Sinte Gleska

Rain upon arrival:

As I entered Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota on my first day there, rain began to fall. It was slow rain, just enough to cover the windshield and make me turn on the windshield wipers, but not enough to stop me from seeing that I was entering a place completely different from anywhere I’d been. I saw the Rosebud Casino and the homes scattered around me, some cows in the distance and people walking along the highway. I knew immediately that these days would be informative. At the time, however, I didn’t know my time there would be a fundamental challenge to the very trip I’m undertaking.

Historical ignorance:

Growing up, I received the same education on indigenous people’s that I think many students do today. I heard about the way the Spanish massacred the first Americans; I read about the Trail of Tears; and then I learned nothing else. The Lakota, the Navajo, the Winnebago all faded into the backdrop of American history.

An education in Rosebud:

As a result, when I arrived in Rosebud, I didn’t know about the removal of indigenous children from their homes. I had heard of the Doctrine of Discovery, but didn’t know it was still relevant today. While studying history in college, I came to peace with much of America’s bloody history. I always thought that despite its flaws and failures, of which there are many, America has consistently come closer to living up to the world’s greatest ideals: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But that thinking rests on the idea that we’ve made progress, that we’ve become more inclusive.

It became clear this week, that when it comes to tribes such as the Lakota, we have absolutely failed. Our government took children from homes based on the idea that they need to be “civilized.” In 2017, people use a modified n-word to describe students from the Lakota community. When it comes to indigenous people, the idea of being an American still depends on defining “America” in opposition to “indigenous,” rather than in a way that’s inclusive of those people.

Whether people would like to admit it or not, indigenous people have contributed in a fundamental way to the American founding. As Dwayne showed me, our Constitution was inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy. Indigenous people created many of the crops that are crucial to American agriculture today. And indigenous people discovered the medical use for quinine.

But it’s not just their contributions to American life I was ignorant of. I also knew nothing about indigenous culture. Marianne explained that indigenous people valued and still value spirituality and family above all else. In that way, indigenous society was and is no different than Christian or Jewish America.

We are failing:

Despite all of these truths, I think people today sometimes have a historical stereotype of indigenous Americans that people held during the founding of the United States: they were savages, people unable to contribute or live peacefully. Although I think I didn’t hold this stereotype, I still didn’t reject it or disagree when people expressed it. Now, having spent time at Rosebud, I see just how wrong it is.

My time challenged me to think about what and who an American is. One student said to me that being an American is about “boundaries…between the reservation” and the rest of the country. If we continue to exclude and judge people who were so fundamentally important to all things good about our country, especially after massacring them and taking their land over several centuries, what does that say about us? About who we are? I don’t know.

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Dwayne Stenstrom is in charge of recruitment and retention at Sinte Gelska University. As my official host for the two days I was there, I had a chance to speak with him extensively about life on the Rosebud Reservation and at the university. Although I’ll write more about what I took away from my time on the reservation, I do want to say that it’s worth reading this interview in full. I suspect it’ll challenge your assumptions and understanding of the United States’ history and tribal culture. You can find the first two posts from my time in Rosebud here and here. You can also hear Dwayne talk about his experience growing up on NPR.

What it takes to be a good citizen:

I think one word that would sum it up is: be productive. Be a productive member of the environment you’re apart of. Do all that you can do to better the people around you.

Why he doesn’t vote in United States elections:

I guess in my world, I understand the concept of sovereignty and the makings of treaties. One of the things that I find is that if historically, if someone voted in a state or national election, it led to a conflict for the individual and the community. A treaty means two sovereign entities make a deal. So, I have my allegiance to my tribe first.

I’ve always felt that I had to be one or the other, either a tribal member or the citizen of the state. I always had to choose. I’m always going to be a tribal member. I dabble in the other world because I haven’t had a choice. Because of the experiences I’ve had over the years, I much prefer being a tribal member.

The American government wronged him and his family:

When I was eight years old, I was taken from my mother. And I was placed in a non-Indian home. At the time, I thought I would only be there for a few months. That few months transformed into twelve years.

I think about why all of that came to be. I don’t have any justification as to why they did that. It didn’t make sense to me back then, and it definitely doesn’t make sense to me today. One question I asked the government is whether there had been an adult male at home with me whether I would’ve been able to stay. The response I got was, “Yea, probably”. Ironically, I had two brothers who were serving in Vietnam. They would have qualified as adult males. But they weren’t in proximity because they were fighting for the country.

I did have an opportunity to reconnect with my mom ten years after I left her. We did have a little conversation about what went wrong. But I only got to know her for five months before she passed away. In a speech I gave in class, I talked about the little van that dropped me off. I kept waiting for it to come back. It never did.

Which is especially a problem, given the importance of family in tribal life:

I think what’s different between Native American culture and predominant American culture is the way people go about getting the basic things we all need. When I was in the home I was placed into when I was eight, I remember we went hunting one time and shot three dear. We had it processed at a meat locker. Their son came over later that week, and he was having a hard time and needed some help and some food. The dad basically said, “Get out there and make a living.”  And I was thinking, where I came from, it would’ve been different. We would’ve helped family and given food.

For example, one time, when I was still with my mom, I thought we were going to go somewhere on a trip. But then I saw my mom cooking, and was worried we weren’t going to get to go. But she told me she was cooking so that if someone stopped by, we could feed them. I still think about that till this day. Today, I lock my doors. When I was growing up we didn’t have to. My mom was going to leave food in our open house for anyone who needed it!

The things Americans need to know about tribal history:

One of the topics that is being talked about today is the Doctrine of Discovery (which allowed Christian conquerors to take all lands from non-Christians). When I started researching what that meant, I realized it did have a huge impact on the native community, and that it continues to today (the Vatican still has not rescinded the Doctrine).

Another part of history that has impacted me personally is the Indian Child Welfare Act (which was supposed to guarantee children would stay with their families). It’s still on the books, but it’s not used in a way that helps the community.

In 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act was passed. States look at the act as superseding the Indian Child Welfare Act, even though it’s not supposed to. Kids are being taken off the reservations and adopted out into other communities. People now ignore the Indian Child Welfare Act.

My wife and I signed up to be foster parents ten years ago. We had to take a training course. About the fifth week, I became offended – why was a non-Indian person treating me how to be a parent to an Indian child? Never once during the training was the Indian Child Welfare Act brought up, except for when I brought it up. When my wife and I became foster parents, we got only one call, then never heard from them again. Meanwhile, they’re saying they need more Indian foster parents! To me it’s ridiculous what’s going on there.

How he’d like non-indigenous Americans to interact with tribes and reservations:

I’d want predominant Americans to engage with the tribal community with a willingness to understand. We don’t need anyone coming over here to fix us or save us. We need them to want to understand. We have a language and a way of life that has sustained us forever. We don’t need people coming over here telling us how it can be improved. Respect our culture for what it is.

What he wants for people on reservations:

I guess awareness. People need to understand our true history. It’s not really talked about here. I teach general psychology, and I try to incorporate a lot of Native American thought into my classes. What I’m finding is that a lot of people are unaware of a lot ideas and teachings that should have been passed down generationally. But because the education system doesn’t talk about tribal history (since schools are run by the South Dakota government), our own people doesn’t see it as a priority.

Also, we need to have more self-responsibility. People here have to let themselves know that it’s okay to be who they are. We don’t have a lot of choices today on this reservation. This reservation has something like 85% of unemployment. A lot of people feel like there’s not really stuff for them to do. When I go out and cut wood, I cut wood for a lot of different people. If people knew that doing that chore would have value to a lot of other people, it would make workers feel better about themselves. A lot of people have the mentality of, “Why bother?” That mentality isn’t just around here. It seems like a lot of people have just given up.

It’s important for us to believe. We’re going to have our trials and tribulations. But it’s how we respond. At one point in my life, I gave up. I remembered something my grandfather told me: “Never blame anyone for the circumstance you find yourself in. Take responsibility for all that you do because once you start blaming, people have power over you.” I didn’t see myself as spiritual back then. When he was able to remind me of where I came from, I was able to see how the experiences I had made me the person I am today.

A story on the power of optimism:

I try to put it into a positive perspective, because the negative side of me is too negative. One of my favorite stories is about two boys. There’s a boy who’s pessimistic, thinks life will be terrible. They put him on a chair in the middle of a bunch of toys. They told him he could have whatever he wanted and then left for an hour. When they came back, he hadn’t moved. They asked him, “Why didn’t you play with anything?” He said, “I’m afraid I was going to break something.”

The next boy is an optimist. They take him to a room and put him in a chair, too. But surrounding him is manure. They tell him to have all the fun he wants and leave for an hour. When they get back, the boy is sitting in the corner and throwing the manure up in the air. They ask, “What are you doing?!” He said, “With all of this stuff in here, there’s bound to be a pony somewhere.”

The four values he lives by:

My grandfather had four values: Spiritual, Social, Political, Economic. He said always look at them in that order. I’m always grateful I have another day. I don’t have any guarantees that tomorrow will come. So I try to make my day as positive as I can. I also have a resource where I can go to and talk about the problems in my life. All of those things are a part of spirituality. By remembering everything you’ve been through, that’s what can keep you going.

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This post is the second in a four-part series on my time at Sinte Gleska University (the first part is here). Marianne is a counselor there and lives in the Two Strike Community. Our conversation covered the relationship between the government and the Lakota, racism towards the Lakota, and how the Lakota are spiritual people.

The Lakota Way:

I respect myself. I respect others. And that’s the Lakota way. If you respect yourself and everything around you, you’re okay. That’s common sense. Don’t take things that don’t belong to you. Don’t talk down to someone. You do that, you’re a good citizen.

The biggest challenges facing the Lakota community:

The biggest challenge right now is the lack of respect for each other. That has a lot to do with drugs and alcohol that young people are using.

The parents are also not being parents. Another thing I see that is a big problem is technology. I go to the hospital, and mothers are sitting on their Facebook as their kids are running around and creating havoc. It’s addictive. I see it all the time. They’re constantly on it. Maybe they get away from it for twenty minutes. But then they go back to it. I see that in the future as one of the biggest problems.

The relationship with South Dakota’s government isn’t a good one:

The state (of South Dakota) has control over us because of the children. The food stamp program and others like it, the state runs. Our young people have to answer to the state if they want food stamps for their kids. The tribe used to control that at one time, it’d be great to have that again. But we don’t allow state patrol onto our reservations. They can’t come arrest us. One time I asked the store owners why we don’t have the federal lotteries here, then the state patrol can come over. We still fight for our jurisdiction. Our reservation used to be huge. The state gradually took it, though.

The relationship with the U.S. government is complicated:

The U.S. government has been in our lives as long as I can remember. Since they arrived, they’ve controlled us. But we now aren’t able to stand on our own two feet. This university is run by government money. Our hospital is federally funded. IHS is federally funded. Our school – St. Francis Indian School – is federally funded, and the other local school is state-run. The federal money is what makes this reservation moved. Almost all employment, except for the few stores, are all federally funded.

The government is obligated to help us. From their taking all the land, the treaties we made, they have to look out for our health. I want them to upgrade the hospital. Better education, too. I want the government to stand up to its commitment. They’re doing a half-assed job. They trickle the money down – “here’s this much” and by the time it comes down here, it’s minimal. Most of it goes to administration. The administration will tell us “next year’s money is already spent” because of helicopters and planes.

The Lakota face intense racism in South Dakota:

We are treated differently from the non-indigenous people. It’s about race. South Dakota is racist. It’s like Alabama. What black people suffer through down there, we go through here.

Our sports teams will go play places east of here, and the football team will sit in the crowd and say to our girls volleyball team, “Go home you perri n******.” That’s still happening here.

We’re both citizens, but they don’t care. It’s who we are. And it’s getting worse. With Trump saying it’s okay to act this way, okay to belittle someone with darker skin, it’s okay to march with the Nazi flags, I tell my kids, “Be careful when they go off to Sioux Falls or Rapid City. Don’t aggrevate people; you don’t know what they’ll do.”

In Rapid City, they shoot Natives, then ask questions, just like what happens to black people back east.

The great historical misconception about the Lakota:

That we were and are caring people. We weren’t savage and ruthless. Kinship meant a lot to us, and still does today. We cared about everyone around us. I wish that people off the reservation understood how we were.

Being spiritual was key to their way of life:

We were spiritual people. We had the inipi. They did that every day, the men. They went in and prayed their frustrations out. We pray in everything we do. When we have meetings or powwows, we pray. We looked out for each other. For the orphans and widows and old people. We were a caring tribe. We had vision quests. Sun dances. These ceremonies meant a lot to the families.

There was a certain time – when a girl came of age – and she’d be out in a teepee by herself for a week. The mother and grandmother would feed her and taught her how to be a young lady. She learned how to make moccasins and dresses. That’s one of the ceremonies we don’t do, and I think that’s why our young girls are lost.

Young men, when they were 12, had vision quests. They’d go pray for four days and figure out what they wanted to do with their lives.

We also had and have the hunka. We can take someone into the family. If someone feels like a brother, and you’ve lost someone, you can welcome someone to be like your brother. A girl can do that for her sister. A mother with her son.

The proper way to refer to her heritage:

I want to be called Sicangu Lakota. That’s who I really am. It’s one of the seven council fires. If referring to the tribes in general, I think “indigenous” is the best word. But people should refer to people properly and specifically. We’re referred to as Sioux’s! That’s the name the French gave us. It means snake people! We have to get that out of the books.

How people can better treat the Lakota and other tribal groups:

We were treated like less than human for the longest time. Even in the Declaration of Independence, we’re still referred to as “savage.” It’s hard.

(So) treat us with more dignity and respect. The president did a lot of harm. We worked a long ways to get racism out of people, even with us towards white people. We spent a lot of time with Valentine people, learning how to treat us with dignity and respect. Now people in Valentine feel like they can treat us ugly again. Now they feel like they can push me in the store, and if I say anything, they threaten to call the cops. I don’t know which white person to talk to in Valentine anymore. I just do my business and leave. It shouldn’t be that way.

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