Tis the Season. Christmas time, along with Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick, mistletoe, ugly holiday sweaters, and the onslaught of sweaty suburban shoppers crowding shopping centers, is once again upon us. It’s enough to make my eyes glaze over.
As a Dakota/Lakota woman, the holiday season is one of conflicting emotion, and often, grief. Why? December is a rough month for the Oceti Sakowin (The Great Sioux Nation). In a way, its one giant reminder of the genocide we’ve survived.
Tatanka Iyotake, Sitting Bull, one of our greatest Lakota prophets and statesmen, was assassinated on December 15, 1890.
On December 26, 1862, the largest mass execution in the history of the United States took place. 38 Dakota men were hung in Mankato, Minnesota on that day, by order of President Abraham Lincoln. They were accused of participating in an uprising after the Dakota people were made to starve. Some were innocent; in fact, two were hung by mistake.
On December 29, 1890, about 300 innocent people, mostly women and children, were massacred at Wounded Knee. The soldiers who murdered them received Medals of Honor for committing the atrocity.
On top of dealing with the historical trauma, every year beginning with Halloween, throughout "Native American Heritage Month" (heck, let’s call it what it’s really used for: Native Appropriation Month) and peaking around Thanksgiving, we are assailed with a barrage of racist and often sexist negative imagery due to white people parading around in offensive stereotypical ‘Indian’ costumes. Such insult hardly leaves a Native girl with warm fuzzies.
Yet, I’m blessed with good memories of Christmas—and it’s because of my father. To him, Christmas was all about giving.
My father is a boarding school survivor. He is a recovering addict, although he’s been sober my entire life. He is a veteran of two wars: Korea and Vietnam, and bears the scars of battle, inside and out. He isn’t an emotional person, but he had a heart for the People and he proved it with his actions.
As a world traveler, he could have lived anywhere. He chose to return to the Reservation. My father was acutely aware of the pain of others, and sought to alleviate the suffering of his People.
While he was stationed overseas in Thailand, his mother wrote him a letter and asked him to buy her a new pair of shoes. She was very poor and couldn’t afford to buy them herself. He forgot about it, and she passed away. His brother, also a veteran, committed suicide, leaving his children behind. He couldn’t forgive himself for not being there for his family. Rather than let the guilt he felt fester, he molded it into a sense of responsibility that eventually extended past his family to the entire Reservation community.
He grew up during the Depression Era and one holiday season, when he was a small boy, his mother decided to take him to church. This was a big deal, because they still traveled by horse and wagon, and this was during a North Dakota winter, no less. At the church Christmas party, all the children received gifts except my father. He hadn’t gone to church before so there was nothing for him. He never forgot that sense of alienation and disappointment he experienced and didn’t want another Native child to feel that way, if he could help it.
My Dad became a minister and a tribal judge, but we never had much money. Yet somehow, every Christmas, this quiet full blood Oceti Sakowin man who read every book in the boarding school library but didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, created miracles. He had a talent for organizing, and getting people to give him things. Every year, he managed to get presents for every single Reservation child we knew. Weeks before Christmas, our home was overrun with gifts. We’d stay up half the night wrapping presents for extended family, and sometimes, children we did not know. We made candy bags too. Hundreds of them. I can still smell the peanut dust.
One year, my father decided that we would feed every elder and shut-in on the reservation. When he gave orders, you snapped to it. Me and my mother cooked from sunrise to sunset making meals, while he delivered them.
I did not realize until years later that my father had given me a gift, beyond the Barbie Dream House that just about made up for having to take all those piano lessons and play the Virgin Mary every year. He showed me what unconditional love and selflessness was, without even saying it.
As Natives, we’ve all experienced more than our share of horrific tragedies, but we can rebuild. We don’t wait for miracles, we create them. Perhaps that’s the greatest lesson my father ever taught me. Merry Christmas.
Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.