The month of November is designated to be National American Indian Heritage Month. The first year of this designation was 1990 when U. S. President George H.W. Bush signed a joint Congressional resolution. Today I see a lot of online hoopla about American Indian Heritage Month but I really don't see many activities focused on it on our reservations.
I will say that I suppose we really shouldn’t have to acknowledge the month as such because we are American Indians every day of our lives, not just during one month of the year. It is also up to us as individuals to maintain the genuine Lakota heritage set down for us by our ancestors in our daily walk of life.
Even though there are lots of activities across the nation recognizing American Indians and all the contributions our people have made to mainstream society during this month, I still believe there are many ways the Lakota people of South Dakota remain invisible.
Oh, I realize we are called sovereign nations, but we are still supposed to be American citizens. We are residents of the counties and states in which we reside but many of their economic statistics overlook the conditions our people live in on our reservations. Actually, I think the only time I ever see our real conditions acknowledged is when our counties are singled out as the poorest places in the country. Many times this is the only “visibility” we really get in terms of recognition by state officials.
The recent election is another example of how we might become visible, albeit temporarily. I remember reading an article in a daily newspaper published west of the Missouri River about how certain counties in the state of South Dakota could be largely counted on to vote for Democrats. The article also pointed out that the majority of the residents living in these counties were Indian.
In my opinion, articles like this enforce my thoughts about how we are largely invisible to the non-Indians of South Dakota until our numbers might actually change something, such as the outcome of an election. This same daily has a comment section on their website and if you read the comments regularly you will see the often horrifying mindset that many non-Indian people who post there have about Indian people in general.
I also have to speak of another way some Lakota people have become highly visible. That is, the year of unity has focused on relations between Indians and non-Indians in South Dakota. Some people are giving high praise to the success of the proclamation signed by Governor Rounds last winter.
Seems as though they think the year of unity was a smashing hit in terms of bringing all of the people who live in this state into a unified glob of happy people who finally found it within themselves to love their neighbors. I apologize but I do have to bust that happy bubble again folks because it just isn’t true. I ask the same tired question again. How can we have a successful year of unity in the state of South Dakota when our own people aren’t even unified?
Finally, this week many of us will cook a big dinner to feed several family members to acknowledge Thanksgiving Day. This is the annual day set aside in order to celebrate family and abundance. But here on the reservation it is not much different from any other day of the year because many families living on the reservation cook a big dinner every day of the year to feed many of their relatives who cannot afford to buy their own food.
People all over the country are celebrating abundance while many of the American Indian people living on reservations are lucky to have a daily meal. Abundance is not something we can celebrate on a regular basis on the reservation.
Still, we give thanks for all that we have. Lakota people do not wait until Sunday to pray nor do they wait until Thanksgiving Day to appreciate what they have. Many prayers are said each day by those of us who are grateful for the little things, such as another sun rise or having water to drink in the morning. Daily prayers of appreciation are also given for good health and the love of our families. Lakota people even pray for those ignorant non-Indians who wish we would all just fall quietly into the American melting pot.
We pray that the racism and hatred directed at Indian people will one day be overcome and be replaced by peace in the shallow hearts of those who judge. We also give daily thanks for Unci Maka and all the gifts of sustenance she provides.
In closing, I want to offer a public thank you to all of our young Lakota people who struggle to take the proper steps to ensure the survival of our way of life. There are many Lakota teenagers who regularly attend ceremony to pray and sing. They make a point to learn the protocols of ceremony. These young people are our spiritual leaders of tomorrow and we must always encourage them.
Today, I especially am thankful for the young people who spoke at the Tusweca Tiospaye Lakota-Dakota-Nakota Language Summit. Last Saturday’s youth symposium saw nine high school and college students discuss the Lakota language. I was highly impressed with them. These are Lakota students who live both on the reservation and in the city. They are deeply concerned about carrying on the Lakota language.
All are determined to become fluent Lakota speakers and work hard every day of their lives to do just that. They voiced their desire to see a younger generation full of fluent Lakota speakers. Many of them also work with their younger siblings to help them become Lakota speakers. I want to say Wopila to these students for renewing my sense of hope for our future generations.
Vi Waln is Sicangu Lakota and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Her columns were awarded first place in the South Dakota Newspaper Association 2010 contest. She can be reached through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.