When I was writing for OBG (Our Big Gayborhood) this was my inaugural post - that blog is no longer online, and a few folks have asked for link, so I am putting it here to preserve it.
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The Lakota creation story has the People springing forth from a hole in the ground somewhere in the black hills. I like that idea a lot. Maybe it is because there’s a lot I don’t know about where I come from. A hole in the ground is as good a place as any; I’m very connected to the Earth, so yeah it works. Maybe it is because my Mother’s origins are in the Oglala Lakota people. The Lakota are part of a confederation of seven related tribes commonly referred to as the Sioux (except by people who are… that is). The Lakota were Mom’s people, but she never knew that. Mom was adopted. She was born in the early 1930’s a time of challenge, a time of great change in our country. For the Lakota, the challenges of the Great Depression were compounded by multiple cultural factors. At the time of my Mother’s birth, the Lakota were only 50 years removed from their life as a free roaming people of the plains. Indian boarding schools were still in operation. Some of the most blatant expressions of racism in the history of our country occurred in Indian schools. The Indian boarding school experience was characterized by the wholesale taking of Indian children from their families and tribal nations and thrusting them into an environment, where they were abruptly, systematically and totally deprived of their Indianness. The notion was to “kill the Indian to save the man.” In other words, slap on a coat of whitewash. If Indians spoke, dressed and acted like white people, the “Indian problem” would be solved. One of the most tragic aspects of this disastrous experience is that when a child would return to their home they were often estranged from the members of their tribe. These children were often perceived as no longer truly Indian by their tribal societies and they were certainly not accepted as members of white society either. So much for the whitewashing.
With pressures such as these bearing down on Indian communities, it is not surprising that people often faced hard choices. When a mixed-blood man raped my Grandmother and she discovered she was pregnant, rather than subject herself to shame, and her child to the possibility of being shipped off to an Indian school…she ran. Grandma was “a child of approximately 16 years” when she arrived in Chicago and gave her daughter up for adoption… according to the paperwork. She gave a false name, surrendered the child and disappeared.
As a result, Mom was whitewashed. This was not malicious on the part of my adoptive grandparents, but that dripping whitewash brush was in their hands just the same. Whitewashing served to rob Mom of the subtle earthtones of her culture. It’s the esoteric things… the patterns of speech, the body language, the oral traditions and the worldview that were lost. These were not only Mom’s losses, but her children’s, and her grandchildren’s losses as well. With the adoption by people of another culture, a coat of whitewash was slapped over the cultural gifts that were her birthright.
Every now and again, we’d catch a glimpse. We even teased her about it! I can look back to when I was a kid and see Mom, hunkered over a campfire cooking some freshly caught fish, looking so Indian it was startling. “Hey Mom, maybe you’re really Indian!” I’d say. Her reply, “Ha, ha, ha, very funny… now quit messing around and bring me a plate for the fish!”
Everything happens as part of a larger pattern or cycle. Cycles of pain, cycles of violence, cycles of deprivation and despair twist together like a braid, weaving through the fabric of my People. Cycles robbed me of my Grandmother, made her bolt in shame and rage, leaving Mom to be raised by white people who didn’t get what it means to be Indian, what it means to be connected… to Earth… to sky… what the winds mean. Mom grew… lived… aged and passed through the Western Door with no knowledge of the cycle that begat her, or the identity of her People.
It’s rather ironic… Oglala means to scatter one's own, and Mom was sure flung far from her own people. There is a lot that I don’t know about my heritage, but what I do know… has proven to be enough. It motivates me. I am driven to learn everything I can about my culture, it has provided a sense of connection that I’ve sought all of my life… it has equipped me with the tools to strip off the whitewash and dip in to the ceremonial paint of my People.