Like many Natives and our allies across our Grandmother Earth, Unci Maka, I have joined the Idle No More movement, attending round dance gatherings, praying for Chief Theresa Spence and her supporters, sharing the stories I hear and read and perusing news and opinion pieces. Like many indigenous people, I am acutely aware that our voices in the mainstream of American, Canadian and Central and South American societies are often unheard, that we appear silent when in fact our voices are singing out with stories of our lives. Defining this movement is our responsibility. Each of us should learn about this movement and find our own place in it. We can add our voices to songs of our relatives and allies across the earth.
The new calendar year can be a time of renewal and recommitment for many – but for most Native people, our annual calendar is seasonal or ceremonial, related to the changes of our Grandmother Earth or the rituals of our people. For me the year goes from summer to summer, from the time of sun dances to the next sun dances. I know that measuring time in this manner comes from my identity – we may adopt the calendar year and New Year celebrations but we find our renewal as tribal people in the seasons and rituals of our people.
As the Idle No More movement has gained strength, like many, I have pondered its meaning. For me, it is our voices, singing out from the place inside of us where our identities as “the people” live, it is the rhythm of our shared heartbeat and the movements of our bodies as we dance a shared dance – a social dance of hope and friendship and affirmation, in a circle, around the drums and the voices that are singing out who we are.
Each tribal people have a unique identity given us by our Creator and our understanding of Creation. Our identity emerges out of our knowledge of how we came to be as a people. Our oral knowledge is intact and the stories of our creation remain essentially untainted by western influences. Often we are viewed by mainstream America in the context of what educators’ call the 3 F’s – food, fun, and fashion. We are the celebration of Thanksgiving, the Indians in popular movies, feathered headdresses, and geometric designed pottery and lilting lute music. A deeper understanding of who we are, philosophically, spiritually, and socially is elusive to most of mainstream America. I often think this elusiveness is exacerbated by the fact that it would require a painful acknowledgement that we, as the First Peoples of this hemisphere, are really human beings subjected to devastating military and political policies of the very governments that still lead our countries.
Tribal people have their own teachings about their Creation, about their family relationships and how they came to be on this earth. Native people have teachings about plants and animals, about gathering in celebration, and about the meaning of each item of decoration or clothing that they wear at the ceremonies they have.
Our stories reflect the richness of our heritages which are such an important part of today’s democracy. Although the experiences of Native people with the arrival of Europeans on our shores are filled with tragedy, we have not lost our identity or our cultural ways. Idle No More is the story of our shared identity. Like all social movements, it has roots in history and connections with the social actions of other movements including the Occupy movement and environmental actions.
Tribally controlled education is a vital part of the foundation of tribal knowledge that underpins the Idle No More movement. In today’s society the education of our people is essential to our prosperity, our identity, and our activism. The tribally controlled education movement emerged during the last modern great wave of social activism among our people – the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s. In the last 45 years, tribal educators and our schools and colleges have been at the forefront of the restoration and preservation of our identities. Our work ensures that our ancestors and our descendents will recognize us.
Now is the time to affirm that we are entitled to an education that honors our identity, our knowledge of Creation and our relationships. We are entitled to the best of public education – a tribally controlled education – content from our knowledge with teaching methodologies and assessment that uphold our ways of learning. As our social activism grows, look to your Native educators and encourage them to bring Idle No More into their classrooms. It is a modern day teachable moment in the context of our cultural ways and the histories of our people. It is a moment that can last a lifetime. It is the work of a lifetime that will be felt for seven generations.
There is a smell of pine
A smell that brings memories
Bearing down upon the present day
Tangy, pungent, clean
The smell of freshness
Carried on cool winds left behind by thunderstorms
Warm in the summer sun
Crisp with winter ice
Sticky bark and prickly pine needles
I have stood many times in the shelter of those pine trees
Lain down on the ground beneath them
Felt the tiny pricks of the needles on bare arms and legs
I waited for signs of the coming of the spirits into the places of shelter
Looked through the patterns of the branches for the sun
Now I hear the special sound of pine trees
On mountain cliffs and peaks
On golf courses
Along trails near my new home in the city
I smell the scent
I wait for signs of the coming of the spirits into the places where I live
There is a foreign language
That trips on the tongues of the elders
Skirts around the hearts of the young
Sets itself to music and writes itself sonnets and epic poems
It is the language of the end
The end of ourselves
It is a white language
Translucent in some places
Transparent in others
You can always see the shimmering shadowy intentions
Behind the words
It is not opaque
It cannot hide itself totally
There are obscure references created by faraway thinkers
There are blatant claims of understanding from all the intelligent thinkers
We name the words as asked of us
By those who have spoken before us.
Many others who tell us the power of words
We find our language
Flowing over the tips of tongues
Filling the hearts of ourselves
Giving us our own songs, poems set to the music of the grandmother’s drumbeat
It is a red language
©Cheryl Crazy Bull
In October I attended the National Indian Education Convention in Oklahoma City. It is a place of rich Native cultures and beautiful landscapes. It is so flat in Oklahoma City you cannot see the horizon and the winds sweep you off your feet as they rush across the plains looking to knock over whatever lies in their path. There were places in the downtown area where the wind hit you for a few steps then slowed down. The Native people there are a mix of those who have been in this place since the beginning of time and those who came here as a result of forced removal from the lands of their creation. They all have made a place for themselves.
They have learned to live together and we witness the strength of their work in the faces of their elders and the hopefulness of the young. I picked the convention as my urban theme this time because I noticed that the voices of our advocates for our urban children and youth are finally becoming more prominent. There is a greater emphasis through the NIEA Urban Indian Education sub-committee and in the content of workshops on how we can better serve the diverse Native population in our public schools. This leads to more focus also on mainstream colleges and how they may be serving Native student populations.
Reservation, rural and urban Indians must work together to ensure the best education for our children, our youth and our college students. I believe that public schools through local, state and federal support have a moral and legal responsibility to ensure that our children have adequate resources and support to get a quality education that includes support for cultural education and to meet any special economic or social concerns. Tribes have the duty and the legal right to insist upon this education and should not have to pay for it.
We are each uniquely identifiable as a people because of our specific tribal languages, our connection to a place that we call our homelands, our social, economic and governance systems and our relationship with creation. It is very important as we focus on our children who are in public schools that we help them make the connection to their homelands and to the traditional knowledge that is their identity. It takes work and it take cooperation because the diversity of most public school settings especially in urban centers creates a high risk for pan-Indian practices to prevail over the effort it takes to help each child find out more about their own people. In many cases, this is made more complicated by the inter-tribal identity of our families.
But we can do it, my own children and grandchildren are mostly living in the cities in pursuit of employment so as a family we have to make a special effort to tell stories, practice our traditional ways and touch base with our relatives and our home. They are inter-tribal being Sicangu Lakota as well as Shoshone-Paiute. Because my children were raised in Rosebud they are mostly Lakota in their understanding of the world but they know they have a rich Native heritage in all of their tribal ancestry.
Generally, public schools won’t give our children their identity, but their family, community and their life education will. We can ask of the schools to represent our identities appropriately and with respect, to give our children access to resources for success, and to ensure equity in their educational experience. Parents and tribes have a right to inform the allocation of resources and to insist that cultural education be as as much a priority as academic support. Cultural studies, curriculum, teaching strategies, extracurricular and co-curricular activities can all be used to support tribal children and youth. As tribal people we must reach out to our families no matter where they are at, using the tools we have access to in the form of new media, to pass on our knowledge.
Over the years I had often heard that our relatives who went to live in the cities because of relocation, education or to join other family members, kept alive the traditions and ceremonies of our people because they are so important to their identity and to their connection to their homelands. While I know that there are many Native children who have lived in urban areas for their entire lives and that we need to do whatever we can to give them access to cultural knowledge, I see that many families go out of their way to keep the connection of identity and spirit in place.
We went to the Tall Bull Memorial pow-wow and we could have been in one of the communities on the Rosebud for a traditional pow-wow. The same ceremonial and social activities occurred – specials, recognitions, and social dances. Although I don’t know all of the people there yet, it was clear that they were accustomed to the rhythm and flow of how the celebration went, the singers had strong voices and the dancers were beautiful. All the people in the arena were welcome. There were not hundreds of people there just like the difference between a celebration at Ring Thunder or Swift Bear and Rosebud Fair. It is in a beautiful location in Daniels Park and we appreciated seeing friends and relatives there. We know that celebrations and ceremonies at this location are in a special place in the Rockies.
Living in an urban setting reminded me of how national or global the US economy is – we have to search out stores that are locally or regionally owned because many stores are part of extremely large chains and have lost their connection to small businesses that are so important to our local economies. I am not against large businesses because they provide affordable goods for all people including myself. I just wish for more small business and family suppliers of these businesses to have access. I am also concerned about the loss of subsistence and sustainable lifestyles, not just for Native communities but also for non-Native peoples as well. It is interesting to me for example that I called Fred Meyer, which I always assumed was a regional store, for my prescriptions and found out that King Sooper and at least a dozen store brands across the country, are all part of the same corporation. Even new stores that we found like Sprouts (which is an affordable organic/healthy food store) is part of a bigger chain including other similar stores.
When you are on the Rez, you can run into friends, go over to their houses, go to sweat or some event together, when you live in the city, you have to make dates. Everyone leads busy lives, working and ensuring family and friendships among those they already have relationships with. It takes time to find your place.
This was my first week at the American Indian College Fund and I want to celebrate being in this really wonderful place in my life. Alex and I like living in this area – we are fascinated by the Rocky Mountains – they really are rocky and filled with all kinds of interesting trees and plants. Their roads are winding and you will come up on lovely streams and open grassy areas. I have been considering taking up fly-fishing just svan an stand on rocks in water. Last week we went for a drive up the mountains because we followed our GPS, which we have discovered has its own sense of what is the appropriate direction to go. We were a little intimidated but ended up in Gilpin, which is where my assistant, Carrie, lives so that was an unexpected treat – now I know what she has to do to get to work. The areas we can walk in are very nice open spaces – the park near me is natural grasslands with ponds and great views of both the sunrise and the mountains.
Transitioning from an academic environment into a development organization certainly has an impact on the way we “calendar” ourselves. We are not preparing for the start of the fall quarter although Alex has lots of requests for student scholarship letters. I am not doing any faculty pre-service activities or getting updates on course schedules. I can tell that I am going to have to get to the tribal colleges regularly in order to get my personal fix of student enthusiasm. I figure I should become a real Facebook junkie of TCU students so I can keep my stories of students and their successes and challenges alive and fresh for myself.
I realized this week just how diverse the Fund is – with everything from direct mail to the development of major gifts. Recently the Fund transitioned to a regional development model with development officers focused on raising funds from individuals, corporations and foundations in a geographic area. That will be challenging but allows our staff to develop closer personal working relationships with supporters and potential supporters of tribal college students and the TCUs themselves. It will encourage closer relations with the TCUs in the regions being served by Fund staff to ensure collaborative fundraising.
Being here has caused me to reminisce about my early days at Sinte Gleska University. When I went to work at SGU as a faculty member in the business department in 1981, SGU was still a very young institution and many of the founders of the tribal college movement were still living. When I think back to those early days, I remember being both happy that I had a good job and very naïve about what it meant to have a tribal college on my home reservation. I didn’t realize that the tribal colleges were such unique institutions. I didn’t know that without tribal colleges many of our people would never have been able to go to college. I learned this by observing my relatives and friends as they took classes and when they walked across the stage at graduation. I came to understand this by listening to the founders, Stanley Red Bird, Isadore White Hat, Bill Menard and so many others. I paid attention to the words and actions of Lionel Bordeaux and other tribal college presidents, board members, and educational leaders. All of them taught me that a tribal college is a special place where remarkable education takes place, where traditional knowledge is the foundation of all learning and where Indians can go to school together.
So I am happy to be here at the Fund, I get to support the amazing students at all the tribal colleges and I get to help all of our TCUs be stronger and more viable – with the team at the Fund and with the support of all the TCUs and the Fund’s Board and many friends, tribal students will continue to have access to higher education and our communities will continue to restore our knowledge and ways of living as tribal nations.
This morning I woke up thinking about a dream I had where I was telling someone about the tribal colleges and tribal people and he didn’t believe me. He acted like we couldn’t possibly be so culturally different and dismissed my remarks as if I was telling him something that was not important – I think he was someone who worked at the UN. I even got someone to go back with me so I could share my anger at his treatment, I think it was my therapist, although I don’t have one. That was a very strange dream.
But it made me think about the fullness of my past week as an example of how we live our lives as Lakota people, as Indigneous people. I am home on the Rosebud for the first time in several months. We came home for a visit and for the 136th annual fair. This has been a busy week of seeing family and friends, visiting our relatives at the cemeteries, and attending events. It is more than visiting and special occasions because each of these experiences comes from a different understanding of ourselves as human beings and how we live well together.
Like most I have many friends from all different kinds of experiences and backgrounds. I am especially honored because I have women friends called maske, sister friends. What is different about this is that we Lakota have a name for them, maske, sister friends, we know as Lakota women that when you call each other maske you are calling forth a special relationship. Many people call me Auntie, Tunwin or Grandma, Unci. When I hear the voice of someone calling me that whether or not we are blood relatives, my whole self immediately becomes that person who is their Auntie or Grandma. We show each other mutual love and respect when we call each other by relative names. We do this because our kinship is the foundation of who we are as tribal nations. Our kinship teaches us how to live together.
We made a trip to Mato Paha, Bear Butte. Many people go there to hike up the trail because from the top of the butte you can see for miles in all directions. The horizon curve of the earth can be glimpsed from there. Native people go to Mato Paha to pray and to offer tobacco to the spirits who come there to hear the prayers of the people. We go there to look off into the distance to the sacred places of our emergence as human beings and to be with the prayers of all of those who have climbed the trails and stood there in prayer for thousands of years. I have been wanting to go back there for years and this time it felt like a necessity as I gather my prayers for our new journey. It was not a trip to just take in the view or to prove I could walk uphill.
The 136th annual Rosebud Fair, Wacipi and Rodeo was also this weekend. As I sat at the dance arena, I remembered being a teenager and walking around the pow-wow grounds in an endless circle visiting (and of course flirting with all the boys – I am pleased to see this is still done). When I was young there were not lots of food stands and vendors so we would have to go back to our grandparents camp for bologna sandwiches and pop. I think that was how our parents made sure we checked in. I got my Indian name, Wacinyanpi Win, They Depend on Her, from a family naming ceremony at Rosebud Fair that my Grandma Alice Cadotte held the summer I was 16. We saw relatives who only came home for the fair. There were vegetable displays and other homemaking contests with jellies and pies. There are Indian dances and white dances with country/western bands. There is a championship rodeo where the fearless horsemanship of our people is showcased. Now there are more modern events, carnivals and mud races but it is still at its heart a gathering of people who are related to celebrate our victories in battle, to show our finest artistry and craftsmanship, to share food, friendship and the end of summer.
Everyday as tribal people we live a life built from Creation stories that honor our shared existence on the earth, we practice rituals like feeding of the spirits or smudging ourselves and our homes because those were taught to our ancestors in dreams and visions and they passed it on to us. We have everything we need to know about how to live well together and on our grandmother earth, Unci Maka, right in front of us. We only need to open ourselves to these teachings, to observe and practice them ourselves to lead healthier, more prosperous lives.