Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Need for Restoration

There is a deep need for restoration between Native Americans and non-natives if we desire to move forward through this earthly life on the same path; one of peace. The weekend of January 29, 30, and 31, 2010 was an historical step toward restoration between the Miami Tribe of Indiana, non-natives, and other tribes that may in the past have warred against each other.

My irrepressible friend Autumn and I took one of our road trips, this time to Indiana for the "Restoring the Ancient Gates Conference" in Fort Wayne. I wanted to go but the details of whether I'd have the funds, could get the time off work and find child care all came together just days before the actual event. Sometimes God makes me wait until the last minute. I knew I was doing the right thing when I got to the intersection of 322 and 271 and saw Hawk wheeling above the ramp. For me, whenever I think, I wonder if I am doing the right thing, somehow Hawk is above as if to send the message, "You are right where you are supposed to be. This is one step in the direction I want you to go, part of the bigger picture." I always consider it a message from Creator/God because He knows how to get my attention every time. I have shared with Autumn my encounters with Hawk and this time, all along the way to Fort Wayne, she and I took turns spotting Hawk sitting high in a tree, on the fence by the road, or flying across the road right above her vehicle. Friends of ours, Ken, his wife Gio and Viv traveled the road half an hour ahead of us and as I talked with Viv and told her about Hawk, she said they hadn't seen one. We even drove next to a truck with a hawk emblem airbrushed on the door and when we finally arrived at Heartland church we had our first encounter with Ruby the Red Tail Hawk. That made a stunning total of twelve hawks in one day.

Ruby weighed about three pounds and sat on the leather covered forearm of her owner, Byron. Her unwavering gaze, ruddy tail feathers, banded feathers and large talons were magnificently created. Autumn and I looked at each other, amazed at the specificity of God's message: I want you right here. Heartland church was an old elementary school building, the main sanctuary is in the gymnasium. As I walked into the open hand of the santuary and saw the altar decorated with handheld drums, woven blankets, Native Flutes, shakers, a screen with the Victorious Jesus projected onto it ( Jesus wearing a full headdress) among the other set of conventional worship items I smiled big. I looked around at the people gahtered and recognized the faces of Native friends I have met, all from different Indian Nations, I was greeted with warm embraces. I had been told by a few people this gathering was a significant event and now I felt the stirrings in my heart, like the embers in a untended fire stirred, breathed on, and given new life. It is feeling that washes over me in waves, sometimes in a gentle lapping or waves that knock me down, hold me under, and send me head above the water, rushing down a riverbed. I am not afraid the water because I see fingers of sun reaching in the depths, drawing me to it. Worship, for me, is like that. I think of the act of full immersion Baptism, the declaration of giving my life to Jesus and the journey up through the water, a resurrection into new life. I knew the worship time before the evening service was going to be great because the Native Christian Worship Team Terry Wildman and his wife Darlene, known as Rain Song were there. They were nominated for and had recently won a NAMMY award for their spoken word CD, a Native telling of the Bible.

Terry felt led to organize the gathering this weekend and people came from all over the country, and even from Ireland. The council was made up of Native Christians and non-native Christians. Why is important to distinguish between the two? It's important to acknowledge Natives and non-natives worship in different ways, and that's okay. Creator/God does not favor one group of people's worship better or more acceptable than another; people do, denominations do. It's important to me because when I am at gatherings like this I can praise and worship God in my regalia. At any other church I would draw attention and some people may think it inappropriate to wear what they consider merely a costume. This time I brought the scarlet shawl my mom made for me with the long white fringe knotted by her hands afflicted with arthritis that must have caused her considerable pain to tie. I also wore the bone feather earrings gifted to me the night I of my naming ceremony. When Rain Song began to play, several people went out to dance, clockwise around the sacred drum but it always takes a while for me to be brave enough to dance. When they played, On Eagle's Wings, I had to dance, my shawl became powerful eagle's wings and I whirled around, the floor dissolved to nothing and soon I was soaring in the blue sky high above the land, eye roaming the earth. In times of trial I know God has lifted me high above it all, just like this.

It's so different worshiping God this way, as I was created to, than in a traditional church where most often there are only three songs to engage in worship, there is a time schedule to follow, and most people just sit there . Modern churches could find freedom in worship learning from the Native population.

After worship, there was some explanations as to why we all gathered and what the expectations were for the remainder of the gathering; Spirit prompting. A Lenape elder, Sonage Taha (Strong of Heart) Engler prayed a blessing: "Long ago, when the people came from across the water, we told them we all prayed to the same God, but they would not listen to us." Hs prayer was that we would realize this. This pierced my spirit because my mom tells me the same thing, We all pray to the same God.

This is the beginning of restoration.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Community Day

We had a community day at the new church I attend and I volunteered to do some Native American storytelling. The only way to help a community learn about the Indians in the area is to step out into the open. I wore my regalia, but not any feathers. I brought with me some goose feathers, various beaded pouches, a smudge shell and some smudge to burn, jawbones from animals, and large hank of horse hair in case any kids wanted a hands on experience. Not knowing what to expect, I chose the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman because my mom told me the story.

Stunning sunshine lit up autumn leaves just beginning to turn color, and warm breezes blew gently this day. The temperature was in the low 70s. Other things were happening, a free pig roast, half a dozen deep fried turkeys and other picnic foods were offered for anyone who was hungry. There were bounce houses and raffles and a few people on the music venue. People
came from all over for an afternoon of family fun.

I had no idea when I would tell my story. I very much enjoyed walking around with my regalia on, the long fringe alive with motion. The responses of the people were interesting. Some had no idea what to say, so they said nothing, others commented on the beauty of the dress. My son was worried someone would make fun of me. I suppose that could have happened and if anyone did, it was out of earshot. I told my son, "I'm not embarassed, this is the way I was created."

He felt a little better.

I thought about how White Buffalo Calf Woman came to the people to teach them how to live in peace. I read an account that surmised she appeared to the people about 2,000 years ago. I wondered what it was like to live in a world where she appeared and Jesus walked the earth. I believe there are no accidents but fate and karma are for others to believe. I believe each footstep has been appointed to us.

Can it be that God gave each race a way to build relationship with Him? I have spoken with some Indians who practice traditional ways and other Indians who follow the way of Jesus. I study the effects of both groups. I have encountered Indians who refuse to practice any native ways, fear-filled and I am saddened by this. I have spoken with Traditional Indians who believe Jesus lived but now He doesn't and it isn't respectful to speak of Him. I wonder about that, not ready to dismiss their ways of belief until I know more of what that is grounded in.

I think of the seven teachings: love, bravery, humility, honesty, wisdom. respect and truth and how they remind me of the fruits of the Spirit. There are too many parallels to say one way is good and the other is not. Spirituality is a work in progress at best to us humans. When entire populations of people are excluded, it bears closer examination.

I told the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman that day. I asked anyone who claimed Indian heritage to raise their hands. I saw some hands go up, but it is the hand not raised that I want to know more about. For each person that speaks up there are more left with volumes of unspoken words.

This past Labor Day I had an upsetting encounter I wasn't prepared for and I still can't believe it happened. I was at the local flea market which draws an especially large crowd on Labor Day and I ahd my German Shepherd Dog with me. I always laugh when I see the wide swath poeple make when they see the two of us approaching. I was waiting near a table to take a closer look at a piece of cobalt glass and I saw a flask encased in leather. Embossed into the leather was an Indian, so identified by the loin cloth and headband with a crooked feather attached. The Indian was passed out drunk, so indicated by the x's for eyes and the large red nose. The other curious thing was the flask was stamped with Pensalcola, Florida. Now why, WHY did there have to be a drunken Indian? I am fairly certain no one else was as disturbed by this depiction of Indians.

Until these images disappears, I will tell stories and write blogs and poems and books. I will participate in church community days, write academic papers, wear my regalia so kids can see it, I will tell my son all I learn about the Indian ways, I will take part in dissertations researching anything that has to do with Native Americans and in so doing will not rest until I have done everything within my power to debunk long held stereotypes that harm instead of uplift, that destroy instead of create, that continue to show that prejudice is a learned behavior that is wrong.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Brothers and Sisters

I spoke with my big brother, Dan yesterday, just hearing his voice makes me smile. I feel embraced by Creator when we have time to visit or talk. We are both adopted into the same family, yet not blood related. I grew up knowing it is not blood that makes a family, but love. He lives three hours away and sometimes that distance stretches as long as a thousand miles. People are usually surprised to know that we are not "real" brother and sister. To me, our relationship has always seemed real, genuine. How much simpler, if the labels weren't so terribly important to us as people suffering from the human condition. We are all fallible, all finite on earth, blood related or not.

I have a sister not blood related and not raised in my family with me, yet she and I share the same kind of tie Dan and I do. She is family to me. I am sure you know what I'm talking about here. Who is your brother, your sister? I hope someone immediately comes to mind and thoughts of that person makes you smile and you wonder how you could have possibly gotten through life's battles without help from that person.

When I think of my friend Autumn, I am blessed. She makes me laugh with all her outrageous observations. Her quick intelligence is something I admire. Her loving heart is a comfort to me and others. If you ask her if she has made an impact on people's lives she would likely wrinkle her nose and shake her head no, she may even hold up her hands and say, "Probably not," while rolling her grey-green eyes. She is wrong of course but only because she doesn't see herself the way others see her. She has taken me under her wing at a time when everything around me was falling down, like a house built on shifting sand. These life-changes, death of both parents, abandonment in marriage, divorce, single parent-hood all in a handful of time have not chased her away. Instead she dug in her heels, rolled up her sleeves and we have gone on many road trips, including out to South Dakota to meet the rest of my family, grown in our faith, laughed, cried, racked up hours and hours on the phone, watched a summer of sunsets on the beach, and encouraged one another because as family, that's what we do.

Who are your brothers and sisters? Is it time you widen your family circle?

When Autumn, my brother, and I all drove out to South Dakota she put herself in a position where she was the minority. I recall a few experiences she had that evoked the way I felt growing up off the reservation. People stared and were suspicious of her because she was different from them. She said she went to a restaurant to eat when Dan and I were out doing something else, and she was ignored; invisible. I have watched her fearlessly ask people who they are and what they believe because she loves people.

Every human being has been placed on this earth for this moment and that connects us. We are all on the same journey whether or not we speak the same language, wear the same clothes, worship the same, or suffer and dream in the same way. Our common bond is the tie of the human race. Sometimes we are not so kind to each other and division comes, walls are built, lines are drawn in the sand, and with each construction ends another opportunity to love. If we are going to build, let's draw out some designs for bridges. Look at all the fantastic skyscrapers, cruise ships, mansions, castles, pyramids, and other marvels we are capable of building. Bridges? No problem.

Creator places a challenge before you to love, just love in your own limited way for an untold amount of time, without any known gratification in sight, just love for the sake of love. We are all brothers and sisters. We are all related. Look at others through the lens of love. Mitakuye Oyasin.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


This morning I had the pleasure of reading Sherman Alexie's One Stick Song. I remember now why I was so taken with Alexie's writing. He mixes humor with pain and writes with such an honesty I want to write with in my poetry and creative non-fiction. The MFA program will help me mature as a writer. I hesitate to post any of my poems here, they're not finished yet. Going into the MFA program I was enthusiastic that my two chapbook length collections of poems were just about finished but I am wrong. New levels have been reached and given my penchant for doing things backwards, it makes sense that I learn things now I should have known long ago.

So I'm sitting in Mark's Maple Leaf Restaurant waiting for my breakfast and reading Alexie, smiling, chuckling and shaking my head because there is no other humor like Indian humor. Read his work if you want to know why I think this. I felt a little envious of Alexie, because he lived on the reservation longer than I did. I was there until age two. Unless I become a fan of hypnotism there is no way for me to remember what my life was like. I only know what reservation life is like now, when I visit.

I wonder if I would be in an MFA program had I grown up on the rez? During the days I was still searching for my birthmom I wrote out different scenarios of what her life was when she was young and after I was born and what I might find when I got there. If that happened. It's on my mind now because it's been six years since the reunion and now that I'm growing closer to my family I feel a unity building.

I spoke with my mom recently and she said, You will come back to live on the reservation permanently. I wondered if this was a prophecy; does she know something that I don't know? My biggest fear is what happenes if I do pick up my life here and take it over to my family and don't feel like I belong? What then? That's a serious committment I'm not ready to jump into.

Each day when I wake up I give thanks and praise for the gift of life. I ask Father what He wants me to do today, where He wants me to go, who He wants me to talk to about Him so I don't step out of His plan and purpose for me. I believe when it is time for me to return to the reservation He will give me the okay loud and clear so I don't have to question His timing. I will know that I know that I know. Until that moment, I don't know. I'm okay with that. As long as I 'm here, I'll keep learning, keep working for my degree, raise my child, and reconcile with living the life of an Urban Native.

Even though being taken from my mom at age two was a horrible thing to do to both of us, I still believe, everything happens for a reason. I'm not talking about fate or karma. I'm talking about plan and purpose. Until I can write about my story and the stories of countless others who lives are changed permanently by separation with clarity and power I still need to keep myself accountable to those who teach me that craft of writing.

I had no voice when I was taken, but I have one now. Believe me, I will use it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Summer of 1974

My parents, who adopted and raised me and two older brothers and one older sister, loved to travel on family vacations in a motorhome. In the beginning, my dad built his own pop-up camper. He called it the U.R.O., translation; the unidentified rolling object. My dad had a great sense of humor. We'd load up in the station wagon, Chris and Dan, Becky, myself and Daisy, the dog. Off we'd go on vacation.

In the early 70s, my mom and dad purchased the motor home and we took a trip out west, one stop being Pine Ridge reservation, where Dan, a full-blood Oglala Sioux was born. I was nine, perhaps ten years old, depending on the dates we were gone. The other stop was the St. Francis Mission on Rosebud reservation. For some reason, my parents were told I was Rosebud Sioux and I grew up thinking that was part of my identity. Later on, I discovered I was Yankton, a different tribe, different place and different dialect of language. This is not an uncommom blunder. Other Lost Birds I've known were also wrongly informed of their tribal roots. I can only think that social services or whomever was in charge of taking down our non-identifying information was either ignorant of the different tribes or just didn't care. Either way, there is no justification for such carelessness.

It was hot, hot, hot. There were water mirages on the road and dry, dusty terrain. We visited the Rosebud reservation and my dad stopped at the St.Francis church to see when Mass was held. I don't remember if we stayed for Mass but I do recall the priest or deacon said he was kola, but in my nine year old mind, all I could think was cola.

After that, we visited the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, and Dan was now the proud owner of some sea monkeys. I was jealous. We headed further west in the direction of the Badlands and Pine Ridge. I remember prairie dogs and how mom drank too many cans of soda-pop, (she was an un-cola person) her feet swelled. We stopped a trading post and my brother and I went into the store. I can see the crowded interior now and an Indian was sitting behind the counter.

I often wonder what the he thought of my brother and I and if my parents felt uncomfortable being non-native? I will never know for sure. The man behind the counter felt it important to teach us a word in Lakota, kola, which means friend. He repeated it several times until we could say it, know what it meant and remember.

My mom wanted to see where Chief Red Cloud was buried. We went into a small cemetery and were cautioned not to wander off because of rattlesnakes and mom stubbed her toe on Red Cloud's grave. Funny, I would remember that. But there is something else I remember seeing.

Wounded Knee.

I think now of what had happened the year before we visited. The Wounded Knee Occupation was in 1973. When we were there, we passed burned buildings. The white church on the rise stood by the cemetery where the mass grave held the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. It was eerie and desolate to pass burned out buildings and feel the hot blast of wind on the rise. Thirty four years later I returned to Wounded Knee, the same hot wind blew, the memorial brought forth a deep grief and the white church had burned down, replaced by a log cabin style structure.

Although I didn't know it then I was so close to my birth mom, when we passed through Mitchell. Only 50 miles or so, an hour drive. I shake my head everytime I think of it. How close but how very far away.

People often ask me if I knew anything about my culture growing up off the reservation, the nearest city to us 30 miles west. I do know Dan and I share a kinship closer than any other relationship I've had. We always knew we were Indian. Our adoption days were a celebration. It's like we were put together by circumstance just to know that we were not alone. We were each other's culture, grounding, touchstone. My other brother and sister did not share the same kindred connection with us. If nothing else, we had each other. And we had the summer of 1974.

Sometimes identity can be found in culture, another person, or in one word, kola.

Monday, August 10, 2009

On the path to a Master's Degree

I have returned home from an intensive two week residency at Ashland University. The residency is the gate through which I must enter to achieve an MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry. Ashland offers a cross genre study of Creative Non-fiction and Poetry, a degree which will advance my writing.

I want to write about Urban Native Americans, travels on and off the reservations, grappling with traditional Native religion and Christianity and connectedness to culture. All of these topics revolve around the larger issue of identity. The questions mankind has asked since the beginning of the human species, Who am I and what is my purpose in life? remains a motivation inherent to humanness. I ask this age old question in an increasingly complicated world that does not necessarily recognize the time required for such introspection. It's a pity that a collective lack of downtime is the meager reward for the payoff of constant and immediate technological connectivity, as if that were any valid substitute for the blood and guts of identity.

I say this because it has come to my attention that people have an increasingly shorter attention span. If immediate gratification is not met, the mind wanders. Worse yet, anger and frustration spread like dark ink on white fabric leaving the indelible mark of squandered time. Time that is better spent examining identity rather than electronic gadgets. Where, among this, is our connectedness, our unique reasons for walking on earth at this time? I think of whistling in the dark, if I can just stay busy enough, then there is no time left for those unanswered questions that I would rather not have answers to. This was one of many thoughts unearthed at the residency.

Where is the "I" in my poetry? I assumed since I was the one writing the poem, that question was a no-brainer, but not so. Not so at all. I wondered how or why or when I had put myself in the passenger seat of writing recording what I observe and then distancing myself from the process. How many other times have I distanced myself from whatever event unfolds in my day as if it were just part of the a unending newsfeed containing a few sentences interwoven with other people's newsfeeds. Our lives are a miasma of generalizations that naturally go along with distancing ourselves. It's an insidious form of disconnection on a deeper level.

I'm sure there's a poem in there.

If I lived on the rez, I wonder if I would stand in the same educational shoes? How could I? Certainly, I would have been a different person molded by daily life. I have spent the past six years questioning what does being a Yankton Sioux mean? So much so, I have traveled back and forth between the Yankton Rez and the home where I was raised, forging new territory which, at times, was gut-wrenching. As I talk with others about my lifework, I discover the thirst people have for taking part in the journey in some way, if only to read about it. I have cast my net in search of identity, deep and wide. Join me, won't you?

Sunday, July 19, 2009


I had the honor of witnessing a Lenape Nation wedding this weekend. It was, without question, the most moving wedding ceremony I have ever seen.

The church was nature, a circle of woodlands, open blueness of sky, downy clouds floating, and the breezes. The bride wore a halo of flowers in her hair flowing loose down her back. She wore a simple white garment, and stood in her bare feet. The groom wore white trousers and white shirt with red ribbons. His hair was in a pony tail. To see the two together, it was natural for them to be husband and wife.

The ceremony was spoken in the simple yet bold language of the tribal chief. He explained certain components as the ceremony unfolded. Eveything I saw showed me who the Lenape are, what they believe, what they value. I saw their identity in the action.

Humans need to be grounded or anchored by something, otherwise we are nothing but flotsam and jetsam. How helpful is that? There must be boundaries of what is acceptable or expected and what is not.

In the wedding ceremony, the chief asked the bride, "Are you willing to chase the snakes away from your lodge and marriage?" How I wished someone would have asked me that when I married. "Are you ready to help your man be a strong warrior?" Deeper in the ceremony, the two gave gifts to each other symbolizing what their roles in this union were, he to provide food, shelter, and protection, she to provide warmth, comfort, and sustenance; the community to help them achieve this end.

The chief said, "You have come before us, stating your desire." In this statement, accountability. The mother of the bride gave a stick for the couple to hang on the wall above their bed so at the end of each day they take the stick down and carve a mark into it if they had a good day. If they had a bad day, this was the time they talk together of the good days they have had. In this way, they would not end the day in anger. The chief cautioned, "You must love each other even if you are angry with one another." Such wisdom to hear on the wedding day. I felt it was so much more honest than the church ceremonies I have witnessed.

A blanket was wrapped around the couple and fastened with a length of twine, symbolizing the two were now one. Culture and ceremony defines who we are. Spiritual beliefs are the anchor used to help us live in a good way.

As I become acquinted with Native Americans from different tribes, although we come from different places and the ceremonies may differ, we seem to have a common purpose; to keep identity alive. I had the pleasure of speaking with an elder named Quiet Wolf. His concern was to keep language alive among his tribe and to visit with other tribes to ask how their battle goes. He offers to help, realizing the power of listening. I recognize him as a granfather, he is a Native American elder and veteran. I watched his eyes well up with unshed tears as he spoke of his journey and I laughed with him as he told jokes. It is good, to be in the company of other natives.

Last year, at Thanksgiving dinner, I spoke with a native brother who was originally from New York. He had experience working in a vineyard, so I mentioned the verse about Jesus being the vine and we are the branches, apart from Him we can do nothing. Here was a man who knew what it was like to work as a vinedresser, and had a vivid image of the life application of that verse. He knew what was too much pruning and wasn't enough. When I asked him if he was connected with his Native roots in any way, he quickly said no. I remember thinking how that was one of the important and good things pruned entirely out of his life.

Those of us connected to our culture, our Indian ways, have a responsibility to teach those of us who aren't. It's a good place to begin, much like the young girl who swept away the old hurts and the past separate lives of the couple before they were joined together as one.