Written by Bethany Moon, sister of co-founder Emily Moon. Bethany is a junior at American University in Washington, D.C., majoring in Justice & Law. Bethany writes of her experience at the first By Grace workshop at the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.
If you Google Native American reservations, you will find horrific statistics of alcoholism, rape, unemployment, domestic violence, and drug abuse. You will also find research on the gradual loss of the precious Lakota language, the history of assimilation, and the impacts of the cruel containment of a culture that led to its decline. If you have the opportunity to speak with a Lakota woman living on the Rosebud Indian Reservation; however, you will find a moving and beautiful strength. You will find a spirit of survival that has kept not only a tribe but a culture alive. This past weekend, I had the honor of taking a glimpse into that strength, and I am forever changed by the women behind it.
The Lakota are strong, and though every high schooler taking U.S. History learns a chunk of the tragic story of how a free spirited people were trapped into borders, the Lakota have endured far more than they are credited for. They were set up for failure, forced to change everything down to their very names, yet they have persevered. They face struggle today, and no one will deny that, but behind the obvious struggle that the world sees, they wear the hard earned scars of a battle they have bravely fought to maintain their culture. In order to honor the Lakota, one must acknowledge their struggles and issues, but one must also acknowledge their fearless fight against those struggles.
In 2011, Dianne Sawyer filmed a one-hour segment on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a neighbor of the Rosebud Reservation that has the same Sioux roots. The film was meant to raise national awareness of the desolate conditions on the reservations, but the Lakota people rose up with one phrase as a response: “More than that!” Among the obvious issues of unemployment and domestic violence, there is an often unnoticed battle that the Lakota fight today: the correction of the external misperception of Native Americans. One student emphasized this fight when he responded to Sawyer’s documentary, “I know what you probably think of us...we saw the special too. Maybe you saw a picture, or read an article. But we want you to know, we’re more than that...We have so much more than poverty” (Adrienne).
One of the highlights of my trip to the Rosebud was picking Sage with some of the women. Breathtaking wilderness blurred past the car window on the way to the Sage field: rolling hills, creeks carving paths in the landscape, open fields of flowers I did not recognize, the cold wind unveiling itself through the waving branches. Then, a cluster of trash the size of a bathtub passed by the window. One of the women, disheartened, quickly remarked, “Great. That’s what people are going to think of when they think of Native American reservations.” This struck me for two reasons. The first reason, is that this was the moment I realized just how
desperately the Rosebud wants to change the external world’s perception of it. The second reason is that this was also the moment that I realized just how lopsided that external perception is. Sure, there is unsightly trash discarded amidst the beautiful wilderness, but looming beyond that debris is just that: the beautiful wilderness. Why does the world choose to only focus on the blemishes of the Native American reservations, when there is so much good, so much potential and desire to rise above, present alongside those blemishes?
Throughout the weekend, that internal battle surfaced more and more. One woman recounted a time that she was utterly hopeless and homeless. She repeated her mom’s response, “Stop being an Indian. Get up and fight.” There seems to be a felt sense of shame among the Lakota for agreeing to relocate to reservations. Though these women do not view themselves asweak or cowardly, I gathered that they feel those terms pressed on them by the external world. When the mom told this woman to “stop being an Indian”, she was telling her not to be the Indian that the world understands.
Perhaps this fight to correct external perceptions of the Lakota is most obvious in the alteration of their very name. The Lakota are a part of a larger people group known as the “Sioux.” They are called that, however, only because it is the name that the settlers gave them. The name they call themselves is actually, “Sicangu”, but because it was difficult to pronounce, the settlers gave them the name Sioux. I lived in Sioux Falls, SD for eight years, thinking I lived in a town named after a Native American group, but I was ignorant of the fact that it was a name forced on them. The struggle to correct that name is not only a fight to correct the
misconceptions that the Lakota have been characterized by, it is a fight to shape their own identity.
One tragic result of external forces having the power to brand or label the Lakota is that many people outside of the reservations now think Native American culture is a thing of the past; extinct because of the assimilation efforts. The focus on the concerns of the reservations has left the cultural aspects deserted to the corners of the picture that the external world paints. Though Lakota culture has certainly changed since the time that they lived freely among the Plains, they still have a culture that is both present and relevant today. During my brief yet impactful time on the Rosebud Reservation, I got a snapshot of the true Lakota identity; the one that, just like the beautiful wilderness beyond the debris, should be showcased but is too often overlooked.
A closer glimpse into the people of the Rosebud Reservation will expose treasured family photos, hides painted with stories, sweat lodges, elaborate star quilts, cleansing ceremonies with sage, a mother learning Lakota in order to teach it to her daughter, enduring respect for the buffalo and the earth underneath its powerful hooves, symbolism of dragonflies and turtles, and a strong people united by a collective identity. I learned that this is the Lakota, a people not left behind in the past, but of the present. One crucial aspect of the Lakota culture that I experienced more in depth is their artful skill in beadwork; a skill passed down for generations. My sister, Emily, started a social entrepreneurship, called By Grace, in which she hires and encourages the training of women to create beadwork. These are the women, the recent hires and a few Lakota women on staff who run a women’s shelter and have helped this social entrepreneurship to become a reality, that I had the absolute honor of spending the weekend with.
According to Janet, one of the staff members that runs the women’s shelter, these women come to the shelter at the worst part in their lives. They are seriously injured, sometimes with broken bones or severe wounds, and betrayed by those who claimed to love them. Statistics show that one in three women are raped on the Rosebud; however, Janet believes it is actually closer to one in two women (Power 64). By Grace seeks to accomplish two goals: the first is to provide a lifestyle for these women to survive that is not a life of reliance on charity handouts or an abuser; rather, it is a life of dignity through meaningful work. Emily firmly believes that,“Beauty and talent are equally distributed around the world. Access is not.” In other words, these women simply need a platform to showcase their talent and creations. The second goal of By Grace does not just seek to empower these women, but to empower the Lakota people; to join them in their fight against exterior misperceptions; to honor and dignify their way of life and the skill that they have cultivated through that way of life.
As we sat and chatted with these women, Emily slipped her catalog out of her bag. Flipping through the pages, she stopped at one that displayed an elaborate pair of earrings. She turned the catalog around and pointed to Tamie, stating, “Those are your earrings. You made those.” Tamie, with a subtle smile and disbelief in her eyes, replied, “Can I keep that page? I’ve never had my work pictured before.” Tamie is undeniably talented and unbelievably strong, she just needed a platform to show it. In displaying and selling the Rosebud work, Emily trusts that “when people think of Rosebud they will think of quality and beauty.”
I went to the Rosebud Reservation because I firmly believe in the empowerment of women. I went to encourage and speak with these remarkable women, and I incorrectly assumed that I would be the one empowering them. I could never have predicted how empowered I would walk away feeling. In order to fight external misperceptions of the Rosebud Reservation, the world needs to stop banishing Lakota culture to the corners of the frame and stop zooming in on the trash amidst the wilderness. They are a people who have suffered greatly, and suffer still, but have courageously survived great injustices and are seeking to correct current problems. I believe that they are a strong people who are trying to find an honorable way of life amidst the suffering.
In order to magnify that truth to the rest of the world, I believe there is great power that can be found in a small bead; power to offer hope not just for one woman, but for a people.