Tag Archives: diversity

Magic & Marginalization: Et tu, JK? :(

Let’s establish something off the bat: I am a huge fan of Harry Potter.

  • I’ve written research papers;
  • I’ve written blog posts – heck the WordPress title of my blog is Walker Wrackspurt;
  • I collect books (paperback, hardcover, British/English versions, illustrated editions, digital books, audiobooks, coloring books) movie paraphernalia, costuming;
  • My daughter and I have spent the last year working our way through the series (we’re mid-way through Order of the Phoenix);
  • I spent way too much money at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida last year and REGRET NOTHING;
  • My friends and family know Harry Potter is a quirky but important part of my identity – many a HP-themed birthday party has been thrown in my honor;
  • I connect with people on the subject, even those who could care less or haven’t read the books/seen the movies, because it’s such an iconic pop culture topic.

Like most fans, I’m super-jazzed about the upcoming continuations on stage and in theaters.

But with this week’s release of History of Magic in North America, a collection of what will be four episodic essays as a lead-up to the Hollywood version of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I’m having a serious crisis of fandom specific to the (mis)representation of Native people in Rowling’s new writings.

Here are some of the problematic passages released March 8:

In the Native American community, some witches and wizards were accepted and even lauded within their tribes, gaining reputations for healing as medicine men, or outstanding hunters. However, others were stigmatised for their beliefs, often on the basis that they were possessed by malevolent spirits.

And:

The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation. In fact, the majority of Animagi assumed animal forms to escape persecution or to hunt for the tribe. Such derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.

The Native American wizarding community was particularly gifted in animal and plant magic, its potions in particular being of a sophistication beyond much that was known in Europe. The most glaring difference between magic practised by Native Americans and the wizards of Europe was the absence of a wand.

OK so I pretty much copied and pasted the whole thing. It’s all problematic. Native women much smarter than me have already written the analytical whys and wherefores – please go read their criticism, as I totally agree with everything they say: Dr. Adrienne Keene on Native Appropriations and Dr. Debbie Reese on American Indians in Children’s Literature both give Rowling a piece of their amazing minds (my girl Johnnie Jae, founder of A Tribe Called Geek, has also been in the Twitter fray). And it being JK Rowling, you can imagine the kind of violent backlash these Indigenous women are receiving from fans who couldn’t care less about Natives or our issues (or our women, obviously).

For me the representation issue boils down to this: The mass media narrative around Natives is intensely problematic; if we’re mentioned at all, it’s within a stereotypical or fantastical sense, and very rarely goes beyond 1 or 2-D. Many consumers of this media have no idea we still exist as contemporary, multi-dimensional individuals, which makes these fantastical/fictional perpetrations very much a part of the problem in that NO ONE knows or cares to know any of the very real issues our communities face. Who cares about the epidemic levels of Native youth suicide when OMG JK ROWLING IS WRITING ABOUT MAGICAL INDIAN SKINWALKERS!!!

We’re marginalized in real life and we’re marginalized in media. To have a powerhouse like Rowling (though any non-Native author really) profit off our continued erasure and harmful representations is something I am totally not here for. The argument that it’s “fiction” is worthless to me. If we (as consumers) had diverse representation of Native people the same way white people do, Rowling’s latest wouldn’t be so problematic, because consumers would have other representations to base opinions off of. As it is, so much of the Native narrative is romanticized and fantastical and now one of the world’s most successful authors has thrown her mighty magical empire against our fragile reemergence from near-total cultural genocide.

And I write this knowing full well I’m also a fan of the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, which I’ve written about here. However, unlike Rowling, Meyer’s Native fantasies were expressed at the outset of the series, not as an afterthought (so I had a trigger warning of sorts: bullshit ahead! Not so with the Harry Potter universe).

Beyond this, I’m writing because as a fan, I’m so… hurt and disillusioned to discover a world I escape to so often and with people I love like my young daughter is now an unsafe space that takes the very real cultural histories, practices, and belief systems of a hyper-marginalized group of people and casts them into the realm of myth and fantasy. Ironic, isn’t it, that I’m disillusioned with a fictional world based on magic? As someone who carefully curates the pop culture I promote and allow my child to consume, I can’t in good faith continue to support one of my favorite storytellers. If I want to read a misrepresentation of Native people, I’ll just pick up the nearest K-12 history book.

While I (used to) look forward to reading the series with my daughter at night, I’m not eager to witness the disappointment I’m sure she’ll feel when I tell her the author of Harry Potter has decided Natives don’t deserve dignity or respect and that the values of Native people can be torn apart and packaged as a fictional commodity for profit. And you might think: Well, you can still read Harry Potter and be a fan of that series and boycott FBAWTFT. To that I say, no, I can’t separate the Rowling who wrote the problematic Native prose from the Rowling who wrote HP1-7. It’s like making room for The Wizard of Oz‘s L. Frank Baum, who wrote in support of Native genocide, supporting President Abraham Lincoln (and other ethically questionable leaders), or being OK with American history textbooks because everything except the little bits about Natives and other marginalized groups is accurate.

 

When heroes disappoint, the letdown is very real heartache. Yep. It’s just a book. Got that. But a large chunk of my life has been utterly devoted to the story and characters and I simply can’t help the betrayal I feel. Coming off of her awesome pro “Hermoine as a Black woman” storyline for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I was sure Rowling would embrace creativity and leave her white-washed, European-centric version of Native culture out of the canon. Or perhaps she’d develop a wizard character who just happened to be Native. 

As a lover of pop culture, I often have to check my Lakota feminist lenses at the door, or else spend the whole TV show or movie being angry and dissatisfied (I’m thinking of “The Revenant,” right now as a for instance). Sometimes I’m able to get past the ignorance and marginalization. But… Rowling could have done this so much better. SO MUCH BETTER. I’m not willing to give Rowling a pass here.

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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.

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.