Lakota Giving and Justice

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.

Hecetu Welo!


On the Wrong Side of History: ABQ Journal and Councilor Dan Lewis

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.

How absurd.

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.

Native Students, You are the Ones We Prayed for

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.

Hecetu Welo!

Open Letter: Protect He Sapa, Stop Cultural Exploitation

Many of us feel that there is a side to the Rainbow-Lakota controversy being overlooked. Here are the generous thoughts Dakota and Lakota scholars and writers (such Kimberly TallBear, Richard Meyers, Joel Waters, Taté Walker, and myself) share as an educational document as well as a stand against cultural exploitation. Please share and distribute widely.

“Blood Money”—Life and Death in Gallup, NM

Click here to read the full story “Blood Money”—Life and Death in Gallup, NM on Gallup law enforcement, the liquor economy, Native exploitation, 36 unnatural deaths of Native people in 2014, and border town violence.

On Columbus Day, UNM Students Organize “Indigenous People’s Resistance Tour of the University of New Mexico”

La Jicarita


Albuquerque, like most of the rest of the country, celebrated Columbus Day this October 13, 2014. Native students at the University of New Mexico, however, celebrated it as  Indigenous People's Day and organized an "Indigenous People's Resistance Tour of UNM" as a way to remember European colonization of Native people's land as genocide and to remind people that UNM sits atop Native land. The day began when activists began a series of banner drops on various buildings around campus. Above, students dropped a banner from the Humanities Building. Albuquerque, like most of the rest of the country, celebrated Columbus Day this October 13, 2014. Native students at the University of New Mexico, however, celebrated it as Indigenous People’s Day and organized an “Indigenous People’s Resistance Tour of UNM” as a way to remember European colonization of Native people’s land as genocide and to remind people that UNM sits atop Native land. The day began when activists began a series of banner drops on various buildings around campus. Above, students dropped a banner from the Humanities Building.

Banners were quickly removed by UNM staff. The one above was dropped above the entrance to the Johnson Center. Banners were quickly removed by UNM staff. The one above was dropped above the entrance to the Johnson Center.

One of the organizers of the Indigenous Resistance Tour of UNM, Nick Estes, talks to marchers as they gathered southeast of the Student Union Building. He reminded people that the Red Power resistance movement of the 1960s emerged in bordertowns like Albuquerque. "An indigenous presence anywhere is always political because indigenous land is everywhere."  One of the organizers of the Indigenous Resistance Tour of UNM, Nick Estes, talks to marchers as they gathered southeast of the Student Union Building. He reminded people that the Red Power…

View original post 861 more words