Adventures Living Off Rez

A column by Ruth Hopkins about her experience living outside her reservation.

I moved away from home two months ago for work. For the past six years, I’d been living on the Lake Traverse Reservation of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate where I am enrolled. I’ve lived on reservations throughout the Dakotas my entire life. The only time I’ve lived off-reservation was when I was a college student. Still, college life takes place in a fish bowl. Since moving I’ve realized that I didn’t receive full-on exposure to life off rez until now.

How could things be so different for a Native family moving off the reservation to a city only an hour’s drive away?

You’d be surprised.

Yes, we’ve traveled abroad. We’ve all been exposed to the same television shows, music and movies, read many of the same books and magazines, and have western educations too- but the subtleties of daily life would prove there’s more to mainstream society than fast food and reality TV.

Cultural differences have been most pronounced in my children. During a routine shopping trip, a Caucasian clerk called my son, who has very long hair, a girl. When I enrolled him in school, it seemed to bother the majority non-Native faculty and staff that he didn’t make frequent eye contact. When speaking with us, they would search for his eyes, and he would divert his gaze. I explained to them that we are from an American Indian Tribe where not making direct eye contact is the norm and is even considered a sign of respect. After my daughter started school there, she returned home demanding to know whether or not she had a "rez accent." She’d been teased about it at her new school.

Here, elders live in nursing homes or apartment complexes by themselves. There’s a huge focus on individualism, and the accumulation of money and material things. People are very religious, but not very spiritual.

I’ve had my own experiences over the past few months as well. A month into my job, a co-worker told me I was "too humble." She didn’t realize that according to my culture, she had just paid me a huge compliment.

The first time a non-Native invited me out to lunch, I didn’t realize they expected me to pay for my own food. Every other time I’ve been invited to dinner on the reservation or with other Natives off-reservation, the party who invited me always offered to pay for my dinner, or I’d pay for theirs if I had invited them, although dinners out didn’t happen that often on the reservation. Our preferred social events are feeds—huge potlucks where everyone contributes their own dish, and everyone is free to take home a watecha plate.

Giving off rez is also much different. Non-Natives give, but it’s via a special event where they receive recognition. On the reservation, giving is expected. Even Native people who have very little will contribute to giveaways, and to deny their gift is to insult them. Here in mainstream society, people say no to offers of food, gifts, or hospitality all the time and it’s not considered rude.

Everyone’s in a rush too—but that’s not new to me. I’m 21st century Indigenous. We know how to hustle, even if that means working three or four jobs to make life work.

Mostly there’s things I just plain miss about the rez. Since we’ve moved we haven’t received a single visitor. I’ve had to stop cooking so much. Back home, I always cooked extra because friends and family members stopped by unannounced on a regular basis. Here, I don’t even know my neighbor’s names. There’s no stray dogs either. In rez neighborhoods there’s dogs who don’t belong to any one person, but they still have names. Multiple people feed them, pet them, and love them. Here, everyone’s dogs are tiny and primarily stay indoors.

It’s also become apparent that wherever I go in mainstream society, I will be expected to be a representative of my Tribe and Natives in general. I regularly receive questions related to my race and nationality. Inquiries have probed my opinion on everything from boarding schools and mascots, to questions about what kind of movies ‘we’ like or if I personally know another Native they’ve heard of.

Non-Natives also tend to assume that whatever I think or believe is what all Natives think or believe. As a result, I’ve started to preface many of my answers with a warning; reminding non-Natives that I’m only speaking for myself, not all Natives. The only way to cure ignorance is to answer their questions. I hope it helps them develop a basic understanding of who Natives are while also recognizing that deep down we’re all just human beings.

Even though there’s been awkward moments, I’m satisfied with my decision to move off reservation. There’s been more positive experiences than negative ones. Yes, we miss home- but we can visit.

Natives are members of a global community now and if there’s anything this experience has taught me, it is that the world needs us. We have a lot to offer. If we choose, we can get out there and represent. We can carry our home in our hearts….and take the world by storm.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, speaker,former science professor and tribal attorney. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network and Ruth may be reached via Twitter, Facebook, or by e-mail at