Sigma Chi and University of North Dakota Indian Association Peacemaking, By Twyla Baker-DemarayTweet
It’s hard to know where to start this story. I guess I’ll just start at the beginning.
My husband and our family have for years been a part of the Grand Forks, ND community of Natives, and we have, along with our relatives there, built a tight knit circle of support. Anyone who has left the rez and gone to live in an urban setting is probably familiar with the loneliness, isolation, and sense of separation you experience once you leave home. We built up in our social circle, a family; a group of people who we relied upon and who relied upon us for support and candor, honesty and realness, whenever we called upon them no matter the time of day or night. We decided early on in our time there that we didn’t want people to have to feel what we felt when we first arrived in Grand Forks, and so we welcomed more and more into our circle. We laughed, prayed, cried, and celebrated together, and continue to do so to this day. In a place as charged with racial tension as Grand Forks, this circle was key to not only our survival there, but our thriving as a society of our own. Eventually we formalized what we were doing, and created a non-profit Native American organization outside of the one found on the UND campus, which we called Northstar Council. We remain closely tied to this community, despite having moved back to Fort Berthold in the summer of ’13, as one doesn’t simply cut ties with those you consider family.
For years my husband and I had been highly active with the UND community and the annual Time-Out Week and Wacipi, held in the spring. Our community knows and prepares all year long for this week of events culminating in the powwow, which is arguably the largest indoor powwow in North Dakota. It is the lead-in to the summer powwow season and anticipated by powwow goers across Indian Country, as it is one of the first major gatherings at the close of our long dark winters, when people come back together to sing, greet friends and relatives, and maybe show off the new regalia they’ve worked on all winter. The week prior to the powwow itself is full of events, speakers, and other gatherings which require their own effort in preparing; I remember thinking each year that by the time people show up for Wacipi, the Time-Out week organizers are already completely exhausted from their work.
Time-Out has not been without its challenges. Each year, unpaid student volunteers must essentially fight for this event, making the case for its value, over and over to a new student government. It has been this way probably since its inception 44 years ago. For those who have been in the Grand Forks community for several years, this proves to be a tired exercise in cultural sensitivity training, which is exceedingly frustrating when the ones you are making your case to have in theory, ‘committed themselves to cultural diversity’.
News broke recently of insensitive acts by certain members of the campus community, which I won’t go into depth with here; my story is more along the lines of what CAN happen, when people are willing to look beyond themselves.
My husband and I had both been invited to speak in different venues by the organizers of Time-Out, and we both gladly accepted, happy at the chance to help. His talk took place a day before mine did. He was to speak about his experience last summer in travelling to South America in a cultural exchange with indigenous people in Brazil (the Xukuru people, to be exact). We saw it as a great opportunity to share stories and spend some time with people we hold great affection for. Our happiness was short lived however, as upon his arrival at the venue, the climate changed and prejudice showed its ugly face.
He arrived at the event dressed in his traditional regalia, as he often does for his speaking engagements. He and our ten year old daughter were getting out of their vehicle when they heard from across the street, the stereotypical ‘woo-woo-woo’, hand-on-the-mouth catcalls. A group of students at the Sigma Chi fraternity proceeded to ‘boo’ and harass my husband, my daughter, and a group of other Native people who were simply arriving at the Student Union for his talk, and a student government meeting. There was no other impetus for this harassment that we could discern, other than the fact that my husband and others in their group arrived dressed in their traditional garb. The presence of my daughter and other young children makes the incident even more repugnant. The incident was reported to campus police and statements were taken at that time.
I didn’t learn of this incident until I arrived later on that evening. I knew about a lot of the other events that had taken place, including a racially charged banner being hung by a sorority next door to the American Indian Student Services building, and a veto of a request by UNDIA to student government to fund the buffalo feed at the upcoming Wacipi. This last incident was at least for me, the kicker. I am typically a very, very patient woman; I have had to be, living in a community like Grand Forks. This I saw as a vicious, cowardly attack upon my loved ones, a wounding from a community whom we have done nothing but tried to serve to the best of our ability. Any mother in my position would have felt as I did; I took to social media to vent my frustration and to tell their story, however briefly. I posted this on my personal Facebook page:
My post, written in the heat of the moment, was suddenly being shared all over Indian Country. Natives and Non-Natives alike were sharing and commenting on this single incident. My husband and I began to receive messages from across the country, even internationally. They were messages of support and love, messages relaying people’s own struggles and experiences with prejudice and cowardice.
While I appreciated the resounding voice of support we were hearing, I continued to reel from the hurt this one incident had inflicted. I felt violated. I was livid and filled with righteous anger; I felt as any parent or spouse might had their family been attacked in such a manner. I couldn’t think of anything to do to seek solace, and I still had my own talk to give. How was I going to lift these young people up, when I myself felt so low?
So I fell back on the one thing that I had relied upon in the past, and the thing that I had been taught to do since I was a child in times of hardship. I prayed.
I woke up at about 5 AM the day of my talk, unable to get my mind to settle back down. I thought and thought about what I would say and do that day. Finally I managed to calm myself, and began praying.
It is customary, and you hear very often in just about any traditional circle, as well as other belief systems, that you must ‘pray for your enemy’. I knew I had to do just that. Not in a trite fashion, or in a spiteful manner either; so often I hear the words ‘pray for them’ spat out almost as an insult or attack, the complete opposite of the true meaning of the act. It couldn’t be like that. I poured my heart into my prayer. All the hurt I felt, all the pain and frustration not only with just this single incident, but with everything that all those I loved had been going through, and every memory it had triggered, all the way back to the time of our first arrival flooded my thoughts. I prayed for understanding and enlightenment for those who hated us without knowing us, and for forgiveness to enter my own heart even in the smallest of increments, as at that time I was full of so much anger and yes, hatred, that it was manifesting physical pain and causing me to be unable to think rationally. I cried. I wept as I whispered my fervent, heartfelt prayer so as not to wake up my husband and children.
After a time, my tears slowed, and I ended my prayer. I took up my sage, cleaned myself off, and then set to the tasks of the day, including writing what I would say in my speech. My thoughts were still somewhat burdened, but much clearer than the day before, or even earlier that morning. I had no idea what was to happen next.
Later on, we arrived at the Student Union again. I had my camera out, as a protective measure in case anything happened. As I was gathering my things and our children, my husband asked me to hand him a braid of sweetgrass from the several that sit on our dashboard. Then he nonchalantly said “I’ll be right back,” and walked off in the direction of the Sigma Chi house. I have to admit, watching him walk away, I felt fearful. For a moment, I wanted to call out to him to stop and turn around. I didn’t though, and I don’t know why. Well maybe I do now, but that part is coming later in this story.
I went about my business and delivered my talk all while thoughts of my husband either being attacked or getting arrested in the back of my mind. To my absolute relief I saw him appear at the back of the room halfway through my talk. As I concluded my speech, I thanked the hosts for inviting me, and quickly made my way back to him. He had a smile on his face.
As it turns out, his brief visit to Sigma Chi set up an inspiring series of events to follow that weekend. His knock at the door of their chapter house, a single, solitary man holding a braid of sweetgrass, gave him the chance to speak to the men of Sigma Chi in a frank manner, with candor and peace in mind. He told the men he visited with about what had happened, and how he had been driven in part by his own volition, but also by my tears, to come and talk to them. He told them about what I’d prayed for; in essence, those prayers that were given for complete strangers. He told them that he’d been driven by my act, to act on his own, in the manner of a peacemaker to bring people back together. He left them with the request to join us at our celebration that weekend, and help out where they could. He told them that he wasn’t there to get angry or point fingers; he was there to talk brotherhood. They had the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in their community in a meaningful fashion, particularly in a place as charged as that environment was. Just as it took bravery for him to go all alone and speak to them, all it took was one act of bravery on their part, to show the Native community that not all people felt the same way; and at this point, that support was critical. The ball was in their court.
That evening and most of the weekend I spent my time working at the Indian taco stand being run by Northstar Council. I didn’t emerge much, or take much more notice of who came and went at the celebration, which was busy, and abuzz with goodwill, excitement, and happiness. Unbeknownst to me, the men who Allan had spoken to were moved by his message, and were already there, working security, volunteering, hauling, doing whatever might have been asked of them, in their show of support. Lastly, on Sunday afternoon, the final day of the powwow, Sigma Chi showed up in force to stand in the circle, with the University of North Dakota Indian Association. The guys arrived at the rear of the arena, and I was actually on my way out at the time, attempting to corral all of my children so I could start the 5 hour drive back home. I recognized their insignias on their shirts and sweaters, and shook hands with all of them. I introduced my daughter to them, and she shook hands as well. Several of the young man expressed their apologies about what had happened to her. One young man said to her “I’m sorry what we did to you.” It was a simple sentence, but incredibly powerful. No ‘non-apologies’ or deflection of responsibility existed here. Just peace.
The honoring in itself was a powerful event as well; my husband spoke of the hardship of recent days as the Sigma Chi men and members of UNDIA stood behind him. He talked about finding kindness, peace, friendship, and goodwill even in dark times. And then to seal the whole deal, my daughter sang one song for both groups. The entire arena went quiet as she finished her song.
We then danced both groups around the arena. It’s difficult to encapsulate the feeling of that moment with words; powerful. Peaceful. Honest. Say what you will about how it came about, or about intentions; in that moment, I felt that these young people exemplified what all our spirits seek – peace.
Sigma Chi fraternity members are greeted by Allan Demaray, Jr., and briefly given instruction on what’s about to take place.
Allan speaks about the incidents on campus, and bringing the people together.
Nahish Demaray sings a song for UNDIA, for Sigma Chi, and the crowd as UNDIA acknowledges the Sigma Chi president.
The groups dance together. My daughter was looking at me in this photo.