It’s dusk on the Great Plains. I’m driving through a desolate area of South Dakota on my way to Standing Rock, North Dakota. Although I was born in this state, it feels like a stranger to me. I didn’t grow up here. Being native isn’t “cool” here, like it is where I live and these roads are unfamiliar. I don’t have cell phone service.
There are two cars behind me and they’ve been following me for hours. I know that they are headed to the same place. We haven’t come across any other cars for hundreds of miles. The isolation makes me uneasy. I begin to wonder what would happen if I run out of gas or get a flat tire. I’m a native woman traveling, I know the statistics. I know how native women go missing, murdered and unaccounted for on these Plains. I know how this violence increases near oil fields and man camps… exactly where I’m headed.
All of these fears are circulating through my mind during this drive. I turn on music, then an audiobook, but my mind returns to these thoughts. As I come over a hill, I see a police vehicle sitting on the side of the road. I quickly slam on my breaks, unsure if I was speeding. The lights turn on and the officer enters the road. I heard stories of officers racially profiling natives traveling north, presumably headed to Standing Rock. I’ve had encounters with police back home, but they have never made me feel scared. But I’m not home anymore. It’s different here. Who knows if they will let me go. These increasing tensions make me wonder if the police will find a reason to bring me to jail and put me in dog kennels like they did to our relatives. There are so many possibilities of how this could go wrong.
Haŋ mitákuyepi. Cali emáčiyapi ye.
Hello relatives. My name is Cali.
I am Sicangu Lakota from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and I’m here to share my experiences as an indigenous woman in the United States.
As for the Standing Rock situation, I considered myself a very privileged individual because none of the above scenarios happened to me. I continued on to Standing Rock, unharmed. I returned from Standing Rock alive and without any criminal charges or injuries. However while I was there, a White man in a large truck drove into the crowd of peaceful protestors and he fired 5-6 shots into the air. No charges were ever filed against him, but from April 2016 to January 2017, around 500 natives and allies were arrested for non-violent protesting.
I want to start off by making an important point- that my culture is new to me. The native community in general is new to me. My relatives were forcibly relocated to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota in 1889. I grew up approximately 1,000 miles away from these homelands in an area where there weren’t many other Natives. Because of this, and because of laws that prohibited our families from practicing our traditional ways for many years, my culture is still somewhat new to me. I am learning every day, thanks to those around me who continue to help me on my journey to reclaiming my identity as a Lakota wíŋyaŋ (woman).
So since this is a new journey for me, as it is for many others, I think it is important to discuss some of the history and how the government attempted to strip our culture from us with assimilation and genocidal practices.
Most people know about the forced relocation of Natives to reservations, but what most people don’t know about is the forced Native Boarding School Era.
During the rise of Native boarding schools, the founder of Carlisle Indian School, Captain Richard Pratt, said,
All the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.
It was here in these boarding schools that military personnel and missionaries forced Native children to disown their native names and long hair. Long hair is sacred in our culture – a way to connect spiritually and an extension of one’s thoughts. The act of having one’s hair cut is a humiliating and offensive experience. These schools were known to punish Natives, emotionally and physically, for speaking our language or for cultural differences. For example, Natives would be scolded for not making eye contact with teachers, when avoiding eye contact is done out of respect for authority in our culture.
My great-lalá (great grandfather- pictured below), Felix Eagle Feather, attended Carlisle Indian Boarding School in Pennsylvania from 1882-1893. My uŋčí (grandmother) and até (father) attended these boarding schools on the reservation (rez). Because of this, some families lost their language and traditions. In addition, our ceremonies and traditions experienced government and legal interference. We weren’t allowed to freely practice our ceremonies and traditional rites until August 11, 1978 when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act became law.
We have a rich culture and it has been hard to access it.
It was not until February 18, 2018 that I participated in my first ceremony known as inípi (sweat lodge), a place where we offer prayer through earth, water and fire. My experience was powerful and let me know that I was on the right path. Luckily, I have found others who are working hard at learning our traditions and ceremonies and languages. I didn’t have another Native friend for the first 27 years of my life, and I never really realized how isolating that was until recently. As we find each other and ourselves, we realize we have a responsibility to ensure that future generations have no trouble accessing our culture.
Growing up away from my reservation was a barrier to accessing my culture, although my story isn’t uncommon. Many natives live in urban areas. It is estimated that 70% of Natives live in cities vs. reservations. I grew up in a small, predominantly White town on the outskirts of Chicago. My até (father) adopted me at birth and was the only native I knew in the state. He moved to Chicago at the age of 18 through a relocation program designed to integrate Natives into urban areas and offer opportunity for further education and jobs.
For some backstory on native adoptions, there is a federal law titled “Indian Child Welfare Act” that aims to keep native children in native families. This law is in place because prior to 1978, native children were intentionally placed in white families as another way to forcibly assimilate. Since my até is from the same tribe, my adoption met these requirements. He always tried to teach me about who we are, but I was too uncomfortable with the idea of being different that I suppressed my “Nativeness” for a very long time.
My town was predominantly White, but I fell close enough to White on the color spectrum that I was treated well enough. By “well enough” I mean that I considered my experience to be much better than it would have been had I grown up in White populated areas of the Dakotas. My mom is Polish, Norwegian and Russian, which means my first experiences with White people (my family) were nothing but that of selfless love.
My experiences with White people outside my family were almost always positive, too. .. except for the time I was called “Indian names” by some guys in high school. Wait for it…. “Squatting Little Hoe” and “Chokes On Dick”. One of them decided to yell those names at me during graduation as I was on stage getting my diploma. In front of all the students. All the families. My family. My Native family members. It makes me really uncomfortable and ashamed to share that and to put those words in writing, but it is my truth and it needs to be told.
It is kind of ironic that they chose such hyper-sexualized names when you consider the sexualization and fetishization of Native women and the amount of Native women who are missing/murdered/sold into sex trafficking… which leads me to my next topic.
#MMIW (Missing/Murdered Indigenous Women)
#MMIW Is an epidemic occurring in the indigenous nations of Canada and the United States of America. In Canada, there are over 1,000 missing/murdered indigenous women. In the United States of America, there is no database to collect information on indigenous women. We don’t even have any statistics to see how extensive this problem truly is. We do know that these incidences increase near oil fields where there are “man camps”. Hollywood brought this issue to light with the movie, “Wind River”, which I highly recommend watching to gain perspective on how this impacts our communities. Sturgis Bike Rally and hunting season also attract a large male turnout, and with this influx of tourism to South Dakota comes increased rates of sex trafficking.
According to the US Department of Justice, Native women face the highest rate of violent crime than any other race, including 2.5x higher chance of sexual assault and 10x higher chance of murder. And what’s even worse is non-natives commit 70% of the violence with 9 out of 10 sexual assaults being committed by non-natives. This is significant because in 1978, the United States Supreme Court ruled that tribes do not have criminal jurisdiction over non-Natives, which meant these non-Native rapists would walk free. Tribes could not prosecute these non-native offenders until the reauthorization of VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) in 2013.
Another issue we face at higher rates than the national average is police brutality. Natives are killed at a higher rate than ANY race by law enforcement. A study released this month by St. Catherine University shows that Native women in Minneapolis were “stopped, searched and arrested” at higher rates than any other demographic including black men.
I mention these statistics because they are real. For Natives, these aren’t just statistics we read about in books and go on with our lives. These things have happened to our family members, to us. We ARE these statistics.
Besides attacks on our bodies and our lives, we also commonly face attacks on our land and water.
Since the beginning of the settler movement and with recent events such as Standing Rock, Bears Ears, Oak Flat, Keystone XL and many other areas of the country, Native lands are constantly under attack for commercial gain.
I was able to travel to Standing Rock in November 2016 to join the resistance against DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline). As a Native woman traveling through South Dakota and North Dakota, I was scared. And my family was scared for me. I was afraid of the police targeting me–as they did to my relatives–and I was afraid of the possibility of becoming another statistic for missing and murdered indigenous women (#MMIW) as I was traveling to an area with man camps with known hostility towards natives.
The Dakotas aren’t a friendly place to Natives. Just the month before, I was with family in South Dakota for my uŋčí’s memorial. We decided to travel to the town of Murdo, which borders the Rosebud rez, to get dinner. We were the first guests in the restaurant called Rusty Spur, ordered our meals and unfortunately after several hours and several excuses from wait staff, we were never served. Prior to this point in my life, I had never really experienced much blatant racism or discrimination, so I didn’t even recognize it when it was staring me in the face.
I was somewhat sheltered and protected from this type of discrimination due to where I grew up. In a way, I was tokenized because I was the only Native in my town, and I was rarely made to feel less than. This made me acknowledge how it is for Natives in other areas of the country, particularly in areas where there is significant history between Natives and non-Natives, because the one experience I had happens daily for some.
Traveling While Native
Traveling as an indigenous woman means having valid fears when traveling to certain areas of the country, such as the Dakotas. But other areas of the country have been very welcoming. I don’t know why that is- whether it is because I’m usually traveling with white people, including my husband and family, or because people can’t quite categorize me. Curiosity is what I encounter most. People notice my tan skin, chocolate brown eyes and long, dark hair. But they can’t hate what they don’t know- so I blend in. I’m often mistaken for “foreign” when these lands are my home. I fall into the “other” category when I so desperately want people to look at me and know I’m Lakȟóta.
Traveling the country as an indigenous woman also means that I take into consideration who called these lands home before their removal. My favorite travel destinations are National Parks which all have easily accessible, extensive native history. I have such a deep appreciation and connection to these lands that I would much rather travel to parks than cities. More often than not, indigenous peoples were forcibly relocated away from these sacred lands so National Parks could be established. When I visit these lands, I remember and honor these relatives. My favorite National Park is Grand Teton National Park, WY which was home to Shoshone, Bannock, Crow, Blackfoot, Flathead, Gros Ventre and Nez Pierce tribes.
Advice For Traveling Non-Natives and Indigenous Allies
I encourage all of you to research the Native history of the places you visit. I ensure you that you will find a Native nation that once called that place home. It is important to acknowledge this as allies.
While I have received immense support through online communities and social media, I recently came across a problematic blog post written by a European traveler who traveled to the Navajo Nation (Arizona). In her post, she made sure to point out the living conditions and things she witnessed, and ended it saying,“if their Ancestors saw what they’ve done to themselves, I’m sure they’d wish they were dead.” Although this person was open to dialogue and conversation about why this is wrong, and ultimately deleted her blog post, this is a perfect opportunity for me to discuss what an outsider might see when they travel to a reservation and why this particular response was dismissive of our history.
You may see homes that are falling apart. You may see people walking alongside the roads. You may see alcoholics. Poverty and unemployment on reservations are real. Since reservations were intentionally isolated from the rest of the world, the combination of hopelessness and generational trauma can manifest in alcoholism and suicide. What some fail to see amongst all of this is the strength and perseverance of Indian country. Despite all the odds and attempts to eradicate us, we are still here.
Native history in this country is challenging, difficult and often has very few bright spots, however learning this history is the first step in healing these wounds. I encourage anyone with an open heart who is wanting to learn and experience more to do so.
Find out if your city has an Indian center and attend events. Read books that discuss our true history, not the watered down version that you were taught in school. “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown is a good place to start. Find a pow wow in your area and come experience our dancing, drums, music, food, art and people. Understand that we honor our elders, our women, our children, and our warriors. When speaking to elders, offer a gift. Do not speak over them. Elevate ALL native voices. When you come into our spaces, please respect us and understand that some of us are on a journey to decolonize. Observe and listen. The human race is powerful when we can all come together with mutual respect and understanding.
Throughout my journey, I have come to realize that being Native is so much more than having Native blood. It is our ceremonies, our languages, our traditions, our families and our communities. All things led me to the place where I am now. A place where I can embrace and celebrate my Nativeness, and ensure that future generations are able to as well.
Philámayaye (thank you) to Kiona for allowing me to share my truth and my story and to all of you who decide to share my story on your platforms to spread the knowledge of a history that was made to be forgotten.
@thosh.collins (also fitness)
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About The Author
Cali Wolf is a Native author that speaks on reclaiming and spreading awareness on Native identity, language, and lands through her public presence as a Native ambassador, model, and writer. She is an active community member speaking out against injustice and encouraging support. Follow her on social media by clicking on the buttons below: