Ending the HIV Epidemic in Indigenous Communities through Unity, Strength, and Diversity

Content From: Savannah Gene, M.S., CHES, Program Director, Community Health Education and Resiliency Program, Administrator, National Native HIV NetworkPublished: March 18, 20213 min read


National Native HIV Network

The National Native HIV NetworkExit Disclaimer (NNHN) is an Indigenous-led initiative that mobilizes American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities affected by HIV through peer-to-peer and programmatic support, training, and capacity building assistance. Our comprehensive approach is rooted in our cultural values, teachings, and affection for our communities.

The NNHN was established in 2016 by the grassroots efforts of Native individuals in the public health and HIV/AIDS fields. Beginning in 2019, the NNHN received U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Minority HIV/AIDS Fund (MHAF) support through the Indian Health Service National HIV/AIDS Program. This support allowed the NNHN to enhance its membership with 12 Regional Representatives from across the United States.

In early 2020, the NNHN Regional Representatives, key partners, and coordinators began working with Diné graphic designer, Jolene Yazzie, over several months to develop the logo. In the end, the logo symbolized unity, strength, and the diversity of Indigenous communities. We spoke with the NNHN regional representatives that participated in the development of the logo to learn what the symbols represented to them and their cultures.

The NNHN began with the concept of the term “Turtle Island” which is often used to refer to North America in many Indigenous communities.  The turtle is a symbol of many different things, such as longevity and life, as Sheldon Raymore, Cheyenne River Sioux Nation, shares.

The four plus signs at the top are representative of stars in many cultures and for Lee Torres, Diné, the stars are representative of a hopeful future for the NNHN.  And for Joe Cantil, Tsimpsian, and Faith Baldwin, Diné, the stars are also reminiscent of the four directions, with each cardinal direction symbolizing a stage of life or a new season, among many other symbols.

Surrounding the turtle shell is the image of a braid representing sweetgrass, basket weaving, or rope, which for Keiva Lei Cadena, Native Hawaiian, represents working together and unity because the strength is found when each individual strand comes together to form one. In a similar sense, Joe shares that the braid reminds him of basket weaving, a prominent tradition in Alaska Native cultures, and speaks to unity and also the resilience and protection given to communities.  Protection can also mean medicine in the form of sweetgrass, which is how Sheldon sees the braid image. In the inner circle of the braid are various designs that honor the craft and art of basket weaving or pottery making. 

In the center of the turtle are seven triangles representative of the spine, which Keiva tells us is the strength and backbone and centers us with our cultural history and ancestors. For Faith, the inclusion of the spine symbol is representative of the strengths in our different backgrounds. Lee shares that the spine represents that we care about our community and how HIV impacts our community, and the way we represent ourselves inside and outside our communities. 

The flower design in the head of the turtle is representative of the floral designs in indigenous cultural artwork. Sheldon calls it the flower of life and states that the flowers depicted are often combinations of medicine and speak to many forms of life. 

Each of these regional representatives shared that the logo is a symbol that represents Indigenous communities and coming together to end the HIV epidemic.  It is a symbol of life, resilience, kinship, and inclusion, especially when Indigenous communities are often left ignored or overlooked. These elements are also reflected in this year's National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness DayExit Disclaimer poster to elevate those messages in our theme Zero is Possible Together: Innovation + Awareness.