Freedom of speech: Birchbark Books, Louise Erdrich’s Minneapolis shop, sells great books, saves languages

A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in December 2011. 

I confess, I love Ojibwe novelist Louise Erdrich’s Minneapolis shop, Birchbark Books, and you can, too. In fact, you can admit to anything you want there, in an honest-to-God confessional Erdrich rescued from a bar and set up in the corner of the multi-leveled bookstore. Find Birchbark Books
 in a tiny strip of stores in a leafy neighborhood, along with Kenwood Café, locally popular for its home-style soups and sandwiches, and Bockley Gallery, where exhibits often feature Native artists. Recently, the gallery showed colorful, slyly humorous paintings and prints by Jim Denomie, Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe.

     The cozy store offers lots of spots where shoppers can enjoy a rich array of images and experiences. Kids can climb into a treehouse-like toy-filled loft, while adults curl up and read in sunny corners. If you want absolution for anything, take a seat in the confessional, which Erdrich has renamed “the forgiveness booth” (shown below, in background, along with Anishinaabe-language books.)

     “You can be absolved right away there without having to say thousands of Hail Marys,” she says. “It’s about taking away shame. Of course, it’s the Catholic Church that most needs to be forgiven for what it did to Native people in the name of assimilation.” 

     Natural-wood fixtures and Native crafts give the place a homey feel. “We used all recycled materials, including birch from trees that had fallen in a big storm in Wisconsin,” says Erdrich. “The trees even sprouted after we brought them back, which I found very moving.”

     Atop a bookcase are red-willow baskets by Georgianna Houle and by Curtis and Debi LaRoque, all from Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Erdrich’s home community. Alongside them are containers by Pat and Gage Kruse, a father and son from Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, who use birchbark as a medium—for the vessels you’ll find at Birchbark Books, as well as for fantastically detailed bark “paintings” represented by Bockley Gallery. Star quilts hang from the bookshop’s rafters, and silver pieces by jewelers Mitchell Zephier, Lakota, and Josef Reiter, Anishinabe, gleam in a glass-fronted case. Look for Reiter’s reproductions of Erdrich’s lucky feather earrings; when you wear them, she claims, wondrously fortuitous things will occur.

     The store attracts clients from far and wide, including members of the Minneapolis Native community, who hail from reservations across the country, and tourists arriving from all over the globe. “They are attracted by Louise’s reputation,” says store manager Susan White (shown left, ringing up a sale). “She is truly beloved.” Customers also know they can count finding books that are tasteful and accurate, White adds. 

     The store’s collection specializes in Native writers and subjects in several categories: fiction and poetry; memoir and biography; Native studies; indigenous-language books and instructional materials primarily in Dakota, Lakota and Objibwe; picture books for children; and young-adult volumes. It’s a small array, tucked into every nook and cranny of the 850-square-foot store, but a fine one. “People come here to feel there’s a person behind what’s on our shelves,” says Erdrich. The store’s book buyer Nathan Pederson explains that deciding what to offer is a “happy science.” He sifts through data, figuring out what’s selling, but also trying to ensure that customers will come across items they never knew they needed.

     For example, you’ll surely snap up Blackfoot Physics, theoretical physicist F. David Peat’s comparison of age-old indigenous teachings and the knowledge modern scientists are just now gleaning at the edges of the universe. Or American Indian Trickster Tales, by Richard Erdoes and Alfonzo Ortiz. A customer posts a comment on Birchbark Books’ website, saying that when she was young, she’d listen to the late Pueblo scholar Ortiz telling such stories: “This was in [New Mexico’s] Frijoles Canyon. I can still hear his melodious voice as he spun his stories in the dusk…I drew from his wisdom to realign my life many times.”

     If you can’t get to the store, browse online or subscribe to the newsletter via the homepage. Holiday-gift suggestions in this month’s issue: signed copies of Erdrich’s works, turquoise jewelry by Annie Star of Santa Domingo Pueblo and a T-shirt with an image of planet Earth and the message “What Would Gichi Manidoo?” (Anishinabe for “What Would the Creator Do?”). Receipts from shirt sales go toward stopping the controversial Keystone oil pipeline.

     Notable among the indigenous-language materials are three books in Ojibwe (and more to come) from Wiigwaas Press, run by Erdrich and her sister Heid, a poet and curator of Native American fine art (shown right with an Objiwe-language book). Most recently, the press published the engaging word-and-phrase book Daga Anishinaabemodaa (or “Let’s Speak Ojibwe”), by Pebaamibines/Dennis Jones, Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation and a University of Minnesota Ojibwe-language instructor. The illustrator is another Erdrich, Louise’s daughter Aza, Turtle Mountain and Modoc.

     Wiigwaas Press just got good news, reports Heid Erdrich: the Chicago public schools have adopted another of its offerings, the illustrated story collection Awesiinyensag (shown above in photo with confessional) for use in Ojibwe-language classes. That follows an award from the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, which named Awesiinyensag Minnesota’s representative in a collection of books epitomizing each of the 50 states’ literary heritage. Editor Anton Treuer, a professor at Bemidji State University, in Bemidji, Minnesota, and a team of scholars, authors and elders produced the volume, which is already in use by educators throughout Minnesota, according to White. “We wanted a book that was monolingual and showed kids an Ojibwe text could be produced with pride and beauty,” says Louise.

     The press intends to save indigenous languages badly damaged by assimilationist policies but not to “preserve” them. Daga Anishinaabemodaa opens with a saying in Ojibwe, describing it as part of a living entity: “If you take care/of the language/the spirit keeper of the language/will take care of you.” That ongoing process is challenging and fun, according to Heid. “Ojibwe is poetic and wittily inventive,” she says. “Good speakers can get all sorts of information into one word, working the grammar as hard as possible and molding the language as they speak.” 

     That spirited originality allows Ojibwe to resist the codification English speakers are accustomed to (or should that be “to which they are accustomed”?). As a result, Heid says, many expressions and variants aren’t found in the few existing Ojibwe dictionaries. “The hallmark of a living language is that it changes as it’s used,” she says. “We’re happy to be a part of that.”

     Publication events for Awesiinyensag at Birchbark Books have included elders, and lots of food and conviviality, said Louise. “In fact, a huge range of people showed up, including kids, among whom language learning has really taken off. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a flourishing of language courses in Ojibwe magnet [public] schools, Ojibwe language-immersion camps and language nests, in which families speak Ojibwe at home, which produces an explosion of learning. I find it so touching that so many people are doing this.”

     Each month, the shop hosts several book events, some with food from adjoining Kenwood Café. In January, Louise will host the first dinner-club evening of 2012, a discussion of The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje, which she called “a keenly written suspense novel—my favorite by Ondaatje since The English Patient.” She also confesses (in the booth? it’s not clear) that she enjoys talking about other authors’ works, rather than her own. Call or visit the bookstore (2115 West 21st Street; Minneapolis, MN 55405; 612-374-4023; to reserve your spot ($50 for a copy of the book and the meal).

     It’s all about creating affinities. “We’re a neighborhood bookstore and want to create that feeling of community,” Louise says. “We’re a place where people come to read and talk about all kinds of books.”

21st-Century Anishinaabe
In “Prayers in a Song,” rapper Tall Paul starts out singing in English, then shifts to Anishinaabe, the language of his Leech Lake Ojibwe ancestors. He evokes his heritage in the distinctive syllable patterns and resonances of a language he began studying a few years ago while a student at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, his hometown. A performance of the song appears on the Minnesota Public Television website, along with statements by noted Ojibwe novelist, Louise Erdrich, elders and scholars about maintaining the language and the distinctive worldview it supports.

     Now a math and language tutor at a Minneapolis K-8 magnet school for Anishinaabe, Lakota and Dakota children, Tall Paul—AKA Paul Wenell—says he wanted to make a contribution to his culture through the song. “I felt using the language was a way to help maintain it. I also thought doing this might draw mainstream attention to Anishinaabe and attract kids as well.” He knows whereof he speaks. After rap gigs at clubs and powwows around Minnesota, young fans pursue him and his partner G. Malicious, who’s from Bad River, asking for autographs.

     “Prayers in a Song” came out of personal conflict, Tall Paul says. “I grew up in the city, away from cultural things. I felt I wasn’t a quote-unquote real Indian. I not only struggled to learn the language, I struggled to have a desire to do it. Writing this song was a way to help myself resolve all that.”

     In the song, he talks about disliking “deciphering conjugations,” but the satisfaction of finding he could make the language relevant to his life. “I take responsibility for being educated by my people,” he raps.

     The song has not been without controversy. “A few have said I shouldn’t rap in Anishinaabe, that putting it to a beat squeezes it into the rhythm. Generally though, listeners have been really positive.”

“Prayers in a Song’” can be heard on the Tall Paul and G. Malicious CD, “Brothers: From Different Fathers and Mothers,” put out under the band name Point of Contact. Find it on CDBaby ( See a video of the song on Twin Cities Public Television site,; scroll down to “Ojibwe Hip Hop.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Stephanie Woodard.

Cultivating happy, healthy kids: A visit to the Cheyenne River Youth Project

This article appeared on the Huffington Post in December 2011.

As the sun blazed crimson and gold on the western horizon and shadows lengthened, the orange tractor chugged back and forth along rows of pale cornstalks. Days were getting shorter on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe's South Dakota reservation, but master farmer Romey Garreau was still at work. That evening, he was putting the Cheyenne River Youth Project's garden to sleep for the winter, plowing under most of the two-acre tract after yet another productive season. Only a row of fall raspberries was still bearing -- thorny branches festooned with fat scarlet fruit.
2011-12-19-hall.jpg     The garden, in the tribe's capital, Eagle Butte, may have been quiet and serene, but the adjacent youth center was bustling. Teens were doing homework in the internet café, while little ones were in the gymnasium, noisily negotiating an obstacle course made of big cardboard boxes. Soon, they'd all have healthy dinners, made with produce from the garden.
     "A lot of our children live on commodity and packaged foods, and the garden teaches them to appreciate healthy fruits and vegetables," said Cheyenne River Youth Project's founder and director, tribal member Julie Garreau (shown here). "Eating those foods also supports lifelong wellness, helping prevent diabetes and other chronic illnesses." The little kids' garden club is most involved in the plot, but at harvest time, there's so much work, the teens help out, too. Everyone enjoys planting and picking -- even weeding, Garreau said.
     The garden's usefulness doesn't stop there, though. Everything at the youth project has multiple purposes, according to Garreau. The corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, chilies, greens and berries are also donated to elders and a women's shelter; sold at a farmer's market by teens learning about entrepreneurship and nutrition; and canned or dried and sold in the center's gift shop.
2011-12-19-artclassbetter.jpg     An average of 75 kids ages 4 to 18 show up at CYRP after school to participate in physical activities ranging from basketball and running to ballet and yoga. They can choose among myriad enrichment courses tailored to their age groups. Classes in art (shown right, with youth programs assistant Camille LaPlante), science, reading, writing, geography, financial literacy, nutrition and healthy cooking -- even Chinese language and comic books -- are on the menu. Permanent staffers and participants in an international internship program offer some courses; tribal members, such as artist Wyatt Blue Coat, teach in their subject areas as well.
     On a recent evening, adult community members joined teens for a small-business development class (shown below) with Mark Peacock, author of The Financially Literate Teacher and entrepreneurship instructor for Four Bands Community Fund, a Cheyenne River nonprofit that helps tribal members form their own companies. Fashion shows, midnight basketball, deejay-run dances and other special events keep the youth center hopping.
2011-12-19-bizclass300.jpg     CYRP's internship program is another multi-purpose endeavor, according to Garreau: "The interns are helping out, but they're also learning about us. They become our ambassadors, and through them we educate the world about who we are." A recent group included college-age kids from the U.S., Australia, Belgium and China (shown below with youth programs director Megan Guiliano, standing). Over the years, church groups have sent volunteers, and students have come from Oberlin College, Iowa State, Rice University and many other schools. The interns inevitably become members of the family, according to Garreau: "They sacrifice a lot, and we appreciate their efforts so much. It's not an easy job, and we don't allow partying. They're taking care of children, who have to trust them completely."2011-12-19-internsbetter.jpg
     Garreau has won many awards, including one bestowed by President George H.W. Bush and the 2009 Spirit of South Dakota Award, for developing the center from a one-room facility in 1988 into a major community organization with a campus that has classrooms and a playground for children ages 4-12; a place for 13-18-year-olds with a computer lab, library, art studio and professional kitchen; and a family-services program offering winter coats, school supplies, free home repairs, heating assistance and a "Dear Santa" program that delivers gifts to about 1,000 kids each Christmas.
     The teen center is the latest addition to the campus. Opened in 2007, Cokata Wiconi (or "center of life") is designed around a curving, blue-walled center hallway that evokes the nearby life-giving Cheyenne River. Lined with framed photographs and historical documents, the passageway (shown at top in the photo of Garreau) honors the tribe's history and survival. A painful moment in that story prompted construction of the building; 2002 and 2003 saw a wave of teen suicides, said Garreau, and the shocked community wanted a way to reach out to its youth. Garreau went to local high schools, asked students what they wanted, and partnered with the Native American nonprofit Running Strong for American Indian Youth to give teens a safe place to gather and enjoy themselves.
2011-12-19-Billie.jpg     Tribal member Billie Condon (shown left), who runs CYRP's elite Power of Four program for high school kids, pointed to bright posters in the art studio, where the teens expressed their goals: Leadership, job skills, life skills and wellness. To achieve them, the program's 10 students spruce up the community, visit tribal council meetings, keep fit and learn to plan and cook healthy meals. For this, they receive a monthly honorarium, Condon said.
     For some projects, the small group is joined by a larger cadre of teen volunteers. The kids recently painted trash cans for Eagle Butte, populating the playground and baseball field with vivid images of eagles, pandas and video-game characters (shown in the photo of Condon). The teenagers cleaned up any trash they found and celebrated their achievement with a sleepover at the center, said Guiliano. But the sleepover had, of course, more than one purpose, because the youngsters also took time to make up gift packages for veterans, with goodies, necessities and a thank-you card, which they then distributed on Veterans Day.
     Though Cheyenne River Youth Project's growth has been prodigious, it's been careful. In the beginning, the organization had nothing, Garreau said: "So we learned to live that way and to be cautious about fundraising." The group does apply for and receive grants, she said, but that's not the focus. "To make a project work -- and last -- you have to develop a local base. A sustainable organization has grassroots people involved for the long run. Otherwise, when an infusion of funding is over, everyone packs up and goes home."2011-12-19-texting.jpg
     Nothing has to happen fast, she added: "Things occur when they're supposed to. This place is about embracing difficulties that have occurred in our history, seeking ways to heal and saying, 'we're taking care of ourselves.'"
     Garreau recalled a childhood hero, school bus driver Adele LeCompte, who one day got a disabled bus going by forming a fuse out of the foil wrapping from a stick of gum. "I'll never forget that moment, " Garreau said. "I was in seventh grade, and I was so impressed. Here at CRYP, we always look for ways to apply that initiative and resourcefulness -- figure it out, and get it done."
     To continue the project's slow-and-steady growth, Garreau is building an endowment, encouraging staff to create manuals for their positions and hiring a development director. "We have to ensure that if any individual moves on, this organization continues," she said. "We want to be here for generations to come." Since grant-making groups usually want to fund exciting new projects, rather than less-glamorous routine expenses, Garreau instituted the Keep The Lights On Fund Drive and the Sponsor A Day program, which allow CRYP's many supporters, local and worldwide, to keep the space warm and well-lit. Meeting daily costs are an ongoing issue, and on chilly days, while the children are in school, staffers work in parkas to save heat for the kids.2011-12-19-romey250.jpg
     Garreau's leadership style may be laid-back, but the lady herself is a bundle of energy, a multi-tasker and a prodigious e-mailer and texter. She's also been observed--Cheyenne River residents take note--reading the newspaper while driving. "I was interested in that article about the greenhouse," she replied defensively. "Besides, I know this road well."
     That's true. And knowing the land is all-important, she said. The youth project's efforts keep the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe's children happy and healthy by connecting them to their community and the rolling hills and expansive valleys of their homeland. Back at the garden, master farmer Romey Garreau (shown left) was resting against his tractor in the waning light. "It was a good year," he said, looking at the rich brown dirt. "Everything happened at the right time."

Weaving Dreams2011-12-19-dream.jpg

Thirty-one-year-old Wyatt Blue Coat, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, has been an artist since he was about 15. That was when he started taking every opportunity he could to observe Timothy Swimmer, a fellow tribal member and artist, at work. "I'd drop by his house and watch him paint and draw. He's very much admired around here. If you go down Main Street in Eagle Butte, you'll see his murals," said Blue Coat.
     Now Blue Coat is the mentor. The ex-Marine teaches art classes to the youngsters who arrive for a wide range of after-school programs at Eagle Butte's Cheyenne River Youth Project. On the way to class, Blue Coat's students can admire his lovingly crafted dreamcatchers hanging in window of the youth project's gift shop (an example is shown at right; most sell for $40 to $75).

"After I wrap the leather on a ring, a picture of the dreamcatcher comes to me, and I add the color and feather elements," said Blue Coat. "To me, the feathers are what make the design."
     Lakotas believe good dreams stay in the web, while bad ones pass through and disappear, Blue Coat said. "That's why we hang them above the bed, though nowadays some people consider them simply decorative objects." Do dreamcatchers work against insomnia, too, this reporter wondered, after noticing that effect? "They certainly can work that way," he said. Julie Garreau, director of the youth project, added that it's an interaction: "They work for you in the way you need."
Whether you're interested in sweet dreams or just some interesting gifts and the chance to help a worthy organization, contact CYRP's shop at 605-964-8200 for the dreamcatchers and other products, many of which are home-made or wild-crafted. The shop sells braids of dried prairie turnips (left); salsas, pickles, jams and other prepared foods; T-shirts and hoodies have CYRP's logo.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Stephanie Woodard.

Buffalo gardeners: Standing Rock Sioux restore health, fight diabetes

I made this article a featured post because it shows the Standing Rock people's long dedication to protecting human and environmental health. This focus, which is very much in the public eye today in the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline, pervades the tribe's history and culture. This story first appeared in Indian Country Today magazine and on the Huffington Post in November 2011.

They like to be on high ground, so they can keep an eye on us,” said Mike Faith, vice-chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. We’d driven close to a small herd of buffalo cantering around the top of a rise north of the tribe’s capitol in Fort Yates, North Dakota. The rolling hills were the gold and amber of fall prairie grasses, and the early-morning sky was a brilliant blue. Eventually, the 80 or so animals halted—the bulky bulls facing us squarely, broad foreheads slightly lowered, with the more diminutive cows milling behind them. A cool breeze ruffled their dark brown fur, which had begun to thicken for the winter. 

          With Faith was Ken McLaughlin, one of the tribe’s long-time designated buffalo shooters, and at the bottom of the hill were about 40 tribal members, including staff of the Standing Rock Sioux Diabetes Program and a dozen children each from the Standing Rock Elementary School and the Boys and Girls Club of the Grand River Area-Teen Center. The tribe’s Game & Fish Department had given permission for one buffalo to be killed in today’s harvest, which had been coordinated by diabetes program staffer Aubrey Skye. The program would distribute the animal’s lean, grass-fed meat to schools and tribal members to control diabetes, an illness that affects 12% of the approximately 10,000 tribal members—among the highest rates in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Anyone whose condition is serious enough to require dialysis receives wasna, a traditional mix of finely shredded dried buffalo meat and berries that won’t send their blood sugar soaring, explained Skye.

“This is the natural classroom,” said Faith, as we watched the buffalo. “It’s so important for the children to learn right here on the prairie about these animals—what we use each part for and how today they still keep both the people and the prairie healthy.” He pointed to a cloven hoof print. “You can see their hooves press fallen seeds into the ground. They re-seed the prairie as they graze. They also eat a lot of woody plants, so they clean the prairie, ensuring a healthy mix of grasses and other plants.”

Faith and McLaughlin conferred quietly. They wanted a young bull. “How about that one, with one horn up, one sideways?” asked Faith, and McLaughlin agreed. As if guessing the men’s intention, the bull ducked back into the herd. When the animal trotted back out, McLaughlin took aim and, with one rifle shot, felled him, as the other buffalo scattered across the hilltop. The herd quickly regrouped about 100 feet away, stood shoulder-to-shoulder, heads up, eyes alert, to survey the scene—then wheeled and galloped away. “We always use our best marksmen when we harvest an animal,” said Faith. “We’d never want to have one run off, wounded.”

Tribal members arrived with a pickup and trailer. John Buckley, head of the diabetes program, offered tobacco, stuffing some in the fallen bull’s nostrils before it was loaded onto the trailer and hauled to the group waiting at the bottom of the hill. As the head was sawn off (at left) and the field-dressing of the carcass got underway, the little ones and teens hung back. It’s the 21st century, and Sioux children may be familiar with hunting deer and other game, but they don’t witness regular buffalo hunts, as youngsters would have done in the old days. Most tribes are building up their herds—there are about 400 animals in the four community-owned herds on the Standing Rock reservation, said Mike Lawrence of the Game & Fish Department—and the taking of any buffalo is a special occasion. 

“This is the first time some of the children have seen a buffalo harvested,” said elementary-school teacher Kimberly White Bull. “We brought them here because we want to be sure they’re part of culturally related events like this.” After observing from the sidelines for 30 minutes or so, the kids, shown right, started pitching in, pulling hard on the hide so adults could use skinning knives to cut it away from the carcass, then tugging the rib cage open to make it easier to remove the innards, and eventually wielding the knives themselves. Everyone worked quickly, sharing the heavy labor. The carcass weighed 1,000 to 1,100 pounds, Faith estimated, and to remove the hide it had to be rolled from side to side, and at one point tipped up to a sitting position (“Everyone get behind and push!”). If one person got tired, another stepped in

Praise and humor flowed. “That’s old school!” exclaimed Frank White Bull, diabetes program fitness technician, as he admired elder Winona Eagle Shield’s knife skills. A skinner joshed, “Hey, Kim, how come you’re so good at this?” She responded, “Many deer!” Kids asked questions (“Is this a vein?” “How do I cut the stomach open?” “What’s that green stuff in it?”) and were delighted to touch the heart, pulled warm from the body. “Is it beating?” one asked, as others giggled. Everyone got a chance to try raw liver—sweet, metallic-tasting and custardy-crunchy—a delicacy for the old-time hunters, who would eat it on the spot before packing up the dressed animal for the return to camp. It was a joyful community event, combining health, education and spirituality.

          Eagle Shield, who volunteers at the Boys and Girls Club, laid claim to the stomach and intestines. “Now we know where to go for dinner tonight!” exclaimed Skye, who runs the Native Gardens Project, a division of the diabetes program. Through the project, Skye, shown right, encourages tribal members to consume more of the garden produce and gathered fruits and vegetables that make up a healthy diet. Each year, he tills about 125 home gardens around the 2.3-million-acre reservation, distributes seeds, teaches seed saving and food preservation and organizes forays onto the prairie to collect wild fruits and prairie turnips.

Skye had brought along a big pile of Hubbard squash for the club. “You can make that into soup to sell for your trip to Bismarck,” Eagle Shield told the teens. A dearth of lunch places for the tribal workforce that shows up each weekday in Fort Yates is an opportunity for home cooks, who offer made-up plates at the tribal hall and other spots around town.

          The gardens project Skye heads, which is in the third year of a five-year $100,000-per-annum grant from the CDC, also runs a weekly farmers market in Fort Yates that’s advertised via flyer and radio. Tribal members whose gardens have produced surpluses, as well as a large-scale off-reservation organic farmer, Dwight Duke, shown left with Skye, offer fruits and vegetables at the market in return for cash or for USDA vouchers distributed to seniors by the tribe’s Nutrition for the Elderly Program, run by Louella Harrison. “There was a line waiting for me when I opened at ten this morning,” said a pleased Duke on a recent day.

The farmers market has also attracted artisans who’ve sold their work there and has presented lecture-demonstrations in topics such as drying wild fruits and prairie turnips, plant-medicine making, greenhouse operations and community supported agriculture, said Harrison, who hopes the Native Gardens Project will be able to open a second farmers market in McLaughlin, South Dakota, another Standing Rock population center. Eventually, Harrison said, she wants to involve more teens in gardening and marketing their own produce. It’s about saving lives. “We have a high teen-suicide rate, and this is such a healthy activity for kids,” Harrison explained. “I’d like to see after-school gardening going on in youth centers around the reservation.”

Standing Rock is promoting a healthful lifestyle via many tribal projects, including the gardening and buffalo programs (animals in the reservation’s Porcupine District herd shown taking dust baths, at right). That lifeway is not new; it descends from two historical Sioux economies. The Lakota/Dakota buffalo tradition is well known. When that ended with the massive federally sponsored buffalo slaughters of the late 1800s, the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes confined to reservations along the Missouri River and its tributaries quickly replaced it with a less-well-known agriculture-based economy. In fertile, tree-sheltered riparian areas, community members planted household gardens, gathered food and medicine plants, raised livestock and used driftwood and fallen timber for heating, cooking and building, according to an interview in 2000 with the late Sioux elder Philip Lane, who lived on the Standing Rock and Yankton reservations in the early years of the 20th century. Villagers supplemented those foods by fishing and by hunting deer and other game. In today’s parlance, the newly created economy would be called sustainable, since it fit perfectly with existing resources.

That way of living continued until the 1950s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built giant dams along the Missouri and inundated the rich bottomlands. On seven Sioux reservations in Nebraska and North and South Dakota, the closing of the dams’ gates created lakes that flooded valuable farmland, swept away thriving villages and forced families onto the windswept prairie, said Skye. Once self-sufficient, many Sioux were suddenly destitute, homeless and dependent on high-starch, high-saturated-fat government commodity foods. The low-nutrient fast food available during this era took its toll as well, and by the 1960s, diabetes had appeared at Standing Rock, Skye said.

Modern foods are still causing health havoc. Soda pop is one of today’s top drivers of diabetes, said diabetes program staffer Gerald Iron Shield, who conducts home visits to patients. Research bears him out. Scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health announced in 2004 that a large, decade-long study found those who consumed more than one sugared soft drink per day increased their diabetes risk by 80 percent, when compared to those who had just one soda per month. In contrast to those harmful sweets, Iron Shield said, traditional Lakota/Dakota treats included gathered fruits, such as chokecherries, buffalo berries and wild plums, which have healthy natural sugars and plenty of nutrients. “Avoid soda pop, and you improve your chances of avoiding diabetes,” he said.

          The CDC says maintaining a healthy weight is another major way to defend against diabetes. That’s traditional, too, according to Skye. “When I give presentations to our people, I show them a photo of a large group of 19th-century Sioux chiefs. I ask, ‘What do they have that we don’t?’ After the audience hems and haws for awhile, I say, ‘Cheekbones.’ Some of us have gained too much weight and have big, full fry-bread faces. If we want to be healthy, we have to eat right, acquire more of our food through energetic pursuits like hunting, gardening and gathering, and get our cheekbones back,” said Skye, shown above following his own advice and filling his family larder by pheasant hunting.

Returning to old-time traditions for nutrition, including the buffalo ways, is about restoring spiritual as well as physical health at Standing Rock, said Buckley, who recounted the assistance the buffalo gave humans when they first emerged on earth from an underground cave. “One of those who was still underground, Tatanka [buffalo], asked the Creator for permission to follow us up here and help us, and that’s why we have been related ever since.” At the very beginning of this buffalo harvest, Buckley pointed out, the group prayed to the Creator for help in carrying out their tasks in a good way. “For us, everything has a spiritual grounding.”
Back at the buffalo pasture, the young bull’s carcass had been divvied up, and the major hunks of meat were on their way in the back of a pickup to a nearby USDA-approved meat-packing plant, where cuts would be processed before being handed out to tribal members. Just the skin remained. “A good hide for a vision,” Buckley said. He and fellow tribal member Eliot Ward folded it lengthwise and, staggering under its weight, carried it to the back of Buckley’s truck. Tribal members dispersed, returning to home, school or work, and all that was left on the prairie was the blessing. 


c. Stephanie Woodard; video and photographs by Stephanie Woodard.

The Adoption Era, defined: Native Americans expose a forgotten period in their history

A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in November 2011. It was funded in part by the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting. It appears in the anthology Two Worlds: Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects, edited by Trace A. DeMeyer and Patricia Cotter-Busbee.

“I’m an angry Indian,” Roger St. John, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, told the First Nations Repatriation Institute’s second annual adult adoptees’ summit. The elite panel included child-welfare specialists, judges, lawyers, community activists and scholars. The most important experts, according to the organization’s founder/director, Sandra White Hawk, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, were adult adoptees—such as St. John, shown below—who related their experiences at the three-day meeting at the University of Minnesota, in St. Paul.

          “I’m more than glad to tell you I’m pissed off,” continued St. John, a 49-year-old truck driver with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. “I was the youngest of sixteen children, grabbed at age four, along with three older brothers—no paperwork, nothing. The other kids in the family escaped because they took off.” Soon, St. John and his siblings ended up in New York City at Thanksgiving time. The year was 1966: “We were on the front page of the newspaper, along with lots of good talk about the holiday and adoption. We were brought up without our culture, which took a terrible toll on our lives. I grew up angry and miserable.”

St. John’s experience was replicated all over Indian country in the mid-to-late 20th century. The boarding-school era that had begun in the late 1800s was winding down and the abusive residential schools set up to isolate and assimilate Native children were being closed down or turned over to the tribes, a process that was largely completed by the 1970s. Meanwhile, another means of separating Native children from their communities was gathering steam.

The Indian Adoption Project was a federal program that acquired Indian children from 1958 to 1967 with the help of the prestigious Child Welfare League of America; a successor organization, the Adoption Resource Exchange of North America, functioned from 1966 until the early 1970s. Churches were also involved. In the Southwest, the Church of Latter Day Saints took thousands of Navajo children to live in Mormon homes and work on Mormon farms, and the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations swept many more Indian youngsters into residential institutions they ran nationwide, from which some children were then fostered or adopted out. As many as one-third of Indian children were separated from their families between 1941 and 1967, according to a 1976 report by the Association on American Indian Affairs.

“People have heard of the boarding school era and know it was bad, but they don’t know our adoption era even exists,” said White Hawk, shown right, who was taken from her family on the Rosebud reservation as a toddler in the mid-1950s. “A few small studies of adult adoptees have been done, and we’re just learning how to talk about what happened. We need think tanks and conferences and scientific research to explore what occurred and how it affected us.”

Then, White Hawk said, that information can inform current Indian child-welfare cases. “When experts take the stand to testify in a child-welfare hearing [about placement of a child or termination of parental rights, for example], they need academic backup to explain the relationship between, let’s say, suicide and being disconnected from your culture,” she explained. “The courts want Ph.D.-level research to back up what we tell them.”

A paper by Carol Locust, Ph.D., Cherokee, describes Native adoptees suffering from what she calls split-feather syndrome—the damage caused by loss of tribal identity and growing up “different” in an inhospitable world. “Lost Bird” is another term researchers have used to refer to the group, recalling one of the earliest Indian adoptees. A Lakota infant who survived the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee sheltered by the frozen corpse of her mother, she was claimed as a war trophy by a general who named her Lost Bird, according to her biographer, Renee Sansome Flood in Lost Bird of Wounded Knee.

Thanks to copious newspaper coverage of the massacre and its aftermath, Lost Bird became her generation’s celebrity adoptee. However, fame did not save her from a fate that was a harbinger for too many Native children. She endured intolerance and isolation, and when she rebelled as a teenager, was shipped back to her birth family, where she no longer fit in. After a stint in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the loss of three children—two died and she gave away the third, according to Flood—Lost Bird was felled by influenza in 1920, at age 30. “Throughout her life of prejudice, exploitation, poverty, misunderstanding, and disease, she never gave up hope that one day she would find out where she really belonged,” Flood wrote.

At the two summits and other events White Hawk has organized or spoken at since 2003, modern-day adoptees have recounted their dramatic life journeys, sometimes for the first time. “The stories vary from the most abusive to the most beautiful, but that’s not the point,” she said. “Even in loving families, Native adoptees live without a sense of who they are. Love doesn’t provide identity.”

“I never felt sorry for myself,” said St. John, “but if I ever got hurt, it wounded me to my soul because I felt no one was there for me.” In recent years, he has found his birth mother and connected emotionally with his adoptive parents. “They were so young, in their twenties, when a priest convinced them to adopt four Sioux boys from South Dakota. It was too much—for all of us.”

During the adoption era almost any issue—from minor to serious—could precipitate the loss of an Indian child. Among Native people on multiple reservations interviewed prior to the summit, two said they were separated from their families after hospital stays as young children, one for a rash, the other for tuberculosis. A third was seized at his babysitter’s home; when his mother tried to rescue him, she was jailed, he said. A fourth recalled that he was taken after his father died, though his mother did not want to give him up. A fifth described being snatched, along with siblings, because his grandfather was a medicine man who wouldn’t give up his traditional ways. As in St. John’s case, no home studies or comparable investigations appear to have been done to support the removals. “Indians had no way to stop white people from taking their kids,” said yet another interviewee. “We had no rights.”

Eighty-five percent of the Native children removed from their families from 1941 to 1967 were placed in non-Indian homes or institutions, said the Association on American Indian Affairs report. The aim, according to White Hawk, was assimilation and extinction of the tribes as entities, as their younger generations were removed, year after year—just as it had been with the boarding schools.

“We can’t be afraid to use words like genocide,” said summit participant Anita Fineday, J.D., White Earth Band of Ojibwe, managing director of Casey Family Programs’ Indian child-welfare programs and a former chief judge at White Earth Tribal Nation. “The end game, the official federal policy, was that the tribes wouldn’t exist.”

As Native adoptees struggle to recover their identities, some have trouble accessing their original birth certificates. Many states seal adoption records to protect the confidentiality of the process. “In a state that does this, you have to be a detective to find out where you’re from,” said White Hawk.

Or lucky. According to Sharon Whiterabbit, Ho-Chunk Nation, a business consultant and internationally known rights advocate, the son she’d given up as a teen mother found her because he lost his social security number. To get a new one, he had to petition the courts for his original birth certificate and, using the information he found there, tracked her down.

Could something be done on a tribal level to keep adoption records open and available for those who want them?, Whiterabbit asked the group. This summit was about solutions, as well as problems, and Fineday had an answer: “Tribes have a right to know their members, so we can demand the records. We’re not requesting, though. We’re demanding. At White Earth, we were successful with this tack in a couple of cases. When the [adoption] documents arrived, I got goosebumps.” Carrie Imus, director of social services and former chairperson of the Hualapai Tribal Nation, suggested that tribes pre-enroll children who are being adopted out, to ease their return.

According to Terry Cross, M.S.W., Seneca Nation of Indians and founder/director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, nontribal child-welfare workers usually did not recognize the large support network that Native children enjoy. “In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, children were removed from Indian families because auntie was taking care of them, and the system called that neglect,” said Cross, shown left during his lecture at the summit. “But it was simply a different cultural way of meeting the child’s needs. To this day, social workers who remove Native children don’t know what an Indian family is and what supports are available throughout the extended family and tribe.”

Decades of stolen children caused unresolved personal and community-wide grief and high rates of alcoholism, suicide and other social ills that stalk individuals and even tribes to this day. “It took me years to realize nothing was wrong with me and the response I had to the trauma I’d experienced as an adoptee,” said Sandra Davidson, White Earth Band of Ojibwe and a program manager for Praxis International, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating violence toward women and children.

Often referred to as “historical trauma,” the pain can’t be cured with quick-fix programs, said Cross. “In Canada, we looked at places where suicide is the highest, and it’s where the culture is most broken down,” he said. “In such cases, do you start suicide-prevention programs, or do you restore balance in the community through more self-governance? I have found that unless you change a community systemically, you can’t affect the symptoms of imbalance, such as suicide.”

Linear thinking—see a problem, apply a solution—is ineffective, he added. “Mainstream society’s services are so fractured. Medical doctors get the body, psychologists get the mind, judges get the social context, and clergy get the spirit. But, in fact, we are all whole people, and real solutions have to address that.”

Cross pointed to the sweat lodge as a way of caring for the whole person. “It’s done in groups and includes teachers, stories and protocols for how to conduct oneself, which relate to the social context,” he said. “You sweat, and you experience aromatic herbs, which heal the body; you participate in prayers and songs, which are in the realm of spirit; and when you come out, you feel better and have moments of clarity that are aspects of mind.”

That type of healing is required for entire communities, as well as for individuals, and is a part of what Cross called the “remembering” of indigenous cultures. Colonization has pulled indigenous cultures apart worldwide, as colonizers have taken land and resources. “They also usurp sovereignty and attack spirituality,” he said. “The last item is removal of children to educate them in the language and worldview of the colonizer. Now, though, we Native people are remembering our traditions and re-membering our communities. We’re healing from within.”

            The adoptees’ stories must be articulated so they can heal, so their communities can be restored, and so the experiences can be help remedy Indian country’s ongoing child-welfare crisis, said White Hawk. The percentage of Native children cared for outside the home remains disproportionately high across the nation, despite the Indian Child Welfare Act, a 1978 law that sought to ameliorate the situation—but has yet to do so. In Alaska, Native children make up 20 percent of the child population but 51 percent of the children in foster care; in South Dakota, Indian kids are 15 percent of the state’s youngsters, but 53 percent of those in foster case. Other states topping the list for skewed numbers include Minnesota, where the overrepresentation of Native kids in foster care increased substantially from 2004 to 2009; Montana; Nebraska; and North Dakota.

Another summit attendee, Gina Jackson, M.S.W., Te-Moak Western Shoshone Tribe, is educating judges through a model-court program of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, in Nevada. The program helps jurists understand ICWA requirements and other best practices. “We’ve signed up 66 jurisdictions and will help them work for compliance,” she said.

Education of the judiciary is crucial, said Arizona state judge Kathleen Quigley, J.D.: “ICWA cases are not the bulk of a judge’s work, so many are not familiar with the law.” And the concept of the “active efforts” needed under ICWA to find and notify a child’s tribe of a possible removal from the family is not dealt with sufficiently in case law, she said.

“At this meeting, it’s been critical for me to hear from folks who’ve been in the system and to understand how being taken from their families and communities affected their lives,” Jackson said. “I want everyone who works with kids and families to hear these voices.” Michael Petoskey, J.D., Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and chief judge of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, agreed. “Thank you for sharing your stories,” he told the survivors of the adoption era. “We judges may underestimate the impact on people’s lives when we terminate parental rights.”

“Your saying that is medicine for those of us who’ve been through this,” White Hawk responded. Going forward, the group will work to affect policy and will organize a day of prayer and healing for Friday, November 2, 2012. “We’re hoping to have events at state capitols nationwide,” said George McCauley, Omaha, head of the First Nations Repatriation Institute’s board of directors.

Jerry Dearly, shown near right, the renowned Oglala Lakota storyteller and educator who serves as White Hawk’s advisor, informed the group that healing is about identity, understood on a profound level. “You have to find out who you really are, who you really were,” he said. “Go to a quiet place where it’s just you and the Creator. All of us are beautiful, but you have to believe in yourself.”

“Now I have cancer and am waiting for an operation,” St. John told the summit. “But I believe in myself, and I can survive anything.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Stephanie Woodard.