Our Approach to “Taking Back Tribalism”
Wóglag mašípi cha omíglakin kte. Han mítakuyepi, wasicuiya Lori Pourier emáciyapi nahan Lakhol mícháže kin, Maká Cítominí Omání Win emáciyape kstó. Wazí Ahánhan emátanhan, na lehánl Hésápa él wahti ye.1
It lifts my soul when asked to speak and I introduce myself in my Lakota language. To some, it may seem a mere gesture, but as a Lakota woman it is a simple act of tribal sovereignty, considering that three generations before me literally had many of their Lakota customs, cultural practices, and languages stolen from them.
My Mother Marilyn and I are of generations that did not grow up speaking our language, although both of my Grandmothers were speakers. You see, they were the last generation of fluent Lakota speakers in our family. My Grandmothers both attended Indian Boarding Schools in South Dakota, established by Catholic and Episcopal missionaries. There is very little understanding in American history about federally-sponsored Indian boarding schools and their devastating impact on generations of Native peoples, our cultures, our identities, our languages, and our tribal customs.
To explain that impact, I need to step back just a bit into history, to a time of great strength and rejoicing among my People, a moment that turned out to be the beginning of a time of great sorrow. The Great Sioux Nation and its tribal allies had just won a victory in the war against the US Cavalry. The United States asked for peace, which led to the negotiation and signing of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. We basically told the US that we would keep all of our territories and the settlers would stay out. The US agreed. Then, within two years, the US had broken the treaty and illegally entered our homelands. Fueled by belief in a manifest destiny, White settlers invaded tribal territories, while state governors — backed by the US Cavalry — formed militias that violated treaties and massacred tribal people.
In the aftermath, the federal government decided it was cheaper and easier to assimilate Indians, rather than try to kill them in expensive wars. And so Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania was founded, and became the first of the boarding schools to directly impact my family. Carlisle, established by US Captain Richard Henry Pratt, operated from 1879 to 1918. Pratt established Carlisle with support from the US government, to “Americanize” American Indians. His intent was to civilize and assimilate Indians into American society. He is infamous for stating his belief that if he could remove Indians from their “savage” surroundings, he could “kill the Indian and save the man.”
As he said in his 1892 speech at the 19th Annual Conference on Charities and Corrections, “It is a great mistake to think that the Indian is born an inevitable savage. He is born a blank, like all the rest of us. Left in the surroundings of savagery, he grows to possess a savage language, superstition, and life. We, left in the surroundings of civilization, grow to possess a civilized language, life, and purpose. Transfer the infant White to the savage surroundings, he will grow to possess a savage language, superstition, and habit. Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.”2 Pratt and people like him kidnapped or coerced thousands of Native people — just like my Grandmothers — to their schools, far away from home, in the hope that they would graduate as real Americans.
Indian boarding schools, Indian wars, Indian reservations, treaty violations, federal assimilation policies, and Christian missionaries are imprinted in the blood memory of my Relatives. Today, when I hear the negative or toxic discourse on “tribalism,” my response is one of exasperation.3 In a 1972 New York Times article, Vine Deloria Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe), renowned author and activist, wrote, “Indian people have managed to maintain a viable and cohesive social order in spite of everything the non-Indian society has thrown at them in an effort to break the tribal structure”.4 “Americanizing” American Indians has been achieved through attempts to colonize and dehumanize us for being tribal. For more than 150 years, we have been relegated to the role of simply an “American Tribe,” and not by choice.
Indigenous tribal beliefs and customs were based on the responsibility and well-being of their peoples for generations to come. In his book Custer Died for Your Sins, Deloria defines the “Tribe” outside of the federal context, as “natural peoples” and “an all-purpose entity which is expected to serve in all areas of life”.5 Deloria noted that Red Cloud (Oglala Lakota), while negotiating the Ft. Laramie Treaty with the US Government, “looked out for the welfare of his people and that in exchange for the land that the band of the Oglala’s receive rations [sic] for seven generations.”6 At that time, Red Cloud showed that he was a good man, or a good human.
Indigenous Peoples are the original inhabitants and stewards of this land; many of their ancestral names translate to “Peoples” or “the Original Peoples.” Tribalism links directly to our ancestral languages, our teachings of what it means to be a good human, and our relationship to others. Furthermore, our understanding of our relationship to this land stems from Indigenous belief systems that teach us that our very survival on this planet depends on those relationships. These belief systems spanned the entire Continent long before the arrival of the invaders. What would the socio-economic and political system look like today if US society valued tribal knowledge in the same ways Indigenous Peoples did and do? Tribalism is at the heart of our culture differences, which continue today.
When speaking or praying in the Lakota language, we say, “Mítákuye Oyás’in,” which means “we are all related,” and which stems from a cultural and spiritual belief system that we as human beings are connected to the natural world — the four-legged, the winged ones, the plant life — all living things on Uncí Maká (Grandmother Earth). This concept deeply contrasts with the English definition of tribalism, which is narrowly defined to mean a political division or a group of people with shared experiences.
I have served as the president of First Peoples Fund for twenty years, where I am honored to work with culture bearers who have dedicated their entire adult lives to reclaiming, restoring, and rebuilding Indigenous knowledge systems and traditional lifeways. They are generous, and selflessly give of themselves. They are committed to a livelihood within their original territories and equally committed to passing on ancestral knowledge to the next generation of culture bearers. They are not only FPF grantees, but my exemplars.
Like them, I will continue to stand strong, as when I introduced myself in my Lakota language — first and foremost as a citizen of my tribe, the Oglala Lakota Nation. My daughter, Shahiyela and I are current language learners. We are learning the Lakota language as taught by a young tribal member on our reservation who teaches children at Red Cloud Indian School (formerly Holy Rosary Mission School, led by Jesuits who Red Cloud invited in 1868). Our language teaches us who we are within the universe, our relationship to others, to the land, and to all living things. During our ceremonies, we pray in our language as a way of remaining connected to our Ancestors and Spirits. Today, I am grateful and feel fortunate to be relearning our Language, with all its depth of knowledge and wisdom. I am grateful to be living on my ancestral homelands, He Sapa, where the blood memory of my ancestors runs through my veins. You see, when you lose so much in your own homelands — spiritual and cultural beliefs — you hold tightly onto your “Tribe.”
We are still here. We are resilient. Mitakuye Osayin.
Lori Lea Pourier (Oglala Lakota) is president & CEO of First Peoples Fund. She grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and is a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe. Pourier has been involved in the arts, social justice, and community development fields for nearly three decades and has led First Peoples Fund since 1999.
- English translation: “I was asked to say something so I am going to introduce myself. Hello, my relatives. My White name is… and my Lakota name is Woman Who Walks the Earth. I am from Pine Ridge and I live in the Black Hills (S.D.).” Note: the letter accents for the Lakota language only represent those available on Word.
- Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction. Official Report. 1892, 46–59. Reprinted in Pratt, Richard H. “The Advantages of Mingling Indians and Whites.” Americanizing the American Indians, Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880–1900, edited by Francis Paul Prucha, Harvard University. Press, 1973, 26–27.
- See, for instance: Kastelic, Sarah. “Taking Back ‘Tribalism’: What We All Can Learn from Tribal Nations.” Nonprofit Quarterly, 25 July, 2019.
- Deloria, Vine, Jr. “This Country Was a Lot Better Off When the Indians Were Running It.” The New York Times [New York], 8 Mar. 1970, Section SM, 17.
- Deloria, Vine, Jr. Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. 1969. University of Oklahoma Press, 1988, 264–265.
- ibid, 148–149.