Well, this is really an honor for me. I spend a lot of my time on the road in our communities. Low income communities, on and off the reservations. Places where there is a great deal of hopelessness and apathy. So being here today to talk about my experiences is a welcomed opportunity. Here I can say things that may have an impact on our world, a world within our own reach as individuals, and that hope makes this opportunity very energizing.
I love to think that saying things here will give value, meaning and power to the stories of my experience, and that my experience will then affect the actions of those of us gathered here.
I shouldn’t be standing in front of you today. I don’t come from any significant background. My story is actually quite ordinary. I come from a German Russian farmer’s daughter who fell in love with a Native American rebel. Their love, an improbably love – not welcomed by either of their families. They persevered and had six beautiful children. Ridiculously good looking children.
When I say, I shouldn’t be standing here today, that I shouldn’t be here. I say this, because growing up in my community, I felt different. I never felt I was a peer or a friend to the kids at school, I knew our family was different. In a classroom of Adams, Kelly’s, Michaels and Johns, a name like Prairie Rose Seminole very much set me a part, and I was treated as such. Oh Prairie Rose, she’s that native girl. That’s right. I’m Northern Cheyenne and Arikara and I was proud of that. But even in my pride of heritage, I never felt like a whole person.
Identity is important and understanding identity amidst the variety of messages and world views of those around a young child, started a complex journey.
So, I want to talk about the power of identity. I grew up in a multicultural home. My mother, who is a strong, beautiful woman, faithful to her church and of service to the community. My dad, another strong individual, faithful to service to the community, both standing up for causes that would shape my path in life. I saw my parents struggle with their companionship and how they would raise their children in a more tolerant world. My parents were tough, and loving, and it wasn’t until I started school, I understood that they were poor, and if they were poor, I was poor.
We grew up in the Madison neighborhood, or as we called it growing up, the Ridge, the Golden Ridge. There were families who were poor and families who weren’t. I knew I was poor because I got free hot lunches. I would get tickets to use instead of money and the other kids would notice that, standing in the lunch line, my bright yellow ticket ready to give to the lunch lady. I could hear the whispers, saying I got a ticket because I didn’t have money.
As time went on, my parents marriage problems got worse. My father started drinking and eventually they got a divorce. Poverty and its symptoms started to win. My mother working 3, 5 jobs at a time, my father drinking, winding up in prison. My older siblings starting to act out, drinking, drug abuse started within the home. We stopped being a family. We started to just exist within proximity to one another.
Gladys Ray a community elder with twin granddaughters about the age of my twin sister and I. She was doing work within the schools along with the Indian Ed coordinator, Renee Wood. They did their darndest to impact the trajectory of native students living in Fargo. It was no secret that we had a high drop out rate, alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, homelessness in the native community. I just didn’t see it, I didn’t see it till it started happening to my family and when Gladys or Renee would talk about those issues, I was embarrassed to admit that they were talking about people like me. Poor, native kids who’s life path was most likely drop out, prison, early pregnancy, addiction, prostitution or worse.
I was 11 when I started working, 12 when my parents got divorced, 13 when my father was sentenced to prison, 13 when I started to really pay attention to my environment. I was sent to an all native boarding school, run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Within my first year there, my sister had started using drugs and smoking, my younger sister was jumped and beaten by a group of girls. Beaten because she was different, and I surprisingly was the star student. The only reason I was a star student was because my public school education was much better than the 6th grade curriculum they were teach us as 8th graders. My 8th grade teacher Mrs. Biewer was a large German Russian woman who absolutely LOVED that I was one of her people. She did something, that as a lost kid in a dark, hopeless place, I wasn’t used to for a long time. She believed in me. I looked around and made a choice that I didn’t want to represent any of those stereotypes that we, as a family were becoming. I saw how hard my mother worked, my dad was in prison, there was nothing I could do about the choices of those around me, but there was a choice I could make. I could be sober. I could try to be sober.
I believe its true that it only takes one person to affect the path of a person, whether it is a positive or a negative path, that choice is up to us.
My mother took us out of the boarding school, since it was pretty violent. My sisters continued to use, my brothers followed suit and I tried to not put myself into any situation that would allow me to make those decisions. I threw myself into outlets that allowed me to have a voice. I was succeeding in some small way because people were placing value on me as a person. My identity was at risk. Everywhere I looked people failed because it was acceptable for them to fail. Poverty and its symptoms were winning. If I tried and failed it was almost as if it was an expectation for me to fail, and that made it ok. I was struggling with this concept that I don’t have to be anyone because of poverty, or being native, because very few people believed in me. I missed Mrs. Biewer’s hopefulness. I didn’t understand it fully at the time, but back in the city at a public school, where I was lost in the crowd. Teachers didn’t pay much attention to me until American Indian Heritage month came along, then they asked me about being native, what my experience was.
I remember one of my teachers in high school put up the 10 little Indian poems in October, and I raised my hand in class and said it was offensive. She made her point that she wasn’t taking it down. So I wrote a poem about 10 little English teachers. She said it made her cry and during American Indian heritage month, November she went out of her way to schedule a native expert to come in and talk to the class. The expert was a Norwegian woman who canceled twice and never did show up.
Identity is important. It is our story, and we should own our story. Growing up, I didn’t own my story and I fell into the traps of the expectations, or lack of expectations of those around me. I didn’t graduate from high school, I’m a drop out got my g.e.d. Out of my mothers 6 children, only 3 of us have high school diplomas. 3 of us have started college, 1 of us has a masters degree.
Identity is important. I want to admit something to you. I’m 32 years old, and I’ve been sober my entire life. I don’t say that to be virtuous, I say that because there is power in identity. When we start to understand that we create our identity through our commitments, our actions. We create the kind of identity where we can say to the world, to the world within our reach at least, that things don’t always make sense, and that you can do things that you don’t think you can do.
I was surrounded by stereotypes and it was because I had a little ignition of a spark that I could be different, and its ok to be different.
I was 15 when my father died in prison, and it was then that I made the commitment to learn how to be a family. It took a few years, when I was in my 20’s for me to be intentional about that commitment and now 10-13 years later my siblings are sober, we actually like each other, and I know that if ever I need them, they will be there for me.
We’re still poor, but we’re happy. In my work now, just as Gladys and Renee did in my youth, I am out there trying to instill a little hope in the world. I see death, I see grief, I see suicides, addiction and a lot of darkness. And in those moments I feel most human, because of the unknown influences around those experiences. In our communities dealing with symptoms of poverty, grief, injustice the systemic acceptance of such things….we want and dream of all kinds of things, but mostly, what we need is hope. An orientation of our minds and hearts, the acknowledgement of our being in a hopeless place, knowing that we are a witness. We are fully human when we see ourselves in these moments and we are hopeful. Hopeful that our actions will make a difference. It is hope that is missing when our young people are making the choices to end their lives.
I believe that as native people, as poor people, our identities are at risk. We fall victims to the politics of apathy. No opportunities for us when no one cares about us. When we don’t care about our realities we don’t see the opportunities for us to break the cycles of poverty and all that comes with it. We love the escapes of reality, or we are ignorant to the facts that there is suffering, abuse, degradation and marginalization happening in our communities. We need to talk about the poor, and integrate into our lives the understanding that our actions, our beliefs are shaping the community we live in.
I believe in the goodness of humanity and our collective actions.
Gladys Ray once sat me down and told me she was proud of me. She encouraged me to take risks, because to make change happen, you have to be brave, sometimes you’re alone, sometimes there are people with you, but its those risks that really make a difference.
We are having courageous conversations everyday. Lives are being changed because of philanthropy, and opportunities to nurture success of individuals. Ultimately our humanity depends on everyone’s humanity. I’ve learned very simple things doing the work that I do. I’ve come to understand and believe that we are more than the expectations of others. We are more than just a detail of who we are. I am Northern Cheyenne and Arikara. I am German Russian, I am poor, but that is not all that I am. That is not all of who I am. and because of this understanding there’s this basic human dignity that must be respected for all people. I believe that in our community, our state, in this country, the world – that the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.
When we realize that our existence has an impact on others, we can leverage that relationship to work collectively to make a better and just world.
I am a better person because someone had a different expectation for me, and I made a commitment to that expectation.
I’m asking all of you to make a commitment to spread a little hope in your part of the world.
Many thanks for this opportunity.
Waygoshted. Thank you.