Being Native American: An Essay For The Oglala Lakota Nation


The United States of America knows the Pine Ridge Indian reservation as the poorest county in the United States, with little to no chance of economic hope for the community. Politicians and social activists refer to Pine Ridge to discuss its rampant alcohol issues, drug violence, gang violence, abuse, thievery, dysfunction and little to no sense of hope. But I want to share with you what I know about the Pine Ridge Indian reservation and my Oglala Lakota relatives, every summer that I have returned to visit my community.

I know Pine Ridge as the place where I try to convince my little cousin not to cuddle the dog she doesn’t know at ceremony so tightly, but she doesn’t listen and carries on cradling him. I know Pine Ridge as where we meet an elder to look at her star quilts and celebrate the growth of small plants in the garden outside her house. I know Pine Ridge as where kids ride horses in the streets, where the sunset is different every night, where my grandmother is buried, in the hills among sage plants. I know it as my aunt handing my mother and I gifts from the back of her “rez car.” I know it as where my cousin walked two miles to see my mom when he heard her voice on KILI radio, to tell her that he still sketches and is hoping to get a mailbox put up for his house that has no electricity and no running water. I know it for Red Cloud Indian School, a community that gave my own mother a chance to believe in herself, for the Jesuit brothers who leave and want to come back because they so love the Pine Ridge community. I know it as sitting at Big Bat’s gas station eating $1.73 ice cream. Do I see the statistics in the graffiti on walls along the roadside and in stories I hear about my cousins who have lost their way? Yes. But do I love it for producing my own mother who has taught me tradition and faith and what it means to be a Lakota woman? Yes.

I would rather ask my little Lakota cousins what their favorite subjects are in school and what it is that they are looking forward to this fall than to continue to ask them about the challenges that they face with their parents and siblings who have made poor choices before them. Where do the answers for reform and positive feeling begin? It’s within the arms of our nieces and cousins and grandchildren who have been born into this world sacred, as the Lakota believe. I am asking this country to stop looking to Pine Ridge as a charity case so that we can begin to empower our youth. I’m waiting for more people who are able to tell these children that they are just as beautiful as any child and just as deserving as those who go on to college and careers. These leaders and mentors are already living there, at Red Cloud Indian School, at the Pine Ridge high school, in the elders who love their grandchildren and cover their tearing trailer walls with photographs of them, in those who continue to speak the language, who host ceremony and language conferences to preserve our traditional way of life. I stood at one of my mother’s high school teacher’s fresh grave sites last week and I thanked her for all the times she celebrated my mother’s accomplishments and poetry in high school. I thanked my grandmother at her grave for being everything that she was to the community and for having faith in her kids. And so today, I thank all of those in Pine Ridge who continue to live a good and humble life. When we talk about Pine Ridge, we don’t talk about you enough. Pilamaya ye. Thank you.

To the children of the Oglala Lakota nation, I am proud of you for being resilient and for continuing to live on, for picking up that heavy knapsack and for going to school. For making it to the state championship in wrestling, for going on to attend Oglala Lakota College, and for getting that A in geometry. I am proud of you for keeping yourself safe, for loving your siblings and grandparents and pets, for taking care of each other. I live my life every day reflecting on the choices my Lakota mother made at your age to give me a better life, so I come back to sundance, honor her and my father and siblings and niece for those decisions. You can be anything you want to be and I think it’s time we start telling you this more often. I ask for this country to start reflecting on the Oglala Lakota children who, in fields full of brush and playground swings at 2 A.M, still have hope, and for the teachers and elders and parents in that community who are making better choices. Ciksuye, I remember you.

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image – jenny downing