Guest Column: The Meaning of Native American Day from the Perspective of a Lakota Woman
By Shawnee Red Bear
October 8, 2021
This guest column is written by Shawnee Red Bear, who works in Congressman Johnson’s Washington DC office
This Monday, October 11th, marks the 31st year South Dakota will celebrate “Native American Day”. South Dakota is one of just 14 states that observes Native American Day instead of Columbus Day.
South Dakota is home to the 9 tribes of Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota speaking Natives. As a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Lakota woman, Native American Day is about more than just honoring Native American history and culture.
My entire upbringing revolved around being “Indian”. In fact, I always assumed “Indians” were everywhere. My summers were filled with native traditions like attending powwows, an event filled with dance, song, and socializing; chokecherry picking, a fruit indigenous to much of North America; and hanging out with my Unci (Lakota for grandma). As a child, I paid little attention to life outside the reservation.
As I got older, I began to learn about the dark history that plagued my people. Forced assimilation and western religions attempted to strip our ancestors of their cultural identity.
Outside of states like South Dakota, the stories of the thousands of Native children who were taken from their families against their will and shipped off to boarding schools to be “civilized” are not often told. Hundreds of those children never made it home and tribes are still working to get their remains back.
“Celebrating” Native American Day doesn’t come with flag waving and parades, it is more solemn than that. As a 30-year-old single mother residing on the Pine Indian Reservation, I am only a few generations removed from these atrocities that attempted to eradicate my people and my culture.
But this isn’t the end of our story. Across the country, native people have begun to reclaim our cultural identity, revitalize our native languages, and bring awareness to our tragic history.
I am excited to see Lakota language preservation programs being funded and offered in our communities. I am proud of the work that the Murdered Missing Indigenous Women movement has done to bring justice to families. I am grateful that the remains of Native children who died at Carlisle Indian School are being returned home to Rosebud Sioux Tribe here in South Dakota. These are all steps in the right direction to reconcile the past.
For me, Native American Day means knowing that it is no longer discouraged to be a strong Lakota Winyan (woman). I am proud of how far my people have come.
Shawnee Red Bear is the Fall 2021 Ben Reifel Fellow in Rep. Dusty Johnson’s Office, a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe Veteran Service Officer & Director of Veteran Services. She served in the United States Marine Corps from 2009-2013 and currently resides in Pine Ridge.