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.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


One of my favorite authors is award-winning Sherman Alexie. His writing is filled with humor, gut-wrenching tears, hope and hopelessness, and is some of the boldest writing I've encountered. I like him because when I read about the rez, I can picture my own rez. His writing is honest and relevant.

My last semester at Kent State, I asked my young adult literature professor why Alexie's book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian wasn't on the reading list. She said she was waiting for it to come out in paperback so it would be affordable for her students to purchase. I agree with her willingness to save students some money. I was thrilled to know she was familiar with the book. I will contact her to let her know it's out in paperback now.We discussed how Alexie had spoken at Kent State during the fall semester.

I met Alexie and wouldn't you know it, I was tongue tied. I could have shot the breeze with him for a while but...well...he's Sherman Alexie! He was the first person I voiced my lofty dream of attending grad school. He looked at me and said. "You'll be one in a thousand." That he so easily encouraged me was confirmation that I would one day be a Native American writer. We need to be examples of success to one another. We need to encourage one another to reach for a higher standard. One of the hallmarks of Native American Literature are issues of identity.

Who is Indian and who is not? According to the government, you must be a card carrying member of one of the over 500 federally recognized Indian tribes. Each tribe has criteria regarding proof of lineage, or require a blood quantum. The Yankton Sioux, at the time I was enrolled, required at least one quarter Yankton Sioux blood, to be voted by council enrolled in the tribe. Even after I received my card and enrollment certificate, I still wondered if I was really Indian or not.

In Alexie's book Flight, we examine identity through the main character, Zits, a fifteen-year-old mixed-blood Indian in and out of foster homes who travels through time in different important historical periods and in the lives of urban Indians. In this scene, Zits finds himself in the Indian camp before Custer's last stand:

"These old-time Indians have dark skin. There aren't any half-breed pale-beige green-eyed Indians here. Nope, unlike me, these Indians are the real deal...I don't hear any of them speaking English...even the dogs seem to be barking in Indian...So imagine a camp filled with tens of thousands of sweating Indians, dogs, and horses, along with what appears to be the rotting and drying corpses of hundreds of buffalo, deer, porcupines...and deodorant hasn't been invented yet...Imagine what that smells like...I never read anything about the smell of old time Indians. I never saw a television show that mentioned it" (61).

Before I reunited with my family, we spoke on the phone several times. I remember one of the first questions mom asked was, "Are you light skinned or dark skinned?" Darkness of skin is a matter of pride. We have all seen the movies that depict the "Hollywood Indian" or the fierce but handsome, well-muscled Savage on the covers of countless romance novels, and let's not forget the Indian princess/squaw. Those are the Indians people expect to encounter in 2009. Since there aren't large numbers of us walking around in full regalia, people tend to conclude we are extinct.

Alexie is not satisfied with allowing non-Indians to assume Indians no longer exist.

Neither am I.

Indian identity is rooted in skin color, language, connection with culture, connection with family, stereotypes, facts and fallacies, sports mascots, casinos and traditional Indian Spiritualty. Then thre is storytelling, reservation life, education, commodity food, prejudice, racial profiling, third world country poverty, undeniable human spirit, warriors, grandmothers and grandfathers, just to name a few.

We are not alone. Every person who walks this earth for whatever length of days they have ponder larger than life questions. "Who am I?" "What is my purpose in life?" "Is this all there is?" Wouldn't it make more sense to hold a mirror up to each other to help? Dismissing a race of people as extinct is not helpful, it's a lie. If we lie to ourselves so easily, how will we ever find these truths?

Thursday, July 9, 2009


My mom went to a reservation boarding school in Marty, South Dakota. Her mother died when she was a pre-schooler and she was sent to live with her grandmother. The unthinkable happened, grandmother died. As a result, mom was sent to live in the boarding school. I saw a picture of her when she was young and her hair was cut in a clumsy pageboy. Her life in the school was not an easy one. She suffered abuses as did other young ones.

Years later, I asked the women in my Bible study to lift my search up in prayer. I cried out to God as I drove home one chilly autumn night that it was the desire of my heart to know who my birth mother was. Somehow, I felt certain time was running out and I didn't want to miss my chance. I also prayed that if I were to reunite with family, that there was a greater purpose aside from my own desire. I had searched on and off for years, but somehow, after those prayers, things happened quickly.

I discovered one night as I searched the Internet, mom was one of six plaintiffs in a lawsuit for abuses suffered in the reservation boarding school. Although I have heard stories of what she and others endured, if she hadn't been in the school, and the lawsuit never happened, I would not have known she was still alive. I believe her life in the school and the treatment by the nuns was a gateway of the enemy, instead of the good witness of Christ's love it should have been. I still wonder how, in good conscience, grown adults; believers of Jesus, can be so cruel. Mom's example of Christianity was of being put in an unlit incinerator because she spoke her native tongue, because she behaved as she was created.

As a teenager, she was thrown out of the same school, left to manage on her own. The examples she had of non-natives trying to help her, were of people who took something away from her. Greater than any loss of material items, they took love, dignity and understanding away from her. She told me once, after two of her daughters were taken from her, how a grandmother of the tribe had told her one day the daughters would return. This was part of the gateway opened to her that led her more deeply into following traditional Native ways. Four decades later, we returned. There is active healing going on in the family and in Native familes in other reservations whose children have been taken. There is healing in my heart and I know God is joyful to see this restoration begin.

My challenge as a follower of Jesus is to show her or tell her that the things she experienced as a child and really throughout her life are from Christians immature in their relationship with Jesus. I have said to her, not all Christians are the same. To this day, she still cannot pass the school without sounding as if waves of revulsion are roiling within. In spite of everything she has been through, I see a loving woman who has a deep concern for those in greater need than she. Although she struggles to keep every mouth fed in her home, if someone has been kicked out of their home, she will help them. She could have let her life experiences make her bitter. So who is the gateway? Her desire to help those in need demonstrates what Jesus would have us do. She doesn't have a planning meeting or put together a committee, she just gives what she has. What she has is love.

"We love, because He first loved us." What kind of a gateway are you?

I do not have the power to undo what has been done to her. I can tell her about Jesus and the relationship I have with Him. I can be an example of love and so can you. "Native Americans," as my sister Brooke says, "are human, just like everybody else."

Be a gateway of love.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

August 12, 1978: The American Indian Religious Freedom Act

I sat in church this morning listening to the pastor extol how great a country America is and I am happy to live here. When he spoke of religious freedom, it was as if he saw the concept through rose-colored glasses, in a happy bubble steeped in his Christianity. I do not begrudge him his position of spiritual authority but I know as I sat there, he did not think of the religious freedom of Natives Americans today or hundreds of years ago when the chaos and conquering became fatal for so many Native ancestors.

As a follower of Jesus and a Yankton Sioux, I have more clarity of the importance of religious freedom, but I don't see that the Christian church has caught up with the times. Here is a clear cut contrast for you to consider:

Last week I worshiped Creator wearing my regalia, listening to Native praise and worship with the sound of the drum. My church walls were that of mother earth: bluest sky, clouds in full bloom, vibrant leaves, the ground underneath my feet, the smell of sage. I was honoring Creator.

This week I sat in my home church in jeans and a t-shirt, Bible in hand, tithe in the envelope, I could see bits and pieces of the outside world, I sat alone, the worship music had already been selected earlier that week so a theme could be noticed, we were separated by rigid, wooden pews, and I felt the life being sucked out of me. I wonder if this is the way we are intended to worship? I love Jesus, but I know the Body of Christ is not complete without our Native brothers and sisters.

Last summer I attended a funeral on the lower Brule rez. When I first entered the church there were some star quilts adorning the walls, and tucked into the right had corner was a ceremonial drum my brothers sat around.When the minister of the church was finished preaching (it is safe to say I don't think he reached anyone with the invitation for salvation), my brothers and some others drummed and sang Native honor and prayer songs. I think the walls breathed with each strike of the drum. Many Native American friends and family were free to worship, a relative stood in full regalia to honor his father who had walked on. The minister had a stony face the entire time they drummed. He smiled not.

On August 12, 1978 President Carter signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
"...henceforth it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indians, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access of sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rights." (

What would Christian churches look like today if they had this knowledge? Surely church would change. I know progress has been made as I meet and engage in dialogue with Native followers of the Jesus way like Richard Twiss, Michael Peters, Terry Wildman and others. What I'm saying is I would love to be in a church where I can worship as a Native American follower of Jesus and not freak everyone out. I have run into some good Christian people who believe all Native Americans do is worship rocks and trees and they feel that is of the devil. What happened to loving your neighbor as yourself?

What would short term mission trips to Indian reservations look like if the non-natives just went to listen and learn about the people before trying to show them how much of a help they can be by works? Jesus built relationships with people. Let's do the same, churches. I know it will cause discomfort, change does that. That's how we grow! I pray for churches without walls. I pray non-native Christians will not fear the challenge of embracing Native American worshipers.

I am accepted in my church as long as I don't voice these crazy ideas of change. I do speak up and in doing so I hear the same statement I've heard when visiting other non-native churches, "This is the way we have always done things." Apparently, I am stirring up the pot, making waves, or simply outnumbered. That kind of church reminds me of the man in the parable of talents who buried his pouch of gold in the ground because he was afraid something would happen to it.

Consider where the Native American fits in your Christianity.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Going Deeper into the Heart

As an Urban Indian my heart has two dwelling places, with my family on the rez and my life here, 1,000 miles away. I am not alone. A friend, Diane-Tells-His-Name once wrote me, "You will know great joy and despair at the same time." I remember tilting my head to the left and wrinkling my brow in speculation. I trusted her, having read everything on her website Young Once, Indian Forever. She has walked the same path, reuniting with her family on the rez. There are more of us than you know walking the same trail, through the curves in the road and the overgrown foliage. Inside beats the heart of an Indian. Yes, it is a different heart from other races, as was intended by Creator. We humans are the ones who get so caught up by the differences in skin color.

Going deeper into the heart, our blood is the same color as anyone else's blood. It's strange, out here in the urban places no one recognizes me as an Indian, unless they are a close friend. I don't fit the stereotype. I don't have long black hair split in two braids, nor do I wear a buckskin garment. People know I am not non-native, yet they cannot guess why I am different. An entire nation of people, a race group, has been diminished by mainstream society. On one trip home from the rez, I flew out of Sioux Falls Regional Airport and sat next to a woman who lived in Sioux Falls, a mere two hours from the rez. We talked about the reservations in South Dakota. She told me she had no idea about the Yankton people and said, "To be honest, we never hear anything about the reservation, unless something bad happens." I appreciated her candor.

At home, on the rez, I am recognized as Yankton and it is comforting to feel among my own people. It is a lengthy process, getting to know all my family, learning my way around the rez, understanding how time moves at a slower pace. The addictions that plague mainstream society plague the Yankton and other tribes. Today, mainstream society is moving toward a position of greater familiarity of unemployment. Grief is a universal emotion when a loved one is taken too soon. Pain, suffering and anguish are conditions of humanness. Love, strength of character, leadership and success reside in both worlds. There is no more time to hold onto romanticized fantasies of who Native Americans are. In the simplest terms; we need each other.

I was employed at a local burger joint when I was finally able to return home. The comments of my reuniting with family were followed by questions: "You mean Indians are still alive today!?" "What kind of clothes do they wear?" "Do they know how to drive cars?" "Do they live in houses?" I was floored at the pervasive ignorance. I checked the date on the calendar, it hadn't changed, I wasn't in a time warp. I felt--strange, like a talking museum piece. I wasn't personally offended, just...well..kerflummoxed. How is this thinking consistent with the strides in the medical field, technology, satellite T.V.?

I find the more I listen to people, the more I learn. So my heart is that of an observer, a listener, a student of human behavior. I build bridges with words both here in Urban land and on the rez. I look for opportunities for natives and non-natives to have open dialogue in a safe environment so we can learn from each other. I see prejudices in both groups of people and have been challenged by Creator to change my own heart. I find myself an inhabitant of two worlds radically different from one another. At times, the only common bond is our humanness. This time around the circle of getting acquainted with each other, the desire of my heart is that we listen and love.

Rose-colored glasses? I believe any obstacle is overcome through perseverance.

I am standing on the edge of a cliff, arms outstretched, stepping off in the greatest leap of faith I've ever known and I choose to fly! Join me, won't you?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Honoring Creator

Because I have been raised off the reservation, outside of my culture, I have spent many years leaning from my family, researching, and examining how expansive the role of American Indian identity is for urban Natives.

One branch of identity is familiarity with Native Ways. Since there are over 500 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States which means certain criteria have been met to fit tribes into a category, identity must be important to more than Native Americans.

Add Native spiritual practices into this mix, unique to each tribe because of geographical location, plants and food available such as wildlife used for sustanance, different stories of Creator (not to mention different names), and it's easy to see why identity is tantamount to understanding each other.

Such a place for understanding was the setting for the All Colors Together Gathering in Millersburg, Ohio this weekend. The gathering was a hub of dialogue and teachings on how different we are, yet we are all human. For the most part, we were a group of Native Americans or indigenous people who follow Jesus, listening and learning from each other how best to minister to our own tribes.

We spoke of and learned about historical events and how they shaped the nation we live in today. We learned the tribal history for the state of Ohio and together we considered where to forge new territory, to create new connections of support for our own people who are hurting and in need of healing.

One beautiful time of healing for myself happened on Saturday. For the first time, in my regalia, I danced my prayers to Creator. My face was turned up to the sky. The drum was beating, words of praise for Creator were sung, smudge curled in whisps, and my native brothers and sisters with non-natives as well, planted our feet on the earth and moved clockwise around the arena. The fringe on my regalia swayed with each step, each movement, and I felt alive, every nerve ending, every brain cell, every breath I took was sweeter and more authentic than any other time. I was finally whole. It only took four decades. I have been praying for this moment for many years. In my spirit I had my mother with me and all my brothers and sisters back home on the rezand in other places of the country. Talk about praising and worshiping the Lord in spirit and in truth!

There are some people in the world who will lable me as non-native because I follow Jesus. It is sad the division still occurs today. I know I am Yankton Sioux, Creator fashioned me that way. He doesn't make mistakes. I have known this in my head and now for the first time, I believe it and know it in my heart.

Next week: going deeper

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Long Distance Family

I saw most of my family in January and met my sister, Paula, for the first time. Paula and I have this unique connection unlike any other realtionship I have with my brothers and sisters. We have walked in the same shoes in our life, just in different places. I think it's easier for she and I to keep in touch than it is with family on the rez.

I wish and want to go home but it's not as if I can just hop on a plane and go. The financial aspect is a barrier to travel. Instead, I will wrap myself in the star quilt and say some prayers they know how much I miss them. In a large family, things happen all the time. In my small family where I live, life is less dramatic because of our smaller numbers.

I think the pow wow on Saturday was a catalyst for me. The feeling of standing more solid in "Indianness," is difficult to explain. It's as if the years of being apart the locust has eaten are restored even when I am unaware change is happening. The connection to culture may not always be face-to-face but rather, deep within, as my spirit evolves.

I wonder if this is the way of Native American Spirituality? It must be, at times, a solitary walk on the Good Red Road. But the path I walk must benefit more than myself. Other people can only bring me along so far, there are times to walk alone.

Ecclesiates says "to everything there is a season," so this must be my season of solitude. I have learned the path of progress is through acceptance. In the Lakota language, there is no word for "goodbye." So I will just pray for my family, until we meet again.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

This Urban Native's Wanderings

Yesterday, I went to a pow wow about 30 minutes from my home. It is unusual to travel such a short distance. At the pow wow, conditions were soggy and they waited for the rain to stop. There was a sustained breeze and overcast conditions. Better this than the blast furnace of eighty plus degrees and high humidity.

When I go to pow wow, it is to meet other natives. Sometimes I feel native starved as if I am the only one in my town. There is my son, but he is at an age where heritage is not as captivating as fishing with dad is. I know there are other Native Americans, but I have recently started to purposefully seek the other nations represented where I live.

I have felt isolated from my people at times. Back on the rez, over 1,000 miles away, I am home, ankle deep in Mother Earth. I see others from the Great Sioux Nation and it feels wonderful to me. At home in Ohio, at the grocery store or any other place I feel like the only Indian in the building. I feel invisible.

It is good to talk with other Native Americans in a wide age range about historical events, regalia, opportunities, upcoming pow wows, and the meanings of the dances, or songs. I am still learning my culture. This particular pow wow was hosted by the Lenape. I saw, to me , another regalia style, the language the songs were sung were markedly different from Lakota, the entry into the arena for dance was sometimes counterclockwise. But I saw the nuances particular to the Lenape because I am more familiar now with my traditional ways. I am happy there are such markers of learning.

There is not enough time to learn all I want when I go home to visit my family. I am thankful I have family to see, a mom who teaches me the traditional ways, it's a time of resoration and renewal.

I saw a complete set of goose wings, fully extended, for sale at the pow wow yesterday. They reminded my of my mom, who raised me in Ohio, she loved Canada Geese. If she were still alive, she would frown at such use of the wings from one goose. But I saw the beauty in them because they reminded me of her gentle spirit. Those wings touched me in unknown ways yet. I didn't buy them, but I can't stop thinking of them.

Somehow, I feel more grounded in my culture. The smell of smudge transports me to another place, another time. The sound of the drumming and singing, no matter the nation helps my heart fly. I made a new friend, and it is always good to go to pow wow.