Whitewashed, Reconciled, & Thankful

The Lakota creation story has the People springing forth from a hole in the ground somewhere in the Black Hills. That idea resonates with me, perhaps because there are many holes in what I know about my heritage. A hole in the ground is as good a place as any; I am very rooted to the Earth, and connected to the animals, the rocks, and the forests.

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 those from those cultures. The Lakota were my 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 fifty years removed from their life as a free roaming people of the plains. Indian boarding schools were 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 non-consensual removal 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 returned 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; so much for the whitewashing.   

With these pressures bearing down on Indian communities, people often faced hard choices. When my Grandmother was raped by a mixed-blood drifter and discovered she was pregnant, rather than subject herself to shame, and her child to the possibility of being carried off to an Indian school, she ran. Grandma was about 16 years old when she arrived in Chicago and gave her daughter up for adoption. 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 regardless. Whitewashing robbed Mom of the subtle earthtones of her culture, the esoteric things like patterns of speech, body language, oral tradition, and the worldview of her people; these things were lost.

With her adoption by people of another culture, a coat of whitewash was slapped over the cultural gifts that were her birthright. In addition to my mom herself being raised in a white household participating in traditions of the dominant culture such as Thanksgiving; the same can be said of my generation, and the generation of my children, and grandchildren.

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 had no understanding of what it means to be Indian, what it means to be rooted to Earth, connected 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 is rather ironic. Oglala means to scatter one's own; Mom was flung far from her people.

The knowledge of my heritage, discovered after Mom’s passing, motivates me, and provides a sense of connection that had been missing 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. It has equipped me to share cultural understandings with my children and grandchildren, for these teachings are their birthright too. It is a drawing together what once was scattered.

My heritage informs the way I move and interact in this world on a daily basis. My spiritual identity as Native Traditionalist / Christian has caused more than a few people to ask if I was not a walking contradiction, and to that I say: “No, my identity is an embodiment of reconciliation.”

Indigenous cultures, white culture, and Christianity have a long history of oppression; mistrust and opposition, and are still viewed by many as warring factions. This could have caused a fatal fracture of my Spirit, leaving me disconnected from a spiritual life in a devastating way.

By living authentically, I have found blessed integration, reconciliation, and peace.

I am now equipped with experience and voice to advocate and educate. I can and do speak against the propagation of fairy-tale histories like the  “Story of the First Thanksgiving” that have been passed from generation to generation.

I participate in truth-telling in a positive way, not steeped in blame and shame, but in changing the dialogue around the colonial period and the ways that the cultural collision, devastated Indigenous people.

We cannot change what happened in the past, but we can change the ways in which we speak and teach about these things, and we can intentionally move forward differently.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the abundant beauty and variety of creation.

I am thankful for the resiliency of my ancestors whose fierceness enabled my children, my Grandchildren, and myself to be here.

As I step back to take it all in, I see a being whose essence is adorned with the subtle earth tones of zir culture and spirituality that once seemed lost, but were there all along, beneath the whitewash. I see all of this, and I am thankful.

Photo provided by Lynn Young

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