Háŋ Mitakuyepi, Hailey emáčiyapi kštó. Sičháŋǧu Oyáte él wathí. Malákȟota kštó. Nahaŋ eyuhaŋ Čhaŋté waštéya napé čhiyúzapi kštó. Hello, my name is Hailey '19. I come from Rosebud. I am Lakota. And I shake your hands with a good heart.
I am the missing pages in your textbook. I am the remains of attempted genocide. I was not meant to be here, but I am here, and I have made it my responsibility to reveal my people’s beauty to the world. This used to be my home. It was a place where you could find peace no matter where your foot touched the ground, but the sad reality is that our home has been diminished to the size of a crumb on the map of America. We have been neglected and oppressed for centuries. Now, as a result, I live in a broken society disconnected from our Lakota culture. But like the dandelion you keep trying to kill, we will rise. We will keep coming back because our beauty deserves to be appreciated, even if you cannot see it.
My home before the outside influences was calm and peaceful, because we lived by our Lakota values: bravery, generosity, wisdom, and honor. We honored our elders, who were the wisdom of our community. We took good care of our women because they created life. Our hair was sacred, so we let it grow long, and when a loved one died, we would cut off our braids in honor of their life. Today, most of the males in my nation have short hair. Those missing braids represent the death of our traditions. In my culture, we honor and take care of each other before we care for ourselves. That is why I’m here. I am here for them. I am here for my tiwahe, my family. This tradition applies to animals too, when we hunted, we thanked the spirit of the buffalo for offering us food and warmth. Our ceremonies were central to life back then, but in 1884, they were made illegal and remained so until 1978. By then, we had almost completely lost our way of life. We had such beautiful lives, we lived with the Earth, not on it. We were not savages, we were not dirty, we were beautiful. And even though I never got to live through those years, I miss it. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you more about who we used to be because the traditions were lost through generations of government suppression.
As we lost our homelands, we also lost a lot of our people. And when an elder dies, a whole library is burnt to the ground. The traditions leave with them, and our children are left uncultured. I am one of those children. But they did not leave me with nothing..I can still feel the pain of my ancestors. They were left to starve after all the buffalo had been killed by non-native settlers. They were murdered for simply protecting our relatives and Unčí Makȟá, Grandmother Earth. I can feel their last words echoing in my head, telling me that it is okay to be the color of the earth. I can feel their last breath traveling through the years, still able to reach me as if it happened just today. A breath still warm with life, but only for a second...then the warmth disappears into the stars, where our ancestors go to watch over us. And in that one second, I can feel all the heartbreaking abuse we were forced to endure. They died for just living! Do you know what that feels like? Do you know that all those years of pain spiraled into broken families and lost languages?
My relatives are taking their own lives now. I have seen death with my own eyes. My ancestors fought for all of us to be alive today. We would not be here if it weren’t for their resiliency. I am on the outside trying to fix what we did not break, but while I am here, my people at home continue living in an environment they cannot breathe in. Because the air is thick...it’s filled with a way of life that is not our own. We breathe in the toxins that have been pumped into our lands: alcohol, drugs, depression, and shame. This is NOT how we lived. Now we go through life feeling angry at ourselves, and most of us never know why. It becomes an uncomfortable void in our lives, and it hurts, but we still don’t know why.
Eventually, we begin to fill that void with unhealthy lifestyles that are hard to escape. But then when we realize that that void is actually the absence of our culture, we begin the healing process. Because that question “why” is our spirit trying to reconnect with our indigenous blood. The faith still exists within us all, but it’s becoming harder and harder to reconnect because the pain is buried deep. And those with the shovel are not willing to dig us out. We didn’t put ourselves in the ground...we were buried and left alone while the rest of the world chose to move on. And if one of our own chooses to be the person to dig us out, they must find their way out first. I choose to be that person. I am actively trying to save my people, hoping to make it home in time to save that little girl who is so ASHAMED to be in her own brown skin, that she would rather be in the cold, brown dirt alone. I refuse to let any more of my people suffer.
I will find the lost voices my colonizer made sure we would never have, because what they failed to realize is that my spirit is stronger than anything they could ever take from me. My ancestors fought for my life against a cruel man. WE are still here! This continent was once alive with brown skin, braids, and hundreds of indigenous nations. Now, we are only 2% of America’s population. You may think that the destruction of Native American lives is something that happened in the past but you’re wrong. We still face racism in our own state, we are still being oppressed and forced to assimilate. We are trying our best to stay true to ourselves, but many of my people are giving up and I am so scared, because at this rate, one day, we could all be gone. These are real problems, these are real issues, this is my life. My culture is disappearing and I’m doing the best I can to save us. I need you to see me, I. AM. STILL. HERE!
I had to leave my own home to find direction and gain perspective on where I stand. Funny how I had to come to New Hampshire to truly see who I am. It’s never too late to reclaim my identity. And I will be OK if I am not seen because I see me. I know the journey that awaits me, and I will keep moving because even if I appear to walk alone, I am never alone..my ancestors are always guiding my spirit. They give me strength to stand in front of you today. I have to be strong. Every single day is a fight for me, every day is worth a life back home. I am doing this for them. But one day, I will make sure that we will never have to escape our own home just to find that our purpose was within us all along. You can try to bury me, but I will keep coming back. I am that beautiful dandelion that you cannot kill. I will keep coming back until you see my beauty. I am proud of who I am, I am proud of my heritage. And to be clear, I am not an Indian, I am Indigenous, I am Lakota. I will not be simplified. I feel invisible in my own home, in my own country. See me, see us, be aware. We all have the power to create change, to fix what is not right, and to better the lives of those who are damaged. We need voices, actions, and willingness to search for healthier lives. Ómakiya ye, help me.
We are all here on Grandmother Earth together, we are all neighbors, we must take care of one another. Mitakuye Oyasiŋ, we are all related. Hailey emačiyapi kšto, and I will be who my people need me to be. Wópila.