Native American Heritage Month: Reflections from an Indigenous Mother

Native American Heritage Fargo

In the days before he was killed by Army soldiers, Tasuηka Witko (Crazy Horse) sat together with Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull). Both of these men were leaders of the Lakota, my people. I imagine them on that day and how much their way of life had changed. They were both ordered to the reservation and this is where they would each take their last breaths. When they each joined their oyate (“the people”) and took their first breaths, Lakota people were living as they had since time immemorial.

As they sat with one another for the last time, they contemplated the future of our people. I want to share something with you that Tasuηka Witko said that day. He said to Tatanka Iyotake, “I salute the light within your eyes, which is where the whole universe dwells. For when you are at that center within you and I am at that place within me, we shall be one.”

Native American Heritage Month

November is Native American Heritage Month, and that is important. If you were to see reflected what an Indigenous mother, like myself, sees in herself, you would see many things.

As a Native American, I am a woman who at many points of life has felt conflicted. I have felt the love and pride inherited from my ancestors. And also the shame that comes along with being the antagonist in the story of this country. We were the people who would not move out of the way of progress; sometimes we still are.

My great grandmother Rebecca’s boarding school class at the Rapid City Indian School

And now, our people are few. Some of our languages have slipped away. Still, we cling to the resilience that we have inherited along with the pain of being a people whose eradication was once so desired that our flesh could be turned in for a monetary reward.

I have a painful awareness that my family has lost many of our traditions. It was not easy for my grandparents to carry those traditions through the years, especially through the difficulties they faced in boarding school. There were so many children that did not survive the policies of these schools aimed to “kill the Indian to save the man.” The wounds from the battles in those schools were so deep that even my generation bleeds from them still.

Learning More

This month all too often only includes very superficial aspects of the cultures it is meant to celebrate. I mean, I’ll eat frybread just about any day of the week, but it’s only a sliver of what it means to be Native American.

My great great grandmother Annie Little Wound

Did you know that Jim Thorpe won one of his Olympic gold medals while wearing mismatched shoes? His shoes were stolen just prior to being called for the contest and he improvised by wearing two mismatched shoes he found in the garbage.

Are you aware that Indigenous medicine men were using syringes and hypodermic needles to administer medicines to their people long before the arrival of Europeans (and subsequently a few hundred years before this means of delivering medicine was introduced to Western medicine)?

Anytime I want to be amazed, I spend some time reading about the complex understanding the Maya, Aztecs, and Anasazi had of astronomy and mathematics. There is so much more to Indigenous people, but the dominant storyline is straight out of a John Wayne western where Native Americans are forever the merciless savages and John Wayne saves the day by shooting us right off the backs of our war ponies.

Taking A Different Path

Even as I find myself living a life that has more than I could have ever imagined, I often wonder why I am here and not experiencing some of the heartache my brothers and sisters are. When I was a nurse, I worked with the homeless and it was a constant reminder that I could have easily found myself on a much different path.

My son helping my brother tend the buffalo stew at my niece’s naming ceremony.

Previously, I had been the drunk Indian that society warns you about. I spent most of high school with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a beer in the other. I was so angry and sad. Angry that my family had to work so hard for so little and wondering if things could ever get better. Sad about the fates of so many people that I loved. 

Feelings of Injustice

Even though it’s been years since I’ve hid from feelings in a bottle of alcohol, I still get angry and sad sometimes. I was angry when my kids told me last year that they had been told in school that Christopher Columbus was a brave explorer. And sad when I had to explain to them that oftentimes people will find that an uncomfortable truth cannot find its way to their lips quite like a beautiful lie can.

I thought about the fact that there were at least two Native American children in the class that day. They are a contradiction to the idea of this country being ‘discovered’ when it was already inhabited by their ancestors. Unfortunately, Indigenous children will likely encounter times in their lives when they are told their ancestors were an inconvenience. That true history does not matter as much as preserving this idea.

My niece and I at her naming ceremony.

As someone who used to be very successful at hiding from terrible truths I can tell you; they do not disappear just because you will them to. They will remain, gnawing away at your spirit, and the only way of shaking them off is to speak them. That is how humans have made progress. We spoke these painful truths and the moment they were flung from our spirits, we were able to move forward. 

Change will need to happen in order for Native American children to move toward becoming the hero in their own lives. The narrative will need to change. They need to stop hearing they are the bad guy in stories they hear at school and from their peers. In order for non-Indigenous children to avoid being held back by beautiful lies, they have to hear the painful truth.

Hope for the Future

The quote from Tasuηka Witko that I opened with was not complete. It may be a little melodramatic, but I wanted to save the best part of that for the conclusion. I mean, our reputation as these wonderful storytellers is something that I take very seriously. 

My brother and niece taking my daughter for her first ride on a horse. Horses are sacred to the Lakota people and considered to be a spirit very similar to our own.

Tasuηka Witko was sharing the hopes that he had for the future. That seven generations from his time (which is approximately now), people would find themselves longing for unity. That they would find their way to that peace through abandoning separation. As these two men sat with one another, they were truly seeing one another in their own reflections. Both were men who had witnessed many losses and victories, who prayed for the future, who were unique individuals, but not so different that they could not see themselves in the other.

I salute the light within your eyes, which is where the whole universe dwells.”

My chekpahs at the Shakopee Wacipi.

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