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?