I gave this speech at the Lower Brule High School Graduation on Friday, May 20, 2016 at the Lower Brule High School in the Lower Brule Sioux Indian Reservation.
Hau Mitakuyapi. Cante waste. Nape cuzyapi. Tatanka Ohitika imaciyapi. Nick Estes wasicu imaciyapi.
It is with extreme humility and humbleness that I shake each of your hands, congratulate you, and greet you with an open heart. There is no greater honor than being invited by young people to give this commencement speech. It means more to me than I can ever express in words.
You all are excited and eager to receive your diplomas and celebrate with your families, and you didn’t come here to listen to me. I’ll try my best to not be that stereotype of an “Indian man with a microphone” and drone on for three hours. Trust me, I’m not that interesting, I’m too young for that, and you probably won’t remember what I have to say anyways. And that’s okay because today is about you.
Let me begin by saying, pilamayelo. Thank you. When they sent smoke to the sky, it was you the ancestors prayed for. You are the ones we have been waiting for. Do not take the importance of this day, your responsibility, and your achievements lightly.
For you to have a successful, healthy life in the future, however, it is my job as a historian to remind you where our people came from — however boring that may be! You cannot know where you are going in this world unless you know where you came from. Indeed, we are descended from powerful people. Go anywhere in the world and people know the Lakota, for better or worse!
Who are the Kul Wicasa Oyate? To know us is to first know the land. After all it is the land from which we became human — inyan (the earth), mni (the water), ska (the sky), and tate (the wind). Out of the wase — the red earth — we became Oyate Luta — the red people, the red nation. It is to the land we return as ikce wicasa — common people.
Along life’s journey, we make kinship with each other — wotakuye — to our human and nonhuman relatives. For us, the Brulé, Sicangu Tintonwan, we have this river who is also our relative — the Mni Sose, the Missouri River. Our history is also the history of this river.
In 1803, the wasicu — the fat-takers — claimed this stretch of the river as part of what became the largest real estate transaction in world history. The fledgling United States “bought” 827 million acres from the French Crown in the Louisiana Purchase and sent two white explorers, Lewis and Clark, to claim and map the newly acquired territory. Of course, the Lakota, like many Native Nations, never consented to sale of their lands, let alone acknowledged the supremacy of the United States. Lewis and Clark were considered illegal trespassers; and it was only after they failed to earn passage from our nations that we stopped them here, very close to where Lower Brule now sits. They called us “the vilest miscreants of the savage race” because we asserted our right to exist on this land and we did not consent to European invasion and colonization — beginning one of the longest and most hotly contested struggles in the history of the world.
The rest of the nineteenth century was an effort to suppress, annihilate, and dispossess us of our rightful claim to this land. Despite popular belief, however, we were never militarily defeated. In 1854, we laid waste to Lieutenant Grattan’s forces after traders who trespassed into our territory and mocked and degraded our people. In 1866, Red Cloud waged a successful military campaign forcing the U.S. states to the sign a peace treaty in 1868 at Fort Laramie, which guaranteed the Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho confederacy sole owners over the vast 25 million acres of what became known as the Great Sioux Reservation. The U.S. broke the 1868 peace when General Custer and white miners trespassed into He Sapa, the Black Hills. In 1876, we killed Custer and his men at the Battle of Greasy Grass. For more than four decades we repelled invading forces, which costed us many lives and was in the end unsustainable because the federal government sponsored the wholesale slaughter of 10 million buffalo to starve us out. Many were forced onto reservations — the world’s first open air concentration camps. Life here was never supposed to be sustainable. We were never meant to live.
Like good Lakotas, we persevered and mastered reservation life. In Lower Brule, we were the second tribe in the nation to adopt the Indian Reorganization Act in 1935, which gave rise to our modern tribal governments. We did so not to acquiesce to a superior government, but because the newly formed state of South Dakota wanted to dam our river in the 1920s and 1930s and divert its life-giving waters to white owned ranches and farms against our wishes. We organized under the IRA not because we opposed the development of the river, but because we wanted the best for our people. We wanted irrigation for our crops and livestock, and, above all, we wanted access to electricity any development would bring. What happened instead was the Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and South Dakotan politicians collaborated and decided to build a series of dams on our river, the Mni Sose, without our consent. They called it the Pick-Sloan Plan. As a result, both the Fort Randall Dam built in 1957 and the Big Bend Dam built in 1963 flooded tens of thousands of acres of bottomlands and one third of our population was relocated. Many left the reservation for good. This also ended many of the successful tribal ranching programs and forever destroyed access to plant medicines that grew along the river. What greater crime against our nations could exist in the twentieth century that forced the relocation of thousands of Native families and flooded half a million acres?
As people invested in a moral universe that compels us to be good relatives to each other and the earth, we have to name the systems that caused this great upheaval and destruction of life — capitalism and colonialism, the twin systems that violently ripped us from our rightful place in this land and destroyed our relationships with the nonhuman world and each other. These two systems place profits above people and the planet and have now thrown everyone — not just the Indians — in the fight for their lives.
In the course of two centuries, we went from free peoples — free to live on this earth according to our own will — to people confined to reservations and forced to live as paupers in our own homelands, as the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. We went from 25 million acres of territory in 1868 to 9 million in 1889. In 1889, the year South Dakota became a state, the Lower Brule possessed almost a half-million acres. In 1907, white settlers with the backing of the federal government had reduced our reservation to less than a quarter million acres. From 1907 to 1934, that land base was reduced to half its size. Pick-Sloan dams flooded another 23,000 acres, leaving us with just 95,000 acres.
Our entire population, our entire nation, is now expected to live in a reservation that is smaller than the total land owned by some wealthy billionaires, such as Ted Turner. Imagine that, one individual owns more land and wealth than an entire nation of peoples whose land it was first, the same people who never agreed the land was for sale. That news should not be shocking. If you’re like me, it is insulting and outrageous. For this country to become the “the greatest democracy” in world history, Native people of this land had to give up so much. Let’s not forget that when our leaders affirm democracy abroad, it came at the expense of our people.
But our history is not just a history of loss. What is most striking about the history of Native peoples is that we possess one thing no others can claim: we came from this land and to this land we shall return. We refuse to go away. We refuse to disappear. And we refuse to be quiet about it. And that’s a beautiful thing.
For the class of 2016, you join the tens of thousands of Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota peoples of the Oceti Sakowin who have strived and achieved an education. You may not know it, but our intellectuals, our thinkers, are world famous. They have led political movements and social causes not just in the 1800s in the so-called “Indian Wars.” In the early 1900s Zintkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin) from the Ihanktonwan and Ohiyesa (Charles Eastman) from the Isantyi founded the first Native-led intellectual and political society in the United States, the Society of American Indians. Nicholas Black Elk, an Oglala medicine man, explained WoLakota, the nature of the Lakota cosmos and the meaning of our cultural life. Luther Standing Bear, an Oglala writer and actor followed in their footsteps and penned a series of books on Lakota life. Soon after the titan Vine Deloria, Jr., an Hunkpapa from Standing Rock, became a world famous Lakota scholar of politics, history, law, and religion. His famous 1969 book, Custer Died for Your Sins, became the manifesto for the 1960s and 1970s Red Power movement and paved the way for Indigenous peoples to achieve international recognition at the United Nations. From this part of the world, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, the Santee and Ihanktonwan scholar and writer, has penned fourteen books on the history and politics of the Lakota and Dakota nations. There are many Lakota and Dakota scholars and writers alive today, people such as Delphine Red Shirt, Megan Red Shirt, Joel Waters, Tasi Livermont, Kim Tallbear, Laniko Lee, Lydia Whirlwind Soldier, Joseph Marshall III, Taté Walker, Richard Meyers, Deanne Stands, Mabel Picotte, and many, many more. We are fortunate to possess our own tribal national Oceti Sakowin writing group, the Oak Lake Writers Society, that writes not for dominant society but for our tribal reality.
Among our own people, we have intellectuals and writers. From my family alone, Ruben Estes was the first chairman of Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and an active member the first treaty council. My late grandfather Frank Estes, published the first book written by a tribal member: Make Way for the Brules published in 1963. In 1971, my grandfather George Estes published the first tribal history of the Lower Brule called Kul Wicasa Oyate.
Despite the profound challenges posed to our nation, we have drawn from the longest traditions in the history of the world. It is a tradition of resistance and resilience that began in 1492. The opposition, the unwillingness to just disappear, lies in our ability to accommodate and resist rapid and violent changes. To do so, however, has required us not to just retreat within ourselves, to seek isolation from the world, but to engage it head on, sometimes with brutal truth and reality. The scholars and thinkers I have mentioned did so, and for it they have contributed to our forward momentum of history.
We are often thought of as backwards peoples, mired in a history and culture of a bygone era. In fact, we are just the opposite. We are, in many ways, more modern and more progressive when compared to our non-Native neighbors. For example, just down the road the Chamberlain school board is still upholding racist practices that do not belong to this century. They have banned our Lakota and Dakota honor songs from their commencement ceremonies. But we will win that fight and drag those who resist change, inclusion, and equality and justice, kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. We will show them by example by leading the way that we have a right to exist as peoples with dignity and respect in our own homelands.
When the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere said, “no, the Black Hills are not sale” and, “no, we don’t want your money, TransCanada,” we did so as an assertion of our right to exist on this earth according to our teachings and ways that place life above profit and material wealth. For that, the Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that, yes, the Black Hills were illegally taken. More recently, because of our strident opposition the Keystone XL pipeline, the President of the United States canceled TransCanada’s contract with the State Department. Our non-Native neighbors took the money and have just experienced largest oil spill in this history of this land in eastern South Dakota. As I speak, construction has begun on the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota that will trespass, once again, our treaty lands. Future oil spills are inevitable unless we put a stop to not just the pipelines, but end the system that threatens the annihilation of the entire planet. To accomplish this monumental feat will require Native and non-Native cooperation on a scale never before seen in history. To coexist peacefully in this land, however, it will require the correction of historical wrongs and the upholding of the original agreements — the treaties — we made with the U.S. and acknowledgement that indeed this is stolen land.
While these are colossal tasks, the burden does not lie solely on your shoulders as young people. One of our most valuable assets that has helped us survive thus far is our kinship.
Wotakuye — kinship — is not a technical skill that can be learned in school, like math, English, or auto mechanics. It is a virtue, like kindness and humility. It is something we aspire to, an aspiration we may or may not achieve in our lifetime.
In this society, we have been taught to look down on each other, especially our most vulnerable. We cannot begin to embody the people our ancestors prayed for until we practice wotakuye, that all our relations matter, not just some of them: our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and Two Spirit relatives matter; our women and children matter; our elders matter; our poor and homeless relatives matter; our relatives who suffer from addiction matter; and our relatives who live behind bars matter.
Change in this world begins with how we treat each other, it begins with how we treat our most vulnerable, the poorest and most dispossessed in our society. It used to be the highest insult to Lakotas to act as though you had no relatives. To act as though you had no relatives meant that inequality triumphed, while people suffered and went hungry. That used to be considered an embarrassment. Today, as a society that is our normal.
It is not my intention to tell you how to live your lives. It is up to you to decide. As someone who has been a lifelong educator, let me say this: we need to listen to young people. Your generation, more so than previous generations, is more open and demands a more democratic and equal society. We follow your lead.
Your generation is not afraid of taking risks and challenging arbitrary authority and outdated and harmful social norms. Your generation is open and diverse. It is smart, compassionate, and caring. It possesses the changes we have been waiting and praying for, the promise and hope those of us who lived through trying times and kept the light for a better future lit no matter how dark it got. And these are dark times, indeed. But that should not discourage you. You have the generations of our ancestors at you back and the collective momentum of history pushing you into the future. The world is watching this generation and we are impressed by what we see so far.
If ever you doubt, just remember that the collective will of our nations has persevered for you to be here today in spite of everything. It is not a miracle but a testament to the tenacity, the sheer determination of our people to assume our rightful place in this world and in this universe. For that, you should be proud. I am. I am proud of you and I love you with all my heart, as a relative. For those of us who stand in the sun for four days a year without food and water, we do it for you. You are the culmination of our prayers and hopes for the future. It is through our education, something — unlike our land — that can never be taken from us, that we, as a people, as Kul Wicasa, will achieve our collective liberation. Today, class of 2016, you further that project of liberation and fulfill our ancestor’s vision.
A sincere congratulations!
Appeared in Indian Country Today April 22, 2016
Originally designed in 1910 by President Edward Dundas McQueen Gray, a Scottish immigrant who settled in New Mexico Territory in 1893, the seal represents what one alumni publication calls “two New Mexico founders, a Spanish conquistador and [an Anglo] frontiersman.” The back-to-back figures join other ostensibly innocent images, symbols, and rituals—the Lobo, the school colors: silver and cherry red, the singing of the Alma Mater, etc.—that make UNM a university. They are part of a brand, UNM’s institutional identity that also expresses certain values and history. According to the Administrative Policies and Procedures Manual, “A cohesive visual identity presents a sense of unity and builds awareness and pride among those connected to the University of New Mexico.” Yet, many see the two men, towering figures of genocide and conquest armed with the tools of conquest, as colonial gatekeepers safeguarding the university from the intrusion of Natives and diverse peoples.
Men bearing sword and musket personify just how order and civilization was achieved in the founding of New Mexico—through violence. Spanish colonization entailed the brutal rape, murder, enslavement, and torture of Natives at the hands of conquistadors such as Oñate and de Vargas. The expulsion of the Spanish from Pueblo homelands during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and their subsequent return were marked by extreme persecution and prejudice. Subsequent Mexican independence involved further persecution and oppression.
The conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo revealed the true intentions of U.S. and Mexican colonial policy toward Natives. The U.S. violated almost every treaty article before the ink was dry. Both nations, however, upheld Article XI, which guarantees that “incursions” into either country on behalf of the “savage tribes” would be met with “equal” force.
U.S. occupation was equally, if not more, brutal and punishing than its predecessors. From forced marches and open air concentration camps for Navajo and Apache prisoners at Bosque Redondo, from Indian killers such as Kit Carson and William Tecumseh Sherman, to mass enclosures and privatization of Native lands, the early U.S. colonial period in New Mexico is replete with examples of genocide and dispossession. That history, like U.S. history in general, is one of profound violence.
This talk was given March 3, 2016 as part of the Indigenous Book Festival’s opening roundtable, “Beyond Stereotype, Prejudice, & Racism,” at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.
I want to make two simple claims: 1) The University of New Mexico profits from the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the occupation of Indigenous lands. 2) UNM’s official seal celebrates this fact.
Originally designed in 1909 by President Edward Gray and officially adopted in 1914, the seal represents what one alumni publication calls “two New Mexico founders, a Spanish conquistador and a frontiersman.” Back-to-back figures of two men armed with the weapons of conquest (a sword and musket) join other seemingly innocuous images, symbols, and rituals—the Lobo, the Alma Mater, the school colors red and silver—that make a university a university, a kind of identity and brand that creates an image of UNM as identifiable and characteristically distinct. According to the Administrative Policies and Procedures Manual’s section on the University’s graphics and symbols, “A cohesive visual identity presents a sense of unity and builds awareness and pride among those connected to [UNM].” “The most formal symbol of the University,” it continues, “is the seal. The seal is reserved for use on documents or forms of the highest official rank from the University President, the University Secretary, and the University Board of Regents such as diplomas, certificates, certain invitations, legal documents, and other printed materials. Use of the seal must be approved in advance, by the University Marketing Director.”
Its most basic definition: a seal as a design or insignia plays the official role of representing an organization, an institution, or political entity (like a city, state, or nation). It originated as a stamp to impress an image or sign of authority into wax as a way of securing, authenticating, and approving. Seal derives from the Latin signum. When used as a verb, signum means to mark or to sign. In its formal, ceremonial usage, it becomes a symbolic act representing power and authority. For a sovereign, it embodies the will of a ruler over the ruled, or the power over life itself, the power to mark those deserving life and those deserving death. Wars, executions, diplomatic treaties for peace and trade all bear the marks of seals. Even the banality of bureaucracy, from letters to official statements to press releases, bears the marks of seals. The seal, too, is used like a brand to mark property, much like one brands cattle. It is also a form of possessiveness, embodying and laying claim to the what is and is not part of the official order of things. In this sense, it plays a role of inclusion and exclusion.
If a seal is an impression of power, then, the seal of UNM is an impression a history that gives it authority. And that history is one marked by violence, dispossession, and death. Like much paraphernalia relating to power and authority, the masculine figures armed with sword and musket personify just how order and civilization was achieved in the founding of New Mexico—through violence. Spanish colonization entailed the rape, murder, enslavement, and torture of Indigenous peoples at the hands of conquistadors such as Oñate and de Vargas. The expulsion of the Spanish from Indigenous homelands during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and their subsequent return were was marked by extreme persecution and prejudice towards Indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, subsequent Mexican independence was also filled with further persecution and oppression. The conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo revealed the true intentions of U.S. and Mexican colonial policy toward Indigenous peoples. The U.S. violated almost every treaty article before the ink was dry, but both the U.S. and Mexico did, however, uphold Article XI, which guarantees that “incursions” into either nation on behalf of the “savage tribes” inhabiting the newly acquired territory would be met with force of “equal dilligence [sic] and energy” by both nations. Indeed, U.S. domination was equally, if not more, brutal and punishing than its progenitors. From forced marches and open air concentration camps for Navajo and Apache prisoners of war at Bosque Redondo, from Indian fighters and Indian killers such as Kit Carson and William Tecumseh Sherman, to mass enclosures and privatization of unneeded Indigenous lands, the early U.S. colonial period in New Mexico is replete with examples of Indigenous genocide and dispossession.
As a fledgling territory, the founding of the University of New Mexico played a pivotal role in the path towards statehood. Founded in 1889 amidst federal Indian policy that advocated the fragmentation of tribal land and the stealing of Indian children from families to be forced into boarding schools, UNM was originally granted acreage as Trust Land, much like many territorial universities in the so-called Western frontier. The subduing and dispossession of Indigenous peoples during this time is largely lamented due to the closing of the frontier; yet out of this unspeakable violence was borne UNM and the state of New Mexico. The 1910 New Mexico Enabling and Ferguson Acts granted the state 13 million acres of Trust Land. Of which, 200,000 acres were granted to public universities like UNM. In total, 5 million acres were reserved for universities, schools, and other institutions. Of the now 9 million surface acres and 12.7 million subsurface acres of Trust Land, about 96% of value extracted from these lands coms from non-renewable resources like oil, gas, and coal. This highly lucrative business attracts over 9,500 oil and gas leases and 166 mineral leases that cover 3.1 million acres for a value of $433 per acre. For fiscal year 2013, revenue generated from these land at a sum of $577 million realized its second highest earning year, down from 2012’s record-setting $658 million. As of 2013, UNM directly benefits from 253,336 surface acres and 344,821 subsurface acres of public Trust Land. From these lands, UNM earned $8.5 million.
If we return to how UNM brands itself to create “a sense of unity and pride,” we can begin to think of various ways in which the University narrates itself and its history, how it tells its story. The UNM seal tells a story, too—a story that is celebratory of the anti-Indian violence forged within the University’s history and how it benefits from the dispossession of Indigenous lands. What is perhaps most insidious about the commemoration of colonial conquest is its celebration of two essential actors and perpetrators of genocide—a conquistador and frontiersman—and the sacred and sanctimonious status the seal holds for its alumni and benefactors. As much as the assault on the racist imagery of Indian mascots is seen as a direct assault on the sanctity of whiteness (and settlers) to possess and lay claim to Indigenous lands and bodies, defacing and interrupting the colonial narratives of a university seal will, too, be seen as an assault on a “tradition” and the sanctity of possessive whiteness. But what this “tradition” celebrates and what this sacredness protects can categorically be defined as anti-Indian, or explicitly Indian hating. The stakes are high to talk openly and fluently about colonization and occupation. To do so creates an uncomfortable space of overwhelming hostility and tension. History, after all, is the past’s saturation of our present moment. It cannot be ignored. But to bring it up is to bring it into existence as something to be “dealt with.”
It is not by accident that the lands stolen by the figures consecrated on UNM’s crest—the conquistador and the frontiersman—created a source of revenue for the University. The University, in this case, literally profits from the dispossession and death of Indigenous peoples. Changing the racist-colonial celebration of the seal, however, will not rid the University of this pervasive history of violence and dispossession, nor will it change colonial, racist behavior. What I have been talking about so far is the colonial structures of power, premised on genocidal conquest and Indigenous erasure. The violence of colonial occupation and dispossession is not only fundamental to UNM’s being, but it is also reimagined as a history of securing freedom and rights—freedoms for some and unfreedom for others. It permeates the University even as it actively denied and ignored. But it is not my intention to blame the University, nor its constituency, for the wrongs of the past. While UNM is not responsible for the past crimes of its forbearers, our present reality is a product that history, and for that the University has to be held accountable if it perpetuates and, indeed, celebrates the destruction and attempted annihilation of the original people of this land.
That’s why the very least the University can do is to abolish the racist seal. Recently, a committee of Harvard Law School faculty, students, alumni, and staff recommended that school’s crest—which was modeled on the family crest of a slaveholding family—be retired. Across university campuses movements have galvanized to abolish symbols that celebrate racism—such as Confederate flags and icons of slavery. Abolishing these symbols of oppression, however, only revealed institutionalized inequality. Changing university iconography means nothing, we were told, if it is not accompanied by real, material resources—such as scholarships, the creation and funding of diversity centers, and equal representation at all levels of the university system including the board of regents. This is bare minimum accountability. As we have seen, some administrators at these institutions lost their jobs for upholding and defending status quo inequality. It was only after student protest and sit-ins did these universities capitulate. At UNM, we are reminded by the administrators’ utter neglect and disdain to institute Indigenous Peoples Day as an official holiday after successful undergraduate organizing in passing a resolution. Universities are supposed to be bastions of free thought and progressive politics. If anything, UNM administrators’ neglect of Indigenous students and demands demonstrates classic reactionary and backwards thinking on Indigenous issues and concerns. One needs to only look at the national movement to see how cities and institutions across the nation have already implemented Indigenous Peoples Day, including the city of Albuquerque.
In conclusion, as Indigenous peoples we must refuse to allow our educational achievements (some of us as first generation graduates and doctorates) to be tarnished by UNM’s unwillingness to enter the twenty first century and to respect the basic fundamental of human rights standards. That is, colonialism and genocide are crimes against humanity and so too is their celebration. World consensus agrees. We demand this seal be abolished and the Indigenous peoples of this land receive accurate and appropriate representation. We do not want this insidious racism branding our accomplishments on our degrees and graduation gowns. We, as Indigenous peoples, do not belong in museums. This university’s racist history does. Hecetu welo!
Listening to Bernie Sanders’ recent speech in Flagstaff, AZ at the Navajo-owned Twin Arrows Casino, I can’t help but think how amazing it is that the Diné, Apache, and Tohono Oodham are the loudest and most radical—cheering at taking down billionaires such as the Waltons (who own Wal-mart), the call for dismantling the largest prison system in world history, and saving the Apache sacred site, Oak Flat.
Yes, there are faults with Sanders and especially the democratic machinery that often uses our miseries as a way to garner votes. It’s not the man, Bernie Sanders, that I am moved by, but the coming together of Natives with other marginalized communities to demand progressive and radical changes for our communities and the dismantling of capitalist-colonial institutions.
To be honest, putting Sanders in the White House won’t bring these desired and necessary changes (Obama is testament to the limitations of populist movements and progressive, neo-liberal presidencies). And the prospects of a Hillary Clinton or a Donald Trump presidency are nightmarish to most of us.
We shouldn’t, however, denounce our own brothers and sisters who passionately and sincerely want radical change. We should be encouraging each other’s political development, not chastising ourselves from the vantage point of political obscurity, abstraction, and elitism. (I’m looking at you ultra-leftists and self-described anarchists!) I often see well-meaning “radicals” denounce Bernie Sanders supporters, often because they project their own fears, insecurities, and shortcomings onto progressive movements and people.
These kinds of attitudes generate a sentiment that tends to normalize right-wing tendencies of blaming poor people of color and poor Natives for their own lot in life. According to this view, poor people possess a false consciousness; otherwise, they wouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart or go on food stamps. The solution is to pull oneself up by the bootstraps. This destructive sentiment often goes one step further by assuming that because Natives are forced to shop at Wal-Mart and subsist on food stamps they are somehow less Native. The radical thing to do would be to “return to the land.”
This assumption fails to recognize what most Natives face: 1) four out of five don’t live on reservation lands; 2) to “return to the land” actually requires a land-base to return to, which is often unavailable to those who do not own property (or possess capital to buy land) in cities and on-reservations or a land-base that is polluted or diminished; 3) most Natives are so marginalized from mainstream social, economic, and political life that any form of recognition is a progressive gain; and, finally, 4) no one wakes up in the morning and decides to be poor and landless or dependent on the federal government and mega shopping centers such as Wal-Mart.
There are encouraging possibilities emerging in this presidential election.
Look at how amazing the anti-fascists movements have organized across difference to halt Trump rallies. We should be encouraging the radical imaginations and possibilities of building a mass movement with Muslims, Mexican-Americans, Chican@s, Black Lives Matter, and the working poor—a movement that centers Native anti-colonial aspirations.
As the Italian Communist thinker and revolutionary Antonio Gramsci reminds us, as progressive people, we must maintain a pessimism of the intellect and an optimism of the will. The pessimism lies with understanding the limitations of electoral politics in a capitalist-colonial democracy. The optimism lies within maintaining the utter love for our Native people and nations (and all oppressed people in the world for that matter) and fostering the radical possibilities for opening up and calling in (not shutting down and calling out) our relatives’ progressive aspirations. You can possess a pessimistic view of the world without alienating yourself from the love and kinship of your own people—that’s been proven over and over again by the power Native communities to adapt, challenge, and survive the conflagrations of colonialism. Every great, revolutionary Native leader has possessed these qualities.
Bernie Sanders’ followers—including Native communities—are ready for radical change. Instead of shutting down these aspirations, we should be deeply entrenching and fostering our thinking and orientations from these revolutionary positions. We have everything to gain from this popular movement toward radical and progressive politics and very little to lose.
Two young, uniformed soldiers knocked at the door of a humble Lakota log house on the Lower Brule Sioux Indian Reservation, or the Kul Wicasa Oyate. An older Lakota woman, a widow, answered the door. She collapsed to the ground sobbing before the two the men could tell her, in a language she couldn’t understand, her only son was killed in combat. They left her with a sorry your son’s body wouldn’t be returned and here’s a check for hundreds of dollars.
After local clergy encouraged the mourning woman, she cashed the check. As per Lakota custom, the fourth day after finding out her only son was killed, she cut her hair. The hundreds of dollars from the severance pay was soon given away. All her worldly possession, including her wood stove, were set outside her house. Relatives and community members came by, offered words of condolences, songs of healing, and they took everything from her already humble home.
That night she slept on the bare floor.
The next day, relatives brought her food, as she began the yearlong sacred duty of caring for her son’s spirit. Everyday after that, the community came by her home, bringing gifts of food, cooking utensils, and blankets. Hunters would set aside meat after every kill for her. A couple of potatoes and squash were picked for from the community gardens and given to her. Pies and soups were made for her.
After a year, she was nurtured back to health physically and materially, re-acquiring the necessary items for her home to keep warm and to keep her fed. Her physical needs were cared for as she cared for the spiritual needs for her son’s spirit.
Lakota customary law disallows needless suffering in times of abundance and plenty. It’s an embarrassment to have relatives wanting and in need or deprived of basic humanity.
It’s an affront to Wolakota to have others in want, need, and material deprivation. This, to my mind, was perhaps the most concrete aspect of Lakota kinship.
This also worked the other way around. Those who hoarded or ‘took the fat’—or wasicu—were criminal. Narcissism and greed were punishable by stripping individuals of material wealth or forcing them to give away all their possessions as a means of repentance.
If humility, unsiiciyapi, was not practiced, it was enforced as the highest ideal of ikce wicasa, the common people.
Poverty in Lakota society does not, however, solely equate to material wealth. One is pitiful or poor, or unsica, if they are deprived of belonging and home.
This worked internally and externally. Often, families adopted other poor natives or non-natives, caring for their spiritual and material well-being. Those violating this code, too, were punished, mocked, and shamed—and sometimes killed or their wealth expropriated.
The highest insult in Lakota is to be greedy, to be wasicu.
Stories exist of Lakota headmen and women sitting side by side in council. Amongst themselves, the leaders would wear the most humble attire (not the headdresses or beautiful beadwork we’re so used to seeing) and speak with brevity and clarity. To do otherwise could result in ejection from leadership and one could be viewed negatively as long-winded or worse greedy.
In my short life, these teachings have stuck with me and guided my actions as ikce wicasa. The rampant commercialization of Lakota ‘culture,’ however, troubles me. Many non-Lakota (and Lakota) have taken up Lakota ways, especially ‘spirituality’ like the sundance or other ceremonies, but they have ignored the most concrete aspect of Wolakota, in my opinion—the giveaway.
It was after all not the sundance that was first banned under the 1887 Civilization Regulations, but it was the giveaway or the potlatch ceremony that was first targeted because it posed the greatest threat to the imposed reservation social order. Giveaways kept in tact and promoted the classless, non-hierarchical, and radically anti-materialist political and social structure. In this structure, women owned all the domestic material wealth, like the house and everything in it, and had final say on how these materials were used and distributed.
Anti-capitalism and anti-patriarchal social relations posed the biggest threats to the acquisition of Native lands and subduing Native peoples. Native people were not colonized because of our culture, but because we were ‘Indians’—being ‘Indian’ meant being attached to a land base where relationships to that land required maintaining idealized reciprocal social relations among ourselves and the nonhuman world. Being ‘Indian’ meant defending this social organization attached to land.
To eliminate a people to gain access to desired lands and resources requires annihilating their relationship to that land and therefore their social relations. That’s settler colonialism.
Today, Lakota culture is a readily available commodity to be consumed by anyone, stripped of its concepts of justice and equal social relations. It appears to have become like any other religion, something anyone can take up to ‘discover oneself.’
While it is encouraging to see the revitalization and resurgence of cultural practices, it is equally disturbing to see what aspects of this way of life are taken up and promoted at the expense of others.
For example, there is a rise in ‘restorative justice’ practices, which focus on the ‘healing’ of individuals committing offenses in Indian Country. These are positive and progressive movements away from the punitive system of mass incarceration. Yet, they typically only apply to Native on Native crimes and often center perpetrators not victims. They also limit the application of justice to broader society. We still cannot apply our models of justice to non-Native individuals and societies committing acts of violence against our lands and peoples.
Another troubling trend is the over emphasis on healing just lands and water—singing songs and revitalizing cultural relationships—while often ignoring the rampant violence against Native women, youth, poor, unsheltered, and LGBTQ2 relatives. As we scale up land based direct actions against the nonconsensual trespass of corporate and state agencies on Indigenous lands, I am reminded of the powerful insights of Kwagiulth scholar and activist Sarah Hunt:
So what would happen if every time an Indigenous woman had her personal boundaries crossed without consent, we were moved to act in the same way as we’ve seen to the threat of a pipeline in our territories – the nonconsenual crossing of territorial boundaries? We would see our chiefs and elders, the language speakers, children and networks of kin, all in our regalia, our allies and neighbors all across the generations show up outside the house of a woman who had been hurt to drum and sing her healing songs. What if we looked to the land for berries and to the ocean for fish and herring eggs and seaweed to help her body to heal? What if we put her within a circle of honor and respect to show her that we will not stand for this violence any longer. We would bring her food and song and story, we would truly protect her self-determination and to defend the boundaries of her body which had been trespassed and violated.
With the historic defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline across Lakota treaty territory, we need to also take seriously Wolakota—what it means and how we treat each other and the land. Indigenous bodies, land, and water are not abstract things that can be healed through prayer alone. As our leaders and allies bravely declared war against TransCanada and defeated them, we should expect the same attention given to those materially and physically deprived of a dignified life. It would require not just a political revolution but a radical restructuring of our social relations—how we relate to each other indelibly affects how we relate to the nonhuman world.
In closing, I began this essay with a story of healing during the Second World War. Years later, the woman and her nation, the Kul Wicasa Oyate, would be violently removed from their bottomlands on the Mni Sose, the Missouri River. Our lands were flooded by massive earthen rolled dams and our way of life was forever disrupted.
What would justice look like if we applied the same model of healing shown in this story and in Lakota customary law to those wasicu institutions who flooded our lands and destroyed our life ways? Would our allies stand with us knowing justice would involve a radical reciprocity, redistribution, and restructuring of resources and wealth for a more just future? Would they expropriate the wealth and resources extracted from us with the same fervor they have taken up our culture? Will they give away their wealth and privilege and join us?
I hope so. After all, we have given so much.
The Albuquerque Journal recently published an attack on Indigenous Peoples Day and City Council President Rey Garduño, who spearheaded a Council proclamation to honor the day. In this seriously flawed response, the Journal’s editors believe that the only place for Indigenous peoples’ is at the annual Gathering of Nations Pow Wow, an event that has had its fair share of controversy for being run by a non-Native and reaping huge profits for the city by selling Indigenous culture.
As a three-year resident of Albuquerque and a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, the polemic against Indigenous peoples from the city’s most widely read newspaper is not only insulting, but it also dangerously promotes the kind of vitriol many of us from Albuquerque’s Indigenous community face.
The alleged “petty diatribe against whites and Hispanics” conveniently erases Monday’s march to celebrate Albuquerque’s first ever Indigenous Peoples Day celebration, which drew a large, diverse crowd of more than a thousand Natives, Hispanics, whites, and non-Natives. The Journal’s editors view this mass appeal, however, as “another minor holiday” on par with National Bird Day and Hammock Day.
The expectation for Indigenous peoples of Albuquerque is: let us consume your culture for entertainment and your “holiday” is meaningless. This message indicates clear unwillingness to humanize Indigenous peoples and furthers the agenda to represent Indigenous peoples as mere objects for entertainment.
The three young men who murdered Diné men Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson last year were also looking for a good time by “Indian rolling,” the violent practice of harassing and killing unsheltered Native peoples in this city. To minimize and make-fun of progressive attempts to humanize Indigenous peoples furthers the genocidal agenda Columbus brought to the Western Hemisphere.
We should expect this kind of dismissal from Anglo-dominated cities. But Albuquerque is the opposite: a “minority-majority” city.
This opportunistic attack represents the minority opinion. Six City Councilors endorsed the Indigenous Peoples Day proclamation, understanding its historical and political importance. Three simply refused to sign.
Councilor Dan Lewis, one of three who refused, initiated the recent censure of Garduño over the question of the proclamation. Lewis’s petty interest in this debate, however, is overshadowed by his own dismissal of Indigenous peoples. During the reading of the proclamation and community response at the Oct. 7 council meeting, Lewis had more important things to tend to on his iPad. He casually sat facing away from the audience with his legs crossed, flicking his finger across the touchscreen, obtusely ignoring his responsibilities as a public servant and ignoring the Indigenous peoples standing before him.
Maybe the Journal condones this offensive behavior? Perhaps it is reflected in their reporters’ continued use of racial slurs, such as the R-word, after they were asked to stop using offensive language by organizers of Monday’s march.
Nevertheless, the Journal has chosen the wrong side of history by siding with Dan Lewis. If these editors had attended the march and listened to the diversity of voices and perspectives, they would have understood this is more than just a holiday and that Indigenous peoples are more than objects of entertainment.
I’m inspired and moved beyond words by the posts from SD GEARUP students to their Facebook and social media pages about how much the program means to them. I have been reluctant to comment on anything publicly, for fear that anything I say may cause more harm or damage.
Nothing anyone has written in the media I’ve read, however, has been from the perspective of GEARUP students. It breaks my heart to see the adults, the people supposed to protect our children, tear this program apart in the media.
None, apparently, seem concerned with its accomplishments. That’s the state of Native affairs in South Dakota and our own communities. People have come out of the woodwork to attack something they clearly don’t understand.
Our young people face enough challenges, the continued assault on the GEARUP program, a program that has helped thousands, is a clear assault on Native education.
Consider that about 75 percent (or more) of Native high schools students drop out. Amidst the myriad other depressing crises facing Native youth, critics should consider the real perpetrator of these crimes—a system that has allowed this happen, not the people who try to make life a bit more livable for our already persecuted Native youth.
When something negative happens, now they’re interested in GEARUP? That concerns me deeply.
Where were your cameras and insights as we achieved success, demonstrated our brilliance, and made history as Native youth?
Some of us have been doing this for decades now. I ask the many critics of this program, where were twenty years ago? Where were you ten years ago? Where were you this year?
I did not see you working with our children or documenting their achievements, celebrating their successes.
This program isn’t for adults. It’s for Native students, students such as myself. Students from the GEARUP family.
I want to share with you what this program means to me. GEARUP saved my life more than once. I don’t know where I would be without it.
I’m currently finishing my doctoral degree here in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico and I’m from Cohort Five (I’m an old guy!). On a recent visit, I saw a lot of my former students at the University of South Dakota, my alma mater. There were so many Native students and most were GEARUP students. I couldn’t believe it! It made me well up with hope that things are changing. Our young people are on the move!
When I attended USD, there were 17 Native incoming freshmen. I was the only one to graduate with my four year degree. The reason for my success was four years of preparation from GEARUP (at the time it was SKILL) programs. Today, I imagine there are more than just seventeen incoming Native freshmen, and I imagine many will graduate, not just one.
I was thirteen when I first met Stacy Phelps. I had no ambitions to go to college. It never crossed my mind. My first summer away at SKILL, I didn’t call home until the week it was time to pick me up!
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was getting ready for the rest of my life. I was too busy trying to be “cool” with peers to realize that. I took it for granted, as we do when we’re young. Now I look back and understand what was happening to me.
I grew up in Chamberlain. There weren’t many Natives in my high school, so going to SKILL each summer with Native men and women who had earned bachelor’s, master’s, and even doctoral degrees was nothing short of inspiring.
The program seemed foreign to me, since many of my experiences living in Chamberlain were alienating and feeling like I didn’t belong.
My GEARUP family, however, was one of brilliance, inspiration, and belonging. It always has been. Nothing in the media about GEARUP has yet featured that aspect.
As the years passed, Stacy became a brother to me and our families became close. My mom was a single parent, raising me and my brother, and I had few positive male role models in my life. I learned how to be a respectful, honorable, and responsible young Lakota man from the GEARUP program. I’m almost thirty now, and I just now understand how this program molded me into a leader and an adult. I’m sure many of us feel the same way.
It gave me the capacity to aspire to be something I never thought I could be.
When my mom passed away four years ago, my GEARUP family was there. They took care of me, they always have. Mom had worked for the program after I graduated as a student. Her lasting legacy is the GEARUP planners, “How to Go, How to Pay, How to Stay,” you may love or hate.
All of us older students and graduates send so many prayers and best wishes to GEARUP. When I was a student, there were only 30 of us. Now there’s almost 300! There are thousands of us out there. That gives me hope, and I pray for this program and the success of my former students everyday.
I want to tell Native students, especially you younger ones: You are the ones we’ve been waiting for. When we prayed, we prayed for you. Everyone at GEARUP prayed for you and worked hard to make sure you have something in this world no one can take away from you—your education.
You are the ones that are going to change this world, to make it livable again and make it a place where we have dignified lives as Native people.
You should be proud of yourselves. I am.
Whatever you may read or hear, just remember this program and all its staff have one interest in mind: you—the young people. As older people, we will do our best to make sure you have what’s rightfully yours in this world.