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What Native American Heritage Month Means to Me

A column by Sunny Clifford on what Native American Heritage Month means to her.

You know you come from a nation of oppression when a month has to be dedicated to your heritage. It’s the only way the rest of the country will remember how their freedom came to be, if they can see through the majesty of feathers, beads, and face paint. And with that note I want to share my experience with my identity struggle as a Lakota growing up on an Indian reservation (where I still live). My mom raised me as an English-speaking Catholic. We lived off the reservation for a few years, tried to make it in American society, but eventually made our way back to the rez. We lived in California before we moved back, and I came home from school one day telling my mom how we played Indians and cowboys. She sat me down and told me I was an Indian and that I was born on a reservation and that’s where we were from. I was in the first grade and I had no idea. She told me I was an Oglala Lakota and she told me we had our own language and land. I couldn’t grasp the concept of an area of land being set aside for one group of people to live on. I did grasp the concept of language and immediately began hounding her about it. She taught me a few words, but wouldn’t teach me how to speak Lakota, that decision is her own accord. I’m sure she felt she had valid reasons for not teaching me, the result of oppression and colonization as I later learned.

We moved back to the reservation shortly after that time. I didn’t know what I was in for as a kid, but I was excited to be around other Indians. The kids weren’t nice on the reservation and it wasn’t easy for me to make friends like it was in California. I was obviously different in my mannerisms than the other kids. I grew up being called a white girl even though my skin isn’t translucent nor are my eyes colored. I was also called church girl because I attended Sunday services at the local Catholic Church and somehow everyone knew about it. I also attended bible school during the summer months because there isn’t much to do on the reservation. Bible school was a little bit more accepted, although I attended way past the age requirement and was ridiculed for that.

Soon after those years I began to read books about Lakota culture. I read Lakota Woman, by Mary Brave Bird. I read Black Elk Speaks, by John G. Neihardt. I read Fools Crow, by Thomas E. Mails. Those books were my new bibles. I was enthralled, intrigued, and most of all enraged. I was angry with my parents for not letting me be the Indian I wanted to be. I was angry that they knew Lakota but didn’t teach me. I was angry with the United States for not accepting my ancestors as they were. I refused to attend church services for a very long time, maybe over ten years. I tried my best to immerse myself in the culture I read about in those books. I found sweat lodges and ceremonies to attend. I learned songs from those places. I enrolled in my tribal college and took language classes. And I’d still rather be in a sweat lodge than listening to a sermon.

I was a teenager and young adult suffering with the usual angst, but it was with racism. As I grew into the woman I am today, I realize that me being a racist Indian is no better than being white and racist. I refuse to stand on that level of hatred for I carry peace in my heart and my inner human desire is to love. And as the woman I am, I still continue to struggle with people dictating my identity and what I have to do and how I have to live to be an Indian. I absolutely despise how white men try to control my reproduction with their laws against abortion and birth control, laws against my sovereign body. These outsiders who dictate my identity are both native and non-native. I am not seen as an Indian by outsiders if I don’t have a feather in my hair, or if I don’t attend powwows and dance, or if I’m not wearing something beaded. I am not seen as a true Lakota by natives because I am not fluent in my ancestor’s language, as hard as I am trying to learn.

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So when I think about Native American Heritage Month and what it means to me, all I see are people dictating my identity. I don’t like it, yet at the same time I’m judging other people who claim to be native, they are dancing with eagle feathers for money. Or they’re working in oil fields and desecrating mother earth. I wonder how those people can go home and kiss their kids knowing they’re helping destroy their future by destroying the earth. There’s so much inner turmoil and conflict inside of me with my judgments against other natives and dealing with my identity and who I am. All of this is mine and what I have to deal with. I don’t want anyone’s pity, I just want to share my story. As much as I appreciate the gesture of Native American Heritage Month I feel torn about it. I’m torn because this nation needs a month to remember how it came to be. No, if you want to honor Native Americans then teach the real history in your schools.

Sunny Clifford is Oglala Lakota from South Dakota. She is a recent college graduate from her tribal college on the reservation with a Bachelor of Arts in Literature/Communications. She is also one of the main characters of a soon to be released documentary Young Lakota.