures to preserve Indigenous language.
Indigenous language speakers are dwindling due to combinations of assimilation and the Western educational systems that are not designed with the interests of Indigenous people in mind, but Kuauhtzin still has hope. In an Instagram Post he states “Hay ch qa’ sii’em siye’yu mukw mustimuxw. Uy’skweyul yul’ut” meaning “Thank you respected ones of this place. It is a good day to learn” as a message to other Indigenous people to speak their language often. If they do not know their language, then he broadcasts that today is a good day to learn. Kuauhtzin clearly believes the preservation of his Indigenous heritage is partially his responsibility as a member of Indigenous nations. In fact, I would even argue that it is everyone’s responsibility to work towards saving Indigenous languages, whether that means learning more about the languages or supporting movements to preserve them.
In addition to his interest in Indigenous law, Kuauhtzin frequently uses art as a medium for communication. His primary platform is Instagram and other social media sites which allow him to reach other Indigenous youths but weakens his opportunities to connect with adults, especially Indigenous ones with the prevailing impact of the digital divide. Additionally, his Instagram is clearly designed to accommodate a range of audiences but most of his work targets other Native youth who wish to make a difference by providing possible organizations to get involved with and ways to preserve Indigenous culture.
Kuauhtzin most used form of art is photography. His Instagram is full of his own pictures ranging from beautiful landscapes to thoughtful images of his friends, family, and other Indigenous people.
“The best shoots are impromptu and in the moment. They’re genuine. I’ve purposefully taken a step back from planning things. As some of you know, I’ve respectfully declined your portrait requests and senior shoots. I want to explain why after some reflection: Sometimes as artists we can get caught up in producing, we forget to be intentional. I try to ask myself; What story am I telling, and why? What can I do to tell said story better? Am I respecting my subject’s image (landscape/relative)? More than anything, photography is a language to me. My work is an extension of my world view. I am absolutely flattered and grateful for all interest in my work and I could definitely use the extra money as a university student, but I choose to be project oriented. Story driven. Creative. Myself. Even if that means being broke” (Instagram).
Kuauhtzin’s describes his work as an “extension of [his] world view” and utilizes his photography as a form or communication. The language he creates to tell stories of the people he meets is beautiful and awe inspiring. In his work towards language revitalization, photography echoes the message of preservation. But photography is not his only medium, Kuauhtzin has published poetry and directed several short films. Only one short film has focused on language revitalization, posted on his twitter. The short film includes a cycle of Indigenous youth speaking in their language. There are no subtitles or explanations, but it beautifully showcases the diversity and variety in Indigenous languages. His most popular short film, about the misuse of Indigenous people in advertising and sports propaganda, gained Kuauhtzin the invitation to join the Indigenous 20-Something Project and was one of his gateways to more serious photography. His photography today often includes a caption that simultaneously introduces the subject while also introducing their languages.
His involvement in preserving traditions continues with dance and oral traditions at UCLA. He now organizes the yearly UCLA Pow Wow. The Pow Wow is an opportunity for the 0.04% Native population at UCLA to showcase their culture. Kuauhtzin remarks that “[Indigenous people are] not even a full percentage and we host the second largest event on campus.” Going further to explain that “A lot of our people are being erased right now [and] a lot of people don’t even know Native American people still exist. That’s a question that we get asked a lot here at Pow Wow – Are you guys real Indians? Are you guys actually Native people? Do Native people actually exist still? Because a lot of people think that we have been wiped out, but I think Pow Wow is an example of our resiliency and how we managed to survive” (Farr). Art takes many forms and dance, music, and various oral traditions are some of the few found at a Pow Wow. Language may not be the focus, but the culmination of cultures creates a rich environment that encourages revitalization.
Many of Kuauhtzin’s efforts have been towards preserving Indigenous cultures, providing platforms to others through his own social media. As a member of several organizations including Urban Native Era which is a collection of youth attempting to give 7th generation Natives a voice and vision, Natives Outdoors who support outdoor gear designed by Natives, and The Standing Strong Project which travels to communities to photograph people giving them both a platform and an opportunity to tell their story, Kuauhtzin fights to reclaim traditional knowledge and identity in the midst of an ever changing world by redefining when it means to be Indigenous. The culmination of Kuauhtzin’s interest in Indigenous law to gain support in the revitalization of language and art as a language to communicate inspire others to support and preserve the languages of Indigenous groups.
Shkeman tikitos ka maske tikmatis ititlantohke
Not even until our last breath of life will we give up
A selection of images and captions taken from Instagram
“Anahuacalmecac Delegation Attends United Nations Expert Group Meeting on Indigenous Languages.” Anahuacalmecac International University Preparatory of North America, Anahuacalmecac International University Preparatory of North America, 21 Jan. 2016, https://www.dignidad.org/apps/news/article/538439. Accessed September 19, 2019.
“Anahuacalmecac Student Council – Toanauamachtihkehweyetlahtokan.” Anahuacalmecac Student Council – Toanauamachtihkehweyetlahtokan – Anahuacalmecac International University Preparatory of North America, Anahuacalmecac International University Preparatory of North America, 25 Feb. 2016, www.dignidad.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=328172&type=d&pREC_ID=1295227. Accessed September 19, 2019.
Farr, Daniel. “Indigenous Peoples Celebrate 33rd Annual UCLA Pow Wow – The: Corsair.” The, The | Corsair, 7 May 2018, www.thecorsaironline.com/corsair/2018/5/7/native-americans-celebrate-33rd-annual-ucla-pow-wow. Accessed September 19, 2019.
I20SP. “+SPOTLIGHT: Tecpatl Tonalyohlotl Kuauhtzin.” I20SP, The Native Wellness Institute, 14 Sept. 2017, i20sp.com/i20sp-spotlight/2018/8/23/tecpatl-tonalyohlotl-kuauhtzin-spotlight. Accessed September 19, 2019.
Kuauhtzi, Tecpatl. “TEKONA: Directed by Tomas Karmelo Amaya and Shalene Joseph.” Facebook Watch, 21 Aug. 2019, www.facebook.com/tekonafilm/videos/669099450160250/. Accessed September 19, 2019.
Kuauhtzin, Tekpatl Tonalyohlotl. “Tekpatl Kuauhtzin (@Tekpatl) • Instagram Photos and Videos.” Instagram, Instagram, 27 Nov. 2016, www.instagram.com/tekpatl/?hl=en. Accessed September 19, 2019.
Kuauhtzin, Tekpatl. “Tekpatl Kuauhtzin (@Thetekpatl).” Twitter, Twitter, 30 Nov. 2018, twitter.com/thetekpatl. Accessed September 19, 2019.
Tlayecantzi, Marcos Aguilar (Azteca-Mexicano). “Radical Regeneration.” Radical Regeneration, Semillas Sociedad Civil, 10 May 2016, radical-regeneration.blogspot.com/2016/05/. Accessed September 19, 2019.