Tag Archives: South Dakota

This Land Was Made For Decolonized Love

A painting of my own creation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Submit Your Application for the Great Plains Emerging Tribal Writer Award

The Great Plains Writers’ Conference, in cooperation with South Dakota State University’s American Indian Studies Program and American Indian Education and Cultural Center, sponsors an annual award – The Great Plains Emerging Tribal Writer – to encourage tribal writers in the early phases of their writing lives and to honor those of extraordinary merit and promise.

Learn about our 2014 winner, Marcus Bear Eagle of Chadron, NE.
Learn about our 2013 winner, Taté Walker of Sioux Falls, SD.

The 2015 winner, judged by the SDSU English Department, AIS and AIECC, will receive an award of $500 and be invited to read at the Great Plains Writers’ Conference at SDSU, in March, 2015.

WHO CAN SUBMIT: Tribally-enrolled writers from the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Minnesota who have not yet published a book of creative writing.

WORK ACCEPTED: Fiction, creative nonfiction, drama, or the screenplay (20 double-spaced pages maximum) or poetry (15 pages maximum).

LOGISTICS: Send materials to arrive by January 15, 2015 to Emerging Tribal Writers Award, English Department, South Dakota State University, Pugsley Center 301/Campus Box 2218, Brookings, SD 57007. 

There is no entry fee. Finalists will be asked to demonstrate tribal enrollment to the AIS and AIECC.  More details are available at https://greatplainswritersconference.wordpress.com/awards/great-plains-emerging-tribal-writer-award-submission-guidelines/

For queries or to submit electronically, email April Myrick at april.myrick@sdstate.edu.


Blogger’s Note: As described above, I won the inaugural award back in 2013. You can read the winning submission here. This is a great opportunity for Great Plains indigenous writers to not only to get published and share your work, but also to attend a great conference of other (indigenous) writers. I got to meet the son of Vine Deloria, Jr., Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, and Craig Howe, who founded CAIRNS. It was an amazing experience and truly inspirational.

With A White Gaze Upon Us

Camera zooms in on a white guy with shaggy hair and casual clothing talking seriously to an elderly Lakota woman. He smiles brightly, formerly braced and now straight teeth gleaming in the light of a setting sun.

Narrator: What we’re seeing here is a real treat! The grandmother may look weary of this man’s offer to take pictures of her takoja, but with our special mic, we can hear how he promises his photos will help the outside world see her struggles and want to help her. How exciting! The Great White Savior is in his natural element, stalking prey with his most potent weapon: Good intentions.

I put this together - I'm not selling it, not profiting from it. Just all in good fun. Please don't sue me.
I put this together – I’m not selling it, not profiting from it. Just all in good fun. Please don’t sue me.

A commenter on this blog wrote recently:

Hi, I know this is not directly related to your blog entry, but I’d be really interested to hear your perspective about Aaron Huey’s work with the Pine Ridge Community Story Telling Project and his TED talk stuff. Do you think this is a more representative approach, or is he just another white guy doing well off other people’s stories? – Sunshine

I thought I’d answer as a post, since this is (unfortunately) a consistently relevant topic of discussion. In fact, I was just having this conversation on Facebook with a friend the other day. Because his documentary, “Honor the Treaties,” was released to a worldwide audience a few days ago, Aaron Huey’s Native-inspired works (and his skills as a photographer aren’t being critiqued here, folks; he’s obviously a talented artist) are making the rounds on social media again. Good question/topic, Sunshine. 

Yes, in my opinion, Huey is another of those Great White Saviors [GWS] who (1) rides onto the reservation with privilege and a colonial lens, (2) takes some pictures or makes a movie showing surface culture and poverty, (3) receives praise and notoriety for his efforts, and (4) leaves. This isn’t to say GWS folks like Huey and Johnny Depp (yeah, let’s drag him into it, too), aren’t good people. They probably are (I’m nowhere near cool enough to warrant a meeting to judge for myself).

But being a “good person” with good intentions is one of the overarching characteristics of the typical GWS. Yet as many people smarter than this blogger have noted, intentions aren’t worth crap if your impact isn’t measurable and/or worthwhile to the communities you claim to be helping. It’s one thing to bring attention to reservation plights, quite another to profit from it in some way (movie tickets for Depp, a National Geographic/TED spot for Huey, or even TV ratings for Diane Sawyer) without doing much about the problems you’re “bringing light to” in the long run. Again, it’s about impact, not intentions. This is where Huey (and others) fall flat.

The other issue here is that these stories (positive or negative reservation issues) belong to Native Americans. Really, what I love most (not really) about people like Aaron Huey or Diane Sawyer or Johnny Depp is that they talk about Native issues like they’re experts, and people EAT THAT ISH UP!!! Like, “Whoa! Huey said the government hasn’t honored the treaties! Shit just got real.” Or “Diane Sawyer is a true journalist exposing the poverty of reservations. Glad people know about it now.” WTF?!? Why is this news?!

“Revelations” like these are super-frustrating for those of us on the ground, and when some stranger can walk in, point a finger, get some publicity, and walk away from our very real issues it’s like a kick to the gut, and a reminder of how little we rate. The United States has been encouraging and perpetuating third-world conditions on reservations (South Dakota and elsewhere) for more than a century! This isn’t news, folks! It’s everyday LIFE for people, and privileged talking heads just keep getting (taking? hemorrhaging?) more and more out of the daily struggle of people just trying to survive.

These are our stories to tell, and while getting attention from Hollywood or TED or ABC can be a nice boost, the end result isn’t usually all that beneficial or useful to Natives. And, of course, what we’re missing when non-Natives tell OUR stories is balance. Huey and others focus on selling the poverty porn of reservation life, how broken our homes and spirits are. But we are not broken; we struggle – no doubt – but we are strong, and the outside world would know that if we could share our stories on the same platforms available to the GWS.

Beyond this is the fact that some of these stories are not meant to be shared outside a certain sphere. Huey, in particular, took many photos of Lakota ceremony that should never be recorded; that his excuse is a tribal member allowed him to do so tells me he doesn’t care about our community, only his end product. Make no mistake: This is cultural rape in its most basic form. Filming or photographing ceremony is a violent and abusive way of stripping our culture of its spirituality and pureness. One indigenous cosigner does not consent make.

Back to the original issue of Huey doing good work in Pine Ridge. The short answer is: He’s not. Disagree? Please, tell me – using tangible examples – how Huey, Depp, Sawyer, or any other White Savior Industrial Complex sideshows (Teach For America, church mission trips, etc.) have created lasting impact on our reservations…? How have their pet projects changed anything for the better? Maybe one or two or a hundred people can say their lives are better for having their picture taken. Maybe. But I think it’s the people who work with and among Natives day in and day out their entire lives who will be the true, (often unwritten) warriors and heroes in all this. Everyone else is just a voyeur getting off (and getting popular or even rich) on the desolation of our communities. Natives must be their own sovereigns and saviors. Help (attention, money) is great – but it’s on us to make it better in an appropriate and respectful way.

End Note: I’ve linked to her in this story, but please check out Lauren Chief Elk‘s Tumblr, “Life Returned” (scroll down to April 14 to read her take on Huey, then follow her on Twitter via @ChiefElk and @SaveWiyabi). She is the epitome of indigenous (and feminist) activism and advocacy. I learn something new everyday just reading her Twitter feed and guarantee you will, too. 

My Image is Not For Sale

I am a modern Lakota winyan.

No accent.

No paint.

No feathers.

I’m like no Indian you’ve ever seen.

Because I am not a mascot. Or a blockbuster archetype.

Someone dressed like a gothic taxidermist

Is trying to sell me my own culture.

“Your values and beliefs are for sale!” he proclaims in redface.

“So is your land. I’ll buy it for you [if you see my movie].”

Good trade?

Spending $5 million

On land worth $14,000

To sell a movie made for $250 million.

I’m no good at math.

But that seems

Excessive. Over the top. Not enough.

And I feel funny 😐


The worst part?

Our people are so starved for attention,

That we’ll take it in whatever form it comes in.

When Racism knocks on your door,

It’ll be riding a pinto, wearing a bird, and wrapped in a Comanche flag.

But that’s OK.

Because Racism makes it RAIN.

Yes: $5 million is a lot of money the Oglalas need.

Yes: Johnny Depp is a great actor and it’s OK to be a fan.

Yes: Depp was adopted into the Comanche tribe.

Yes: Tonto is a fictional character.


If the goal was to show the world a

Positive image of Native Americans,

Why not choose a Native actor for a Native role?

Why use Sattler’s weirdly mystical [false] depiction for historical reference?

And why – WHY?!? – Tonto?

So a new generation can play Cowboys & Indians. Stereotypes sell.

Why put $5 million into the pockets of a

Greedy old white man?

Why not give the $5 million directly to the tribe?

Why not consult with the people you’re hoping to impact

Before rushing out and doing what YOU think is best for them?

Who knows what’s best, anyway?

And that’s what this is really all about.

Natives don’t have control.

Of anything.

We’ve been on our backs for so long

That being on our knees and

Taking scraps from Hollywood, and Anheuser-Busch, and Congress

Seems like an improvement.

Get over it, Taté. It’s just a movie.

Outsiders tell us what we need.

How much we need.

What we can have.

Where we can have it.

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.

Ours is

A Halloween heritage.

A logo legacy.

Slot machine sovereignty.

Tonto traditions.

Ancestry for the price of admission.

Native AmeriCAN?

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.

Doing Good Work

Screenshot of online article

I had another piece in this past Sunday’s Life section I’m proud* enough to share. After the story on George Eagleman and his ITCA group was published, I got a message from the president of the Native American Council of Tribes to do a story on the work they do from inside the state pen. While I was honored they recognized my writing as beneficial to and for the Native community, my expectations were low. I thought if anything, it’d be a bunch of guys praying behind bars telling me they were saved. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a tough sell to an editor, and therefore readers.

Imagine my surprise when it turned out this group – NACT – was actually up to some good work, not just within the prison walls, but the community, as well. Really good work. Like, getting kids scholarship money for college. And putting together community celebrations to honor fallen heroes. Better still was the impact on other inmates – NACT is known for its Lakota spirituality teaching skills. Incarcerated Native men at the county jail raised outside of their culture look forward to going to prison because of the spiritual teachings awaiting them.

On one hand, it’s sad that the best place to be educated in the Lakota ways is prison. On the other, considering Natives make up a large, disproportionate number of the prison population (nearly 30 percent statewide, while Native adults are less than 10 percent of the total state population), these are teachings that should and must be available to these men (and women/youth). Everyone I spoke with for this story talked about how getting in touch with their Lakota ways has helped them more than any other treatment available to them. Considering our culture was systematically and methodically smothered by the dominant society since First Contact, it’s no wonder why so many Native men and women (and youth) are lost to drugs and alcohol, which account for a majority (53%) of the adult crimes committed in South Dakota. You’d think state lawmakers, educators, and the community at large would recognize the need to create legitimate curriculum on Native American history/culture/government/law/art/food/etc., in order to create better potential for successful adulthood among Native Americans. Like, “Let’s teach them this stuff BEFORE they turn to alcohol and drugs to fill the void in their spirits.” Concept?! Having taught the Native American Connections curriculum for the Sioux Falls School District, I know some administrations are trying. But not hard enough – it’s not enough. Not yet.

Getting to know the men of NACT was a lesson in hope. They know how bad their criminal records look. They hurt people. They’re in prison for a reason. But they’re doing what they can to not only make themselves better people, but to help others. Long-time inmates teach newcomers how to build the sweat lodge, how to prepare tobacco ties, how to make regalia and Lakota crafts, they encourage each other to get educated and earn their GEDs, they run relay races for the memory of an 11-year-old girl none of them have met, they read through hundreds of applications and award an aspiring college student $500 every year, they sponsor and plan a community feed and memorial for two heroes no one else in this town has thought to honor…

And they pray.

*I did not choose the title. I would never have put “Indian” in the title to refer to the sovereign tribal nations of America. Hey, South Dakota! 1492 called. It wants its maps back. 😐

Screen Shot Robert Horse, NACT president


By Jonnie Taté Walker
For the Argus Leader

Robert Horse was 19 years old when he built his first sweat lodge for a Lakota inipi ceremony.

He watched as the willow poles were pulled and stretched in such a way that an eight-point star formed at the top of the lodge before it was covered with canvas and tarp.

“Some people think you just put the poles in the ground and bunch them up and you’re done,” said Horse, affiliated with the Oglala Sioux Tribe and now 29. “But there’s a certain way to do it; the way our ancestors did it.”

His first lodge, and all the lodges Horse helps to rebuild every spring, are located inside the tall barbed-wire fences of the South Dakota State Penitentiary, otherwise known as the Hill.

Now the president of the Native American Council of Tribes Inc., Horse teaches inmates new to Lakota traditions and ceremonies how to build a sweat lodge, how to make prayer flags and tobacco ties, and how to pray in a language struggling to survive.

“Back home on the rez there was lots of ceremonies and sweats going on, but youth aren’t educated on what was really going on or why,” Horse said in one of several phone interviews from the Hill.

Horse thinks this lack of culture and knowledge of Lakota ways is a major reason Native Americans account for a disproportionately high percentage of prison inmates in South Dakota: 29 percent for adults, according to the 2012 annual report from the Department of Corrections.

This keeps Horse, his executive board and other members motivated to make NACT what one prison official calls the most active religious and advocacy group on the Hill. But it’s the group’s efforts reaching outside the walls that make it a unique rehabilitation and educational tool, Horse said.

On Friday, NACT will sponsor a community gathering and feed honoring Kimberly Rose Means, an 11-year-old Pine Ridge girl killed in 1981 while participating in efforts to support the religious rights of Native American inmates, as well as Lyle Eagle Tail and Madison Wallace, who died March 14 in a heroic effort to save Wallace’s younger brother from drowning at Falls Park.

This will be NACT’s first time sponsoring such an event outside the prison walls, and it’s being organized by statewide groups and local NACT supporters. However, the group created and has overseen the Kimberly Rose Means scholarship since 1987, awarded annually through an endowment from the Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation. In addition, NACT members and non-Native inmates participate in an annual relay in memory of Kimberly Rose Means.

“It’s not always easy to do something good in a bad place,” said Cody DeSersa, NACT’s secretary. “But there’s a big payoff when you see the good it does for the brothers in here and for families outside.”

Establishing freedoms

Native American inmates haven’t always had the freedom to practice their spirituality and perform ceremonies on the Hill. Long hair was cut, medicine bags were banned and the sacred pipe — akin to a Bible — was not allowed inside the walls.

“There was a time when the state did not allow the Native American Indian inmates to practice the religion of their choice,” said Rosebud Siouxtribal member Roscoe Primeaux in a letter written from prison. Primeaux is 32 years into serving a life sentence and remembers the early years of NACT.“It was taboo to even think of an Indian doing his ceremonies since the more common religious activity was only Christian.”

That all changed in the ’70s.

In 1972, Native American inmates were part of a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court — Crowe v. Erickson — requesting access and money to pay for medicine men, ceremonies, cultural classes and spiritual paraphernalia, among other civil rights. In May 1977, the state agreed, even allowing furloughs for inmates seeking participation in sundances on their reservations.

A year later, the federal government passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which established protections to preserve the traditional religious rights and cultural practices of Native Americans. These rights include, but aren’t limited to, access to sacred sites, use and possession of objects considered sacred and freedom to worship through ceremonial and traditional rites, including within prisons.

“That is how NACT Inc. came into existence, and a sacred sweat lodge was constructed inside the South Dakota State Penitentiary,” Primeaux recalled. “And we were allowed our sacred pipe of peace.”

Five executive board members, including a group pipe carrier, and seven council members serve as NACT’s elected officials who meet once a month. Anyone can participate in the quarterly meetings, and Horse said NACT considers all of the prison’s 180-some Native American inmates as group members, even if they don’t participate regularly.

Through the years, a few privileges have been removed, including the sundance furloughs, because some inmates were abusing their time away from prison, Primeaux said. The state also discontinued funding religious activities as more faith groups were established inside the walls.

NACT and two Native American plaintiffs filed suit after the state issued a blanket ban of tobacco in Department of Corrections facilities in 2000, including tobacco used in tribal ceremonies. NACT recently won the case, and Native American inmates are allowed to use mixtures that include 1 percent of tobacco to be smoked in the sacred pipe or used for tobacco ties and prayer.

In addition, NACT members and other Native American inmates on the Hill continue to enjoy access to spiritual leaders, can participate in the inipi ceremony and host wacipi celebrations, or powwows, among other religious freedoms.

“It’s important to have groups created inside prisons working together for positive reasons,” said Hope Johnson, who oversees cultural and religious programming as the corrections program and contracts manager for the penitentiary. “Inmates don’t often have positive people to associate with, and this gives them the opportunity to create good while incarcerated.”

Johnson thinks NACT, which was established in 1976 as one of the first Native American religious groups in the country, is the most active of the prison’s eight religious groups.

“For me, it’s powerful to watch these inmates find a reason to change,” Johnson said.

Practices at prison

Built next to the prison’s recreation yard is the NACT sweat lodge. It’s big enough to hold about 30 worshippers and is used for an inipi ceremony twice a week during recreation time. The lodge, including the patch of earth surrounding it, sits on land comparable in size to its Christian chapel counterpart inside the prison.

Twenty-two-year-old Lucas Waugh, a Rosebud Sioux tribal member serving a 25-year prison sentence, participates in the inipi ceremony and is one of NACT’s youngest members.

“I sweat every week,” Waugh said during a recent roundtable interview at the prison with NACT members. “It clears my mind. It helps me be better. It lets me pray for the people who are suffering.”

This past month, Waugh signed on to run the prison relay race in honor of Kimberly Rose Means. NACT organizes the noncompetitive race annually at the prison beginning in early May and draws about two dozen inmates — Native and non-Native — to participate.

The inmates track their laps — four-and-a-half laps to a mile — and will tally up the total on Friday. The goal is 350 miles, the distance between Rapid City and Sioux Falls, to symbolize support for Native American inmates across the state.

Running alongside and sometimes himself holding the NACT eagle staff, Waugh laps the outer rim of the prison yard four miles a day. He and other NACT members will pass the staff to community members Friday, when it will be taken to Falls Park for the memorial gathering and feed.

“It’s an honor for me to run for a reason, for a purpose,” Waugh said. “I had no purpose before I came in here. That wasn’t me before. This is the true me now.”

Growth, maturity

Mary Montoya was introduced to NACT 20 years ago when, as a CPA, she volunteered to help the group apply for its 501(c)3 nonprofit status.

Today, she is the prison chapel volunteer for Native Americans, or NACT’s “hands and feet,” she said with a smile. Among other duties, Montoya helps the group gather donations for the sweat lodge and prayer and coordinates correspondence between NACT and the public.

“I was a volunteer at the county jail for three years, and it always amazed me how interested and eager men were to get to the prison so they could learn the Native ways,” Montoya said.

In her 20 years of volunteering with NACT, Montoya has noticed more — and younger — inmates participating in the group.

“When you see them growing and maturing, when they start accepting responsibility along with their culture and religion, that’s a great feeling as a volunteer,” Montoya said.

Horse, who has chaired NACT twice in the 14 years he’s been in prison, is proud of the work his group accomplishes.

“I wish I could say we all had a better beginning,” said Horse, who was 16 when he was handed a life sentence that was reversed in 2002 when the South Dakota Supreme Court said law enforcement questioned Horse illegally without parental notice or consent. He now is serving a 40-year prison term.

“I have to deal with what I did every second of the day. I am reminded about what I did every second of the day. I’m going to repay all my life through service to the people,” said Horse, who crafts pieces of Lakota beadwork in his spare time. “How we got here, we’re not proud of that. But we’re able to make a difference now with the time we have left.”

Horse, in particular, is credited by many members of NACT for his passion in keeping the group active and focused. He spends hours typing letters and agendas and newsletters for NACT, coordinates speakers for the group’s spiritual conferences and ensures that his board is doing good work in the prison.

“In these positions, our behavior is watched closely by the other inmates,” said DeSersa, who is serving a 15-year sentence. “That alone helps keep me out of trouble, because you never want to disrespect the board.”

DeSersa, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, stays on point by tutoring inmates in GED coursework, showing others how to make traditional regalia and encouraging new inmates to seek spiritual guidance through NACT.

“Men are able to learn and grow here,” DeSersa said. “Even me. I’ve become more aware of my culture and spirituality through my involvement with NACT. It gives me a chance to be 38 — now almost 39 — years old, and not thinking I’m 22 years old like I used to act.”

Back in society

Drinking and drugs landed Gary Weddell in the prison system when he was 17 years old back in 1973. He served what he called three tours on the Hill, his last stint from 1984 to 1998.

“Young people — sometimes we think we know everything when we’re young,” said the Yankton Sioux man, now 57 of Sioux Falls, who credits NACT and family support with his success both in and outside the walls. “When I went in the third time, I was really focused on the culture, and I had a daughter I needed to change for.”

Johnson said this is why groups like NACT are supported and encouraged by prison officials.

“Our goal is to rehabilitate, and see inmates be better people,” Johnson said of the activities NACT and other religious groups organize. “It’s our job to provide inmates opportunities so they may continue growing while in the community. What they learn here can help them face challenges on the outside.”

Weddell recalled NACT’s creation and evolution through the years, describing it as a living entity and a savior to struggling Native American inmates. He remains an active NACT supporter and is helping to organize the community gathering at Falls Park by collecting donations of food and lining up speakers for the event.

“When you step into the sweat lodge for the first time, there’s an understanding that you can be reborn right there, that you go into that sweat and pray and believe,” said Weddell, whose early years were spent in an abusive boarding school atmosphere.

“I didn’t know anything about sweat lodges or sacred pipes growing up,” he said. “… That’s the same for a lot of Indian guys going to prison. We don’t know the good way to live and pray. For me, (NACT) gave me life. I would probably be dead now if it weren’t for them and what I learned from them spiritually.”


If you go
What: A free community gathering and feed will take place to honor the lives and sacrifices of Kimberly Rose Means, Lyle Eagle Tail and Madison Wallace. The gathering is sponsored by the Mankato Memorial Riders and the Native American Council of Tribes. 
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday. 
Where: Falls Park. 
Cost: Free.

About NACT
The Native American Council of Tribes Inc. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit operating out of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. It provides religious, cultural and educational opportunities to inmates and the public. It depends on monetary and in-kind donations to complete its outreach and spiritual efforts. 
NACT is in need of items related to the inipi ceremony. Sage bundles, firewood and large rocks are of particular importance; however, donations of cedar, sweet grass, buffalo meat, bitterroot, red willow and bear root are also appreciated. 
For information on making an in-kind or cash donation, contact NACT volunteer Mary Montoya at 605-332-0147.

About the Kimberly Rose Means Scholarship
This scholarship benefits graduating high school seniors who are enrolled members of a South Dakota Native American tribe or South Dakota tribal members who are returning to school after an absence. Applicants must: 
• Plan to attend an accredited college, university or vocational school 
• Have a cumulative GPA of 2.0 or higher 
• Have participated in school and community activities (only applies to high school seniors) 
• Have the desire and ability to accomplish his or her goals 
• Award: $500 
• Deadline: March 
From the Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation, http://www.sfacf.org

Wambli Wakan Wi
The NACT Freedom Singers drum group performs this song every year to honor Kimberly Rose Means:
Little sister, little sister
Dream me a song to sing while I run
For all my relations I will run
For all my relations I will run
Little sister, look at me
No prison walls can hold me when I run
For all my relations I will run
For all my relations I will run
The road to freedom lies within
Little sister, for you I will run
Little sister, for you I will run
Until I can run no more.

Jeff Barth for Congress

If you’re going to run (walk) for Congress, you might as well have a little fun along the way.

Jeff Barth, a Democratic challenger to She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Noemed, released one of the best low-budget autobiographical shorts I’ve ever seen.

Shot in West Wing-style backstepping, Barth’s epic 5-minute campaign video features tongue-in-cheek hillbilly fiddling, whimsical props, and a bowl full of jelly. You see Noem (or was that a mannequin?), a rubber chicken (hilar!), a big gun (that scares aforementioned chicken right outta the shrubbery), a horse’s ass (which don’t get nothin’ done in Washington), and a checkmate (the most threatening visual of them all).

Barth, a 60-year-old retiree and current Minnehaha County Commissioner, gives viewers a nice compilation of fun, useless facts of a life well lived. I mean, his kids even have straight teeth, for goodness’ sake. He assails D.C. politics with sound bite zingers – if you want backed-up facts, you gotta watch his other videos (the guy isn’t a-feared of the camera). He’s going for the gut, and he’s got gut to spare (though, not as much as this guy, ICYMI). Speaking as someone who also has tummy tubs to spare, I have to give it up to Barth for walking as long as he did, in what was probably our unseasonably warm South Dakota late-Spring, all while doing long-ass dialogue scenes (in the highest altitude possible offered East River). I’d be doubled-over every 30 seconds, AIM-style bandana catching the sweat off my brow, and sucking on my NPR water bottle.

I absolutely love the video. It’s got The Demographic (18-34 + cool old folks) written all over it. It also has Barth written all over it, too. He’s a fun guy. An honest guy. He’s someone you gotta be on your toes around, because he’ll throw weird pop-culture shit or some random-but-important fact at you when you least expect it. Back in my reporter days (2006-2008), I covered Minnehaha County for the Argus Leader. I got to know Barth as he was campaigning the first time around for his commission seat. He immediately distinguished himself as a politician ready to go on the line in the name of transparency for his constituents. He was willing to talk at any hour and would spend 30, sometimes 40 minutes on the phone with me just to discuss the one item on the commission agenda I didn’t understand. He’d often talk about chess (I played in middle/high school #nerdalert!). He’d talk about current news items and county items that would soon become news. He was fair-mined, well spoken, and super-competent.

Now he’s our state’s only Democratic primary candidate willing to embrace the LGBT community with open arms of support. Other distinguishing traits (apart from a fantastic sense of humor): He doesn’t have young kiddos at home to take care of, he isn’t seeking a college degree, he doesn’t have hair to style, and I’m willing to bet he has a stellar attendance record for all the non-profit boards, commission meetings, and chess clubs he’s committed to serving. His priorities are focused on South Dakotans and progressive politics. Period.

Was he the first South Dakota politician on YouTube, as he claimed during a live broadcast on SDPB? I dunno. He was featured on others’ channels during his 2006 county commission campaign, but in my brief Googling I couldn’t find any other Barth YouTube channels. Doesn’t phase me, though I’m not sure why he brought that up in the first place. But if Al Gore could create the Internet, then Barth can have a GD YouTube channel before anyone else. (Psst: He has a gun.)

Vote Jeff Barth in the June 5th Primary. You won’t be sorry.

UPDATE 5/28/12 – Here’s more info on how this campaign ad ‘hit the right stride.’ Also, looks like even though those YouTube vids from 2006 didn’t have Barth’s name on them, they appear to belong to him. LEGIT! #winning

A Mother’s Legacy

Considering the circumstances, it should not have been a great weekend. (Spoiler alert: it was the best weekend in recent memory.)

First, I’m still unemployed; and, as you might have guessed since reading it’s at the top of my list, being unemployed is the bane of my current existence. It rears its ugly head when the alarm goes off in the morning (“What? You think you have something important to do today? You don’t.”), when I’m cooking lunch or dinner (“Careful. You should probably store up for a stormy day like other warm blooded animals in the winter.”), and always at night (“Good sleep is for people with jobs. Their ex-boss doesn’t come at them with a knife in their dreams.”). My chin is perpetually up, however; looking forward to some good news this week (#fingerscrossed).

Second, and more importantly, the weekend centered itself upon a funeral for a friend’s mother. “Ruby” had lived a hard life, and it caught up to her health a few months ago in the form a brain tumor and, later, lung cancer. The diagnoses, the surgeries, and the hospice all came so fast, I don’t think my friend really had time to process any of it. As you can imagine, the funeral hit her hard. My friend had her second child about two months ago; she lives in New York while most of her immediate family lives across the state of South Dakota, so Ruby never had the chance to meet her newest grandchild, and I know that weighed heavily upon my friend’s heart.

My friend’s loss struck me to the core: Ruby was just 55 years old; a young doe by most accounts, who should have had a solid two or three extra decades to spare for her growing family. My own mother will be 51 this year – and due to an active, healthy lifestyle, she looks (and probably feels) better than I do at nearly 30. That’s the rub of it: For all intents and purposes, my mother could easily have been Ruby. They came from much the same impoverished, reservation-life background. But where Ruby turned to alcohol and smoking – maybe other things, my mother turned to education and soul-searching. My mom will be the first to tell you she isn’t perfect, but I’ll tell you she’s damn near close.

While contemplating life in the presence of an open casket, where Ruby’s body lay sunken and pulled into itself, I gave thanks to my mom for being an inspiration, someone my daughter and I – and my older sister and her children – can look up to, someone who has lived a full life, with plenty of mistakes to learn from and even more accomplishments to be proud of.

My friend is a family friend, and she once told me she envied me for having a mom who cared enough about her children and grandchildren to take care of herself and be something better.

That’s made me think, more so now than at the time she said it several months ago. As the body was lowered into the ground, Ruby’s 5-year-old granddaughter rushed from the crowd, crying, “GRANDMA! GRANDMA!” over and over – like many Lakota children, she had been raised almost exclusively by her grandmother. My heart went out to this girl, who looked on as her whole world was swallowed up by the cold prairie landscape.

My thoughts immediately went to my own child, now 3, who represents everything I live and fight for. Mimi loves her “gma” so very much; and because of the choices and sacrifices her grandmother made in life, Mimi will flourish. My mom’s legacy is not just survival, but life – living. What a magnificent gift.

And that’s why it was a great weekend: I got to spend time with my family, to cherish them now. My sister and mom both came up from Nebraska for the funeral. They picked me up in Sioux Falls and we spent four treacherous hours driving carefully along the icy interstate toward Lower Brule. We chatted the whole way. We laughed – hard. We also cried – hard. But we were together, and at the end of our travels we returned to our families, rejuvenated and ready to overcome challenges.

When I look back, I am sorry for my friend’s loss, but know Ruby is no longer in pain and that my friend has chosen to live her life in such a way as to make Ruby proud. To make her children and family proud. And to make her people proud.

Nothing like a funeral to help you appreciate life a little bit more.