When I interviewed for a position last fall, the interviewer asked me to name a privilege I had in the world. The first, true thing I could say was that I was a man. Apparently, no other male applicant had even considered this a privilege worth mentioning and she was pleased that I was cognizant of this fact.
In Lakota culture, we are taught that women are the backbone of our society. Women carry the children, women make the home and women have a source of strength that has seen our people through lifetimes of bitter defeat, agonizing loss and inspiring survival. Our culture also has a legacy of listening to our elders when they impart their wisdom. In my life, most of those wise elders have been women. They are the ones who’ve not only created and nourished our culture, but who keep us safe and secure in affirming ourselves from day to day.
“Remind yourself every morning, every morning, every morning: ‘I’m going to do something, I’ve made a commitment. Not for yourself, but beyond yourself. You belong to the collective. Don’t go wandering off or you will perish.”
Rosalie Little Thunder, Sicangu Lakota
Our culture also emphasizes the distinction of women, neither in terms of inferiority nor superiority, but in their unique roles and abilities within our society. As my Uncle Albert reminds us in his book, the greatest respect and honor we can give to women is to understand that they do not need us to guide them in how they prosper and thrive.
“In our culture women set their own guidelines, their own rules. They discipline their own members. If a woman breaks their code, they women’s society will discipline her. In the same way, if a man breaks the men’s code, then the men’s society will discipline him. There are certain areas in which women do not allow the men to participate. Women have a lot of medicine specific to them. They have some physical needs that are different from men’s and specific medicine to address those needs, and men do not have any participation in this knowledge. Men are never taught about these medicines. The women handle it all themselves.”
Albert White Hat, Sr., Sicangu Lakota
Lakota society – and indigenous societies in general – thrive as well as we did without the need for a patriarchal system enforced with religious and political control because we knew that while living in the world is challenging enough, we don’t need to start stratifying our own and pitting ourselves against one another. It’s a quality, in which, most Native cultures find strength. As we continue to retrace the steps of our ancestors that have been washed away through colonization, we still have guide posts that remind us we are on the right path.
“If you look at who you are today as women, what are the rights that you have – especially our white sisters. Where did that come from? About 20 years ago, feminist historians began to have the eyes to see where suffragists like Matilda Joslyn Gage, Anthony, where they got their ideas from about women’s equality. It was from the Iroquois nation because the majority of those suffragist women had been adopted by the clan mothers. So they began to get their ideas about women’s rights and they adopted many of their ideas about women’s equality from those clan sisters from the Iroquois nation.”
Tillie Black Bear, Sicangu Lakota
What I’ve learned in my short years is that I appreciate the role of women in our society more than ever. Whether they lead, encourage, foster discussion or challenge our status quos, women are the backbone of any society. Their place is where they see best fit to be, without judgment, without second-guessing and without disparagement.
As an externally-identified cisgender male, my privilege is best put to use by listening, doing what’s asked and only offering my own experience only when it’s asked. Our society as it stands now is designed for my benefit, not for women, so it’s my responsibility to ensure that women have every opportunity to be heard and granted the same respect to come to their own conclusions and actions. I can certainly disagree, but simply because I may, that does not mean women’s roles, responsibilities and opportunities are mine to dictate.
In terms of identifying as a Two Spirit, what I can draw strength from is the best understanding that both men and women in the culture, in which, I grew up have cultivated over the years. While I can take from those understandings, wisdom and experience, I can also pass them on wherever I go.
Ultimately, what strengthens me is knowing my tiospaye. My father’s mother did what she needed to ensure her son’s survival in the world, including letting him go to his hunka relatives and aunts and uncles. My mother and her mother were the keepers of generations of tradition, knowledge and wisdom that was delivered to only a few of my cousins and I. In those acts of courageous love and ordinary duty, I know who I am, where I come from and where I’m going. The confidence I carry with me is built on the teachings of my grandmothers.
And for that, I am grateful.