Category Archives: Autobiographical

Dear J.K. Rowling: Wakanyeja Video Response to History of #MagicinNorthAmerica

When J.K. Rowling’s History of Magic in North America launched last week, many Indigenous fans like me were crushed.

Read my initial response here. Then be sure to check out Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, which has a nice roundup of Indigenous criticisms to Rowling’s phoned-in, bare-minimum, stereotypical depictions of Native wizards.

Since then, I’ve been asked to discuss my views specifically as a fan and Native mother. Check out my interviews with The Humanist, Native America Calling, NowThis and local newspapers.

But the most important interview I’ve done is with my daughter, Mimi. She’s 7 years old (well, 7-in-a-half!) and the light of my life. We tag team the Harry Potter fandom in our house. We’re reading the books together (again – this time around she helps read and instead of the paperbacks, we downloaded all of the illustrated iPad versions) and try to get a least an hour of book time in a few times per week.

Last week she jumped into bed, eagerly awaiting Chapter 10 in The Order of the Phoenix and I gave her the bad news (honestly – I’m too stressed to read HP now, a series that used to function as a comforting safe space to escape to when the real world was too much to mess with #microaggressionsFTW). I read Rowling’s first post to Mimi. After I finished, Mimi said, “What else?” She meant, what else did Rowling write? Where was the rest of it? I said, “That’s it.” Rightfully, Mimi was angry Natives rated just a few short paragraphs when things like snakes, tournament trophies and horcruxes get fully-realized story arcs. I also explained how some people were mad that Rowling was equating medicine people to mythical fantasy (code for medicine people aren’t real) and was taking stories that didn’t belong to her. Mimi: “Like land?” I could only snap.

Mimi is smart. She gets it without me having to lead her to conclusions. I’ve never done more than present her with (basic, age-appropriate) facts. With those, she’s given testimony at legislative hearings regarding mascots, marched in protests, advocated for survivors of domestic violence and has generally let her heart lead her. I can’t take credit for it; aside from giving her the information and space to process ideas and concepts like racism and sexism on her own, I’ve pretty much let her choose her own adventure.

The other day Mimi asked if maybe Rowling “just doesn’t know” about Native Americans and perhaps it would benefit the author and her legions of fans if she (Mimi) threw down some wakanyeja knowledge (I am constantly telling her the importance of speaking up as a young person – wakanyeja is a word often used for child in Lakota, but it literally translates to spirit being). On one hand, this made me even angrier at Rowling: In one of our conversations about this issue, Mimi equated Rowling to Columbus (the land bit), but where she wouldn’t give Columbus or his supporters any kind of excuse, she loves the world of Harry Potter so much she believes the author deserves a chance at redemption. How dare Rowling do this to my kid (I mean, anyone who has been or works with victims of abuse knows cyclical behavior begins with excusing the abuser #SheDidntMeanIt)! But… On the other hand, I was pumped: As someone who often functions in the realm of digital storytelling, you can imagine my elation to hear Mimi wanted to make a video letter to Rowling.

Remember: “IT TAKES A GREAT DEAL OF COURAGE TO STAND UP TO YOUR ENEMIES, BUT EVEN MORE TO STAND UP TO YOUR FRIENDS.” — Dumbledore (and we’re going to hope JK Rowling is a friend)

The video is 15 minutes long (yikes, I know). And, you guys, this is all ad-libbed. Obviously, we’ve talked about this a few times, but mostly we’re just riffing off each other (and tbh, I nearly cried a few times at the powerful words Mimi spoke). I thought about cutting it down into a digestible 3-minute trailer so more people would watch it, but the uncut, undiluted, stream-of-consciousness discussion that happens is, in a word, magical. It demands to be watched in full.

You can feel Mimi’s anger and frustration at Rowling, witness her obvious passion for her culture (and OMG you can’t imagine how it feels to know she actually retains what her father and I tell her about her heritage!), and recognize the desperation in her voice to simply be heard. Our hope in making this video is that J.K. Rowling will edit/redo her Fantastic Beasts promos and screenwriting. Native people – and fans worldwide – deserve better than what Rowling has offered. Mimi has some truly fantastic ideas on how to incorporate Native characters into magic (historical AND contemporary) and I’m working with some great (and busy) minds to try and recreate Rowling’s HOMINA into something both entertaining and respectful. Yes! It can be done!

But first, Rowling needs to listen. Start here:

 

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This Land Was Made For Decolonized Love

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A painting of my own creation.

Like a broken pipeline spilling sickness across the prairie, South Dakota lawmakers often pump out hateful legislation that marginalizes our most vulnerable citizens, including transgender youth.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard recently vetoed [sidenote: and the state legislature failed to override said veto today] a proposed bill that would have banned youth from using public school bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms that didn’t correspond with their “biological sex.” While we applaud the veto, this, unfortunately, will not be the final word from those encouraging discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community in South Dakota and the rest of Indian Country.

As members of the Očéti Šakówiŋ whose treaty lands are directly impacted by South Dakota law, we write this letter not only to condemn this kind of legislation, but more importantly to call fellow Natives to action to prevent this kind of colonial vitriol from further polluting tribal ways and governance.

Let’s start the conversation by discussing how we—the Očéti Šakówiŋ—remove ourselves from hateful and bigoted sentiments like those we see play out in mainstream politics. Too often, we see tribal leaders in South Dakota take similar stands.

We experience homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny not only by white settler culture, but also sometimes by our own Indigenous people. We see Indigenous Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ relatives attempt escape with suicide and self-harm, as well as fleeing reservation communities into perceivably more welcoming urban settings. This relocation disrupts sacred kinship relations with not just our people, but also our lands.

Recently, some Oglala elders came forward to dictate tribal tradition by saying same-sex marriage violates “natural law.” We don’t know what “natural law” means in an Očéti Šakówiŋ context, and homophobic attitudes like these must be addressed, if only to acknowledge and move past the intergenerational pain and trauma inherent within these statements.

We write this statement to honor all of our elders and ancestors. Some were viciously abused inside colonial institutions that were anti-woman, anti-child, and homophobic. Boarding schools, designed to kill our cultures, were filled with sexual abuse and torture. The system of individual land allotment tore our ancestors apart, denigrating extended family systems and collective landholding. Government-led Christian missions and Indian agencies further obliterated our spiritual and cultural identities with laws about how to marry and when, and with whom to have sex. Government-aided churches tried to force us to accept their rigid, unforgiving notions of love and relationships.

We write this statement to honor all generations. Even today, dominant colonial indoctrinations tell us to fear sexual differences and express that fear through violent control—from both the pulpit and the capitol—of our most vulnerable relatives. Sometimes Natives ourselves practice similar tactics of control and marginalization around sexuality. When we do, we are complicit in ongoing sexual violence against Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ relatives, the ground for which was prepared in boarding schools, religious indoctrination, and other assimilation programs.

The irony is clear: By defining marriage as between only a man and a woman and by saying our Two Spirit and LGTBQ+ relatives go against “natural law,” we perpetuate genocide against ourselves.

Intolerant and puritanical pronouncements such as those made by the Council of Lakota Elders only serve to further harm and divide our already dislocated peoples; therefore, we encourage tribal leaders to break from colonial limitations of love and family and discuss how to move forward. We must reevaluate how we relate to each other as tiwahe, tióšpaye and oyáte – together, not separate. Let’s shake the bonds of colonialism and instead reinforce or perhaps reinvent bonds of kinship and communal responsibility.

We write this statement as a reminder that the foundations for this change were set long ago. Lakota elders Robert Chasing Hawk and Joseph Marshall III recently told Native Sun News that “marriage”—as we know it today: between two people as a state institution—never existed historically in Lakota society. The sacred ceremonies given to our ancestors by Ptesáŋwiŋ—White Buffalo Calf Woman—never included marriage. Our views on romance respected individuals’ sexuality and were far more advanced when compared to today’s conservative Western standards.

Imagine if every time one of our youth, women, or Two Spirit relatives’ bodies were trespassed or their rights violated, we reacted like we did to stop Keystone XL pipeline. Our medicine societies prayed for the protection of the land and water. Tribal councils issued declarations of war. And it worked, the pipeline was halted, for now at least.

We must be careful to recognize ongoing colonial harms and remedy them in culturally-appropriate ways when we have the power to do so. In this case, too, it is possible to fight for more just and healthy relations, this time among humans. Our own tribal histories provide the path.

After all, we are all related, not just some of us. Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ.

Signed by Očéti Šakówiŋ Two Spirits, LGBTQ+, and supporters:

  • Alethea J. Rosales (Oglala Sioux Tribe)
  • Alfred Walking Bull (Sicangu Lakota)
  • Alicia Mousseau (Oglala Lakota)
  • Alli Moran (Wakpá Wašté Oyáte)
  • Allison Renville (Sisseton Wahpeton-Oyate Two-Spirited Society)
  • Angel Mills (Oglala Lakota)
  • Anna Brokenleg Keller (Sicangu Lakota)
  • Anna Diaz-Takes Shield (Oglala Lakota)
  • Ashley Nicole McCray (Oglala Lakota/Sicangu Lakota/Absentee Shawnee)
  • Ashley Pourier (Oglala Lakota)
  • Carrie E. Sitting Up (Oglala Lakota)
  • Chas Jewett (Mniconjou Lakota)
  • Corrine Sitting Up (Oglala Lakota)
  • Coya White Hat-Artichoker (Sicangu Lakota)
  • Dani Morrison (Oglala Lakota)
  • Darren Cross (Oglala Sioux)
  • Darren Renville (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate)
  • David Bender (Hunkpapa Lakota)
  • Davidica Little Spotted Horse (Oglala Lakota)
  • Dawn D. Moves Camp (Oglala Lakota)
  • Dawn Ryan (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Two-Spirited Society)
  • Deanna Stands (Ihanktonwan na Isanyati Dakota)
  • Doris Giago (Oglala Lakota)
  • Eli Conroy (Oglala Lakota)
  • Felipa De Leon (Oglala Lakota)
  • Jacqueline Keeler (Ihanktonwan Dakota/Diné)
  • Jaida Grey Eagle (Oglala Lakota)
  • Jeaneen Lonehill (Oglala Lakota)
  • Jedadiah Richards (Oglala Lakota)
  • Jenna Grey Eagle (Oglala Lakota)
  • Jesse Short Bull (Oglala Lakota)
  • James G. La Pointe (Oglala Lakota)
  • Joel Waters (Oglala Lakota)
  • Jonna Grey Eagle (Oglala Lakota)
  • Jonnie Storm (Ihanktonwan Dakota)
  • Juliana Brown Eyes-Clifford (Oglala Lakota)
  • Kim TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate)
  • Krystal Two Bulls (Oglala Lakota)
  • Lenny Hayes (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate)
  • Leo Yankton (Oglala Lakota)
  • Marie Giago (Oglala Lakota)
  • The Rev. Dr. Martin Brokenleg (Sicangu Lakota)
  • Mary Abbott (Cheyenne River Lakota)
  • Mary Baird (Oglala Lakota)
  • Melissa Buffalo (Kangi Okute/Kul Wicasa Oyáte/Meskwaki)
  • Monique Mousseau (Oglala Lakota)
  • Natasha Bordeaux (Sicangu Lakota)
  • Nick Estes (Kul Wicasa Oyate)
  • Sarah Brokenleg (Sicangu Lakota)
  • Ronya J. Hoblit (Oglala Lakota)
  • Sloane Cornelius (Oglala Lakota)
  • Tasiyagnunpa Livermont (Oglala Lakota)
  • Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota)
  • Thalia Wilson Ellis (Standing Rock Sioux Hunkpapa Lakota)
  • Theresa Halsey (Standing Rock Sioux Hunkpapa Lakota)
  • Tom Swift Bird (Oglala Lakota)
  • Valerie Jean Collins-Siqueiros (Cheyenne River Lakota)
  • Vernon Renville (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Two-Spirited Society)

… And many more who choose to remain anonymous because they face the real possibility of retaliation as LGBTQ+ or Two Spirit.

Kopkind: A Love Story

I spent last week cut off from most of the world in rural, southern Vermont. No cell service, the weakest of Internet connections, and a “courtesy flush” septic system.

It was glorious.

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Sunset on Kopkind

I’m a big fan of mandatory adult timeouts. I try to implement time away from technology – social media, specifically – at least every few months (or when the news cycle or my timelines become too triggering) for self-care purposes.

Last week I had the honor and privilege to experience Kopkind, a timeout with strangers who would become amazing friends. It was set up like how I imagine lots of movie-worthy youth camps are set up: Scheduled learning, shared chore duties, organized fun, fires and games, and reconnection with the Earth. And lots of bugs.

The Kopkind Colony is an educational summer residency program for nonpartisan, independent journalists and community organizers. When he died, in 1994, Andrew Kopkind was eulogized as one of the great journalists of his generation, a man who, in America’s leading magazines, brought high literary style and intimate acquaintance with the dynamic political and cultural life of his time to the service of reportage and analysis. The Kopkind Colony, started by his family, friends and colleagues as a living memorial, is based at Tree Frog Farm in Guilford, Vermont, where Kopkind did much of his writing and where his archives are housed. The project honors Kopkind’s legacy by bringing together young reporters interested in making sense of the world around them and young people engaged in the political life of their communities for seminars, skill-honing sessions and lectures with established writers and political activists. It emphasizes inquiry and exchange on a range of social as well as professional issues, and a broadening of knowledge based on an understanding of history and a sensitivity to the experiences of others. At a time of increasing compartmentalization and the decline of formal mentorship in American journalism, it fosters collaboration–with focused programs designed to create a colloquy between professional and apprentice, young and old, rural and urban, with special attention to racial and gender diversity.     – The Kopkind Mission

There’s a lot to that mission statement. But it’s all of that magic and more. I applied to the fellowship without really knowing much beyond this mission (I wasn’t a little put off by the use of the word “colony,” but totally sold on the idea that journalism can and should mean active participation in the world – more on that later). Someone I know and admire posted a general Facebook post encouraging folks to apply. My unending thanks to this person. You know who you are ❤

Really, I couldn't get enough of the view.
Really, I couldn’t get enough of the view.

The theme this year was “Freedom to Be.” My cohorts – now hunka (chosen family) to me – came from a variety of activism backgrounds: José works tirelessly in Chicago for the rights of day laborers and domestic workers; Aaron is an elementary teacher in all ways that title does no justice to describe the commitment of those who don’t see their role as simply a profession; Tashira is a lawyer and wordsmith who champions the causes of marginalized youth and families; Chuck is a writer and filmmaker who uses the media to give voice to the voiceless and as a mirror to force the privileged few to see that which they are blind to; Anna is a freelancer kicking the shit out of the journalism world with her prose and passion; Joel is a poet of both words and action and his care for the lives and stories of NYC’s youth and families makes lives better; and Renee fights daily to ensure access to quality reproductive health care is available to those who seek it.

Apparently this beetle is an invasive species. But it looks SO pretty!
Apparently this beetle is an invasive species. But it looks SO pretty!

Our mentors in this endeavor were Angela Ards and Darnell Moore, whom I’d need another blog post to describe what their leadership meant to me over the course of a week.

Much of our discussion last week centered on the Black Lives Matter movement, how it relates to us, and why we need to care for each other – not just in a solidarity sense, although that for sure is a must – in order to continue the work we do. Too often, our self care is solitary and framed upon our desires to make the world better. As many of us discovered, however, taking time to breathe, to connect with the land and with each other, makes us more powerful than we’d ever be without these essential elements of movement work.

One of our swimming holes.
One of our swimming holes.

Outside of the amazing bonds we formed, my greatest takeaway was that the work I do to uplift and center indigenous voices is important, valued, and desperately needed, because it is intricately tied to the greater efforts of Justice Work. 

I entered journalism with the idea that I could do a better job than most at presenting indigenous stories fairly and accurately (or, you know, at all). My training while a participant of the Freedom Forum‘s now retired American Indian Journalism Institute, as well as with the student projects of UNITY: Journalists for Diversity and the Native American Journalists Association always always always focused on ethics, that we as journalists should do everything we could to remove ourselves from the human equation in order to avoid any semblance of biased behaviors or perspectives.

I vividly recall the discussion one of my favorite mentors held in which she described how she was not a registered voter, because she didn’t want her public voting record to be used against her as she reported on legislative affairs. She also didn’t serve on boards or volunteer. She still doesn’t do much by way of social media likes and shares. I should add here that this mentor in no way decreed her ways be adopted by the masses, but her words impacted me greatly. Also, this was more than 10 years ago.

But as I developed my reporting skills, I held firm this concept. Then, in 2008, I began working within the social services and education spectrums, and it became clear to me that this way of thinking was apathetic in the most harmful of ways. My disengagement from community involvement was an affront to very real cultural values of my Lakota people, and worked to silence the same people I was hoping to represent fairly and accurately. It took many years, but I began asking myself, “Why should I be fair to racists, or homophobics, or transphobics, or misogynists, or ableists, or white saviors, or anti-choicers, or any other person who lives to oppress others?” Hate isn’t a “viewpoint” to give equal news space to, and as a journalist I find the best good I can do is write about ways to end oppression or stories that bring hope, voice, and justice to indigenous endeavors.

I shared all these things and more with those at Kopkind. My work and writing and passions received verbal praise, sure, but more than this were the snaps, head nods, and hugs, physical kudos that reverberated through my being. And I was validated. I will be ever-thankful and humbled by this generosity.

To commemorate the week, I was commissioned to create a video testimonial of the Kopkind retreat and its impact. It’s not meant to be a marketing product (it’s nearly 20 minutes long), but something to encapsulate what we we all felt and will bring with us as we move forward with our work and lives.

 


 

Kopkind1

 

Raising an urban Native kid in a white bubble

I fancy my husband and I as purposeful parents. In addition to the basic necessities (you know, tons of books), we try hard to ensure our child has well-rounded access to her traditional Lakota/Ojibwe cultures, feminist teachings, and spirituality. She picks herself up when she falls, has clear concepts of right and wrong, and – especially because she is an only child – is encouraged to grow her creativity and independence as much as possible utilizing a combination of modern technology, craft projects, and the outdoors. Her teenage self may throw shade my way for using her so often in my blogs, but I think most people who know her would agree my 5-year-old is a well-adjusted child.

But this kind of purposeful parenting is hard and actually pretty tough to keep up on top of all of life’s other stuff (jobs, writing, and Harry Potter marathons, among other things). My husband and I are constantly being tested. Two things happened recently highlighting a need to do better – do more – as parents: (1) My kid came home last Friday and started pointing out every Black person she saw as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and (2) more and more, she’s been describing the English language as “normal,” as in, “Mom, stop counting in Lakota and say it the normal way.” #crickets

Speechless

The concept of race didn’t hit me until I was in preschool or kindergarten. Before that, I was raised around my Native extended family – my tiospaye. Lots of cousins and aunts running around my house, or me running around theirs. My normal.

I was definitely the lightest of the familial bunch. With my paternal Irish/French heritage, my dark hair and eyes made my light skin appear translucent. I have clear memories of being teased for my wasicu pigment, and I envied people like my older sister, who to me had/has the most beautiful look to her (inside and out!). So when we’d take baths as young children together, and she would rub her knees raw “to take the brown off,” I was confused. Surely it was worse to be light-skinned – at least in our family circle. She is five years older than I am, and so was exposed to the cruel, systemically racist town that is Rapid City long before I was. The odd turnabout was that my light skin became “the norm” when I entered school.

Despite blending in with the locals, I was still very much set apart. When I was in first grade that god-awful White Savior flick Dances With Wolves came out and EVERYONE at Canyon Lake Elementary School thought they were part Native. “Tatanka means buffalo – I know an Indian word so I’m Indian!” was a popular phrase on the playground. While I looked white, my name (spelled Taté and pronounced tah-tay), personality (quiet, publicly inexpressive), and background (Eagle Butte represent!) were definitely “other” and so even though the noble savage was en vogue, I was an outcast. Looking back on it now, I see quite clearly how the Hollywood appropriation of Native imagery/culture victimized me. Light skin or not, as someone who bucked the stereotype, I was rendered nonexistent.

Really? You don’t look like an Indian… #StoryOfMyLife

 With my own daughter now, I’m super-sensitive to the messages she receives from entertainment media and her peers, and I make a point to talk to her often about race and fairness and the inequalities around her. And thanks to her extended relatives, she’s exposed to her father’s traditional Ojibwe heritage through her grandma in Ponema, Minn., and to my mom and sister’s multi-cultural families (from Eagle Butte to Omaha).

Powwow Girl

Still, it’s a struggle to ensure the cultural lessons the family shares with my kiddo aren’t suffocated by the messaging she gets from outside sources, like school. In Sioux Falls, all of my daughter’s education – from daycare to Montessori to kindergarten – exposed her to peers who spoke different languages, dressed in different clothing, and had a range of beautiful skin tones. Sioux Falls isn’t perfect, but it’s a town that tries because it’s forced to with the proximity of reservations, immigration and refugee placement agencies, and an expansive medical community.

Now we live in Manitou Springs – a beautiful, quaint community to be sure, but there’s nothing to force ideas or behavior beyond status quo. It’s a tourist destination, so while it must be open to a diverse crowd, it attracts people with money. It’s housing has inflated “tourism town” costs, so low-income families have few choices beyond living in urban Colorado Springs (which has its share of #smh moments). And it’s a small town, so while it depends on the money of strangers to survive, it still has that drawling “we have a certain way of doing things around here” vibe to it. Oh, yeah – the demographics are roughly 95 percent white.

The point is: Grow up surrounded by diversity and you find that difference is normal and expected and even valued; but grow up in a bubble where everyone looks, prays, and behaves alike, and difference is wearing a scarlet D on your chest. What parent wants the latter for their child?

Here, there are no kids of color in my daughter’s classroom, and apparently the class agreed Friday they “all had white skin” – Mimi said this as she exposed the lovely olive-colored flesh of her arm for me while we walked home and talked about her day. I don’t know if the “we’re all the same” message was teacher-sanctioned, but I do know they watched a movie about MLK and talked about segregation as an abstract concept: “White people wanted white kids to go to one school, and Black kids to go to a different school,” was what my kid was able to tell me she had learned.

I could easily leave it alone. I could say, “At least they’re teaching – something – about Martin Luther King.” Lord knows I don’t remember any civic lessons about him as a kid. But that’s the easy way out. In my humble, tax-paying opinion, schools should be teaching MLK and civil rights lessons daily, maybe along with that pledge they’re so fond of. When just one or two days a year are set aside for Martin Luther King or Native American Day, you begin recognizing every other day as a celebration of White Privilege (“I can speak the language I want, dress how I want, go to school where I want, get a job more easily, make more money, smoke a bowl without risk of serving life in prison if I’m caught, stand my ground, not get pulled over in Arizona, walk down a dark street with a hoodie on and live to tell the tale, knock on doors and ask for help without being shot, and generally have far fewer things to worry about than POC”).

Beware the Idiots of February

I get the idea that there are some subjects you don’t burden young minds with, but I don’t believe in coddling. And I don’t believe in sugarcoating to make a concept easier to digest. “No,” I told Mimi. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did so much more for the world. Did you know white people would KILL Black people in some places just for being Black? White people would hang Black people from trees, would hurt Black women and Black kids, and never be punished for it. Martin Luther King helped stop that by teaching us that people shouldn’t live in FEAR of each other.”

We talked about her uncle, who is Black, and her cousins – my niece and nephews – who are Black/Native, and how without people like MLK to fight against injustice and racism, her family would live in fear – be hated – for the color of their skin. And how Native Americans – like her and me and her dad – were also persecuted and treated unfairly, and that MLK’s message of love and fairness and justice and resistance also helped people like us, helped all people who looked or acted different by fighting for laws like the Civil Rights Act.

Cousins
Cousins

Now, my kid is 5. I don’t know that I really grasped the enormity that is MLK’s legacy until college and later, so I’m pretty sure my kid won’t be marching or protesting anything except my cooking any time soon. But she’s also not stupid. And she’s aware of the world and notes injustice around her. Like when we walked into the Manitou Springs Public Library the other day, she wondered aloud: “How do people in those wheely chairs get books?” because she nearly tripped down the narrow staircase to the kids’ section. Sure enough, the building’s got the age to warrant a “historic” label, and there is no handicap accessibility. Granted, the whole town rests on one incline or another, and as an able-bodied person I’m dying after walking “up” a few blocks, but you’d think a public library would lead the effort in ADA standards.

This doll haunted Mimi for weeks. It was being sold at our local Sam's Club in Sioux Falls a couple years ago, and she walked down the aisle every time to check if it was still there. "Why do they think we look like that," her 3-year-old self would ask. Why indeed.
This doll haunted Mimi for weeks. It was being sold at our local Sam’s Club in Sioux Falls a couple years ago, and she walked down the aisle every time to check if it was still there. “Why do they think we look like that,” her 3-year-old self would ask. Why indeed.

Despite the conditioning I’ve given her in diversity advocacy and activism, despite living and breathing Native culture as much as we know how, it’s still very hard to teach our child about people like MLK or Sitting Bull in a way her 5-year-old mind can relate to. Living where we do and living a relatively privileged lifestyle (by privileged I mean not homeless, well fed, access to solid transportation, pursuing goals, educated — nevermind that we currently live in a one-bedroom where I sleep on the couch because we don’t have a bed, and I’m unemployed), her dad and I have to be very purposeful in these lessons.

We must seek out and identify the culture and heritage, as well as the injustice and unfairness, because we live in a community bubble that has no room for being Indian, unless it’s in a historical or economical/tourist context. When she starts identifying as white “like the other kids in class,” it’s time to reassess how we parent. Why? Because today it’s “I look/dress/talk white,” and tomorrow it’s co-opting white privilege in all its “I’m better than you” glory. I fell into this trap in middle and high school, as I think a lot of urban Native youth do, and had a huge identity crisis that didn’t resolve itself until after I began to rediscover my traditional ways as an adult. Today I am closer to my heritage than ever before, and while my teenage woes helped lead to that, I refuse to believe taking a backseat in my child’s diversity/cultural education will benefit her. Just because none of her friends are learning Lakota, doesn’t mean we’re going to stop teaching it. And just because she wants to cut her hair to match the style of the other kids doesn’t mean she’ll get more than a trim.

Grumpy Cat hates your stupid song. Go away with your objectification and fantasies.
Grumpy Cat hates your stupid song. Go away with your objectification and fantasies.

We talked a lot about Trayvon Martin last year, and we had the pleasure of recently watching Fruitvale Station, but the media doesn’t cover things like domestic violence, voter suppression or youth suicide on reservations, so it’s hard to put a face on indigenous issues that will undoubtedly impact my daughter as a Lakota/Ojibwe woman someday. We point out mascots or appropriation when we see it (so, like, every day), and we talk about why some people might be hurt by those images, but at the end of the night she’s well loved and taken care of with few things to worry about, and her father and I worked hard to make it so. It’s definitely a catch-22: We want to give her the (reasonable) best life has to offer, but in doing so run the risk of her equating the English language with “normal” and being frustrated when we require her to keep her sacred hair long.

So MLK Day has come and gone, but we will continue to honor Dr. King and his legacy daily, just as we honor the legacy of her relatives – through purposeful cultural survival and sovereignty. I might have to start quizzing her every now and then to keep it in the forefront, but when I ask her next time why Dr. King is important, she won’t give some soft story about separate schools or drinking fountains. She’ll be able to express how it relates to her, and how she can relate to – and better – the world around her. That might mean she’s just picking up the trash while we hike, or sending up prayers with sage, or noting the accessibility of public spaces, but at least she’s getting out of the bubble.

The Move to Manitou

Sorry for the lapse in posts, dear readers. I’ve been moving up.

Literally.

We’re now mountain home dwellers living in a tiny abode at the base of Pike’s Peak in Manitou Springs, Colorado. It’s a high place to be, to say the least: We’re at an elevation of about 6300+ feet; and the state just legalized recreational marijuana.

Photo from the New York Times - Check out their write-up of this quaint little town by clicking on the photo.
Photo from the New York Times – Check out their write-up of this quaint little town by clicking on the photo.

The move was hard. Very hard, and I was convinced I’d live a terrible existence of unemployment and loneliness here. Thankfully I was wrong. I’m normally quite the extrovert, and while I miss my family and friends dearly, the introverted part of my psyche is thriving here. I love it. I love being in the mountains. The weather is amazing. The people are super-friendly – it’s a tourist town, so I think they have to be, but it’s refreshing to live in an area where pedestrians truly do have the right-of-way. I’m making headway on that novel I neglected in November. I’m spending quality time exploring with my 5-year-old. My husband and I have reunited after nearly 3 months apart.

It feels like home.

My daughter loves her new home, too.
My daughter loves her new home, too.

I think part of that has to do with the culture and heritage of the area. The similarities between Manitou Springs and the Black Hills area of South Dakota – a state that will always be home to me – are striking: Extremely spiritual destinations for local and surrounding indigenous people, but a landscape and history marred by advertising billboards and a sort of local poverty that depends wholly on white tourism dollars.

The narrative of Manitou Springs is quite beautiful – at least the little I’ve heard and have been able to dig up. Geographically, it’s a space hugged on every side by the mountains, and a creek winds and gurgles its way through town. But the area’s most heralded features are the natural mineral springs that bubble up year round from a deep underground system of cavernous aquifers.

From the site http://manitoumineralsprings.org, showing 8 of 10 springs in the area.
From the site http://manitoumineralsprings.org, showing 8 of 10 springs in the area. People flock to these with water bottles and buckets to imbibe the health benefits of the springs.

As the ancient water erodes the surrounding limestone, carbonic acid is created which gives Manitou’s springs their special effervescence. This natural carbonation forces the water back to surface through cracks in the rocks, where it absorbs high concentrations of sodium bicarbonate (soda) and other healthy minerals.”

– From the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce site

Tribal people – the Utes and Cheyenne, in particular, although the Osage, Apaches, and many others – have used the space for several thousands of years, according to their histories. The cliff-dwelling Anasazi also had a stake in the area (there are abandoned cliff dwellings just above the springs that are highlighted every sunset for me, since I live on the opposite ridge). The place was so powerful – so spiritual – that though many tribal nations warred with each other, the springs were considered neutral territory. Like the sacred Paha Sapa, indigenous people made the pilgrimage to the springs year after year for healing and prayer.

I don’t know what names tribal people called this place, and I can’t really find the etymological history of the word “Manitou” (or at least one that makes sense for the region – Google tells me the definition is Algonquian in nature, meaning it came from way out east) but the locals here tell me it’s a “Native American”  word for “spirit.” The vagueness of this makes me laugh – that’s like when people talk about someone “from Africa” and you ask what country and you get a blank look in return. #canyounarrowthatdownforme

Google "define:Manitou"
Google “define:Manitou”

It should come as no shock that colonizers would later exploit the area for financial gain; in the late 1800s/early 1900s, the town became a sort of Deadwood-esque destination, but instead of gold diggers (of which there were many here, I’m sure), tuberculosis patients flocked to the springs in search of a cure. Today, historic buildings line the main drag filled with shops selling made-in-China dreamcatchers and stoner art (seriously, there’s a store called Crystal Wizard Gift Shop). To be fair, there are lots of nom-nommy local restaurants and a pretty cool arcade area, but when you live here it’s hard not to feel frustrated that it’s easier to buy useless trinkets at “The Quacker Gift Shop” than, say, a gallon of milk.

Gimmicky shops like this can be found littered across the springs. My kid loves it (the sun is in her eyes so you can't tell - 60-degree day in January!).
Gimmicky shops like this can be found littered across the springs. My kid loves it (the sun is in her eyes so you can’t tell – 60-degree day in January!).

As an indigenous activist, the thing to get used to here will be the weird New Age mystical-ness that always rides the coattails of all things Native spirituality. I’m sure these people mean well (and it seems they propel a lot of the natural tourism that takes place here) but in appropriating our indigenous cultures they completely and utterly dilute our spirituality into something that whitewashes the conversation (and our super-important modern-day issues) and can be damaging and harmful. I haven’t seen it be much of an issue (yet – the Native population here is ultra-low compared to the urban areas of South Dakota), but I cringe – and chuckle – inside every time someone asks if they can touch my hair, where I powwow, and whether I can teach them how to make a sweat lodge (true story!) – and I generally pass as white in South Dakota, so it’s new for me to be the token Indian. I plan to join the local Indian center, so hopefully I can get in on some homegrown Native advocacy and activism. Living here now, I feel blessed knowing I come from a place Native people are driven to protect sacred sites, like Pe’Sla and Bear Butte.

Despite – and perhaps because of – the tourism, the place has a good vibe, and my 5-year-old’s elementary school is across the street from where we live. I’m seriously considering selling the two storage sheds full of stuff that won’t fit in our small one-bedroom apartment just so we can settle down here. There are homes for sale within our budget, but they’re all old and super-inflated, price-wise. Plus, I never want to move again based on how much I hated the last move.

I do love it here. More to come.

A note from Mimi, on Father’s Day.

Another great year to be Mimi’s dad.

We visited Rhode Island beaches, got a new puppy, went dancing, spent quality time at Mimi’s favorite haunts (zoo, bookstore, and the bouncies), registered for Kindergarten, braided each other’s long hair… Essentially, Daddy and Mimi enjoyed being together – wherever, doing whatever.

When I asked Mimi what she wanted to do for her dad on Father’s Day (she brought up the subject about three months ago), she had a few ideas: We could take him to the trampoline park, color him a picture, make him a special movie, get him some cool hair ties, visit the circus, watch Wreck It Ralph, go to the park for a picnic… She was full of fun thoughts; what’s so magical about her relationship with her father is they do stuff like this – and more – on a daily basis, so it was easy for her to come up with things to do for him on Father’s Day.

As you can see below, we decided on a video. We also went to a local craft shop and created a special coffee mug (yellow, pink and full of butterflies – just as Dad likes it). The video was fun. In one take we got through some important “Daddy Facts,” and Mimi came up with an epic song on the spot. These projects – the mug and video – show how Mimi is loving, caring, hard-working, and creative.

Just like her dad.

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.

#winning Great Plains Emerging Tribal Writer Award

Pretty jazzed to announce the birth of my fictional writing career. The story I submitted to the Great Plains Emerging Tribal Writer Award was chosen as the winner. (If you’re interested, the story is HERE, buried within the previous post to this blog.) I’ll get $500 and read at the Great Plains Writers’ Conference March 24-26 (so you should plan to attend!). I may or may not get a free hotel room #thiscouldgetepic

I’m also getting a whole lot of self-respect. I’m not a vain person, but it’s one thing to blog for the benefit of, like, 10 consistent readers (hi Mom!), and quite another to be told, by a committee of academic reviewers and published writers that your stuff is legit. I’ll probably buy a lottery ticket to see if the luck holds up.

My eyebrows are way up. I must be super-pumped.
My eyebrows are way up. I must be super-pumped.

Of course, the cradle Catholic in me tends to think this is all a hoax, that my past sins are such that I deserve no recognition. I have this nagging suspicion I was chosen as the winner because I was the only submission. I mean, the deadline was extended and rules changed as the first deadline approached. A couple folks had to tell me “submit! submit!” before I actually considered doing so. And even then, I waited – like the true former newspaperman I am – until the absolute very last minute to turn in my piece. Via email, even though the rules requested mailed submissions. So there’s that…

But I’m going for ignorant bliss. It’s been a while since I’ve felt recognized for any supposed talents. I’m not vain, no, but I’m no humblebrag, either. I know I’ve got a lot to offer this world, dammit 😀 I enjoy writing, although I know it could use a lot of editing. I just need to be better at marketing myself. And that means using this opportunity for everything it’s worth.

Check out my new media portfolio!

People have been asking to view my professional work, including photo and video, etc. So I created a portfolio blog (read: I’m too poor to have my own website – oh well!). So head on over to Tumblr for that.

walkerimagining.tumblr.com

My written blogs will continue to be highlighted on this page. Enjoy both!