My child, a teenager. Mid-term projects were due the next morning and oh my god why did this kid wait until the night before?! It’s sophomore year in high school and the last-minute pressure was palpable, radiating in every corner of our house. There were three choices for history midterm assignments—among them, one was especially troubling. Students were tasked to watch a YouTube video titled as “bizarre” foods of a certain Asian country; answer a questionnaire about the video; then research and write about foods of their own choosing from other nations and cultures. My kid purposefully chose to work with this problematic video, because there was something that couldn’t be overlooked, central to how the school discusses “other” cultures. 10 p.m. quickly turned into midnight, as I watched my teenager pace the living room, searching for the words to address a distasteful American lens—exemplified literally and figuratively in this video—through which we refuse to view the world. I lay on the couch as “moral support.” Waiting, as the living room lights seemed to glow lower and lower, as my eyes blinked for longer, more luxurious moments until they finally, blissfully shut. Then, at 3 a.m., God help me, my kid asked me to read the essay.
I want to share a few positive notes, so I’ll begin with how the essay examined issues of land, culture, and the ingredients for Diné blue corn mush and Hopi piki bread. My kid is Diné on the paternal side and grew up on the Navajo Nation, so this was a natural fit. First, I commended the recognition of the Diné and Hopi nations as sovereign, and therefore, perfectly suited for a World History assignment. Secondly, these nations are neighbors to each other, sharing similar landscape, vegetation, and climate. Blue corn mush and piki bread require the same three ingredients: blue corn meal, water, and juniper ash. Yet they are prepared in different forms—alternate expressions of the same ingredients. Excellent observation, I said.
But, the first half of my kid’s paper critiqued the teacher’s mid-term assignment, itself. This is more difficult to discuss because recounting the details of what-happens-next drains energy rather than gives energy. Sometimes I think to myself, I am already / so tired / must I really relive the details of an experience to be understood? Perhaps I am hoping the effort is worth it, I’m always asking / is it worth it? But this is another conversation.
In any case, my kid wrote the video was “belittling,” “bigoted,” and made a “spectacle” of other cultures’ foods. After giving the essay a quick once-over, I could have suggested changes to soften the language to shift the tone to avoid offending the teacher which would probably reduce backlash and stress for my child etcetera and so on. It’s a lot to think about—these strategies. But, I didn’t suggest any changes, because the observations were true. It would be more interesting to keep things simple, let my kid speak honestly and allow the teacher to receive it, as is. The language would be hard for the teacher to swallow, I knew this. Admittedly, my child grew up with two parents who are poets and educators and not only recognizes, but utilizes the power of language, too.
It was no surprise, therefore, to find out that the critique was hard to hear, and after the paper was read out loud in the classroom, the teacher said that she, in turn, felt “belittled” by my kid’s presentation. A ratio was created.
The subsequent dialogue in the classroom created ripples))))))) noticeably so)) sparking heated discussion and chatter)))) classmates’ eyes : my child’s face))) until my kid walked the halls))) to the school bathroom))))) to text me from a stall))) crying))) feeling what it is))) to really be))) little))) a hard lesson in world history))) a lesson I’d learned))) at that age too.
When I’m feeling emotional, I like to write about writing)))) I do this instinctively. I soothe myself into the world of making, I feel at peace. For example, the text size in the previous paragraph creates a shapely feeling. It, therefore, contributes to form—which I give a lot of thought to. Already this piece has taken several forms)))) I cannot decide if it works best in prose blocks, in couplets, or as loose organic paragraphs. With patience, it will find its proper shape. A period could arrive as a comma leaves. Sentences slip into short lucid dreams.
Because one word creates a new life, I’m sure of this. From that moment forward, I view a written piece as a being with its own needs. The piece will tell me when, how, where to break a line, it will sometimes ask me to listen in the middle of the night. And so, tonight, although my eyes are raw, I get out of bed to come to the page to write about ripples radiating into the following week at my kid’s school))))))))) when the same teacher uttered the words s*v*g* and r*dsk*n during a lesson about colonialism and imperialism in another class.
Upon receiving a distressing text from my kid again)))))) again, I rushed)) in brisk steely strides to the school’s front office))) for an impromptu meeting with the teacher and principal. I was told that these terms were spoken in the context of understanding how language has been used by colonizers, historically, to dehumanize))) The words spoken by this teacher were not intended to be derogatory nor to dehumanize the students, themselves, they explained.
This situation is comparable to anophora if I were to use poetry lingo))) as in, the way I’m given explanations))))) when I confront situations like this, I’m offered)) familiar))) repetitive)))) sensible)))) reasons))) certainly no malintent I’m assured))) and in the face of these explanations)) most times)))) I drift on ripples))))) out the door))) back to my car)))) to the quiet edge of)))))) rage.
I’ll say this in fairness. I have since corresponded with the teacher and offered to visit her classes to speak about colonization from first-hand Native perspective)))) I offered this to support the Native students)))) not her. Our exchange, nonetheless, has been cordial, careful. Likewise, the piece I’m writing here isn’t aimed at dehumanizing the teacher. If the teacher reads this and, again, feels belittled))) or betrayed)) or a rise in blood pressure, she might keep in mind that she appears in this piece only as a figure to illustrate the subject matter))) much like))) the language used))) in her classroom.
In fact, this piece isn’t interested in the teacher much at all— that’s what this piece tells me. This piece wants to talk about our young people: the Native students who felt sick upon hearing those words in their classroom))) who spoke up and bore the blows of white liberal fragility)))) This piece wants to talk about our children’s bravery and what they, in turn, have taught me. Our Native youth these days don’t care about context for uttering dehumanizing words. They say, they don’t want to hear non-Native people speak those words))) they don’t want to hear those words))) they don’t want to hear those words))) in the space around them.
In Lakota language, the word for child is wakhányeža. Forgive my spelling, there are a number of ways to write it. But what’s important to know is that the root of wakhányeža is “wakhán,” meaning holy or sacred)))) Thus, whenever we say the word “child” in Lakota language, we are calling a child a “sacred being”)))))) I take that seriously. When I think about a person, a site, or an object that is sacred, I also think about the (((surrounding space))) I’ve watched how children affect us. In their presence, generally speaking, we are instinctively careful with what we do and say; highly conscious of the language we use. Generally, that is, when we regard them as sacred or most importantly when))) we love them.
Because of recent events))) we’ve had several conversations at home on this issue))) of language))) what’s okay and what’s not okay to say. For example, my kid told me that a trusted Native educator, a relative, said that it might be permissible for non-Native people to verbalize certain racial slurs in educational discussions e.g. during a presentation about offensive team mascots and names. As an educator, myself, I have thought the same thing. So, I said, “Uhm, yes, I agree.” Then my teenager said, “Well, I don’t agree with either of you”))))))))))
I observe: my kid and the Native students disagree with us, the older generation))) they do so, fearlessly. If those toxic words must be used, they demand that non-Native people say “the S-word” or “the R-word”))) no matter the setting. I should acknowledge that not all Native people hold the same views on these particular words. Yet, it’s my particular responsibility, as a parent, to listen to the young people here, in the space around me; to value their needs and feelings. Because I observe further: they are making the rules for us now))) now I must listen))) now I am learning.
One of the other Native mothers in the community stepped in. She, too, drove to the school, met with administration, and made several demands. For example, she requested that we, as Native adults, be allowed to visit campus on a regular basis to serve as advocates for the Native students. We can hear their concerns and give voice when our children))) do not feel))))) listened to))) I was grateful for her advocacy))) we need each other))))) us families)))) this was an excellent suggestion))) and my heart broke open as I thanked her.
This is to say, we need each other because of the accumulation—experience after experience, one generation to another. Therein, compassion. Between us, an electric recognition. For example, last night, this same mother took my child and another Native student out to dinner. I was thankful, again, for her nurturing ways. When I dropped my kid off at at the restaurant, I gave this mother, my friend, a hug and I lingered for a few minutes to thank our young ones for their bravery. I told them that they are speaking up in the ways that we)))) the older generation))) could not. When I was small, I told them, I was so quiet in the classroom. The prevalence of racism was too powerful))) I absorbed all that hurtful language, those attitudes toward Native people, the messages))) I took everything home with me, silently, in my body.
“You’d think that I would get stronger as I get older,” I said as the teens ate their fries, etcetera. “But I’m getting weaker)))) can you believe it? This episode at your school really hit me hard. The other night, I woke up sweating with a stomachache and back ache)))) I lay in bed, bent sideways like a comma) I knew that nothing))))) no shift in position)) no other bed)) no over-the-counter medication)) would ease me. Somehow, what happened to you at school brought back all my own past.”
“This is called The Weathering Effect,” they told me)))) “I gave a whole presentation on that,” my kid’s friend said. “It’s like rocks in a backpack. More rocks get put into the backpack as we live through things)))) We carry them around and they get heavier and heavier with time))))) If we’re not careful, we pass them on to our children.” I was astounded. This beautiful teenager already knew the language for what happens to us, the chipping away at our minds and bodies)))) why it hurts more over the years.
“Already, at my age,” my friend chimed in, “I have rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.” We looked at each other, seeing. She’d held everything in her bones))) until it made her sick)))) “I left school in 9th grade, I couldn’t take it,” she added))) “I dropped out after 11th grade,” I offered as well)))) We shook our heads))) “It’s amazing that we have come this far in life, Mašké))) But what a price we paid”)))) “What a price,” we agreed.
Sometimes, I watch online lectures and presentations by Faith Spotted Eagle when I need uplifting. I enjoy her videos because of her advocacy for Native rights and, also, because she has a background in trauma and recovery; she offers useful knowledge about the accumulation of what’s happening to me, to us)))))) There’s one video, in particular, that’s helped me gather my thoughts))) and reflect on the importance of sharing and listening, the transformative chemistry)))) Faith Spotted Eagle’s words are better than mine, on this subject:
When we talk about these losses and these traumas, it’s important since the student body that will be watching this is Native and non-Native.
It’s important that when we talk about this, it is not to impart a sense of guilt.
It’s to impart a sense of freedom from denial.
When you look at that trauma response, the Native people’s objective is to heal. The non-Native people’s objective is to come out of denial.
And when these folks can come out of denial and these ones can start to heal, then they can start to come together on common ground.
When I visit my kid’s high school next week to discuss colonialization—specifically, boarding schools—I’ll note that this process of child-internment and cultural erasure is not unique to the U.S. at all. It’s been implemented world-over, wherever Europeans sought to take land and build “empires.” It’s a systematic method for mentally, spiritually, and emotionally destroying the original people of those lands. I’ll also emphasize that the “boarding school era” is not something of the past, done and gone)))) I’ll discuss the ways in which we continue to feel)))) the effects))) in present-day community and family)))))
I’ll begin my presentation by showing Faith Spotted Eagle’s short video as a window into why it’s important for us to tell our stories. I hope to spark the non-Native students’ desire for “freedom from denial”)))) their interest in listening))) creating space for Native students to speak their stories and perspectives))) comfortably in these classrooms))) here)) on their land)))))
Then, I’ll share a little of our history using photos and documents from the boarding school era. Importantly, I’ll emphasize that when I say “our history”)))) I really do mean our—both Native and non-Native)))) Meaning, this is not Native history, alone))) certainly not. Anyone who lives on this land is a treaty inheritor)))) thus, accountable to the methods by which this land was seized))))) These methods are why an American can live happily, for example, seated in a recliner inside a 2,500 square-foot home with a Golden Labrador and a mammoth trampoline purchased from Costco saluting the sun in their grassy backyard. Americans of all backgrounds must acknowledge General Richard Pratt))) the mind behind U.S. boarding schools)))) as an ancestor in maintaining control over the original people))) of this land))) that Americans now occupy))) Pratt, a bricklayer))) a gravedigger)) for this grand, spacious American lifestyle.
As I collect materials, I realize that my presentation will be history-heavy)))) numerous names, dates, and sites. I shrink, worrying that the students’ minds will wander just as mine did in high school))) I wouldn’t blame them. But it’s important to me that they understand our history as relevant to the moment we’re in. Meaning, the past has not passed, it’s fundamentally present)))) We might understand this idea, I’ll explain, at the level of language—which informs how we process, speak of, and form our realities)))))) For example, Lakota verb tenses differ from English. Lakota language has two verb tenses (versus three in English). The future is one verb tense; some language teachers refer to this as potential))) Past and present, together, form another tense; this is sometimes referred to as realized. In other words, past and present are forever unified, intertwined)))))) this is reality.
In preparation, I’ve looked for a hand-written letter that I saw posted on social media some months ago. I want to share this with the students. It was written by Sičangu Lakota leaders White Thunder and Swift Bear in 1880)))) begging the Commission of Indian Affairs for the return of their children’s remains from Carlisle Indian School))) Though it’s unthinkable—their request was denied.
A few days ago, I posted a request on social media to my friends, asking for their help in locating this historical document. A friend messaged me a PDF of the letter within minutes. At first glance, I didn’t think this PDF was what I was looking for. I remembered reading a line that said, We will continue singing until they are returned)))) These words of mourning felt etched within me))) I messaged my friend back to say thank you, but I didn’t think this was the right letter because I didn’t see those words. But it turns out that, in fact, it is the letter I was looking for. What Swift Bear and White Thunder actually wrote was: “Our hearts will grieve too long if we don’t have what’s left of them [our children] back. We want to dig their graves with our own hands, we wait when the birds begin to sing and the flowers begin to bloom”)))))
This expression of grief from White Thunder and Swift Bear is far more potent than what I remembered. Yet, it’s interesting that I remembered their words as, “we will continue singing until they are returned”))) because, indeed, we continue))) to sing for our little ancestors))) the return of their remains to their homelands)))) we continue to sing))) for strength, for comfort we sing))) to be heard)))) you heard me)))) we)) continue and continue)))) as it has been, it is now)))) this way of feeling)))) endlessly))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))
To thread our past to the present, I’ll tell the high school students about recent events, rooted in history but freshly grieved. Some months ago, the remains of 215 children at Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada were discovered. That news hit us with a crushing wave—an earthquake, really—because the loss)))) of the past is experienced presently)) then and now, as one-and-the-same. Meaning, our little ancestors are still our children today, if this makes sense.
Since that first discovery at Kamloops, the number of Native children’s remains detected at Canadian residential schools has, by some counts, exceeded 10,000. As this process has only recently begun, I assume that this number will multiply exponentially. I await the day when radar detection begins here in the U.S.))) on the grounds of American boarding schools)) I imagine))) a national trembling in this))))) potential. But would Americans really tremble)))) at such discoveries? This is a question that doesn’t need answering. That I am compelled to ask is the answer, itself.
Just two months after the discovery at Kamloops))) in July, 2021, the remains of nine Lakota children were returned from Carlisle Indian Boarding School in Pennsylvania to their homelands on Rosebud Reservation, South Dakota))) It took seven or eight years of research and negotiations to arrange this))))
My kid and I were visiting relatives on Pine Ridge in July, so we were fortunate enough to be able to join the Sičangu community for their funeral and honoring. The day before we went to the funeral for our little ancestors on Rosebud, however, my child expressed hesitation)))) We had just attended a funeral for my young niece earlier that week. It was heartbreaking, an indescribable ache filled us. At the wake, the cries of my niece’s 3-year-old daughter cut through the air))))) I felt a painful tearing in my throat until, finally, we excused ourselves and walked outside to regain breath))) The loss of my niece’s young life weighed heavily, so it’s no wonder that my kid was reluctant to attend another funeral service so soon after.
But my intuition told me that the observance for our little ancestors would be different. I told my kid that there would be many families there))) many relatives from different places))) prayer and song))) stories))) speakers))) protocol. There are ways we have of handling this kind of grief, and I knew that each step would be arranged with great care. And, just as I believed it would be, it was. The day was powerful, but it was not traumatic. We were held together in the strongest ways of our past. This is why, I’m sure, those ways are))) present.
When I visit the high school next week, I’ll share the names of those Lakota children, ages ten to eighteen, for whom we rose to our feet, prayed, shared stories, and offered gifts:
Dora Her Pipe (Brave Bull))))
Dennis Strikes First (Blue Tomahawk))))
Rose Long Face (Little Hawk))))
Lucy Take the Tail (Pretty Eagle))))
Warren Painter (Bear Paints Dirt))))
Ernest Knocks Off (White Thunder))))
Maud Little Girl (Swift Bear))))
Friend Hollow Horn Bear
Alvan (Roaster)))) also called Kills Seven Horses and One That Kills Seven Horses
I’ll ask the high school students to look at the list again and notice the family names in parentheses next to Ernest Knocks Off and Maud Little Girl: White Thunder and Swift Bear)))) I’ll remind them that these are the names of the Sičangu leaders who pleaded desperately to have their children’s bodies returned in 1880))) these two fathers who wrote, “Our hearts will grieve too long if we don’t have what’s left of them.”
If there’s time, I’ll inform the students that White Thunder and Swift Bear were among the 135 Native leaders who signed the 1868 Treaty of Ft. Laramie))) which bound them to agree that “in order to insure the civilization of the Indians entering into this treaty, the necessity of education is admitted […] and they, therefore, pledge themselves to compel their children, male and female, between the ages of six and sixteen years, to attend school”))))
What grief and devastation White Thunder and Swift Bear signed their names to. Signed, may I remind you, with X’s.
So we should understand this treaty as nothing less than what it was: forced seizure of land))) and hostage of our children))))) What better way to enforce our leaders’ compliance when their children’s lives were at stake.
These are hard facts for non-Native high school students and faculty to embrace I know))) yet they are common everyday truths for Native students))) necessary truths to understand why the wound))) why the fierce push-back against the S-word and R-word))) why)))) we rise to our feet and sing for our little ancestors’ return))) why our relatives dig and place them in their rightful graves with their own hands))) why we sing))) for their fathers and mothers now long gone)))) for their families still here))) why we continue)))))))))) to sing)))) for our children today))) who walk the halls of these institutions)))) who sit obediently under fluorescent lights)))) listen to and absorb language))) spoken in contexts they did not choose))) where the past isn’t braided gently))) but knotted))) tangled into their minds))) as daily endurance.
In closing, I’ll admit to the students: to be honest, my kid and I are not known as singers. I can’t say we really sing at all. It’s more like softly-humming-along-when-we-have-to. Our real singing is different)))) we make things)))) So I’ll end by sharing visual work that my kid and I made, collaboratively. This was how we expressed our feelings this last year)))) Since it’s an art school, I hope the students will appreciate this. I’ll talk about form))) my favorite thing))) a shape))) a safehold for structure)))) a territory a house))) so to speak))) so we speak.
When we first heard about the discovery of 215 children’s remains found at Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada you know my child and I were rocked. Our faces flattened into paper maps, pockmarked by countless X’s—all those child-internment schools and our little ancestors. It felt strange, as a mother, to look toward the passenger seat of our car and encounter a 500-year sadness along my child’s sweet mouth. All of us—our relatives, Native friends, and colleagues—were shaken and rocked shaken and rocked, we rode a seismic tremor through the land, did you feel it. Three of my relatives could not speak about the subject. As in, they said, I can’t talk about it and their eyes watered with our words, instead. To this I am witness. I am supposed to be a person with a command of language, yet I refuse to command anything at moments like this, as “this” is a hanging crystal. Each edge, sharper feeling. Rage from this point and, as the crystal twirls, grief flashes. Then emptiness. And do you know that crystals are formed by slow, pressured magmatic metamorphosis. I want to remind my relatives that the crystal’s metamorphic essence is thus its greatest __________, but I cannot say it. The word commands me to respect its privacy, protect its strength.
What can I write anyway, what words have any ________ when a Milky Way of accounts have already been spoken, written, and prayed. Among the many, our beloved ancestor Zitkala Ša wrote about her boarding school days, and when I read her pages, I read a story we already know. These accounts run like veins in the crystal of our land’s bedrock:
Someone threw up the curtains, Zintkala Ša wrote, and the room was filled with sudden light. What caused them to stoop and look under the bed I do not know. I remember being dragged out, though I resisted by kicking and scratching wildly. In spite of myself, I was carried downstairs and tied fast in a chair.
I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit.
My child and I. My child and I, together.
All that ________ of our feelings, what could we do but make.
We began to move our hands, why. I don’t know.
We began to braid. Why, it is a mystery except
we had to.
We braided and braided. Our action accumulated.
We moved our fingers along the strands
with a firm hold but gentle touch. Quickly, yet carefully.
As if braiding the hair of a niece or nephew
in the morning before / school.
We kept braiding until 215.
Then the braids asked for a form to hold them.
A few mornings, Auntie came over to help us. Us, three generations, making.
Our words were unnecessary.
It was more important to be together on the land in our _________.
We trusted the process, a gradual metamorphosis of our little braids into _____________ .
Do you see it.
We trusted because
Faith Spotted Eagle’s video is titled, “Faith Spotted Eagle pt 3 Trauma & Resiliency – Essential Understanding #2” and is part of a series of online educational videos called Očeti Šakowin Essential Understandings by the WoLakota Project. Her video can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqd_gYAhBII
The hand-written letter from Swift Bear and White Thunder to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1880) can be found online at the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center: https://carlisleindian.dickinson.edu/documents/request-return-bodies-ernest-white-thunder-and-maud-swift-bear
The passage written by Zitkala Ša can be found in the short story “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” published in American Indian Stories (Penguin Random House, 2019)
Sincere gratitude to my teenager, Jessie White, for collaboration on our art project—a northern style wing dress made of aluminum window screen, copper wire, copper strips, glass mirrors, and shawl fringe—from our first little braid to the final copper twists at the hem. Wopila and thank you hugs to my Aunt Tilda St. Pierre for her helping hands and good conversation. Heartfelt thank you’s to my niece, Denise Moves Camp, for her mentorship in Lakota wing dress styles and construction.
Our collaborative art piece is titled “Carrier,” and has been acquired by The First People’s Fund. It is presently installed at the Oglala Lakota ArtSpace in Kyle, South Dakota. Many thank you’s to The First People’s Fund.
Our family also offers immense gratitude to friends and community members mentioned in this essay who helped address difficult issues at my child’s high school. We are in this “this,” together))))))