The Question She Asked Me

the12 editor Uncategorized 17 Comments

By Brian Keepers

“So what’s the story of the Sioux?” she asks me.

The question comes whistling out of the blue, or so it seems, and catches me off guard. “What do you mean?” I say.

“I mean, I see the name all over the place—Sioux Falls, Sioux Center, Sioux City, Sioux County…so where are they? I don’t see many Sioux here. Where’d they all go?”

I look down at my coffee and hastily scour the file cabinets of my memory. Surely I learned something about the story of Sioux Native Americans in grade school. I grew up in a town a couple counties away, far enough east out of the “Sioux pocket.” But the Little Sioux River cuts right through my hometown. Didn’t I do a report on Sitting Bull when I was in the fifth grade? I vaguely remember it—drew a picture of him. Wasn’t he a Sioux?

I look up and blink, both intrigued by her question and embarrassed by my ignorance. “To be honest, I don’t know.” I say. “I feel like I should know. I’ve only been back here for two months now, but I grew up in this region. That’s a story I need to know.”

She is a prophetic presence, my friend and beloved sister in the Lord. She’s visiting for the week, bouncing between Orange City and Sioux Center, hitting the preaching circuit and leading conversations on racial reconciliation. We’ve known each other for a while, were fellow pastors in Holland, Michigan. My church on the north side, hers on the south side in the core of the city.

One of the ways she leans into her prophetic calling so well is through her curiosity. She asks questions that poke and pester and nibble like these pesky black flies that are all over the place. Questions she suspects not enough people are asking. Questions like: “What happened to the Sioux?”

She goes on to tell me about a story she read that morning in one of the regional newspapers. It was about a Native American who had been arrested for armed robbery at the Crown Casino in Sioux Falls. “Do these kinds of stories make the newspaper often?” she asks. “Is this the only kind of story that gets told about Native Americans here? Like, what about when a new chief is named or a class graduates from high school and students go off to college? Do those stories make the newspaper too?”

Another provocative question.

“I wonder if one place to begin a ministry of reconciliation in this region,” she says, “is to name the hidden wound of what happened to the Sioux people. And where they are now. The hidden wound that remains beneath the good soil of this place. What does it mean to give a place a name that is now empty of the people whose name it bears? A place that has forgotten their story?”

We talk some more about the power of narratives—the way the stories we tell about ourselves and “the other” perpetuate stereotypes and mask privilege and create a barrier to truth and healing and reconciliation. Then the conversation turns to other things—ministry, family, how it goes with our soul.

She boards a plane a couple days later to return home, but these questions, that conversation, it won’t leave me alone. That was two weeks ago. It’s still haunting me.

Where does one begin, particularly a person of privilege like myself, with daring to address the “hidden wound” (to borrow Wendell Berry’s phrase)? Had my friend not probed, I’m not sure I would even be asking the question, “What happened to the Sioux?” And engaging the hidden wound is difficult for so many of us who are part of the dominant race because we get trapped in “white guilt,” stuck in a quagmire of shame. It’s also difficult because I’m not even sure how to engage the conversation, not fully aware of the lens of privilege I bring to it and the way I frame it. I don’t know what I don’t know.

But maybe the place to begin is where my friend began: with questions. And curiosity. It takes courage and humility to raise a question like this and be willing to stay with it long enough, through the discomfort and the shame, until it opens something up or, even better, opens us up and moves us to action.

And maybe is also begins with narrative. The narratives we hold and that, in turn, hold us. Stories are stubborn things. “Nobody would have thought of objecting to the retelling of a well-known story,” writes Wendell Berry. But we must. The work of reconciliation begins with owning these false narratives and having the courage to object to them. To be open to other narratives. Narratives that arise from the voices of those about whom the story is being told.

It seems small, but I went to the local library the other day to search for books about the Sioux Nation and especially for history written by Native Americans themselves. The selection was thin (which also says something), but I came walking out with a small armful of books I’m eager to read.

There’s so much that is unclear to me about what I can do, but this seems like as a good a place as any to start: with some questions, a humble curiosity, and an openness to a different story, even when that story is hard to hear.

*This post is dedicated to the Rev. Dr. Denise Kingdom Grier, the lead pastor of Maple Avenue Ministries in Holland, Michigan.  Thank you for your friendship, Denise, and for the way you continue to teach and challenge me.

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.

 

Comments 17

  1. Thank you, Brian, for this reflection and thank you, Denise, for raising the question. Perhaps we should all think about the places we live and work and wonder what happened to the people who lived here originally. I so appreciated Denise’s question about the stories that appear in the newspaper–are they all about the bad things rather than the good or celebrative happenings in a community. We have become a very negative society and it seems that many forms of media promote this negativity. How can we in the church, specifically the RCA, promote a positive culture rather than a culture of negativity?

    1. Thanks, Willa. I appreciate your question, “How can we in the church, specifically the RCA, promote a positive culture rather than a culture of negativity?”

  2. Brian, your friend raises fine questions. For beginners, 1) the Sioux were not the first here–see material on Blood Run, for example: https://iowaculture.gov/history/sites/blood-run-national-historic-landmark. Then, 2) consider Pipestone National Monument: https://www.nps.gov/pipe/index.htm. Third, there are plentiful works on the Sioux. Keep in mind the 3 main divisions of the Sioux Confederacy: a) the Dakota/Santee, b) the Nakota/Yankton-Yantonai, and c) the Lakota/Teton. Fourth, consider starting with this book that I have found works well with students: Anton Treuer, EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT INDIANS BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK (https://nwciowa.on.worldcat.org/oclc/769430593). Fifth: start following Mark Charles: https://wirelesshogan.com/. And, finally, you might also consider taking a look at two of my sites: https://nicrs.wordpress.com/ and http://nwciowa.libguides.com/americanindians. I’d be happy to chat with you if you care to stop by the NWC library on M,T, or W when I am in (part-time)!

  3. Our church had a wonderful adult ed series on the RCA/CRC and Native Americans a couple of years ago. Jim Schaap, Kevin McMahan, and others presented. It was an important series – one that was memorable and world-view altering.

    1. Sarah, sounds like a wonderful series. Is this something they did especially for you, or is there some kind of curriculum you used? Jim Schaap’s name has come up several times as a resource.

  4. Thanks, Brian, for important questions focused on an intriguing culture. I suspect Jim Schaap has a story or two…………….

  5. White people learning about Native Americans, if you don’t want to offend, have to walk a very careful path — which includes realizing that many people have asked questions like this, sometimes to the point where the questions and ignorance become offensive. One great thing about Anton Treuer’s book (“Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask”) is that he doesn’t back away from any question, no matter how seemingly trivial or silly sounding. However, he is being extremely gracious in that book, and he’s writing specifically for the purpose of creating a safe space for white people to learn. (He is Anishinaabe, by the way, otherwise known as Ojibwe.)

    I teach a course on Native American Literatures, and one of the things I have to confront my students with early on is their own privilege, but not in a blithe way — rather, they have to realize that the very land on which they live (I’m in Minnesota, but the same holds true in both Michigan and Iowa) is governed by a treaty which has not been kept. So Native people have starved or been cheated so we can be on this land. We have the liberty of being ignorant of such things because we’re not the group that has been cheated. But my students soon realize that the cheating wasn’t a one-time thing, but it has happened again and again and again.

    One place to start before any talk of a “ministry of reconciliation” would be learning about the treaties; also about the Dawes Act, which forced allotment of the land on tribes, with the remainder sold from under them; the Major Crimes Act, which made every felony on most reservations a federal offense; and the policies of “termination” in the 1950s. Vine Deloria Jr.’s book “Custer Died for Your Sins” lays these things out fairly clearly, though Deloria definitely (and justly) has an ax to grind.

    No true reconciliation can happen if we don’t realize how much whites have to answer for. Tony Treuer himself acknowledges that many whites living today had no part in defrauding Indians of land and resources. But he, and others, also point out that even if we ourselves didn’t cheat Native peoples directly, we are still benefiting in huge ways from the cheating that took place, and Native people are still paying the price. So if we’re not “guilty” of the cheating, we are still responsible for its consequences.

    Learning is an excellent place to start. To learn about specifically Lakota culture, I would suggest Ella Cara Deloria’s novel “Waterlily.” Although she uses the term “Dakota” for the people in the book, they would actually be Lakota. Ella Deloria was Vine Deloria Jr.’s aunt, and she was the daughter of Philip Deloria, one of the first Dakota Episcopal priests. She was also trained in anthropological field work by Franz Boas, generally seen as the founder of American anthropology, and she has an incredibly deft touch in imparting ethnographic information in enjoyable fictional form. Severt Young Bear and Ron Theisz’s book “Standing In the Light” is a good contemporary discussion of Lakota life and culture, in a sort of hybrid oral-written form.

    As to where the Lakota / Dakota / Nakota people are now — for the Lakota another good book is “Black Hills, White Justice,” by Edward Lazarus. Just the frontispiece maps of the different land boundaries determined by treaties from 1851 onwards show the staggering amount of land taken from the “Teton Sioux.” (The term “Sioux,” by the way, probably comes from an Ojibwe insult meaning “those snakes” — but it’s the term formalized in law in several places.) For Dakota people, a book called “What Does Justice Look Like?” by Waziyatawin, is something that will shake you in your boots; “Waziyatawin” means “Northern Woman” in Dakota, and she writes about the Dakota homelands that used to be along the Minnesota River, extending into Iowa and South Dakota. For a variety of reasons (including demographic numbers) there is less published by Nakota people, but the books listed here will definitely get you going.

    I’ve gone on too long here — I apologize if I ended up sounding preachy. That is all.

    1. Post
      Author

      James, wow. Thank you so much for all of this. It is incredibly helpful. And I appreciate your caution about “walking a very careful path” with these questions. In all honesty, this is usually where my reluctance resides. I don’t want to offend. But that also contributes to my ongoing ignorance and silence. Your reply is a gift to me. Thanks again.

  6. Thank you for this.

    I admire the work the CRC is doing Indigenous justice, especially here in Canada. I would love to see the RCA participate in “The Blanket Exercise” at a General Synod meeting, much like the CRC did this past year (or was it last year) at their General Synod meeting. That might be a good first step for the denomination in recognizing some history and the impact of colonization on Turtle Island.

Leave a Reply