In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we’re exploring what it means to be a resilient, young Indigenous person in 2020 and the changemakers working to decolonize our world.
Like many precocious children, Kymon Palau’s mom would have probably preferred that he go into a more stable field, something in math or science. But growing up, there was always a camera in Kymon’s hands, always filming. In the end, he had other plans. Now a student at the University of New Mexico, the 20-year-old Tongan and Diné aspiring filmmaker is one of TikTok’s rising Indigenous creators.
Like many of us, it was the pandemic, and limited options for socializing in the real world, that led to more time spent on TikTok. “I’m a creative person, so I immediately used TikTok as an outlet to connect with people that are like me,” Kymon shares with Teen Vogue. His first TikTok put his Tongan and Navajo heritage front and center, as he took the stage in Tongan garments, proudly representing his Polynesian culture as part of his high school’s homecoming court. To Kymon’s surprise, the short video took off. It has now been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. “I was like, wow, there are people that appreciate me. I don’t look like a supermodel, I don’t look like the Euro beauty standards of being skinny, thin, and fair-skinned. People are appreciating me for me,” he says.
With each Tiktok that followed, Kymon took this seed of inspiration and ran with it. He started creating a series of more politically conscious videos that touch on everything from overcoming internalized negative beauty standards to the ways Hollywood perpetuates racist stereotypes of Indigenous peoples — and even sharing Indigenous recipes, drag transformations, and more. But at the core of his TikToks is an inherent queer, camp flavor, a wit that draws from standing up to the people that bullied him for being who he was. His TikToks, especially the ones that skewer colonization and its related injustices, have the same energy of a true read — hilarious, incisive, but more than anything, devastatingly true.
While confidence radiates from each one of his videos, that wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t until he was around 17 that Kymon learned that his maternal ancestral people, the Diné, had a word for people like him, “nádleehi,” a term for people who walk between two worlds. “I can’t even describe the feeling when I first learned about it,” Kymon shares with Teen Vogue. He chooses each word carefully, holding the weight of the memory and its power with each pause. “It was empowering knowing that if that term exists, all the way since the beginning of time, then there’s nothing wrong with me.”
Kymon had just come out to his mother around this time, despite the fears about her potential reaction. “You know, you see a lot of people on social media being rejected and disowned by their parents. And I was so scared because I didn’t know where my mom stood. But she knew, she was accepting, so hearing her tell me that she knew ever since I was little, it was just so much weight off my shoulders. I felt just how they describe it — I felt so free.”
This internal acceptance is at the heart of each of Kymon’s TikToks, something he hopes to extend to others while also fostering a safe community where his followers can talk about their own Indigenous experiences. It’s especially true when, as can sometimes happen, the comments take a turn for the negative. “People will try and come from me and say that I look like Maui, which bugged me at first because I was like, OK, I’m big, but like, do I have to be Maui? I want to be Moana. So I had to reflect on myself — my people are beautiful. Maui, Moana, whoever, I’ll take it, because that’s who I am. I am Polynesian, I am half Tongan, my people are beautiful. So you can hate if you want,” Kymon says.