This past Saturday was Mizzou’s Alternative Spring Break retreat and I was selected to give a speech about my experiences on Native American reservations. I have been to reservations the past four years of my life and this spring break I will be leading my own trip to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, marking my fifth trip to a rez. I had to meet with an exec member before the retreat and show him what I had prepared. I loved what I had written but something within me made me hesitant. He affirmed how great the speech was and asked why I was worried. “Do I have the authority?” I asked. A white, upper-middle class female from St. Louis giving a speech about Native issues?
During my time at Mizzou, I’ve grown more and more involved in the social justice community here and have expanded my cultural competency, awareness, and activism. I’ve increasingly surrounded myself with like-minded people that inspire me, challenge me, and have become my friends. But I have also increasingly started to doubt myself. Should I really be taking up space? I enjoy doing service and being involved, but I also am able to do so because my parents support me. I have time and money to do these activities because I don’t need a part-time/full-time job to put myself through college, which is not the case for many of my colleagues. I realize I hold a lot of privilege in society and I struggle to understand how to be a better ally to groups I don’t necessarily share identities with.
So I guess this is my declaimer…? I’m doing this blog, not to change the world, but for myself. To put my thoughts, observations, and feelings onto paper is cathartic. If you happen to like what I have to say, that’s great! I encourage you to continue to do your own research if anything interests you because I can guarantee that other people have articulated it better than me.
I was struck by a Malcolm X quote someone posted around the time the Ferguson Grand Jury decision was released:
I tell sincere white people, ‘Work in conjunction with us- each of us working among our own kind.’ Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do-and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people! — Autobiography of Malcolm X
Now, I don’t agree a 100% with Malcolm X, but I think I get his message. As I white person, I should use my privilege to communicate with white communities that are uneducated/unaware about issues that impact people of color such as Indigenous rights, rights of migrant farm workers from Latin America, and combating Islamophobia to name a few. So that’s what this blog is about. This is me trying to educate people within my white community to become emphatic to issues that they may otherwise be apathetic to, while simultaneously learning to grow and experience life through writing.
Below is the speech I delivered at the retreat this past weekend.
I can feel the sweat starting to roll down my face as the voice of the sweat lodge leader continues his prayer. I’m tucked in the back of the lodge where the heat is the most intense. There I’m surrounded by my fellow ASB members and members of the local Dakota tribe in Sisseton, SD. The lodge door is shut and the room is warm and dark as if we’ve all returned to our mothers’ wombs once more. The leader of the sweat pours more water on the rocks in the center of the lodge, marking the beginning of the third cycle of the sweat. This cycle focuses on women and the leader asks that our prayers be turned to the women nation. The female tribe members start up a song in the Dakota language. Slowly, the men of the tribe sitting on the opposite side of the lodge contribute their verse. Back and forth they sing as I suck in the warm air and clear my mind. This is the ancient way of the inipi ceremony, the traditional way of purification for the Lakota Nation. The cry of the women is like the echoing cries of a thousand forgotten people. They have undergone years of persecution, mass killings, and the devastating impacts of assimilation. Yet, there I was a white girl from St. Louis sitting amongst them. I was so out of place; and yet, so intimately connected.
I’ve gone on MAB trips to Native American reservations for several years, participating in an array of activities including rehabbing houses in Eagle Butte, volunteering at a women’s shelter and learning about the impacts of historical trauma in Sisseton, and playing with kids at a local boys and girls club in Ft. Thompson. These have all been amazing experiences and memories that I will always cherish filled with personal growth and acquisition of knowledge. However, what surprises me the most is when I return from these trips I am praised for giving up my spring break up. I am praised for giving up one week. MAB, service, social justice. These are things that go beyond one week. We should not be patting ourselves on the back for giving up one week and then retreating back into our privileged lives. While these trips are admittedly about adventure, friendship, and discovering our passions, this is also a movement that promotes service as a catalyst for real change in our world. These brief experiences should challenge us, disturb us, and make us question what is means to be an advocate and what social justice is really about.
I’m back in the lodge and I hear these women crying out and I want to cry, too. I demand to know where the American social outcry is for the treatment of Indigenous people. Doesn’t anyone care that Native women are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual violence in their lifetimes? Do you know that Pine Ridge, the reservation my trip will be traveling to, has been the poorest county in the U.S. for nearly ten years? Have you noticed that the U.S. government continually breaks treaty agreements and threatens to destroy reservation environments with invasive oil pipelines?
When the sweat ends we crawl out of the lodge on all fours just as we entered. We crawl out of the mother’s womb into the world purified once again. The inipi ceremony is among the seven sacred ceremonies of the Lakota people given to them by the White Buffalo Calf Woman. Many of the Lakota ceremonies emphasize sacrifice both personal and communal. Our time in the inipi provides balance in our lives, the community, and the cosmos. We sacrifice our comfort to endure the heat and steam to offer prayers for the community. We sacrifice a week of our time to give back to communities across the country, but don’t let it end there.
I sincerely hope you enjoy your trips, but I also hope a spark will ignite in you and you’ll remember to bring back that fire to campus and keep it burning always.