Gathering around a fire at Camp Mni Luzahan, a tipi encampment located on tribally-owned trust land in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Photo © Independent Media Project
Remembering the meaning of Tribalism
Wednesday, April 14, 2021

It was a chilly day when my daughter and I found ourselves on the road which leads to the Indian camp west of town.

It is called a survival camp for “homeless” Indians. We drove past multi-colored flags with names like Sicangu, Oglala, Ihanktowan, and Santee and pulled into a clearing where we found a number of people sitting next to a glowing fire from a huge cement fireplace.

When we walked toward them, a small woman came forward with hand out held: “anpetu waste da,” she said.

Then she laughed, “we were just sitting here … waiting for somebody to come and visit us.” She said: “tukte l nit ah ha he?”

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. Courtesy photo

Since tribal people have been setting up this camp to take care of each other, we ask ourselves that same question: “Where do you come from?” but the truth is Indians have never come from someplace else. We have always been here.

The truth is, too, we have often encountered a hostility and a silence in this town which can only be called another disenfranchisement of our rights to live and work in the homelands. The reaction from much of the white community in this town to the effort Indians have made to survive is to wish us gone. Nobody in the camp uses the word “homeless.” 

The other truth is Native people from all over our communities have been embracing ways of thinking, feeding and housing our own since the pandemic of COVID-19 began. Many organizations have responded. The Rapid City Journal finally noticed this recent movement and interviewed a group of women headed by Natalie Stites Means and Jean Roach founders of a group called Wotakuye (formerly Meals for Relatives).

Others across the city have worked hard to help.

What struck me about that impromptu visit of my daughter and myself to the camp that day is how inspired these grassroots efforts have been in characterizing not only the effort to fight the virus risks that face us but how indigenous epistemologies and cultures can come together in times of crises.

It is called Tribal-ness.

Inspired by activists who manage to get organized, ask for help from each of us who seem to care, we begin to see the fable that we cannot take care of ourselves is wrong and that we must depend on outsiders is probably overblown. We seem these days to have found a liberated relationship among those whom we see again. I was struck by how many fellow tribesmen and women from my own reservation I knew at the camp during this brief haphazard encounter and how many I had lost touch with.

A tall, striking women who said she was in charge of the “day-to-day” stuff that goes on at the campsite shook hands with me and told me she was Earnest Middle Tent’s sister and that she remembered me.  When I said that I grew up in the Big Bend District of the Crow Creek Reservation (though I didn’t remember her), we recalled all the old men who did the agency business in those days:yes, Middle Tent, Shields, Irving, Renville, Tateopa, Ashley, Walker, Poor Chicken, Solomon St. John, Dewey Crow, Clarence Howe, Vilas Fallis and dozens more.

A young man, who seemed much too young to remember all of that, said his name was Dion, that he was Ihankowan and when I asked if he was related to the Yankton tribal people I knew who went to the Native American Church he helped me recall one of their old songs: heche ya yo wiconi ye do and, all of a sudden, standing there by the fire, we sang it together. He was surprised that I remembered it and I was surprised he remembered it.


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Elizabeth Cook-Lynn is a retired Professor of Native Studies. She taught at Eastern Washington University and Arizona State University. She currently lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has written 15 books in her field. One of her latest is Anti-Indianism in Modern America: A Voice from Tatekeya’s Earth, published by University of Illinois Press.

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