Last Real Indians

When You Look in the Mirror, What Do You See? Are You Free to See an Individual Who is Free? A Response to Chase Iron Eyes Sundance Ceremony Column, By Sophia Marjanovic

Aside from my title starting out as an attempt at reviving my slam poetry days, I think it is imperative that we ask these questions about ourselves in order to lay down a plan for our future.  The internet has allowed us to move beyond the limitation of only interacting amongst ourselves and a few allies.  The internet has created the opportunity for us to share the knowledge that kept our ancestors, predecessors and ourselves resilient in a resilient economy of reciprocity with our territories.  The internet also provides access for us to gain more knowledge from people with whom access was limited without such game changing technology.

The recent article by Chase Iron Eyes regarding the depiction of the Sundance and the controversy over poverty porn has prompted my response to challenge you to ask yourself the question about whether or not you see yourself as a free individual.  As an urban Indian who spent summers and a few school terms living on my mother’s reservation and who recently returned to my mother’s reservation in an attempt to bring my science education to the tribal college, I have had to ask myself a lot of difficult questions and “push through the pain” of challenges in living away from the protection of kin as I pursued my studies in the sciences.  Over time, I have learned that determination matters more than anything in our struggle to survive.

I respectfully disagree with Chase Iron Eyes’ assessment that the video “Alive” is “badass” because if we are fighting the effect of imagery by the negative stereotyping of mascots, why are we ok with showing the worst of what we have to offer to the world?  I get it, our people are struggling with addiction.  This issue of seeing people struggle with addiction is nothing new to us if we have lived on a reservation.  However, a question I have been asking myself a lot lately is what is causing this?

Our Native children before adolescence are showing us what it means to a free human being.  When I go to a place that is pre-dominantly Indian, the kids of all ages gently and respectfully incorporate my <2 year old son into their play, often sharing their toys and snacks with him and teaching him how to play with their toys.  There are hardly any issues when the kids play unlike the situations that consistently arise when I take my son to play among children in the cities.  In the playgrounds and the splash ponds in the cities where the children are a mix of White, Black and Asian (this does not happen with Latino children and maybe due to indigenous aspects of their culture influencing the way they respect the rights of all ages of children), my son has gotten what seems like being bullied as the children run without awareness of their surroundings, sometimes running into the toddler area to push my son out of the toddler playground fixtures and say, “I don’t want a baby around” or “I don’t play with babies.”  When the kids get too rough, I leave with my son in order to engage him in a safer activity.  As I see how our Native children can play so well with different ages of children, while kids raised outside of Native homes cannot do such a thing, I have realized something we are doing as Native parents is working or maybe the innocence of our wakanejas (sacred beings) show us what it really means to be free from harm, pain and the pressures to assimilate.  Our children are demonstrating what it means to be responsible to each other.

I challenge you to be responsible to each other and ask yourself the questions in my title because by adolescence, we all know that a crisis is happening to our children, such that many turn to substance abuse.  Additionally, ask yourselves, if neglect coupled with sexual abuse, physical abuse and emotional abuse is leading our children to feel so worthless that they turn to substances in order to cope?  Are you neglecting the natural curiosity of your children?  Are you neglecting the natural need for your children to belong and feel a sense of pride and responsibility among your family and community?  Do your addictions/vices such as smoking pot, drinking alcohol, popping pills, going to the casino, talking at conferences, etc interfere with the natural needs of your children in your family and your community?

Unfortunately, I was sexually abused as a child, I was raped as an adult and I have faced many challenges that have lead me to feel unsafe and not protected in this world.  Regardless of either of those agitating experiences, I NEVER TURNED TO SUBSTANCE ABUSE OF ANY KIND.  I won’t even drink coffee or smoke cigarettes to this day.  I understood early on that turning to substance abuse was allowing the forces seeking to crush our spirits to win.  As early as being five years old, I understood that when the cartoon characters treated as buffoons on Popeye, Bugs Bunny, etc who said, “hau” meaning “hello” in Lakota, meant that my people were not respected in the eyes of people making those cartoons.  I stopped watching them and instead chose to go to the library or read the encyclopedias, magazines or antique books my parents collected.  I even made my own comic books to deal with the righteous indignation I felt seeing those cartoons.  Instead of allowing the forces to win in crushing my spirit, I figured out how to survive by seeking out people, mainly Lakota uncles, mothers and grandmothers, to guide and protect me through adolescence.  I knew early on from my time as a wakaneja that my culture was beautiful, that it had value and that I came from some good blood/tough people that survived through a lot in order for me to be alive.  I knew it was up to me to not blow my life on reacting to evil forces seeking to crush our spirits, but to figure out a way to survive the barrage of assaults and get my revenge by living my life well once surviving.

The take away message of the “Alive” video is that it is ok to view just another dead Indian girl and boy. I know death at an early age happens on our reservations more often than anyone is comfortable.  While the artists who filmed the video want to help, just like the case of the Mastodon attempt to help us, don’t help.  As an outsider, you are not aware enough of the dynamics through which we are dealing in our struggles.  You have come along lately and see some disturbing things, but you are not raising awareness among us.  If you think you are helping us by merely sharing the narratives of despair to show what colonization has done to some individuals in our communities, you are not helping.  By turning addicts into rock stars, you are not helping our communities heal.  Instead, you are showing people that it is ok to be an addict because we will eventually get our 15 minutes of fame to cry a river over our plight.  You are exploiting the poverty and the altered state of mind among some vulnerable members of our community for your personal gain, usually as a sympathy ploy to get others who sympathize for us to give you something in return.  This is not ok.  Our vulnerable individuals in their struggles deserve better than that.  Indian Country does not need a Sally Struthers crying for us and asking for donations to charities that too often do not get back to the communities who need them.

Because our vulnerable individuals, especially our children, deserve better than to be exploited by outsiders, I challenge you to ask yourselves what you are doing to watch out on behalf of your wakanejas in your community.  When you see a child alone, do you act out of collective responsibility to watch that child to ensure that the child does not fall prey to the perverts, the drug addicts, the drug dealers, the human traffickers or the exploitative culture vultures?  Or do you shake your head and mutter “people should take care of their kids?”  Why are you ok with some stranger coming into our communities to talk to our vulnerable members, especially our children?  Have people really lost their sense of responsibility in protecting our vulnerable members, especially our wakanejas by allowing the highest bidder access to our children as they entice us with the potential to get famous by telling our stories? I don’t know about you, but predators like Jerry Sandusky groom the vulnerable by enticing their potential victims with gifts to which potential victims often do not have access.  With the internet now, we all have the ability to be heard.  We don’t need the culture vultures to tell stories of our despair, we are capable of telling them on our own on our own terms.

In fact, giving up our power by having outsiders control our image through their lens, we are setting ourselves up for the potential of dangerous propaganda to be spread about us.  Consider the films, “The Eternal Jew” and “A Film Unfinished” made by the Nazis as propaganda to show how depraved Jews were supposed to be and how Jews did not take care of their vulnerable community members.  Compare those images with the poverty porn made about us by outsiders.  There are not many differences in the imagery.  If you are not aware, the conservative right in this country has individuals who ask why Indians are so poor, depraved and unable to take care of one another.  Allowing the majority of the narratives about us to be poverty porn validates their reasoning for not supporting policies that promote our sovereignty.  Should we be begging for acknowledgement of our sovereignty is a separate issue.  Just who are we trying to impress when we allow poverty porn to be made about the vulnerable people in our communities?  Do we really need people shaking their heads in sorrow at us?

The narratives that impressed me as a young, impressionable teen were the narratives of my father, my mother, Vine Deloria, Jr., Rudy Fire Thunder, Anna “Coba” Fuhrman, Charlotte Black Elk, Wilma Mankiller and Winona LaDuke.  I appreciated the struggles of my predecessors, most who fought to have an education because they were denied access to a decent one due to the obvious social policies meant to keep us uninformed, lacking wealth and lacking access to power.  My mother used to sit with me as a teen and tell me that if someone like Vine Deloria, Jr. of our Oceti Sakowin could become a lawyer, I could become one, too.  I decided to pursue science, BS in Chemistry and a PhD in immunology, as a result of seeing the water come out of the faucets on my reservation red/yellow, smelling of petroleum and having oil droplets floating atop it, knowing very well that the oil drilling and now the fracking being done on my reservation was exploiting the lack of real leadership on my reservation.  My journey to get my education has not been smooth, but my motive for obtaining each degree is rooted in the integrity of warrior values expressed by Sitting Bull, “Warriors are not what you think of as warriors.  The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another life.  The warrior, for us is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others.  His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity.”  Because I knew access to education, especially science education, was limited to my predecessors, and I knew our tribes needed someone to work on validating studies regarding the pollution of our water, which affected our health and access to clean water, food and true sovereignty, I chose to pursue studies in science,as hard as it has been to do.

I am not the only one with a narrative that includes rising above and beyond the limitations into which we were born.  We are capable of rising with great resiliency and living long, healthy lives as educated people who can successfully walk in the mainstream world as well as the world of our relatives. In fact, we have many healthy, thriving relatives who demonstrate what it means to be resilient through some of the toughest circumstances, but again, the people outside of our reservations are stuck on seeing us as a tragic, dying breed of people as they cry like Sally Struthers and say such things like our dreams are broken.  Even among ourselves we seem to also comply with the narrative that we are a tragic, dying breed of people.  We give up our power by complying with such a narrative.  For anyone who has a problem understanding what exactly I mean by the power of imagery to change our reality, please consider the story of Nichelle Nichols who was encouraged not to quit Star Trek as Lt. Commander Uhura by Martin Luther King, Jr. because he understood it was important for people, not just Black People or People of Color, to see an image of a Black woman in a leadership position (  She stayed on the show, influenced many young women, not just young Black women, that they could aspire to be a powerful woman in the sciences or more than a just a maid. It was Gene Rodberry, who understood the power of imagery to change society, to broadly influence the people to accept that a Woman of Color can be a leader. For us to demand the same of our image after so many bombardments of poverty porn is a step in a proactive and positive direction for the health of all our relatives, Indian, non-Indian, etc. And I get it, we have problems in our communities. We all know of the problems being raised as Indians. Ultimately, however, the individual has to choose to be on a righteous path. How will you know that it is possible to dream to be anything more if all you see about your community is despair? If you see that outsiders give us a chance to hear our voices only if we perform as tragic, soulless Indians, how will you know that it is possible for you to solve our own problems on our own terms? I know I struggled seeing such images all the time as a young person and often wondered what hope I was allowed to have seeing such images of despair shown about us.  Because I struggled seeing such disparaging images about us, I had to look extra hard for the rare glimpses of leadership shown on PBS beyond what was shown to me by example from my family members, eg seeing Charlotte Black Elk, Wilma Mankiller, Winona LaDuke, Vine Deloria, Jr. work in positive ways for our tribal communities, in order to keep up hope. Now, I see women like Mara Cohen, Debra White Plume, Sara Jumping Eagle, Ruth Robertson-Hopkins, etc. doing great things for protecting and providing leadership for/within our communities (I focus on women Native leaders because I am a woman, but I am aware of the Native men leading). You won’t know of such leadership, about how it is possible to accomplish dreams as a Native youth, if you have no idea where to look because we are bombarded by the tragic image of us in the mainstream.  It is not helpful and it has opened up a dangerous precedent for our most vulnerable members in our communities to continue to be exploited by predators who can groom them. We still have the ability to dream unlike the assertion by people like Aaron Huey who cry like Sally Struthers at TED talks claiming that our beautiful dream is broken.  I challenge you to be free enough to dream, to visualize the world you want to see as Indian people, be free enough to give the dream life by imaging it and propagating it through art and your stories as you live it by example.  I expect nothing less from you because the reason you are alive here is due to the fact that you come from strong blood/tough people.  Act like it.  The pity party leave you shackled/imprisoned while wallowing in your pity.

Sophia Marjanovic is an Oglala Lakota from the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes.  She descends from Sitting Bull followers who went into exile in Canada after participating in the Battle at Greasy Grass/Big Horn where the notorious Indian killer, Armstrong Custer, was killed.  She finds strength in the resilience of her predecessors and loves to hear and see fellow Indians do well after surviving the hardships due to the effects of colonization.  Sophia is a mother, a sister, a daughter, a member of many tribes and families across the country, has a BS in Chemistry and is a PhD candidate in Immunology in defiance of the limitations her predecessors faced in obtaining an education in the USA.  Sophia has been interacting with people of cultures all across the world since before the internet was developed.  Sophia plans to continue in her multicultural access to knowledge and is not ashamed to be of mixed heritages, including Ipai, Hunkpapa, Sisseton, Yankton, Mexican, Jewish, Scottish, Irish, French and German.  Sophia wants us to visualize the prophecies of decolonization that our ancestors made and live it by example.  When not reading military history and non-fiction, Sophia is working toward implementing the change expected in our ancestors’ prophecies by serving as the Vice President of Net Impact, a national non-profit organization with the goal to assist people to be change agents of sustainable, resilient economic practices in their workplaces.   Sophia likes to focus on the larger picture of temporary victories and losses in the grand scheme of humanity and lives by the Gracie quote, “never be ashamed to lose a fight, be ashamed if you did not fight when called upon to do so.”