Monthly Archives: March 2013

George Eagleman, hero

Writing for the local newspaper three or four times a year gives me the title of freelance journalist. I worked roughly eight years at regional dailies before giving it up for nonprofit work. Still, I love to write, and the egomaniac in me loves seeing a byline. Freelance pay is a joke, considering how many hours I work on any given story, but I don’t do it for the pay. Because I get to choose my own adventure with freelancing, it’s stories I want to write, and the editors are much smoother to work with when you’re not on their weekly payroll.

When I was working at the Lincoln Journal Star a few years ago, I had a wonderful editor named Peter Salter. He was/is a fabulous storyteller (and human being), and helped me grow as a narrative writer. I’m still working on reaching the level of journalistic poetry he’s capable of, but with this latest Argus Leader Sunday Life piece published today, I feel pretty good about the end product. On one level, it’s a piece totally driven by me. I pitched it, I wrote it, I directed the art, and the editor left it nearly untouched. I love it, because on the other level, it’s a story about a Native American man doing good work for our community. It’s not a breaking news update about a casino robber who’s “described” as a Native American male, or an obituary piece on yet another youth who took her own life, or a too-little-too-late story of an unsung hero jumping into frigid waters.

I was lured to the journalism profession with the promise that more Native writers would mean better, fairer, and more balanced newsrooms covering Indian Country. While some progress has been made, there is a long – LONG – way to go. I will always remember the editor who, after I pitched a string of Native-centered stories, told me, “Yeah, well, we just had an Indian story run last weekend. We need to keep the ethnic stories spaced out.” I balked: “If race is the standard by which we create the budgets, then we’ve done way too many white stories. Like, every day.”

Freelancing allows me to get stories like this into mainstream media, with the hope more like it (by more writers) are printed and broadcast. I hope you enjoy.

(Reprinted from Argus Leader Media, published 3/31/13)

George Eagleman - Photo taken by Melissa Sue Gerrits
George Eagleman – Photo taken by Melissa Sue Gerrits

George Eagleman: Lakota leader

Treatment counselor is the backbone of a new Native American center, semiweekly sweat lodge ceremonies and a lot more in Sioux Falls

Written by Jonnie Taté Walker

For the Argus Leader

It’s a recent Saturday morning in Sioux Falls, and George Eagleman is working his way through an agenda of the Inter-Tribal Cultural Alliance Inc. He gets to an item regarding a new program someone says can’t happen until the alliance pays the venue’s utility bill.

Without missing a beat and still discussing the logistics of the new program, Eagleman, president of Inter-Tribal Cultural Alliance (ITCA), pulls two $20 bills out of his wallet and lays them unceremoniously on the table.

Something unspoken happens among Eagleman and the other ITCA board members and guests. Others around the table take cash from their own pockets, and soon a collection of bills is stacked neatly in front of the group’s secretary, Kari Ann Boushee.

“There,” Eagleman pronounces. “The utilities are paid.” And just like that, the new program — a 16-week culturally- and spiritually-based curriculum teaching Lakota language and traditional activities — has a functional building to begin classes.

This interaction encompasses Eagleman’s leadership style in a nutshell: a mix of traditional Lakota values, business suave and no-nonsense grandpa-knows-best. At 67 years old, Eagleman has no intention of slowing down.

He’s just getting started.

Somewhere between leading the active and blooming ITCA, obtaining his doctorate in counseling, teaching college-level Native-studies classes and working to bring what he and others hope will be the state’s largest Native American festival to Sioux Falls later this fall, Eagleman has time to impart life lessons to his nine grandchildren and conduct inipi, or sweat lodge, a churchlike dome for Lakota prayer and ceremony.

“I think (Eagleman) is a very patient leader,” says Boushee, a member of North Dakota’s Spirit Lake Tribe. “He listens to everything before he launches into or initiates something. When a leader like George comes around, when they’re interested in everyone’s input and not in it for themselves alone, that’s a great leader.”

Source of help and hope

To the Native people Eagleman has worked with in the past 20 years, he is more than a cultural minister, counselor and leader. Many are recent transplants from area reservations, where they left crippling poverty and unemployment rates, dependency on government welfare programs and large networks of supportive family.

Boushee was herself new to Sioux Falls after moving from Fargo last fall and understands how frustrating it can be not knowing where to go or who to ask for resources.

“In Fargo, we had the Native American Commission with city council and the Native American Center,” Boushee says. “These were places I could go and sit and have coffee with other Natives, or get help finding resources.

“When I first came (to Sioux Falls), I looked for those kinds of places to help me, but I couldn’t find anything,” she says. “It was odd to me a city this size had no Native center.”

Through word-of-mouth, Boushee found her way to ITCA, to Eagleman and to the resources she needed.

Eagleman’s wife, Vicki, says helping people is as much a part of her husband as his dark eyes and hair. It is woven into the fabric of his being.

Vicki recalls how, a few years back, she and her husband unloaded their pantry and fridge of food for a man who told Eagleman he was going through a hard time and couldn’t feed his family.

“It’s just a way of life for us,” Vicki Eagleman says. “If we have it, we’ll give it.”

To Sioux Falls’ new Native American arrivals, Eagleman is an employment specialist, a housing expert, a teacher and a link to culture they’re homesick for.

“George is more than a spiritual leader, he’s a mentor,” says Cody Janis, a 23-year-old member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, after a recent inipi ceremony. Janis says he was released from jail six months ago, and he learned about Eagleman’s generosity through other inmates.

“I was looking for something like this,” Janis says, gesturing to the canvas-covered sweat lodge, piles of rocks and dying flames of the inipi grounds. “I’m going through things. … It’s a tough time right now, and I asked George if he could meet me out here, and he said sure, I’ll smoke cannupa — the pipe — with you.”

Janis’ girlfriend, Heather Plaisted, 25, also an enrolled Oglala tribal member, says Eagleman’s efforts helped to ease her family’s suffering after a 16-year-old cousin recently committed suicide.

“It’s good to have this (the sweat lodge) out here (in Sioux Falls),” says Plaisted, who kept the fire going while Janis, Eagleman and others were inside the recent inipi. “It helps with our prayers and gives everyone hope, a little bit.”

Without Eagleman, there would be no inipi ceremony offered in Sioux Falls, no way for the prayers of hurting people to reach Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, Plaisted, Janis, Boushee and Eagleman’s wife believe.

Not only does Eagleman make the round trip from Canton to Buffalo Ridge every Wednesday and Sunday afternoon to conduct inipi, he does so without any expectation of financial compensation.

“My belief is there is a lack of support for Natives in Sioux Falls,” explains Eagleman, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “When you move off the rez to this urban setting, the stereotyping that’s here … Natives fall into that trap. Their cultural identity gets lost. The dominant society in Sioux Falls crushes that identity.”

Service agencies, Eagleman states, belong to the dominant society. Many of those organizations don’t understand the complexities and contrasts of reservation life to urban living. The lapse in communication and understanding means Native Americans get what Eagleman calls “the runaround.”

“The stress that creates for Natives means they don’t come out to participate as a cultural society,” Eagleman explains. “And there’s a lack of trust among Natives with these organizations.”

That’s why Eagleman has struggled for more than a decade to build momentum and support for a center of Native American cultural programming — what other cities term “Indian centers,” because they provide so many on-site supports, including child care, youth programming, addiction treatment, job training and a one-stop place to come together as a community, among other services.

Eagleman hopes ITCA will be such a place for Native Americans in Sioux Falls.

“I see ITCA as a place of belonging,” Eagleman says of his 2-year-old nonprofit. “I see it as a place of direction and a place of guidance.”

From needing treatment to providing it

Alcohol has played a major role in Eagleman’s life. It crept in around the time he was drafted into the Army in 1966 during the Vietnam War.

“I got out in 1971 and went back to the rez, and all my education attempts failed,” he says. “All I did was drink.”

Tragedy struck Eagleman’s family when he was 8 years old and his father died of a stroke. His firstborn child died of pneumonia in 1968, a year after he married his first wife, whom later bore him four sons. He is the youngest of 10 children and today is the only surviving member of the immediate family he grew up with.

Eagleman sought treatment in 1981. He says he did well for a while but fell back into old habits. He lost his job as a supervisor for a housing agency and was told that if he went back into treatment, he would be reinstated.

“That was 1983. I didn’t know what treatment was back then,” Eagleman recalls. “I got home from treatment, was OK for a while, drank again, then lost the job for good a year later.”

Eagleman gave treatment one last shot, in a program with the veterans hospital in Pierre in 1985. The third time was the charm. “I decided to really dig in this time.”

He also decided to embrace his Lakota heritage and culture.

“I had to reach out to my spirituality,” Eagleman explains, a hand on his heart. “I grew up around it, but I never connected with it.”

He’s been sober ever since, and, after earning a bachelor’s in business administration in 1994 from National American University, he set out to become a counselor to others suffering from substance abuse. He received his master’s degree in counseling and criminal justice in 1996 from Colorado Technical University and is currently studying for his Ph.D. in counseling in an online program from Capella University.

To ensure that the spiritual connection flows to his descendants, Eagleman leads a family drum group, Eagle Spirit, and speaks fluent Lakota to his nine grandchildren. “They don’t know what I’m saying now, but soon enough they’ll understand.”

Thirteen years ago, Eagleman took his experience treating substance abuse clients and began offering spiritual recovery through inipi ceremony. In 2000, he partnered with the owners of Buffalo Ridge, billed as a “Cowboy Ghost Town” roadside attraction along Interstate 90 northwest of Sioux Falls. Together, they built a sweat lodge where anyone could participate. Eagleman, who helps conduct inipi every Wednesday and Sunday, says he’s seen the lodge hold up to 40 people.

Eagleman, a 19-year employee and chemical dependency counselor at Keystone Treatment Center in Canton, says his physical and spiritual paths are now going the same direction.

“Working in the service of recovery and also in the service of spirituality, I can review my path and say I’m going the right way.”

George Eagleman exits inipi. Photo by Jay Pickthorn http://www.jaypickthorn.com
George Eagleman exits inipi. Photo by Jay Pickthorn http://www.jaypickthorn.com

Creator and leader of ITCA

Eagleman merged his two passions — helping people recover from substance abuse and helping people reconnect with Lakota spirituality — in the creation of ITCA.

The organization stepped quietly onto the Sioux Falls scene two years ago after Eagleman found himself surrounded by a group of Native elders and professionals wanting to make a difference.

Led by Eagleman, ITCA’s 10-person board of directors drive most of the day-to-day business of the 501(c)(3) organization. Wellbriety meetings, a winyan (or women’s) group, an arts and crafts store and the new cultural curriculum are facilitated by ITCA, which offers its services free of charge to the public. Eagleman estimates that 50 to 100 people use ITCA services each month.

“We live in one of the most prejudicial states in the U.S., and the Native Americans who live here feel this and experience this on a daily basis. ITCA is a place where they know they are treated with respect and acceptance the minute they walk through the door, not judged at first glance,” says Jenny Williams, a recovery coach at Face It Together in Sioux Falls who facilitates

ITCA’s Women of Wellbriety group.

Williams, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, says ITCA helps to ease the anxiety felt by Native Americans, some of whom she knows forgo seeking assistance from agencies for fear of racism or stereotyping.

Under Eagleman’s leadership, Williams thinks ITCA and its programs are unifying Native Americans and the city they live in.

“The thing I like about ITCA is it is involving the community to help put this all together,” says Williams, who attends ITCA board meetings. “It’s the people helping the people.”

While other organizations in town offer some Native American cultural programming and might refer to outside resources, Eagleman says ITCA is unique in that it links its services under a cohesive umbrella, so the Native men, women and children who use ITCA can find most, if not all, of their needs under one roof.

ITCA operates out of an unassuming houselike building along South Minnesota Avenue. The building’s former tenant, Payday Loans, still has its bright red sign hanging above the curb outside. Eagleman doesn’t want to waste money replacing it with an ITCA marker, although that is a long-term goal of the group, he says.

Current funds go directly into operations and programming. There is no paid staff, which Eagleman says helps ensure the group is guided by passion, not monetary gain. In fact, Eagleman says ITCA is supported expressly by the financial and in-kind donations of board members and partners at this time, although the group is looking for outside funding opportunities.

“We want people to be able to depend on our services,” Boushee says. “If people leave the reservation and move to Sioux Falls, if they need counseling or child care, or a job or just a place to feel connected, we want them to know they can gain their independence with us.”

Bringing worlds together

The U.S. Census estimates there are about 4,200 people who identify as Native American living in Sioux Falls. Eagleman and others say the number is much larger, however, in part because so many Native Americans maintain a dual citizenship, of sorts, with their tribal homes.

Finding ways to bridge relations between the Native and non-Native community has also been a goal of the Sioux Falls Diversity Council, to which Eagleman was recruited a year ago to serve as a board member.

“It is my philosophy that if all leaders in our diverse communities join forces and work together … we can develop a sense of connectedness, a sense of working together as part of our growing community, where each community is being affected by other communities and where the combined community effort is greater than the efforts of individual communities,” says Juan Bonilla, president of the diversity council, who requested Eagleman’s presence on the board.

“I believe that to build a constructive and integrated community, the combined efforts from each community’s leaders are critical and essential.”

To this end, the diversity council is planning to host what it calls the first Native American Festival in Sioux Falls at the end of September. Eagleman heads that committee, which hopes to attract tens of thousands of wacipi — or powwow — dancers, drum groups, vendors and audiences.

Bonilla says like ITCA, the diversity council is committed to identifying and overcoming barriers faced by Native Americans, especially young people, in Sioux Falls. He thinks the Native American Festival — open to all — will help connect Native Americans to city resources and the greater Sioux Falls community.

“ITCA and its programs are unique and will succeed because the board is practically all Native,” Eagleman adds. “We are helping all individuals understand the Native way of life. The board has cohesiveness to it, and there’s a feeling of belonging. That’s what will bring the Sioux Falls community and its Native people closer together.”

Bringing two worlds together isn’t something that happens on its own. Sometimes, it’s a nudge. And sometimes it’s a push, Eagleman says.

At the start of ITCA’s board meeting, Eagleman rose to lead prayer in Lakota. It will not be translated.

“Those who don’t understand (the Lakota language), listen with your heart and you’ll understand.”

The prayer ends with a Lakota universal truth: “Mitakuye oyasin,” Eagleman prays.

We are all related.

Reach freelance reporter Jonnie Taté Walker atjtatewalker@gmail.com.

BREAKOUT INFORMATION

About GEORGE EAGLEMAN

Age: 67
Tribe: Rosebud Sioux
Wife: Vicki, whom he met as a pen pal in the early ’90s. She is a board member of ITCA.
Education: 1994 bachelor’s degree in business administration from National American University; 1996 master’s degree in counseling and criminal justice from Colorado Technical Institute; currently working on a Ph.D. in counseling from Capella University.
Employment: Chemical dependency counselor at Keystone Treatment Center in Canton, 19 years. Teaches American Indian studies at Kilian Community College in Sioux Falls, nine years.
Volunteerism: Inipi (sweat lodge) facilitator since 2000; president of the Inter-Tribal Cultural Alliance Inc.. since 2011; Sioux Falls Diversity Council board member since 2012.
Immediate goal: Open a culturally relevant halfway house in Lennox by early summer.

INTER-TRIBAL CULTURAL ALLIANCE Inc.

Address: 2001 S. Minnesota Ave., in the former Payday Loans building.
Contact: 987-4473
Board meetings: First Saturday of the month at the Main Branch of Siouxland Libraries
Weekly/daily programming: Wellbriety meetings, a winyan (or women’s) group, an arts and crafts store and a 16-week cultural curriculum. Child-care options are available for people wanting to attend these programs.
Needs: Volunteers, donors and everyday items in preparation for the halfway house, including bedroom, kitchen and living room items.
Mission: While the original mission consists of 165 words, Eagleman summarized it to read, “To strengthen relationships between all peoples beginning with our children.”
Vision for halfway house: By May, ITCA plans to open the first culturally specific, residential halfway house in Lennox that will cater to Native Americans and others interested in traditional treatment therapies.

The manicured property features 11,000 square feet of building space complete with an indoor pool and other unique amenities. It is worth more than $900,000, according to owner Joe Fink, who will donate the property to ITCA for one year. ITCA will be responsible for paying the some-$5,000 in rental costs, including utilities, each month. Once the halfway house builds enough capital, ITCA will pay Fink for the property to keep the program operational.

The Lincoln County Planning and Zoning Department will hear ITCA’s petition to rezone the property for a halfway house at an upcoming April meeting. Already, Eagleman says ITCA has the financial support from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe, as well as other area tribes to fund the project if it is approved by Lincoln County.

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The Impact of Vine Deloria, Jr.

The 37th annual Great Plains Writers’ Conference was a blast. I met so many talented people – I felt like my head was going to explode from their awesomeness. The conference theme delved into the legacy of Vine Deloria, Jr., who would have been 80 years old March 26.

Look! I'm on the cover of a CONFERENCE BROCHURE! #madeitLook! I’m on the cover of a CONFERENCE BROCHURE! #madeit

We heard from his son, Phillip Deloria, who told of his father’s unpublished (and unrealized) autobiography. Except that the stack of autobiographical papers Vine left in a mislabeled box is not what you’d expect in the scholarly sense. No insights into Vine’s early dealings with the National Congress of American Indians, or deep thoughts about the new millennium or the movements driving Native America today. Instead, Phillip and his mother found scattered, but finely detailed musings about Vine’s life as a child and young adult. Phillip described how his father had begun writing this autobiography after a brush with death – a severe staph infection that left him writing his life story in a medicated haze. However, the stories remained in the same nostalgic voice even after Vine recovered, leading one (me!) to believe the fractured and juvenile writing was purposeful. The presentation left me wanting, as Phillip ended with a near promise NOT to publish his father’s autobiography, even though Vine requested he do so.

We also heard from one of my favorite tribal authors, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, whom I was first introduced to in a women’s lit class in college. I own several of her books, but have never heard her speak. I was blown away by her aggressive attack on what she considered to be a stain on Vine’s legacy, that scholars lumped his work in a cultural or spiritual context, and not a political or legal context. Deloria didn’t write a series of political science books, lead the National Congress of American Indians, & support Indian activism to get into heaven, Cook-Lynn declared. “He did those thing to get justice,” she said. Cook-Lynn also said that every writer should set fire to their offices and files before they die, so that no one can publish their work posthumously. Cook-Lynn said posthumous publication never works out, especially for prolific writers like Vine, and herself. “If you ever see any of my works published posthumously know that I will come back to haunt you,” Cook-Lynn threatened, although I personally see that as a challenge #hauntme !

I meet one of my favorite authors, and lamely ask for a photo and autograph #starstruckI meet one of my favorite authors, and lamely ask for a photo and autograph #starstruck

I tend to disagree with these folks, speaking solely as a fan of Vine and Elizabeth (I can call her that because she hugged me and I shared an appetizer with her – and because I ordered her a vermouth on the rocks). I want to lay eyes on everything they have to offer this world. I would give my right arm to read Vine’s childhood memories; it would in no way diminish his legacy as one of the most important Native American activists and authors of the 20th century.

So when I got up to present the piece I wrote, which won the Great Plains Emerging Tribal Writer Award, I spoke of Vine’s impact on me, as a human being, and described why I thought it was important to publish his memoirs, especially for the younger generations of Native people who did not experience the world with him in it.

Here is the full text of my presentation:

Before I start with a reading of the piece I submitted for this award, I wanted to tell you a quick story.

As a perfectionist, I went close to insane trying to edit my piece for today’s presentation.  You see, I knew about the tribal writer’s contest back in December. So of course I got down to writing my submission… two days before it was due. In addition to perfection, I also am a firm believer in procrastination… And divine providence.

It was only after discovering I won that I went over the piece with a dozen fine tooth combs. I kept thinking of ways to make it tighter, smoother, and just…better. Did I mention I went nearly insane?

I wasn’t seeking advice when it came to me from one of the youth I mentor, Sierra, a bright and beautiful 16-year-old Native girl I met last summer at my job working with pre-adjudicated teens awaiting court. By all accounts, she is a “troubled” girl, but to me she is one of the strongest survivors I know. I read my story and I described my anxieties to her, that I feared I won this award because I was the only submission, that I had to edit and rewrite the piece to make it worthy enough to sit beside my heroes Vine Deloria, Jr., Craig Howe, and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. Sierra looked at me and said something along the lines of, “Quit your whining, Walker! You won. They wouldn’t have picked you if your writing wasn’t good enough.”

She convinced me when she said, “I thought it was really good, Taté.”

Her simple and succinct review of my work is part of the reason I wrote the piece in the first place. To impact – somehow – Native youth. After I share the piece with you, I’ll discuss my motivations for writing the fictional piece and how I believe tribal writers and storytellers are one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of indigenous movements.

I want to state here that this is what therapists and counselors working with survivors of abuse call a “Trigger.” If you are susceptible to trigger reactions, I will not be offended if you decided to leave. Come back in 10 minutes 🙂

And now, with minimal editing from the original submission, my piece entitled, “On Being Indian: A Love Story.”

On her tummy, she stares up at the TV, her face propped by her hands on bent elbows. The screen shows a man in a trench coat and fedora hat being thrown off a big boat into choppy, dark waters.

Later, when they asked her what she remembered about that night, the TV and unlucky character were all she could remember.

It took longer to remember why the show was on. Or why she – at 3 years old – was watching it.

Or why she was on her tummy.

“This is what Indian’s do,” her uncle whispers in her ear.

Like many kids living in traditional households, she grew up amongst her tiospaye. She had a mom and a dad and an older sister, but she also had aunts and uncles and cousins who played the role of mom or dad or sibling. Her 3-year-old mind turned every old woman into unci, and every wrinkled man into a lala. She both respected and feared gray-haired people the same.

As she grew older she became aware people like Uncle Duane weren’t really, in fact, related. When she was a woman and told people about how her mom and aunts had breastfed her and her cousins indiscriminately, she understood not everyone was raised like this. Not everyone had been loved and cherished by the many adults in their life. To the little girl, the trailer house she lived in belonged to everyone.

And she belonged to everyone, like they belonged to her. Hopes and dreams were shared alongside the despair and nightmares.

For her, growing up Indian meant living with and among a lot of people.

It meant getting poked in the eyeball if she looked too long at her unci’s face.

Being Indian was being jealous your last name was Murphy like your dad and not Whirlwind Hawk like your cousin.

It meant lots of laughing. It meant lots of crying but shaking it off before someone caught you crying.

It meant beads everywhere – stepping on beads or finding beads in the cracks at the table. It meant getting yelled at by aunts when you used their quills as toothpicks.

Being Indian meant being taught without words when sage was used, when sweetgrass was used, when cedar was used, and that tobacco – whether natural or from a cigarette – was the best way to honor the elders and spirits.

It meant learning whitewashed history at school and real history from drinking relatives.

It meant going into any trailer on the street and being fed a snack if you were hungry or given a bed or couch if you were tired.

It meant wearing the clothes your cousin wore yesterday.

Being Indian meant you didn’t need to be at Wounded Knee or Sand Creek or a boarding school to have PTSD.

It meant the smell of coffee and fried Spam on Sunday morning.

It meant sitting at the hospital for a looooooong time.

It meant watching people get starquilts at weddings and graduations and funerals and wondering when you could give away your baby blanket, because people who gave stuff away were respected.

Being Indian was driving to Pierre or Rapid City and bitching in the car on the way back about how much you hate going to Pierre or Rapid City. Being Indian was knowing at 3 years old that racism exists.

It meant eating lots of cheese. It meant selling some of that cheese for cigarettes so Auntie Janis could smoke.

It meant having award-winning artists in the family who used their winnings to buy the whole tiospaye burgers and fries and ice cream at Dairy Queen.

It meant money was important, but not that important.

Being Indian was to be intimately connected to all things, even if you weren’t quite sure what that meant exactly, but being confident of your place in the world nonetheless.

It meant being told totally believable ghost stories and hearing about White Buffalo Calf Woman over and over again.

It meant knowing spirits were everywhere and that they made shit move and made sounds but weren’t to be feared.

It meant pointing without using anything but your lips.

It meant having an Indian accent, ayyyy.

It meant getting pregnant as a teenager and knowing the child’s grandparents would help raise it.

It meant dancing in circles until you couldn’t move anymore. It meant standing beside drums and drummers and instinctively knowing what song they were singing, because it was the song in your heart.

It meant playing horseshoes.

It meant lots of artwork with red, yellow, black, and white used.

Being Indian was laughing at how stupid Lt. John Dunbar is but secretly loving the only movie to make Indians look kinda nice. Being Indian was telling people just because they knew the word tatanka didn’t mean they were Indian.

Being Indian had to be proved to people who weren’t Indian.

It meant surviving.

She sits in a small room with a white woman who wears long jean skirts and white, squeaky tennis shoes. The little girl never looks up. Maybe the woman wears glasses. The woman has lots of toys lined up along the walls. “Show me what your uncle did to you,” she says. The little girl, maybe 5 or 6 now, understands what the woman is asking.

But it’s dirty. She’s not supposed to talk about that stuff.

Daddy gets mad and walks away when Uncle Heston’s name comes up.

Mommy tells her to stop “messing around” when she touches herself and makes her Barbies kiss and cry.

Daddy took her to a doctor not too long ago and proclaimed, “Doctors are nice and can touch you anywhere.” This made her cry and shake as she took off her clothes. The episode was so bad the doctor said in a way that was at the same time gentle to the girl and harsh to daddy, “No. No one should touch you unless you want to be touched. Not everyone is nice.” She remembered her daddy getting flustered, like he knew he had said the wrong thing. It wasn’t long after the doctor found out why the little girl never wanted to pee or poop.

She takes a boy doll and a girl doll from the wall of toys. “My Uncle Heston hurt me,” she tells the skirted woman with the squeaky white shoes. “Like this.” She shows the boy doll on top of the girl doll, both face down. She doesn’t know what else to say or do. No one told her what to call it.

The tiospaye is broken now.

“She’s lying,” one auntie says. “She watches too much TV.”

But no one can dispute the medical and psychological reports. So the uncle goes to live with another tiospaye. It isn’t until she is in college that the girl-now-woman gets a call saying Uncle Heston is going to prison for a few years, because he raped Sheryl and Denise and Wilma and Heather and…

Someone finally reported it. Reported it to people who cared enough to follow through, to help figure out the jurisdictional mess and file charges. Other men in the family are charged with child molestation. Rape. Incest. The girl-now-woman might need to come forward as a witness.

“Yes,” she says. Conviction, certainty, and finality ring in that one word.

She never gets a call. But she imagines what she would do if she saw him. Maybe it’s for the best. She’s never been a violent person, but in her revenge fantasies she makes an exception for monsters.

To say she “reported” what Uncle Heston did is too official. To this day she doesn’t remember actually telling anyone what happened. The whole experience still gets muddled in her head. She remembers him bringing her into her parents’ bedroom; mommy and daddy were out playing volleyball in their blue and yellow uniforms, and he was babysitting not just her but maybe four other cousins who were outside. She remembers watching him put on a white condom before he took her to the living room.

She remembers the TV show. And being on her belly.

She can’t recall the moments of violation, but the pain still burns her sometimes, and she remembers him putting her up on the counter in the bathroom and watching him through the mirror as he puts a Band-Aid over the places he ripped her apart, although there are no Band-Aids for souls.

She remembers her parents coming home.

She remembers touching herself later, after Uncle Heston is gone, because it feels really good. Her parents find her humping stuffed animals, making dolls do terrible things to each other.

Later she’s told how the doctor found attacks and tears underneath and inside where little girls should never be attacked or teared. Skirted women in squeaky white shoes with toys in their offices make her show them what happened and ask her how she feels.

She feels shamed.

And confused.

And angry.

Uncle Heston? He gets to finish high school. No one makes him see doctors or skirted women with squeaky white tennis shoes. When he gets out of prison he comes out to his family as a gay man. People say, “Oh. That’s why he did what he did to all those little boys and girls.”

That explains it.

Funny uncle.

What drives the girl-now-woman crazy is that Uncle Heston – and so many others like him – are milling about free as birds. She has a daughter of her own now. And it drives her crazy thinking something a sinister as a child molester – her uncle and troubled people like him – are on the same planet as her daughter.

It drives her even crazier knowing people like him – people like him who hacked away at her body and stole her childhood – continue to be accepted within the tiospaye. Is that what being Indian means? Sitting down at high school graduation dinners, or marriages, or funerals and breaking bread with child rapists? Because that’s what happens. She – not him – but SHE! is blocked out of parties and celebrations. Oh, sure, she’s invited, but he’ll be there. He’s in all the Facebook pictures, smiling, and holding babies. Her own mother has pictures of him, and she feels betrayed. She told her mother once how much it hurt to see his acceptance.

Her mom told her family doesn’t give up on itself.

Fuck that.

If being Indian means accepting and tolerating cycles of abuse, then she wants out of the club. She knows – and continues to learn – there is more to being Indian than this, but when the tiospaye welcomes the sins of someone who so unapologetically suffocates childhood innocence, someone who so completely violates the wakanyeja… it is impossible to embrace a culture of complacency.

With her daughter, she runs through body parts and “good touch/bad touch” dialogue. It’s not a “private part” or “wah-wah.” It’s a vulva or vagina. Anus. Breasts. Hips. Hands. Stomach. Neck. These are not shameful.

No one – not even mom or dad or grandmas or aunts or uncles or cousins or friends or teachers or… – is supposed to touch you without your consent, she tells her daughter every few weeks. No one should make you watch or touch them if you don’t want to. She quizzes her daughter about how people touch her, like tickles or pushes or handshakes or hugs. Her daughter is never forced to say hi to someone she doesn’t want to say hi to, even if it’s mommy’s friend.

It might be paranoia. If it is, she hopes it will help keep her daughter’s body and soul intact. That her daughter will never have need for the kinds of Band-Aids she needed. She hopes her efforts will help keep her daughter’s mind free of shame, her daughter’s shoulders free of weight.

This is the new Indian. One who prevents abuse, not harbors it. One who surrounds herself with only the family she trusts implicitly to support her and not do harm. Being Indian means getting educated to become a warrior. With education – with healing of the mind – comes understanding that being Indian doesn’t mean having to do something because family sticks together no matter what.

The tiospaye is only as strong as its weakest link. When a whole generation of wakanyeja are broken by abuse, the tiospaye ceases to exist. It can only be built up strong again when prayer and treatment and counseling and support from loved ones breaks the cycle of abuse. This is the same for families struggling with alcoholism, domestic violence, diabetes, depression… Those abuses must be faced head on, or they continue to fester in the peripheral shadows of denial and complacency.

She kisses her daughter on the forehead. “I love you,” she whispers in her daughter’s ear.

A good mother. This is what it means to be Indian.

THE END – OR IS IT THE BEGINNING?

The piece is fictional by nature, but they say the best writing comes from true life. I wanted to incorporate werewolves and wands, but those just didn’t seem to fit. It’s realistic and graphic, as life tends to be.

I think this thought flows nicely with what Philip Deloria was talking about last night. Though I understand and respect his reasons for not wanting to publish his father’s scattered thoughts on growing up, I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’d REALLY like to read those stories.

I’m a big fan of the Young Adult genre and I tend to lean toward books with fantastical, adolescent bents, like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, and the many more like them. When I say I enjoy reading stuff like this to friends or acquaintances, I often get the mocking smile or that’s-so-juvenile roll of the eyes. I shake it off, but I still feel a ping of offense, like, “Don’t judge!”

As a kid growing up how I did, books served as a means of escape. In 4th grade I was given a test to see whether I should be in a special education class, partly because of my affinity for fairy tales – of course, I tested off the charts for reading and writing, but even then adults worried at my choice in literature. When I read and reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in fifth grade, or Dune in sixth, or the Narnia series in high school, it was because those books took me out of myself. Growing up is hard. Growing up Indian adds a layer of difficulty you can’t imagine unless you go through it yourself.

But adolescence alone, with its raging hormones and rites of passage, is like a war zone. If you survive it, you’re guaranteed PTSD, regardless of the number or depth of scars. You see, the books I’m attracted to, books with magic and heroes, usually feature some insurmountable odd(s), cast little guys against big guys, and generally show that true magic – love, perseverance, and friendship – wins in the end. Reading a story about a monumental man growing up in Martin, SD, is guaranteed to have those elements, and it is surely useful in relating to people of all ages and experiences, especially Native youth, who are begging for stories like these.

The story I wrote was influenced by many factors, including inspiration from authors like Vine Deloria, Jr., and others, but the most pressing catalysts were the then-current debate surrounding legislation on the Violence Against Women Act (which thankfully passed with provisions benefitting tribal women), as well as a mandatory child abuse recognition and reporting training at work. I began writing my piece just hours after exiting the training. We watched a tough video, called “Why God — Why Me?” about child abuse survivors from Maine. It was extremely detailed; to say it was hard to listen to is an understatement, but there really is no easy way to talk about rape and other soul-destroying actions taken upon a child. We were all professionals at this training and most – if not all – of us had at some point worked with clients who had experienced abuse of some kind, but the general feeling of the group was helplessness.

How do you, as an adult, prevent abuse?

Treat abuse survivors?

Work with abusers?

We’re supposed to do all those things in my line of work at Volunteers of America. But it’s hard.

Harder still is going through it, and the survivor featured on the portion of the video we watched got me thinking of my own experience with child sexual abuse, and how it’s the survivor in us all that keeps us from being paralyzed by feelings of helplessness. We may feel like we can’t cope, but we do – somehow. Like the heroes in the books I read, you keep going, keep breathing, keep pushing for something better. My push – my power – is my daughter, Mimi, who is here tonight alongside my beautiful mother, Della, and my husband Dalton, who is also a fantastic newspaperman.

Writing has always been theraputic and meaningful for me. My mom can tell you about all the stories I’d write to her as a child. I’ve always been someone who expresses better in writing than in speaking.

As a troubled youth – and I was troubled; I spent most of my high school days in and out of group homes and psych wards – writing was my outlet. I used to cut myself, which I thought was the ultimate FUCK YOU to the adults in my life who tried to control me.

My high school journalism teacher encouraged me to release my anger and hate onto paper instead, and she helped me develop my first and award-winning high school editorial on Indian mascots, which is an issue still near and dear to my heart.

About this same time I was seeing a counselor who had worked with Native youth and thought I could heal better if I reconnected with my Lakota foundations, including inipi. She also lent me her tattered copy of “Custer Died For Your Sins,” and the notion that my culture – my identity – had been misappropriated to the point of corroding my entire Lakota experience had a profound impact on me.

Alongside these two fundamental milestones I began slowly rebuilding my relationship with my mom, who had struggled for years to remain in my life after she and my father separated when I was about 4 years old. It was a bad and ugly divorce, to say the least, and my father and his new family were themselves as corrosive as the institutions Deloria railed against. Blessedly, my mom is a strong winyan who never gave up, even after I slammed a few doors in her face. She maintained her devotion to and support of me through the years, which, if you know anything about troubled teens, you realize a major piece missing for them is unconditional love.

I’ve always been a cerebral person, but after embracing the power of writing, culture, and motherly love, I started throwing myself into academics and eventually found myself enrolled at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO, which is well known for its successful (and large) Native student body and excellent financial aid packages for tribal students. There, I learned to love the power of journalism and Native activism.

I spent more than 7 years writing for regional newspapers in and out of college, before going into my current line of nonprofit work, through which I’ll earn my master’s in public administration from that OTHER South Dakota university…

My passion for writing and activism has only strengthened in my current profession as cultural coordinator for Volunteers of America in Sioux Falls. I develop culturally-responsive curriculum for our residential treatment programs, and I also work with at-risk youth through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative I mentioned before. Because I know how much things like writing, activism, and love helped me, I try to incorporate these elements as much as possible.

Youth today are not without movements to stand behind. There are many ways to be active as an indigenous person, whether through sovereignty issues, like South Dakota’s ongoing battles with ICWA policies, or environmental movements associated with protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, Idle No More, or dozens of other local issues.

And tribal youth, in particular, are inherently designed to be storytellers of these movements. By empowering them with writing skills, video skills, photography skills, and other means of communication, and exposing them to authors and movements of importance, we can create a stronger future.

In this way Vine Deloria Jr. remains relevant today, and I believe the autobiographical stories his son alluded to last night would only strengthen and lift the Native youth experience.

Our youth are so often without heroes, and I hope writings like mine, or the future published  SMILE  writings of Vine Deloria Jr.’s bygone days, inspire generations of youth to succeed and build their communities.

With that said, I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from God Is Red.

 I have been gradually led to believe that the old stories must be taken literally if at all possible, that deep secrets and a deeper awareness of the complexity of our universe was experienced by our ancestors, and that something of their beliefs and experiences can be ours once again.