Becoming the “rich” Urban Indian

Being Indigenous in this age is to be a contradiction, it is to be both anachronistic and the most relevant identity in this country.

We are the original stewards of this land, yet our grandparents and great-grandparents were not considered citizens of this country and our governments fight for every acre we must recover to exercise our sovereignty. Our dances and social rituals from centuries past are the creative platform to launch Tik Tok stars. Our stories of otherworldliness is now on streaming from your favorite network.

We are at the intersections of contradictions and we explore what that means on a daily basis.

When I left my beloved Sicangu Makoce, it was to escape political retribution for my words and opinions. As the managing editor for the tribal paper, I wrote opinions that—while technically and legally correct—were considered too confrontational. It has generally been my lot in life to be the one who causes folks discomfort. I question everything and I am generally not satisfied, even when I have my answers because the answers are generally based in mercurial emotion and their logic is less than obvious to me.

In 2012, Rosebud elected its own Donald Trump when it elected Cyril “Whitey” Scott whose populist campaign slogan was simply, “I WILL do something.” As it turned out, he had many things he was intent on doing. This is not a deposition, I don’t write this to be vengeful, just a writing of my experiences in the world for people to learn from and possibly gain a new perspective on power, the exercise thereof, and how it impacts tribal communities.

The popular complaint among college-educated, reservation-raised Indigenous folks is that we’re told from the time we begin to learn is that it’s important to go off and get an education so that we can come back and help our people. When we do, we come back and we’re rejected because of nepotism or we’re rejected because our education taught us the value and worth of our expertise.

My personal blessing is that I never finished my degree. When I was in my third year, my father thought he was dying and called me saying, “I’m not going to make it too much longer, babe, I want you to come home and take care of me.” By the Spring, I was in a full mental health crisis but my father would live another four years. It was my intention to finish my education, but time, work, bills, capitalism, obligations and life put themselves firmly in between that plan and me. I have little regrets, especially when I see the plight of my contemporaries who continue to be saddled with debt.

My other personal blessing is that I am a diligent worker. I have found work and volunteer opportunities simply by showing up, buckling down, and getting things done. It is a lesson both my parents—along with their education obsession—imparted to me. It’s offered me, in combination with the three years of a bachelor’s degree education, multiple different opportunities that I think I would have previous thought were beneath me. There is a new freedom and happiness in being humble enough to take an hourly job even when I know the proper use of the semicolon; it also offered me new perspectives on challenges that my master’s degree-possessing colleagues might not often see.

But then came our own narcissist president who abused his office. To me, he was never anything more than a nuisance. He would call me into his office (an office I’ve known since my boyhood when my father would just show up to the tribal office unannounced and get waived in by President Alex Lunderman for a bull session that could last hours and countless cigarettes) to tell me that “other people were talking about what [you] are doing.” On one occasion, he told me that the council was ready to cut funding for the paper because of what I had written and the compromise was that he had to personally review and approve every issue that went out.

As an editor, my mind only flashed to the logistical hold-ups of getting a paper printed and delivered on time without much oversight to begin with. Bothersome and tedious but not intimidating. I asked around to council members I knew and trusted, even the ones I didn’t, and they all said that the paper had never come up once, that he was lying. Again, bothersome and tedious but not intimidating.

This continued in the fall of 2012 and into the winter of 2013 until, exasperated that I wasn’t intimidated by him, threatened my job. My boss Rose Cordier—the director of the Business Office at the time and the former, and to date only, woman Vice President of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe—had to step in to remind the president that he had authority to fire her, but not me.

While he relented, by the time an opportunity to run a community newspaper—completely independent of any government—in Minneapolis came about and I took it. “Whitey” Scott would go onto be ousted by the tribal council and banned from running for office ever again. My plan was to relocate my mother, my nephews and niece, to Minneapolis for a few years so we could find respite from the politics of home. That didn’t happen.

In February of 2014, my mother was in surgery and coded, her heart stopping. They revived her, putting her into a coma to preserve her brain function. It would take four months of medical rehabilitation, arguing with the Indian Health Service as to which facilities to put her into (their original plan was to place her in a facility in Montana where we knew no one, but with prayer and pestering, we found her a path to come to Saint Paul).

Then, on a fine day in mid-June, I walked into her room in Bethel Care Center to find her gone, only to be told by the charge nurse that her lung had collapsed and she was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital. No one thought to call me. We would go between St. Joseph’s to treat her acute conditions to a step-down facility behind the Minnesota State Capitol building called Bethesda and back again. She would ultimately succumb to sepsis in August of 2014. So many of my plans were left incomplete.

No amount of education could prepare me for the role life would have me play, an inheritor, an executor, a power of attorney for two adults, a steward, a manager, a person left to make the decisions. I never wanted any of it, but it was all mine to navigate and I did the best I could with what wits my parents left me.

It’s hard not to see the contradictions of my people. We seek for permanence in an ever-changing world. We try to police and define culture and tradition but we ignore how that culture and tradition changed over time. We ask our children to save us from ourselves and when they return, we deride their choices and call them terms to make them seem more like the colonizer. We have ceremonies and cry over our lost generations but when they return, we call them “urban” and complain that they’re taking resources away.

Back home, we have this belief that if one chooses to live off the reservation, it must be because they’re rich, or they think they’re better than us. There was a time that, even as I wrote opinions encouraging my tribal nation to think ahead seven generations, I saw and sympathized with that point of view. And then, I remembered all of my Aske relatives who had to leave because they could find no support at home. Life in the city is no easy task, in fact, it’s more frightening because, depending on where were find ourselves, there’s not the same safety net of relatives to rely on. The wages are higher, but so is the cost of everything else.

As I found my footing in the city, making friends and finding allies, I began to prosper enough to where I could take care of my family in new ways. And because of the way I was raised, I learned never to boast about anything and leave others to guessing because it’s no one’s business how my family takes care of its business. I was brought up to respect the sovereignty and autonomy of others and to be a support and ally, not another devil’s advocate. It’s a way of living that is increasingly rare and I can only credit my tiospaye for bringing me up this way.

Walking in the urban setting with my first education of waunsila for my relatives is its own contradiction. We are a people of contradiction. But I don’t think too badly of that understanding, as a winkte/Two-Spirit who navigates spaces between genders, it’s become second-nature to understand the things that others cannot, or will not. But also, Maza Ponkeska was many things in his life, itancan, ambassador, Tokala, but most notably, a heyoka, a contrary. It is in our family to be contrary to what others—in their great “wisdom”—think we should be.

As someone who was raised in the same dirt that my great-great-great grandfather collapsed into when he escaped the Blue Water Massacre, I know where my body will lie when my time comes to leave: the same place it grew up. It’s my hope that by the time my urban bones are rested in the Iron Shell Flats, my people will have learned how to celebrate one another and value every education they gain in the world.

For that, I will be grateful.

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