This photo essay is part of a series created for the American Creed “Citizen Power” documentary initiative exploring community leadership and ideals from young adult perspectives.
Jace Charger is a land defender and youth advocate. In 2015, Jace and other Indigenous youth, started the first protest camp at Standing Rock, South Dakota, to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Today, Jace continues grassroots organizing, advocating for Indigenous youth and LGBTQ+ rights.
In this photo essay, Jace reflects on their community organizing journey and the importance of care in their work. Their photos document a sage harvest on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, a critical form of self-care for them and their Indigenous community.
On January 19 at 4:30pm EST, join Jace Charger and other young adult photographers for a special, interactive photography exhibit and discussion, Connecting Our Heartlands: Toward an Inclusive American Creed.
[Register now for Connecting Our Heartlands]
I never thought I would walk the path of being a community organizer. The first time I spoke publicly was in 2015 at a candlelight vigil. There was an epidemic of suicides in our community. I lost a lot of comrades, classmates, nieces, and nephews at too young of an age. When our community experiences tragedy, it hits youth the hardest. My cousins and one of my mentors had the idea of a candlelight vigil to begin the process of healing, and that was when I first got introduced to organizing.
Within a year, we opened a safe house for youth on the Rez, and eventually, we got a call from Standing Rock. There were just five of us at that time. I was 19; our youngest organizer was 17. We were just camping in the middle of nowhere and told people “we’re here to fight a pipeline.” People mostly dismissed us, said we were wasting our time, but the movement grew.
It also helped us reconnect to our own traditional way of life, living off the land and among nature. It provided a safe space for young people, a place to camp out. It became such a beautiful thing. I didn’t know it at the time, but fighting pipelines was just setting the stage for what would become my life – the life of an organizer. The different trials, losses, and triumphs that slowly chipped away at me created and carved out who I am today.
In my younger years, I wasn’t supported in the same way I try to support the youth I work with now. I was kept away from my community for seven years. From the age of 12 to 18, I was away from home in the foster system. The day I left foster care they just gave me all my stuff in a trash bag and let me walk out the door. They didn’t care where I was going. Even today, there’s just no support for young people after 18. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I became a youth advocate: to help the younger generation who don’t have a support group. That motivates me on a daily basis and recharges my battery when I have nothing left to give because being of service to your people can take a lot out of you.
There was one point in time, after Standing Rock, when I was very broken and didn’t want to be that leader anymore. I didn’t want to be the organizer, but some uncis [grandmothers, matriarchs] held me accountable. They sat me down and they told me that it’s not up to me. I do not get to choose who calls on me. I don’t get to say no.
After all these years, it’s still hard but I’m able to roll with the punches and get the work done. I’m wiser now and make sure to also have time for myself. A lot of people think that self-care is when you rest and take time off, but I believe we should practice self-care every day no matter what we’re doing. I try to pass that message on to the youth, and I always create spaces for young people to prioritize care. It could be as simple as looking out onto the land and acknowledging freedom. I see freedom in my indigenous land, in the horses and the animals, and how they can roam and live, not having to answer to anybody.
It’s how the creator intended.
To explore more of Jace Charger’s story join them for a special virtual interactive event, Connecting Our Heartlands, Towards an Inclusive American Creed, January 19th at 4:30pm. This program and the accompanying series of viewfinder posts and podcasts is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities Building a More Perfect Union program. Blair and other young adult storytellers participating in the American Creed: Citizen Power documentary initiative will show and discuss the photographs they’ve created with support from Working Assumptions, a program that supports students in making photographs and writing captions that explore the interplay of work and family in their lives. “Citizen Power” advising and editing for Working Assumptions, Dawn E LeBeau; for Citizen Film, Manish Khanal.
Publication of this American Creed “Citizen Power” Viewfinder is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed by the Daily Yonder or by Citizen Film, producer of the American Creed “Citizen Power” documentary initiative, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.