Share Your Stories: Tavis Sanders, Co-Founder of Indigenous Education
In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, PHILADELPHIA250’s Share Your Stories series is focusing on voices from Philadelphia’s diverse indigenous community. To kick off this series, we recently sat down with Tavis Sanders, co-founder of Indigenous Education.
Tavis, who also goes by the tribal name RedTail Hawk Thunderbird, was born and raised in Philadelphia. He traces his indigenous roots to a member tribe of the Powhatan Confederacy, now extinct, who originally inhabited the Washington, D.C. area. In the 1930s, Tavis’s grandfather — who can trace his ancestry back to the 1500s — moved to Philadelphia.
However, Tavis wasn’t always aware of his indigenous heritage. “I went to private school before I started public school and there I was black in my world. When I went to public school, suddenly I wasn’t black. Walking home one day, I asked my father why the kids always picked on me. They kept telling me, ‘I’m not black,’ but I’m the same color.” At the age of 10, Tavis’s father told him the truth about his identity. “This was the first memory I can remember that mattered to me. My father said, ‘Well, son, it’s because you’re not black. You’re Native American and we got caught up in the story of colonization and we lost our identity. So, black people will look at you and know that you’re Indian, but we had to identify as black to be safe.’”
Tavis explained that just a few generations ago, if you identified as Indian, or of a particular hue, you were ostracized. To protect themselves, the family kept the story of their Native heritage private and Tavis didn’t share it outside the home. However, as he became older, Tavis figured out how to blend the communities he came from and respect them both. “I consider myself a mix of all the people that ever came here to the United States. I want to be the best showcase of that as possible, recognizing that I have some light, I have some black, and I have a lot of indigenous blood.”
Over time, as Tavis and his mother, Renee Sanders, became more comfortable with speaking publicly about their indigenous heritage, they decided to go one step farther and create a platform where they could teach other people about the facts around this country’s indigenous history and heritage. They started the educational nonprofit Indigenous Education as a means of sharing their heritage with future generations. Tavis remembers, “Around 2010, I was looking at my mom, and I said, ‘I want to share this information [about our country’s indigenous history] from a fact-based perspective.’ So, we came up with an idea to start a nonprofit that will educate the public about the omitted histories of events and stories from a Native American perspective.” With 25 years of experience as a Philadelphia public school teacher, Renee — also known as Red Silver Fox — was able to help shape a program in a clear and accessible way.
To date, Tavis and Renee have produced books, programs, and documentaries that are shown in museums. Their most recent program, “Discussion with Indigenous Education,” will be broadcast in Washington, DC on public access channels in January and February, reaching Comcast, Verizon, and cable networks in the Maryland and D.C. area. Through Indigenous Education, Tavis and his mother seek to raise awareness about important Native American heritage stories, emphasizing culture, traditions, and inclusivity. “We are all one people, and it doesn’t matter where you come from. But once you’re here, I want to make sure that we highlight it as best as we can and not let us be forgotten.”
With plans to become the next chief of his family line, Tavis envisions a bright future for his community and family, including his children and grandchildren. He expressed the hope that government can be a reliable and trustworthy ally for the indigenous community. “We want to develop relationships so that we have grounded institutions, facts, and materials to build communities. First, we as indigenous people need to be officially recognized and seen. Personally, I am asking the City of Philadelphia to designate park space to the indigenous community. There’s an old reservoir in Fairmount Park that used to be what was considered a pyramid that the Native Americans built out of dirt. We want to rehab the abandoned reservoir back to its original state and use that as an education tool and tourist attraction for the city. It will also be a place where we can hold ceremonies and conduct our traditions as we used to.”
When we asked Tavis how this intense mission and purpose of his organization makes him feel, he explained how mentally taxing it is. “I look at the situation from our indigenous perspective and think about the generations that come after us. Whatever weight I can bear now to offer communities a smoother path in the future, then that’s my responsibility. I’m really inspired by the opportunities that the city is allowing us to engage with them and to figure out a way to develop programs that will stick. I’m inspired, motivated, humbled and I just try to stay as grounded as possible.”
Indigenous Education Past & Upcoming Events:
On November 4th at City Hall’s East Entrance, PHILADELPHIA250 attended the “Save Our Ancestors, Acknowledge Our Lands” rally hosted by Indigenous Education. This event honored and respected Indigenous and Black Ancestors by raising awareness about human remains and the sacred indigenous spaces within Philadelphia County. There were speakers that made speeches about their thoughts and beliefs, as well as flute playing performances and dance. This was Indigenous Education’s first form of advocacy within the community, and they made it clear that it will not be their last.
On November 14th, Indigenous Education will host “Before Philadelphia: The Indigenous Villages of Philadelphia.” This is a workshop that will outline some of the larger villages, where they are located, and talk about what these spaces will be turned into. For more information, contact email@example.com and check out their website.
This blog is part of PHILADELPHIA250’s Share Your Stories program, which celebrates all Philadelphians, past and present who are a part of our history — making sure no one is left out of the story. If you have a story about a special person or place you’d like to share with us, please contact us through this form.