The 37th annual Great Plains Writers’ Conference was a blast. I met so many talented people – I felt like my head was going to explode from their awesomeness. The conference theme delved into the legacy of Vine Deloria, Jr., who would have been 80 years old March 26.
We heard from his son, Phillip Deloria, who told of his father’s unpublished (and unrealized) autobiography. Except that the stack of autobiographical papers Vine left in a mislabeled box is not what you’d expect in the scholarly sense. No insights into Vine’s early dealings with the National Congress of American Indians, or deep thoughts about the new millennium or the movements driving Native America today. Instead, Phillip and his mother found scattered, but finely detailed musings about Vine’s life as a child and young adult. Phillip described how his father had begun writing this autobiography after a brush with death – a severe staph infection that left him writing his life story in a medicated haze. However, the stories remained in the same nostalgic voice even after Vine recovered, leading one (me!) to believe the fractured and juvenile writing was purposeful. The presentation left me wanting, as Phillip ended with a near promise NOT to publish his father’s autobiography, even though Vine requested he do so.
We also heard from one of my favorite tribal authors, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, whom I was first introduced to in a women’s lit class in college. I own several of her books, but have never heard her speak. I was blown away by her aggressive attack on what she considered to be a stain on Vine’s legacy, that scholars lumped his work in a cultural or spiritual context, and not a political or legal context. Deloria didn’t write a series of political science books, lead the National Congress of American Indians, & support Indian activism to get into heaven, Cook-Lynn declared. “He did those thing to get justice,” she said. Cook-Lynn also said that every writer should set fire to their offices and files before they die, so that no one can publish their work posthumously. Cook-Lynn said posthumous publication never works out, especially for prolific writers like Vine, and herself. “If you ever see any of my works published posthumously know that I will come back to haunt you,” Cook-Lynn threatened, although I personally see that as a challenge #hauntme !
I tend to disagree with these folks, speaking solely as a fan of Vine and Elizabeth (I can call her that because she hugged me and I shared an appetizer with her – and because I ordered her a vermouth on the rocks). I want to lay eyes on everything they have to offer this world. I would give my right arm to read Vine’s childhood memories; it would in no way diminish his legacy as one of the most important Native American activists and authors of the 20th century.
So when I got up to present the piece I wrote, which won the Great Plains Emerging Tribal Writer Award, I spoke of Vine’s impact on me, as a human being, and described why I thought it was important to publish his memoirs, especially for the younger generations of Native people who did not experience the world with him in it.
Here is the full text of my presentation:
Before I start with a reading of the piece I submitted for this award, I wanted to tell you a quick story.
As a perfectionist, I went close to insane trying to edit my piece for today’s presentation. You see, I knew about the tribal writer’s contest back in December. So of course I got down to writing my submission… two days before it was due. In addition to perfection, I also am a firm believer in procrastination… And divine providence.
It was only after discovering I won that I went over the piece with a dozen fine tooth combs. I kept thinking of ways to make it tighter, smoother, and just…better. Did I mention I went nearly insane?
I wasn’t seeking advice when it came to me from one of the youth I mentor, Sierra, a bright and beautiful 16-year-old Native girl I met last summer at my job working with pre-adjudicated teens awaiting court. By all accounts, she is a “troubled” girl, but to me she is one of the strongest survivors I know. I read my story and I described my anxieties to her, that I feared I won this award because I was the only submission, that I had to edit and rewrite the piece to make it worthy enough to sit beside my heroes Vine Deloria, Jr., Craig Howe, and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. Sierra looked at me and said something along the lines of, “Quit your whining, Walker! You won. They wouldn’t have picked you if your writing wasn’t good enough.”
She convinced me when she said, “I thought it was really good, Taté.”
Her simple and succinct review of my work is part of the reason I wrote the piece in the first place. To impact – somehow – Native youth. After I share the piece with you, I’ll discuss my motivations for writing the fictional piece and how I believe tribal writers and storytellers are one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of indigenous movements.
I want to state here that this is what therapists and counselors working with survivors of abuse call a “Trigger.” If you are susceptible to trigger reactions, I will not be offended if you decided to leave. Come back in 10 minutes 🙂
And now, with minimal editing from the original submission, my piece entitled, “On Being Indian: A Love Story.”
On her tummy, she stares up at the TV, her face propped by her hands on bent elbows. The screen shows a man in a trench coat and fedora hat being thrown off a big boat into choppy, dark waters.
Later, when they asked her what she remembered about that night, the TV and unlucky character were all she could remember.
It took longer to remember why the show was on. Or why she – at 3 years old – was watching it.
Or why she was on her tummy.
“This is what Indian’s do,” her uncle whispers in her ear.
Like many kids living in traditional households, she grew up amongst her tiospaye. She had a mom and a dad and an older sister, but she also had aunts and uncles and cousins who played the role of mom or dad or sibling. Her 3-year-old mind turned every old woman into unci, and every wrinkled man into a lala. She both respected and feared gray-haired people the same.
As she grew older she became aware people like Uncle Duane weren’t really, in fact, related. When she was a woman and told people about how her mom and aunts had breastfed her and her cousins indiscriminately, she understood not everyone was raised like this. Not everyone had been loved and cherished by the many adults in their life. To the little girl, the trailer house she lived in belonged to everyone.
And she belonged to everyone, like they belonged to her. Hopes and dreams were shared alongside the despair and nightmares.
For her, growing up Indian meant living with and among a lot of people.
It meant getting poked in the eyeball if she looked too long at her unci’s face.
Being Indian was being jealous your last name was Murphy like your dad and not Whirlwind Hawk like your cousin.
It meant lots of laughing. It meant lots of crying but shaking it off before someone caught you crying.
It meant beads everywhere – stepping on beads or finding beads in the cracks at the table. It meant getting yelled at by aunts when you used their quills as toothpicks.
Being Indian meant being taught without words when sage was used, when sweetgrass was used, when cedar was used, and that tobacco – whether natural or from a cigarette – was the best way to honor the elders and spirits.
It meant learning whitewashed history at school and real history from drinking relatives.
It meant going into any trailer on the street and being fed a snack if you were hungry or given a bed or couch if you were tired.
It meant wearing the clothes your cousin wore yesterday.
Being Indian meant you didn’t need to be at Wounded Knee or Sand Creek or a boarding school to have PTSD.
It meant the smell of coffee and fried Spam on Sunday morning.
It meant sitting at the hospital for a looooooong time.
It meant watching people get starquilts at weddings and graduations and funerals and wondering when you could give away your baby blanket, because people who gave stuff away were respected.
Being Indian was driving to Pierre or Rapid City and bitching in the car on the way back about how much you hate going to Pierre or Rapid City. Being Indian was knowing at 3 years old that racism exists.
It meant eating lots of cheese. It meant selling some of that cheese for cigarettes so Auntie Janis could smoke.
It meant having award-winning artists in the family who used their winnings to buy the whole tiospaye burgers and fries and ice cream at Dairy Queen.
It meant money was important, but not that important.
Being Indian was to be intimately connected to all things, even if you weren’t quite sure what that meant exactly, but being confident of your place in the world nonetheless.
It meant being told totally believable ghost stories and hearing about White Buffalo Calf Woman over and over again.
It meant knowing spirits were everywhere and that they made shit move and made sounds but weren’t to be feared.
It meant pointing without using anything but your lips.
It meant having an Indian accent, ayyyy.
It meant getting pregnant as a teenager and knowing the child’s grandparents would help raise it.
It meant dancing in circles until you couldn’t move anymore. It meant standing beside drums and drummers and instinctively knowing what song they were singing, because it was the song in your heart.
It meant playing horseshoes.
It meant lots of artwork with red, yellow, black, and white used.
Being Indian was laughing at how stupid Lt. John Dunbar is but secretly loving the only movie to make Indians look kinda nice. Being Indian was telling people just because they knew the word tatanka didn’t mean they were Indian.
Being Indian had to be proved to people who weren’t Indian.
It meant surviving.
She sits in a small room with a white woman who wears long jean skirts and white, squeaky tennis shoes. The little girl never looks up. Maybe the woman wears glasses. The woman has lots of toys lined up along the walls. “Show me what your uncle did to you,” she says. The little girl, maybe 5 or 6 now, understands what the woman is asking.
But it’s dirty. She’s not supposed to talk about that stuff.
Daddy gets mad and walks away when Uncle Heston’s name comes up.
Mommy tells her to stop “messing around” when she touches herself and makes her Barbies kiss and cry.
Daddy took her to a doctor not too long ago and proclaimed, “Doctors are nice and can touch you anywhere.” This made her cry and shake as she took off her clothes. The episode was so bad the doctor said in a way that was at the same time gentle to the girl and harsh to daddy, “No. No one should touch you unless you want to be touched. Not everyone is nice.” She remembered her daddy getting flustered, like he knew he had said the wrong thing. It wasn’t long after the doctor found out why the little girl never wanted to pee or poop.
She takes a boy doll and a girl doll from the wall of toys. “My Uncle Heston hurt me,” she tells the skirted woman with the squeaky white shoes. “Like this.” She shows the boy doll on top of the girl doll, both face down. She doesn’t know what else to say or do. No one told her what to call it.
The tiospaye is broken now.
“She’s lying,” one auntie says. “She watches too much TV.”
But no one can dispute the medical and psychological reports. So the uncle goes to live with another tiospaye. It isn’t until she is in college that the girl-now-woman gets a call saying Uncle Heston is going to prison for a few years, because he raped Sheryl and Denise and Wilma and Heather and…
Someone finally reported it. Reported it to people who cared enough to follow through, to help figure out the jurisdictional mess and file charges. Other men in the family are charged with child molestation. Rape. Incest. The girl-now-woman might need to come forward as a witness.
“Yes,” she says. Conviction, certainty, and finality ring in that one word.
She never gets a call. But she imagines what she would do if she saw him. Maybe it’s for the best. She’s never been a violent person, but in her revenge fantasies she makes an exception for monsters.
To say she “reported” what Uncle Heston did is too official. To this day she doesn’t remember actually telling anyone what happened. The whole experience still gets muddled in her head. She remembers him bringing her into her parents’ bedroom; mommy and daddy were out playing volleyball in their blue and yellow uniforms, and he was babysitting not just her but maybe four other cousins who were outside. She remembers watching him put on a white condom before he took her to the living room.
She remembers the TV show. And being on her belly.
She can’t recall the moments of violation, but the pain still burns her sometimes, and she remembers him putting her up on the counter in the bathroom and watching him through the mirror as he puts a Band-Aid over the places he ripped her apart, although there are no Band-Aids for souls.
She remembers her parents coming home.
She remembers touching herself later, after Uncle Heston is gone, because it feels really good. Her parents find her humping stuffed animals, making dolls do terrible things to each other.
Later she’s told how the doctor found attacks and tears underneath and inside where little girls should never be attacked or teared. Skirted women in squeaky white shoes with toys in their offices make her show them what happened and ask her how she feels.
She feels shamed.
Uncle Heston? He gets to finish high school. No one makes him see doctors or skirted women with squeaky white tennis shoes. When he gets out of prison he comes out to his family as a gay man. People say, “Oh. That’s why he did what he did to all those little boys and girls.”
That explains it.
What drives the girl-now-woman crazy is that Uncle Heston – and so many others like him – are milling about free as birds. She has a daughter of her own now. And it drives her crazy thinking something a sinister as a child molester – her uncle and troubled people like him – are on the same planet as her daughter.
It drives her even crazier knowing people like him – people like him who hacked away at her body and stole her childhood – continue to be accepted within the tiospaye. Is that what being Indian means? Sitting down at high school graduation dinners, or marriages, or funerals and breaking bread with child rapists? Because that’s what happens. She – not him – but SHE! is blocked out of parties and celebrations. Oh, sure, she’s invited, but he’ll be there. He’s in all the Facebook pictures, smiling, and holding babies. Her own mother has pictures of him, and she feels betrayed. She told her mother once how much it hurt to see his acceptance.
Her mom told her family doesn’t give up on itself.
If being Indian means accepting and tolerating cycles of abuse, then she wants out of the club. She knows – and continues to learn – there is more to being Indian than this, but when the tiospaye welcomes the sins of someone who so unapologetically suffocates childhood innocence, someone who so completely violates the wakanyeja… it is impossible to embrace a culture of complacency.
With her daughter, she runs through body parts and “good touch/bad touch” dialogue. It’s not a “private part” or “wah-wah.” It’s a vulva or vagina. Anus. Breasts. Hips. Hands. Stomach. Neck. These are not shameful.
No one – not even mom or dad or grandmas or aunts or uncles or cousins or friends or teachers or… – is supposed to touch you without your consent, she tells her daughter every few weeks. No one should make you watch or touch them if you don’t want to. She quizzes her daughter about how people touch her, like tickles or pushes or handshakes or hugs. Her daughter is never forced to say hi to someone she doesn’t want to say hi to, even if it’s mommy’s friend.
It might be paranoia. If it is, she hopes it will help keep her daughter’s body and soul intact. That her daughter will never have need for the kinds of Band-Aids she needed. She hopes her efforts will help keep her daughter’s mind free of shame, her daughter’s shoulders free of weight.
This is the new Indian. One who prevents abuse, not harbors it. One who surrounds herself with only the family she trusts implicitly to support her and not do harm. Being Indian means getting educated to become a warrior. With education – with healing of the mind – comes understanding that being Indian doesn’t mean having to do something because family sticks together no matter what.
The tiospaye is only as strong as its weakest link. When a whole generation of wakanyeja are broken by abuse, the tiospaye ceases to exist. It can only be built up strong again when prayer and treatment and counseling and support from loved ones breaks the cycle of abuse. This is the same for families struggling with alcoholism, domestic violence, diabetes, depression… Those abuses must be faced head on, or they continue to fester in the peripheral shadows of denial and complacency.
She kisses her daughter on the forehead. “I love you,” she whispers in her daughter’s ear.
A good mother. This is what it means to be Indian.
THE END – OR IS IT THE BEGINNING?
The piece is fictional by nature, but they say the best writing comes from true life. I wanted to incorporate werewolves and wands, but those just didn’t seem to fit. It’s realistic and graphic, as life tends to be.
I think this thought flows nicely with what Philip Deloria was talking about last night. Though I understand and respect his reasons for not wanting to publish his father’s scattered thoughts on growing up, I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’d REALLY like to read those stories.
I’m a big fan of the Young Adult genre and I tend to lean toward books with fantastical, adolescent bents, like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, and the many more like them. When I say I enjoy reading stuff like this to friends or acquaintances, I often get the mocking smile or that’s-so-juvenile roll of the eyes. I shake it off, but I still feel a ping of offense, like, “Don’t judge!”
As a kid growing up how I did, books served as a means of escape. In 4th grade I was given a test to see whether I should be in a special education class, partly because of my affinity for fairy tales – of course, I tested off the charts for reading and writing, but even then adults worried at my choice in literature. When I read and reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in fifth grade, or Dune in sixth, or the Narnia series in high school, it was because those books took me out of myself. Growing up is hard. Growing up Indian adds a layer of difficulty you can’t imagine unless you go through it yourself.
But adolescence alone, with its raging hormones and rites of passage, is like a war zone. If you survive it, you’re guaranteed PTSD, regardless of the number or depth of scars. You see, the books I’m attracted to, books with magic and heroes, usually feature some insurmountable odd(s), cast little guys against big guys, and generally show that true magic – love, perseverance, and friendship – wins in the end. Reading a story about a monumental man growing up in Martin, SD, is guaranteed to have those elements, and it is surely useful in relating to people of all ages and experiences, especially Native youth, who are begging for stories like these.
The story I wrote was influenced by many factors, including inspiration from authors like Vine Deloria, Jr., and others, but the most pressing catalysts were the then-current debate surrounding legislation on the Violence Against Women Act (which thankfully passed with provisions benefitting tribal women), as well as a mandatory child abuse recognition and reporting training at work. I began writing my piece just hours after exiting the training. We watched a tough video, called “Why God — Why Me?” about child abuse survivors from Maine. It was extremely detailed; to say it was hard to listen to is an understatement, but there really is no easy way to talk about rape and other soul-destroying actions taken upon a child. We were all professionals at this training and most – if not all – of us had at some point worked with clients who had experienced abuse of some kind, but the general feeling of the group was helplessness.
How do you, as an adult, prevent abuse?
Treat abuse survivors?
Work with abusers?
We’re supposed to do all those things in my line of work at Volunteers of America. But it’s hard.
Harder still is going through it, and the survivor featured on the portion of the video we watched got me thinking of my own experience with child sexual abuse, and how it’s the survivor in us all that keeps us from being paralyzed by feelings of helplessness. We may feel like we can’t cope, but we do – somehow. Like the heroes in the books I read, you keep going, keep breathing, keep pushing for something better. My push – my power – is my daughter, Mimi, who is here tonight alongside my beautiful mother, Della, and my husband Dalton, who is also a fantastic newspaperman.
Writing has always been theraputic and meaningful for me. My mom can tell you about all the stories I’d write to her as a child. I’ve always been someone who expresses better in writing than in speaking.
As a troubled youth – and I was troubled; I spent most of my high school days in and out of group homes and psych wards – writing was my outlet. I used to cut myself, which I thought was the ultimate FUCK YOU to the adults in my life who tried to control me.
My high school journalism teacher encouraged me to release my anger and hate onto paper instead, and she helped me develop my first and award-winning high school editorial on Indian mascots, which is an issue still near and dear to my heart.
About this same time I was seeing a counselor who had worked with Native youth and thought I could heal better if I reconnected with my Lakota foundations, including inipi. She also lent me her tattered copy of “Custer Died For Your Sins,” and the notion that my culture – my identity – had been misappropriated to the point of corroding my entire Lakota experience had a profound impact on me.
Alongside these two fundamental milestones I began slowly rebuilding my relationship with my mom, who had struggled for years to remain in my life after she and my father separated when I was about 4 years old. It was a bad and ugly divorce, to say the least, and my father and his new family were themselves as corrosive as the institutions Deloria railed against. Blessedly, my mom is a strong winyan who never gave up, even after I slammed a few doors in her face. She maintained her devotion to and support of me through the years, which, if you know anything about troubled teens, you realize a major piece missing for them is unconditional love.
I’ve always been a cerebral person, but after embracing the power of writing, culture, and motherly love, I started throwing myself into academics and eventually found myself enrolled at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO, which is well known for its successful (and large) Native student body and excellent financial aid packages for tribal students. There, I learned to love the power of journalism and Native activism.
I spent more than 7 years writing for regional newspapers in and out of college, before going into my current line of nonprofit work, through which I’ll earn my master’s in public administration from that OTHER South Dakota university…
My passion for writing and activism has only strengthened in my current profession as cultural coordinator for Volunteers of America in Sioux Falls. I develop culturally-responsive curriculum for our residential treatment programs, and I also work with at-risk youth through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative I mentioned before. Because I know how much things like writing, activism, and love helped me, I try to incorporate these elements as much as possible.
Youth today are not without movements to stand behind. There are many ways to be active as an indigenous person, whether through sovereignty issues, like South Dakota’s ongoing battles with ICWA policies, or environmental movements associated with protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, Idle No More, or dozens of other local issues.
And tribal youth, in particular, are inherently designed to be storytellers of these movements. By empowering them with writing skills, video skills, photography skills, and other means of communication, and exposing them to authors and movements of importance, we can create a stronger future.
In this way Vine Deloria Jr. remains relevant today, and I believe the autobiographical stories his son alluded to last night would only strengthen and lift the Native youth experience.
Our youth are so often without heroes, and I hope writings like mine, or the future published SMILE writings of Vine Deloria Jr.’s bygone days, inspire generations of youth to succeed and build their communities.
With that said, I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from God Is Red.
I have been gradually led to believe that the old stories must be taken literally if at all possible, that deep secrets and a deeper awareness of the complexity of our universe was experienced by our ancestors, and that something of their beliefs and experiences can be ours once again.