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!
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.
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.
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:
12/8/2015: His ride toward the next great journey came today. Asníkiya él wówaȟwá. May his family find peace.
I created this video tribute to the Coyote of our time. I hope you all are as inspired by his words as I am.
12/4/2015: I write this as I learn John Trudell is, in fact, alive.
It seems social media (and I include myself therein) greatly exaggerated reports of his death and all that. One last good story to tell, eh? “Hey, suckers, remember that time I dressed up like a ghost and you all started eulogizing? That was a good one.”
Despite this trickster dancing away from a digital demise and living another day, it must be noted Lekšila is indeed sick, and so a part of me feels good knowing I joined in with hundreds – thousands – tonight who wóčekiye kága – sent up prayer – smoke and song in honor of one of the greatest warriors of our time.
Tonight, I feel blessed to be able to say I interacted with Trudell twice this year – once for a story that ran in Native Peoples magazine and then again a short time later to hear him speak in Colorado Springs. Within those two meetings I touched upon a small but powerful aspect of what I think draws people to Trudell: His obvious passion for life and the worlds around him rang true in his every word and action, without apology.
I wrote the following immediately after hearing him speak in Colorado. I thought about publishing it, but it felt incomplete and it’s been gathering dust in my hard drive since April.
Maybe it was always meant to be shared now.
April 10, 2015: John Trudell (Santee Dakota) begins a recent talk in Colorado Springs by informing the audience he‘s crazy.
He says it with a swagger and smile, because for him, it’s something to be proud of, another identifier in the 69-year-old’s long list of credentials: Poet, author, musician, activist, actor – and crazy.
Not the mental illness kind of crazy. The witkó kind of crazy. He’s not making an ableist dig.
Trudell defines crazy as “not feeling powerless.” Being crazy, he says, doesn’t make him feel powerful, necessarily, but his kind of crazy – the ability to think for himself beyond the “normal” narrative shoved down our throats by the They and Them 2 Percent – has protected him throughout his life.
I can relate to this – and, really, haven’t we all felt crazy – as in too different to belong – at some point in our lives? And we’ve associated this crazy disconnect with negative feelings: “If only I were lighter skinned/thinner/blonder – NORMAL – I’d be more accepted.” To reclaim crazy as a positive identifier is a kind of power.
In my older years, as my brain has developed into more of Me (what Trudell refers to as moremes), I’ve accepted my crazy. My not-normal. Myself. I look in the mirror and I’m like, “Damn. I’m totally attracted to what I see in the mirror, stretch marks and flab and muscles and all of it.” I embrace the fat. Embrace the undyed dark and graying hair. Embrace my face without (a ton of) makeup (I LOVE EYEBROW FILLER AND ACNE COVERUP, OKAY?! #sorrynotsorry). My body is strong. I’m alcohol and drug-free (caffeine is GOD, though). I’m smart as hell and dangerous with a pen and paper. My good friends are amazing and think I am, too. I’m a great mother.
Oh, I’ve got problems – and who doesn’t? Trudell touched on this, too, and I loved this line of thought: “We’re programmed not to like ourselves. Start liking yourself and you get back your power… You gotta like yourself, you know? Maybe you don’t like some of the stuff you do – and I’ve done some pretty fucked up stuff… You can’t question who you are. If someone says they don’t like me, that’s their problem. As soon as I start to question myself, if I begin not to like me, I become my own problem.”
Let’s pause here for a second. No one, not even Trudell, is saying he’s perfect. Dude was part of a movement that both helped and hurt a lot of people back in its heyday. He’s known his fair share of joy, happiness, pain, and loss. Maybe he could have been a better son, husband or father. Probably all that – I don’t know. But I think he’s more than balanced the scales over the course of his life. For myself, I’m still learning how to live with the sins of my past and mistakes of the present, but I hope to one day judge those against my impacts on this world and those around me, and that others can see the humanity in all of it. Right now, as I think of all the times Trudell’s words centered me, inspired me, and lifted me, all I see is a human trying to grasp and share the meaning of being.
He had so many obvious gems like the quote above in between his rapid-fire, free-flow speaking that sometimes left the audience a bit lost, like, what exactly does he mean when he says, “The illusion of freedom is that it isn’t free; the reality of freedom is that it isn’t free,” because ‘illusion’ and ‘reality’ by definition are, you know, opposite words.
But then, as he kept running with the flow of thought, he’d eventually say something that would make everything he said before click, like, “They tell you to get an education, that you’ll live a happier, more productive life with a better job, but to get that education they tie you down with student loans you’ll never break free from.” And I’m like, YES! The illusion of freedom is that it isn’t free [and you have to work for it in order to obtain it]; the reality of freedom is that it isn’t free [because you’ll never obtain it].
And suddenly, you’re in on the joke with the Trickster himself.
While I’ve done phone interviews with Trudell in the past, this was my first experience with him live. And while the delivery of his words and concepts was new to me, hearing the content was like coming back home, comforting and familiar. Everything he presented has at some point been published, as poetry, as song, as interview, as documentary, as Internet meme. But like any real truth of the world, it needed to be said. In this, Trudell truly is an Indigenous prophet for our age.
The people cry out / Tears of anger / Tears of sorrow /Flowing / Giving birth to resistance / Young ones / To remember struggle
For the people cry out / Tears of happiness / Tears of joy / Washingthe pain / Cleaning the spirit / Givingstrength
The generations / Remembering the past / To rebuild the future / For weeping is / Another way of laughing /And resisting and / Outlasting theenemy
I think those who have heard him speak, read his poems, or listened to his music would agree. For instance, the idea of a mined mind, part of the title from a book of poetry published in 2008 (from which the poem above comes), drew several nods of approval and determination from the audience. “We are made up of the metals, minerals, liquids of the earth. We’re shapes of the earth,” he says. “If we respected our intelligence, we would generate power… If we understand who we are as human beings, we can use that understanding to generate coherency and clarity.”
The theme of humanity stayed with him through the evening, in the content of his words and in the energy of his being. The man just kept moving. I was able to shoot some video, in addition to what I thought were some good pictures of a smiling man normally presented to the world with a stoic gaze. His energy meant a lot of my photos turned out like this:
And yet I think that’s the best photo I took all night, as it captures everything about him I took with me: An essence of an imperfect someone simply trying to think and be. Two things to which we should all aspire.
“How we think changes the dynamic. This is our access – this is the only real power we have, the ability to think,” Trudell says. “And one of the great things about our intelligence, it’s about a decision we make. When we make the decision to use our intelligence as clearly and coherent as we possibly can and we make that decision, and act upon it, then it starts to change, because that’s reality.”
12/8/2015: Ikíčize waún k’un hé waná henála (Once I was the warrior, but now all that is past). — Sitting Bull’s Song
As more and more Natives move to cities, artists urge merging identities and reject the ‘urban’ label
– Native Peoples Magazine, July/August 2014
Settling in Denver in 1986 was a practical move for Lynda Teller Pete (Diné). She had graduated from college two years earlier with a degree in criminal justice and knew returning home to Newcomb, N.M., on the Navajo Nation would offer her few employment opportunities to use it.
“Helping Native people was always in the forefront,” says Pete, 54, of her employment history. After nearly two decades working to help Denver’s Native population in social services and government agencies, Pete picked up the loom she had earlier set aside and began weaving full time two years ago. It was a skill she began learning from her mother and other family at the age of 6.
“I grew up in a little community where you didn’t see a lot of outsiders,” she says. “I was very influenced by a fourth grade teacher who came from Maine. When he showed us on a map how far he traveled to get to us, I thought he came from around the world.
“I got a very big education, not from the curriculum, but from the stories he brought into class,” Pete continued. “There was a whole world out there. And I thought, ‘How many of us [Navajo] are out there?’ To this day our people can’t be out ‘there’ without us helping one another.”
Artists like Pete, who teaches Navajo weaving at workshops across the country, help pave the metaphorical roads from reservations to urban centers where Native populations are growing exponentially. Although generally associated with a rural lifestyle, last year, the U.S. Census Bureau released figures showing 78 percent of all identified American Indian/Alaska Natives were living off reservation. That’s a jump from 45 percent in 1970 and 8 percent in 1940.
Assimilation policies, including government boarding schools and relocation programs of the early-to-mid 1900s, encouraged – and often forced – Natives to adopt American culture, language, and lifestyle, and leave reservations for big city hubs like Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, and Denver. These policies continue to have a profound impact on Native identity.
The six artists profiled for Native Peoples Magazine, including Pete, represent the innovative ways art can help heal or enhance Native identity, whether on the reservation or off. In fact, the artists profiled here dismissed the idea of the reservation/urban Native binary, saying more than anything it acts as a divisive wedge among Natives. Indigenous people, they say, have always adapted and evolved, and art has always played a role in keeping traditions and culture strong through the generations.
“Art reflects current situations, in addition to being able to capture the past,” says Minneapolis-based artist Dyani White Hawk, some of whose paintings use a transitional moccasin motif to explore what makes something traditional.
“Natives were always trading and using the influence of other cultures – look at the jingle dress,” White Hawk says. “We have a strong history, but it’s always changing and always dynamic depending on the perspective it’s coming from. Our ‘real’ traditions are the teachings that come with it, the beliefs and world knowledge.”
Feeling pretty blessed to participate in some of the interviews and conversations I’ve had lately. Native America: We have heroes alive and well and kicking the shit out of stereotypes and bad news TODAY in all our communities. They are creating photos, music, jewelry, and laws, and hashtags. Support them. Encourage them.
Recently – and over the past few months – I’ve had the honor and privilege to speak to Natives living in Minneapolis, Pine Ridge, Orange County (CA), Phoenix, Bernalillo, Chicago, NYC, Seattle… The list goes on, thanks primarily to the amazing stories I get to write for Native Peoples Magazine and other publications. Every single one of these people are in some way bettering their communities and the people within through art, law, activism, rapping, cultural preservation, volunteering, health/wellness, and even simple parenting or mentoring (wait – what’s so simple about that???).
These individuals: Thosh Collins, Debra Yepa-Pappan, Frank Waln (with a profile coming in the next NPM issue) and others embody the true spirit of what it means to be a thriving indigenous person. Someone who embraces modernity and traditionalism. Someone who understands there is no “two worlds” or there is no “urban” or “reservation.” We struggle but also succeed regardless of location or adjective or blood quantum applied to us by Western narratives.
Collins, a photographer living in Tempe, Ariz., said the binaries we place on ourselves as Native people – reservation vs urban or traditional vs modern, educated vs uneducated, full vs everyone else – only further divide us as a people that really can’t be separated from one or the other. Our traditions have ALWAYS been adaptive and evolving. I’ve said this before, but the whole point of the oral culture was to ensure adaptation and evolution. The Lakota language, for example, is tough to learn because each word and sentence you utter will be different as the time of day changes or whether you’re speaking to your grandmother or your child or a stranger, and what kind of body movements and emotion go into it. The structure is different because you always speak with deference to the subject and everything flows around it. And like water flowing over stones in a river that is always changing, so, too, does the language (and “language is culture is language” – not my quote – I’ll edit post once I remember who said it – I think it was a White Hat…?). It’s about context, not about stagnation. Being Native is to be an ever-moving aspect of Nature.
Case-in-point: We are indigenous to this land, Collins said, and so to say one of us is urban or one of us is rural and to put value on one or the other is to deny our inherent sovereignty and claim to Turtle Island. When I walk out my door in Colorado Springs, I don’t (shouldn’t) see *just* a military/evangelical mecca/touristy city, but a sacred space of healing waters and mountain scapes with a history AND current importance unique to the Native perspective and experience. While I honor and respect and miss the family on my reservation in central South Dakota (and elsewhere), I don’t need to be on a reservation to live a Lakota existence. You may be reading this and thinking, “Duh,” but having light skin and having attended eight different mostly white-filled K-12 schools, I had a huge identity crisis growing up that somehow I was never going to be “Native enough.” And, yes, there are people — too many of them Native, but a lot of them rich white men who own film studios or sports teams — who will never see me as “enough,” but the point isn’t about them. It’s about me. How I live. What moves me to action or to prayer. About my daughter who will carry with her what I’m able to pass down.
There is something powerful in recognizing just how much control we have over our own identities, surely, but there must also be recognition to the power OTHERS have in shaping that identity… Why appropriation and mascots and media representation have such a significant impact on how our younger people will identify as Native. Because without the voices of people like Warren Montoya, Louie Gong, Brent Learned, and others throughout Turtle Island, we lose sight of ourselves through the fog of mainstream (read: culturally insensitive) entertainment, sports, fashion, and politics. Listen to these voices, support their endeavors, follow them on social media. Our identities – the identities of our children – depend on their messages being spread.
I’ve been following the music of Scatter Their Own for about a year now. It’s deeply personal and message-laced rock and blues – “alter-Native,” they call it – straight out of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The creatively cool couple fronting the band – Scotti and Juliana Clifford – spent some time with me a couple months ago to discuss the amazing ride they’re having to the top. The profile is featured in the latest (May/June) issue of Native Peoples Magazine. Check it out, then go buy their new album on iTunes!
My kindergartener loves school. Just loves it. She comes home everyday with a song on her lips and happiness in her heart for all her friends, her awesome teacher, and the billions of pieces of artwork she hangs throughout the house. Her latest lyrical lay is the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by My Country ‘Tis of Thee. She knows every single word of both songs, and her lisp makes them sound extra patriotic, because she fights so hard to get the “s” out clearly. Bless her.
Before I get into the politics of parenting and pledging, a few things. First, I’m of the mindset that my kid should have the independence and the freedom to choose what she does and doesn’t like, while at the same time having and showing respect for the values of others. For example, I’m not a religious person, but I’m all for her going to Catholic church with her grandparents if she chooses to and with the understanding that she also is exposed to other types of faith (she has a slew of Muslim friends, and we practice Lakota spirituality at home; and in this my most <sarcasm>favorite</sarcasm> of holiday seasons, we attend Jewish events open to the public — one of my greatest fears is raising an ignorant child, and so I try everyday to empower her with all sorts of knowledge). Likewise, I’m all about her singing songs she enjoys, so long as she can grasp their meaning. She came home singing Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater a few weeks back and we had a great discussion about what exactly his wife was doing in a pumpkin shell and that maybe that wasn’t the best place to put someone you love. She totally got it. “No one’s gonna put ME in a pumpkin shell.” Or a corner, Baby.
With the Pledge, things get a bit trickier. Ironically, the most patriotic places in America are powwows and under-funded and overcrowded public schools. Just this week the board of the Sioux Falls School District voted to make the Pledge of Allegiance a mandatory, daily occurrence in elementary and middle schools, but not in high schools. There’s more to it than that – you can read the story here. “What we did on Tuesday night was to expand a policy that required the Pledge of Allegiance at the elementary schools to include middle schools and to make it mandatory. We also have given high schools, in policy, instructions to either have the Pledge or presentation of the colors or something patriotic at any high school assembly,” Sioux Falls School District board member Kent Alberty said in a follow up story (noted below). Underlined emphasis is mine.
But it’s not so much the when and where that’s discomforting, but the fact that the board needed to vote on it at all. It rubs the wrong way to force my kid to be a sheep every morning. Oh yeah, and now with all the hullaballoo a local state senator is trying to make the Pledge a requirement throughout all of South Dakota’s public schools. Add that to the “Trying Too Hard To Get Reelected” pile.
What’s interesting to me is how these patriots (publicly elected school board members and state senators) completely overlook constitutional rights (yet another example that our state needs to put more funding into education, especially for things like government, civics, and social studies, and spend less time passing resolutions allowing public school Bible studies and laws that allow armed school sentinels). Lest we all forget (because, apparently, lots of public officials in South Dakota have) the First Amendment guarantees the right of anyone (read: any age/grade) to not participate in the saluting of the US flag (including recitation of the Pledge). Let’s go back to the 1940s – 1943, specifically – when the US Supreme Court heard West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
Justice Robert Jackson, writing for the majority.
OK now let me say this, because everyone and their dog is going to say I hate veterans because I don’t Pledge to the flag (“You ungrateful, terrible mother! Those veterans fought for your right to bitch on a blog!” <— Yeah, and for whatever reason my taxes support wars I don’t, and fail to support the returned homeless/disabled/struggling vets I do): Nationalism and patriotism are great if they make you a better person – a better person to your family, neighbors, your land, and yourself. Go you! In general, I think people who join the military as a means of protecting and serving are swell — they deserve recognition, surely. I mean, my Facebook feed went NUTS last Monday – yay for one day a year we dedicate a status to veterans… Seriously, folks. I have lots of love for military veterans, past and present, US and indigenous and even those from other countries. In fact, there are plenty of veterans in my immediate family circle (many of whom were drafted), all of whom sacrificed much for their country (during and after conflicts) and should be honored.
But paying tribute to those individuals who fought and bled and maybe even died in uniform is a totally different beast than what I’m talking about here, which is forcing children – my child – into ritualized and mindless recitation of concepts they are simply too young and inexperienced to comprehend. Really, people – my kid is just learning to spell and read. Heck, she didn’t even get through her whole name on that Pledge book she made. What exactly do you expect her to take away from lines like “and to the Republic, for which it stands” or deeply contextual words like “indivisible?” Let’s not even get started on the non-traditional but super-controversial “under God” edit of the 1950s. And before one more person says, “Well, the school isn’t really forcing anyone to say the Pledge… Your daughter doesn’t have to stand or sing…,” lemme just ask how confident YOU were at 5 or 6 or 15 to go against the grain of what EVERYONE was doing in your class???
For me – and for a lot of marginalized people – the flag and its pledge represent colonialism, capitalism, and privilege (among other things); quite simply, the message of patriotism is, “We are better.” So what does that say about me? What does that say about the thousands of families in Sioux Falls who aren’t American citizens? As the descendent of American holocaust survivors (read: indigenous people), and as a member of a sovereign nation that continues to struggle for survival in the Land of Plenty, I’m not sold on US patriotism and its faux idealism — “…with liberty and justice for all…”??? *gag* Give me a break. Tell me what reciting the Pledge has done for women’s equality (let’s talk about rape in the military, shall we?), justice reform, gay couples, Native kids in foster care, or young Black people carrying Skittles or asking for help?
The Sioux Falls school board said high schools didn’t need to recite the Pledge because of scheduling conflicts, but I’d wager it also has something to do with the fact there are more people capable and willing to use their brains and voices to protest shady American policy and practices by not standing for (or standing but not reciting) the Pledge of Allegiance. To make little kids do it without them realizing the implications or the bloody history (/current events) inherent in US patriotism is wrong.
I vote. I pay taxes. I volunteer. I see the flag flown at public buildings, which includes every single public classroom in Sioux Falls. And I stand for the flag (and other nation’s flags) out of respect, not of blind agreement. My values and beliefs (read: taxes) deserve respect, too.
No, I don’t say the Pledge. I don’t sing any song to a flag, unless it’s the Lakota National Anthem. (‘Cause you feel that song. It’s not some tune that rhymes that can be regurgitated by the masses – you have to earn it.) I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m protesting; I’m just exercising my constitutionally protected right not to conform to herd mentality, and I’m also educating my daughter as she grows and learns and develops her own unique perspective.
That said, my daughter and I discuss US/Native history all the time (Halloween – and now Thanksgiving, sports mascots, and fashion alone give us plenty to talk about). It wasn’t so long ago, I tell her, that patriotism meant stealing and killing the land because gold was found in the sacred Paha Sapa (we haven’t touched on WMDs and Middle East policy yet). It meant being rewarded for procuring the ‘red skins’ of savages, taking kids from their tiospaye, cutting our hair, and banning our language and religion. Because my baby is a soft-hearted soul, she sympathizes with the person who was forced to move away from their home or the people they loved. At 5, she’s more morally sound than a lot of politicians and knows it’s not OK to kill people for land or for money. She knows our hair and Lakota language and Takunsila are important enough to fight for, even though she hates getting her hair braided and is still learning her Lakota (and Ojibwe!) ways.
And so we talk about how she can listen to her teacher and respect the flags of every nation by standing. She doesn’t have to do more than that if she doesn’t want to. And when she said, “Mom. Is it OK if I do want to?” Though my heart broke a little, I said, “Of course,” because I don’t ever want her to think she has no say in what she does or does not do.
Then we smudged. Because there’s got to be balance in the world 🙂
11/20/13 An update: Reports came out today that board members of the Sioux Falls School District have received harassing messages (and even some threats) from über patriotic folks angry that (a) the schools are only *just now* being required to say the Pledge of Allegiance and (b) the high schools aren’t mandated to pledge. Interesting that the most harmful reactions here are coming from Pledge supporters (because freedom from tyranny, right?); you know, kinda like how “pro-life” politicians are all about cutting assistance programs helping folks – especially children – survive… Yeah. Interesting.
And then I got a robo-call tonight from the district’s board president (omg they call ALL.THE.TIME.) with a phone survey because “there have been inaccurate media reports yadda yadda… And we want to know if you think the high schools should be included with the elementary and middle schools in the recently updated policies to say the Pledge as a daily requirement. Press 1 for Yes or 2 for No.” I paraphrased – not a direct quote, but it angers me they didn’t do something like this – get more public input, do surveys or round tables, or, you know, read a Constitutional Law book – before voting on any Pledge requirement last week.
I never feel so oppressed as a Native American woman than on days meant for mass-scale celebration. Holidays, in particular, are cesspools teeming with the ignorant, the misguided, and the bigots. All those well-intentioned people wanting to “honor” my culture by giving crappy plastic toys to “poor” reservation children (without offering genuine solutions or acknowledging generational PTSD of events like the Wounded Knee Massacre or the hanging of the Dakota 38), or dressing their kids up in paper headdresses to showcase a totally false dramatization of the First Welfare Line. I’m thinking specifically of Christmas and Thanksgiving here, but even holidays like Independence Day and, of course, Columbus Day make me feel like less of person because I can’t fully partake in the shenanigans. “Yay! Most of my ancestors were completely WIPED OUT by colonialism! Pass the explosives!”
Or pass the candy. Today – Halloween – is the one day each year the nation’s indigenous populations double or triple in number thanks to feather-heavy and over-sexualized (or hyper-masculine) costumes. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, then you know I’ve used the past several weeks to post and re-post anything and everything anti-ethnic costuming. Redface, Blackface, and everything in between: It’s not cool, people. Stop.
This isn’t about being PC. It’s about respecting POC, our cultures and heritage, our struggles and our successes. There’s really no “right” or respectful way to pull off these kinds of costumes, folks. Your good intentions mean absolutely nothing to my 5-year-old daughter, who is bombarded with the message that hers is a culture of sexy woodland sprites. They mean nothing to this lovely lady, either.
What did these strong, beautiful young Lakota girls, and other youth like them ever do to deserve your concept of honor? They are the next generation of Native people still trying to survive. Their ancestors were purposefully and systematically wiped out physically and spiritually for hundreds of years. And today? Have you seen our rates of alcoholism/youth suicide/poverty/diabetes/domestic violence/rape/etc.? Let’s add your objectifying gaze and wardrobe to the pile.
To be clear: Your crappy imported strip of polyester fringe does not honor my Lakota ancestors. Show honor by supporting our causes, or pick up a book (this is what I’m reading now – FAB!), watch a documentary, listen to our young people, or visit our communities and buy goods made and sold by Natives. Otherwise, STFU. Honor doesn’t come with you appropriating our image for the sake of entertainment. You know what that does for us? It sets us back decades in the eyes of the world. Because how can we be human beings if we’re constantly subjected to the whims of those seeking to be amused?
We are not your fashion accessory, your mascot, or your white-washed history lesson on sharing. Respect us by respecting our boundaries. Native-themed Halloween costumes cross the line. Appropriators beware: You’ll be called out, shamed, and seen as racist.
Still have questions? Here is a great resource to help you figure out whether you should rethink your costume. Remember, Native Americans are living, breathing people. Vampires are not. Dressing up as a sexy nurse or cop may offend some nurses (and, you know, women in general), but since professions and careers (and monsters) don’t actually count as a demographic race category, your argument that the Halloween Police are going to ruin it for EVERYONE will not be added to the discussion. Being asked not to be racist doesn’t mean you can’t have fun dressed as a vampire. Or Harry Potter (my costume the last 8 or 9 years).
Have fun, be safe, and be respectful. Check the mirror and check your privilege before heading out to trick or treat.
Follow up: Exactly .345 seconds after I published this blog, someone shared THIS on Facebook and I fell in love. #truth
Our images are not our own. They belong to those with money.
And I want to scream, “THESE IMAGES YOU CREATE HURT ME!”
You may not know it, but they hurt you, too.
A Halloween heritage.
A logo legacy.
Slot machine sovereignty.
Ancestry for the price of admission.
Or Native AmeriCANT?
Marginalize me some more.
It’s Johnny Depp, for gootness sakes.
And the world goes on.
Here we are now. Entertain us.
I’ve been feeling very frustrated lately over this whole Tonto business, and during a time in my life I’m frustrated in general. (Final semester of grad school, people. No pressure, or anything.) Many folks – more than I’d like to admit – have told me my feelings on this issue are stupid (ironic, eh? Because, you know, Tonto means stupid, right?). There are real issues to concern myself with. It’s just a movie. Tonto is fiction. I liked that Twilight stuff, so why am I being such a hypocrite with Johnny Depp?! I LOVE Johnny! We share the same first name!
What’s more, he goes and tells someone he’s going to buy some land in South Dakota. And now I’m REALLY the bad guy. Because Depp’s not just buying land. He’s mother-effing GIVING IT BACK to the tribe. And I’m like, yeah, that’s super-awesome… He’s dropping millions on 80-omg-that-is-the-most-overpriced-land-EVER acres some crotchety old bigot is selling because 40 years ago a destructive protest made it famous.
A lot of media hype went up about this land being for sale. The land Depp is considering sits adjacent to the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) site. It’s not the massacre site itself. Aside from its history with the Wounded Knee Occupation (1973), there’s really nothing particularly worthwhile about this property. Before Dawes laws chopped up the reservation, these 80 acres were part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Don’t get me wrong. Land reclamation is HUGE and a very important factor in what makes us sovereign to begin with. South Dakota tribes have pushed to buy back significant properties (Pe’Sla in the Black Hills, for instance). If anything, the federal government should create a national memorial (tribally run, of course) out of Wounded Knee, as they did with Little Bighorn. But that’s another post for another day.
Depp is offering Indian Country, especially those of us in South Dakota – the poorest communities in the entire nation (cue violins) – a wonderful gift. Is it a peace offering for that terribly offensive movie? Maybe, but I’m willing to let that go. A gift is a gift. But it’s like the generic body wash set your Christmas visitors get you (“Oh, I love the smell of strawberry passion!”); if you know anything about me, you’d know NOT to get me body wash. And there’s the rub: Johnny knows nothing about Indian Country, so much so that he based his whole Tonto look off of a painting whose creator acknowledged was NOT historically accurate. Like, at all. If Depp got to know his newly adopted brothers and sisters of the Plains, he’d realize there’s a TON that could be done with $5 million. Scholarship endowments, capital-building projects, infrastructure development…
So, yes, thank you for this gesture, Mr. Depp. But, please, look into how you can really help us. Pump some funding into programs trying to dig us out of crippling poverty and unemployment; advertise and promote ventures trying to get traditional foods back into our diets; talk to the dozens of kids who contemplate suicide every day; visit our underfunded schools and hospitals. Don’t want to get too deep too fast? That’s OK. Produce a Native-led film project. Start an arts program. Protest Big Oil with us. Be #idlenomore
… [T]he motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.
– Marlon Brando, 1973
My closing thoughts are this: Everyone has their own opinion, and that’s fine. This is mine. Depp will do whatever he wants – obviously. This is NOT an issue worth dividing ourselves over. Debates and disagreements are fun, sometimes, but let’s keep what’s important – our children, families, and tribes – in the forefront. Pick something to be passionate about, and work hard to make things right. I may not support your cause, but I will support you. Let’s not tear each other down for having opinions.
For myself, I will always push for fair and accurate media representations of – and demand justice for – marginalized people. My feet vote, my wallet votes, and I use my voice when I have something to say.
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: 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.”
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.
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.