Lydia in the Doorway of Home

On a steamy July late afternoon in 2001, Lydia Whirlwind Soldier, a Sicangu Lakota writer and an original founder of our Oak Lake Writers’ Society (OLWS) of Oceti Sakowin (Dakota, Lakota, Nakota) writers, stood in the frame of a doorway in the Oak Lake lodge. I had just been invited the previous year to apply to become a member of the society, and summer 2001 was my first annual retreat. Our tribal writers’ group meets every summer for one week near the little undeveloped Oak Lake in eastern South Dakota underneath cinematic skies. I had just parked on the grass outside and come in with my suitcase. I was choosing a bed in the bunk room. The bare bulb overhead glowed yellow and the heat lingered unseen and heavy like a ghost. Years later, I was told a spirit indeed resides in that room. But in that early July evening when I first arrived at Oak Lake, I felt only Lydia, her fleshly presence at my back. I turned around. Did she speak? Or did I feel her there first? The space between us seemed wide in the austere room that is not large. Lydia in the doorway did not enter. She stayed at a distance. A beautiful, powerful woman, she probably introduced herself, but mostly I remember her getting to the point. She placed between us soft, assertive words: “Our culture is the best culture.” Were they an offering or an admonition? I have never been sure. I don’t remember if I understood the depth of her statement that day twenty years ago when I was just home from circling the planet.

The lodge is down a winding two-lane country highway, and the last leg down a gravel road in Brookings County, South Dakota. It’s about 15 miles from South Dakota State University. The building is comprised of a rustic high-ceilinged main room with many tables for eating or writing, two single toilets, a couple rooms with bunkbeds, and a kitchen for making communal meals. The kitchen reminds me of the kitchens in small town church chapels, last remodeled and dishes bought in 1952.

That summer of 2001, before beginning a Ph.D. at the edge of the Pacific in Santa Cruz, California, I was in a space of contemplation about place and travel, life and death, spirits and journeys. For years I came home at holidays and in summer for dancing and drums, and in the occasional hard spring for funerals. After my grandmothers died in the mid 1990s, I came home less often. I had been living away from South Dakota for 18 years in Minneapolis, Boston, Denver, and in Indonesia near Jakarta. But in that summer of 2001, I began again a yearly ritual of homecoming. After so much global travel, I wanted to sit quietly on solid, flat earth with other Oceti Sakowin writers. I wanted to breathe in the sweet grass and cool evening air. I wanted to see midnight lights dance inside storm clouds. I wanted to inhale the smell of black earth lifted by hard rain. I came home in part for the love of my life, prairie skies.

I was a traveler born to travelers, except for my great-grandmother who would chastise my mother, “Why do you have to be such a vagabond?” I inherited the inclination to travel from my Dakota mom, and perhaps, if such things are heritable, from my white father who had very little to do with raising me. They both traveled nonstop throughout my childhood on four and eighteen wheels respectively.

Ghosts on the Road

At dusk I speed by

and trees lope across

the field like long-armed Sasquatch.

A mist-bodied fox

darts from the willowy grass

and dissipates in my lights.

Vaporous woman and man

slowly are pacing away.

Near sleep on the road,

inevitably I catch ghosts

tracking the break-down,

weaving amidst lines,

luminous, that guide.

I will not drive this night through

aside the steady moon-eye.

Do not discern road-trackers

from blood-flesh-deer in that flash

of snapping open

eyes on the earth world.

Unaccustomed to glimpsing

spirit shifts in the waking,

I wane at the Vacancy,

blinking, waver from the road.

Will make the last day only

of dancing, Mother

time-marking with eyes and feet

though she’ll not assuage us herself

from her nights and roads,

refuting sleep with ghosts.[1]

I saw my father once or twice a year throughout my childhood. I have now not seen him since 1997. I consider it his loss more than mine. I cannot speak for my two sisters, his other two children, and their feelings about his mostly absence from our childhoods. Perhaps they feel different. We had many women though—mostly Dakota and some made kin—to care for us and to instruct us, although they weren’t always hands-on. We learned a lot by their example and occasional firm corrections. But our father was an interesting character, and I am grateful for that. He was a trucker and did not have a permanent residence half the time. My dad was a bit of stereotype, which makes for a great story. Maybe it’s the US American stereotype of wheels to the road that I inherited? It’s laughable, but when I saw that Burt Reynolds’ film Smokey and the Bandit when I was 10 years old, Jerry Reed’s trucker character Cledus or “Snowman” reminded me so much of my father. He looked and sounded too a bit like my dad, just more southern. This was in the days of CB radio themed t-shirts and paraphernalia, and my dad knew all the trucker lingo. It’s hilarious to remember how impressed we kids were when we heard him use that vernacular on his CB. But unlike Cledus, my dad did not go home to his wife and children in the country at the end of his long hauls. Nor would my mother have been there in rollers waiting on the front porch to meet him if he did come home. She did wear rollers, but she didn’t wait at home on my dad.

I suppose it’s hard to be married when two bodies crisscross the continent in different directions, middle to east, to west, to north and south, back to middle again. My parents separated when I was three years old, my next youngest sister was two years old, and my youngest sister was not yet known to be on the way. After that, like before, I often found safe and calm shelter in the quiet, clean small-town houses of my Native grandmothers. Like my dad, we only saw his side of the family once or twice a year, although his parents only lived 20 miles away near another small South Dakota farming town. They were culturally odd to me, German-American farm people who cooked good country food, drank a lot of cheap beer straight out of cans, drove their cars and tractors for decades, and went to Lutheran church. My grandmother on that side was the Saturday afternoon cleaning lady at the Corn Exchange Bank. My parents migrated for many of the same reasons I have, to make a living and, I think, for an irrepressible desire to see what was down the road the next 100 miles, what opportunities were in the next state or city, and to run from what had been difficult in their respective childhoods. And yet both of them kept coming home to that place of trauma and beauty.

At the cusp of the 21st century, and more middle-class than my parents had been, I was propelled by jet fuel across continents that scrolled by as the Earth turned below. As I crossed time zones, the land would darken and the moon rise above. 11,000 meters below, glittering electric grids came alive. Oceans turned to black, an abyss to eyes that learned to see across great sun-saturated skies and prairies. To me, ocean depths are incomprehensible and terrifying.  I would turn my face back to the interior of the plane—into our vessel in the sky, toward the narrow, safe, finite space, to low lights and coffee, back toward our truncated clock. I would close my eyes and push the sea below from my mind. I would think of a smooth touchdown on the runway. I would think of deplaning into yet another sunny terminal somewhere in the world, of the customs counters and being waved through after a stamp in my US passport (yes, more often than not without incident). I would think of getting into yet another taxi, of the different languages, of speeding down highways and back streets in another country, another city.

A Nomad’s Sleep

North American plain, stark in the sun.

The wheat color blinds like snow. Two sisters embrace

under white-breath screams, a hectic sky.

This day, one is leaving. 

Closed in the dark rib-cage of a plane,

She shoots over Shannon, Tehran, toward Delhi 

to a hastened sunset, sudden morning. 

In the nomad’s comfort of flight & disorientation,

she sleeps between stars and lights dotting Earth,

seven black miles beneath her. She dreams: 

Running the circle of the dance grounds.

Dancers come in, gray-haired women, old men.

Speed past; don’t get in their way as they dance

in like Grand Entry. The circle elongates

to the size and brightness of Dakota

fields. Run! Run!

They are close behind. In mouth, runner’s

spit thickens. Reaching in to pull the sinews out

like the spider’s sticky thread, mouth water

beads in black, white, and red

filling cheeks.

Spitting handfuls. Can’t get all the beads out. 

Can’t get out of their way; old people dance slow.

Run fast! They are close.

In the sky of India, the nomad wakes certain: Flight’s in her story.

The story predictably tethers her. [2]

By July 2001, I had circled the earth many times. I took longer routes than did my parents who migrated in circles from South Dakota to the three coasts of the US and home again. Yet I doubt I covered more actual miles than they did; tens of thousands of miles of pavement had turned beneath their wheels like the globe had turned beneath my jets aloft. After having wanted so fiercely to leave when I was a teenager, I came home two decades later to rest in that countryside. I learned living away how the land and its rivers and skies had formed me. I learned that my eyes crave wide-open spaces. I had felt jostled about and suffocated in between mountains and hills in Colorado where I had lived for a few years in the 1990s. I would grow to feel that way too during the next decade I spent in California. But in 2001, I was home and my nose wanted to breathe deeply the scent of black prairie earth risen on rain. I learned to walk and run upon the glacier-scraped flatness. With all of that travel I just needed to stand at the bottom of a deep sunny prairie sky.

In retrospect, coming home in the Summer of 2001 began my disentangling of the US from the lands it claims. From my first memories as a small child, I’d had pictures in my head of our ancestors on lands now occupied by the US. In addition to the history my Dakota family imparted daily, we also had many social relations with Anishinaabe people in Minnesota and attended their cultural events. I also read and knew their stories. So I understood even as a child more than a little about Dakota and other Indigenous societies that thrived on that ground before settler occupation and statehood. I had never totally absorbed the terra nullius mythologies that US empire likes to peddle about its supposedly benevolent origins. As a teenager, I’d read Dakota history in books. I’d read about the starvation of our ancestors, the executions sanctioned by the pen of Abraham Lincoln, and the imprisonment and forceable relocations of Dakota people from ancestral homelands. I understood the basic details of the theft of our ancestors’ lands and waters to build the State of Minnesota. I understood how Dakota ancestors’ bones were stolen like the land.

But I didn’t only learn these things in books largely written by white men. Before I could read, I was already learning this history at home from family who recited names, places, events, and dates. You can watch a 56-minute PBS film, Dakota Conflict, on this history.[3] You will hear early on in this 1993 film Dakota language that is medicine to my ears. I haven’t watched the entire film in a while so I can’t remember what I think of its analysis. You can also view a more recent 2013 two-hour PBS film, The Past is Alive Within Us: The US-Dakota Conflict, on the same topic.[4] This more recent film has interviews with Dakota community members (including some of my family), knowledge keepers, and Dakota historians, whereas the 1993 film only has a Dakota narrator. The 2013 film will give you a sense of the stories I heard as a child. But unlike with the historical narration I heard from my mother and other family members, this PBS film features too prominently a politics of reconciliation and a not very subtle appeal to American multiculturalism, which is an analysis I object to. This history is not best understood through an "American" multicultural lens. Historical and moral clarity are attained by considering the events through an anti-colonial and now anti-imperialist lens. Dakota ancestors were not “American,” but rather enemies of the US state and peoples whose lands were being invaded by a would-be occupying power. And yet this part of Dakota history is also US history; and it is the US present. As I’ve said a lot during the past few years, what the US did to secure the land it occupies, it will do to retain it. We are not “at home” or abroad immune from US savagery that infuses all of its governing structures. Dakota history can help people today understand what is unfolding now.

Between Nations

This is the nation of islands

that heaps itself in red

under teeth-bared monuments of war. 

It is green with luscious trees

and in the markets where fat rats

drag tails between the crates packed,

across water-worn stones.

Water is heavy, sludges through

like syrup, pulling close

clay-roofed houses, squeezed

and leaning into it.

Soot-fumes of trucks

and hacking motor-bikes lick back

the fat-tongued air.

The transition is not poetic. 

In this country is seen

red flags and fists.

I hear of machete stories

and scythes they use among themselves.

I just massacre a language.

Am confused by another nation.

Cannot discern the words

of poets rising

in these pregnant, hothouse islands.[5]

In 2001, when I first came quietly to Oak Lake, after several tumultuous years abroad (including living in Indonesia when the thirty-year dictatorship of Suharto fell), I was beginning to form a more global analysis of the place of we Oceti Sakowin in the world. Although I grew up in a Dakota family inside of Dakota homelands, I did not totally escape indoctrination by settler mythologies that conflate the stunning windswept lands of home with settler state flags and borders that naturalize US occupation. Like many citizens, I internalized out-of-European-place re-namings of our lands and waters. How could I not? Dakota language was forbidden and punished. My ancestors were shamed for it. Our history was quickly silenced or whitewashed for white amnesiac consumption. I was fed linear time mythologies of inevitable progress that enable the US and its citizens to disown their complicity in ongoing Indigenous dispossession. Further naturalizing settler land seizure was the ugliness of their hard 90° angles projected onto the earth and erected above it. Their county and state boundaries, their townships and fields, their houses and signs are all 90° angles as opposed to the winding rivers, rounded bountiful clouds, and paintbrush strokes of color and light in the prairies of home.

At the end of a long journey first zipping across the Java Sea, over the South China Sea, then across the Pacific, I finally descended through high clouds into that steamy North American prairie July. The air of home felt not too different from West Java. I can feel its stickiness and I can hear the crickets consorting as I write. When finally I came to rest in the lodge next to Oak Lake, I met Lydia Whirlwind Soldier. Remember what I wrote earlier that she said? “Our culture is the best culture.” Again, why did she say this to me? Was it her welcoming me, and welcoming me back home? Was it an admonition for a now global soul who might be by this time disconnected from Dakota homelands?

In Java, I learned many things on a steep incline. I heard and deciphered spirit stories even with my low Indonesian language proficiency, even though I am not Muslim, nor Catholic and could not speak the languages—Javanese,  Sundanese, or Dutch—of the spirits I was told populated the land. After emerging from a 9-month-long painful culture shock, I became profoundly moved by the volcanic and tropical lands of Java and by the violent mid-day rainy season thunderstorms that recalled prairie summer storms. I grew to love the ancient, delicate sound of the gamelan, to appreciate the lizards large and small who scurried up and across the walls of my house and chattered throughout those hot equator days. I admired all of the visual beauty on Java—the intricately designed textiles, teak carvings and painted renditions of powerful gods. I was an absolute outsider there: too big and gemuk as Indonesians would often inform me. I spoke Bahasa Ingris, English. I barely understood ways of being on Java. Of course, I would never romanticize the land or its people. The history there is also hard and painful like in all of our lands. But from my ethnocentric Dakota standpoint, I came to understand a bit and respect very much their love for their beautiful land and cultures.

I may not have fully understood Lydia Whirlwind Soldier that July evening, but I have come to understand in the two decades since what I think she meant, and it was a very Lakota and Dakota idea: That our culture is best for us, and best for our homelands because our culture arose there in concert with all of the relatives of those places: human, not human, material, spirit, land, water, and those who lodge in theatrical prairie skies. People who came newly into our homelands could have co-constituted themselves there too, and with us to some degree. It was not a foregone conclusion that they needed to seize most of the material resources, including not only land and the energy and life beneath it, but the bones, blood, and molecules in our human bodies for study. Finally, many who don’t largely ignore our aliveness attempt to stand in for it—claim to be us.  It was also not a foregone conclusion that newcomers impose their bloody and amputated structures from lands across the Atlantic. It was not destined that they should replace our ancestors’ governing structures and ways of being; that is a lie of white supremacist, cultural evolutionary thinking. Other newcomers before had made kin with our ancestors. Though remember, kin do not always get along so merrily. Still, fighting kin is different than invade-and-replace settler supremacy. Disagreeable kin can still inhabit a common worldview.

I close with a very short piece, Wakpa, from Lydia Whirlwind Soldier’s newest book, Survival Songs.[6] There are many longer pieces in this book that I love and could quote, but I don’t want to give too much away from her book. Purchase it here to read many more of Lydia’s Lakota survival songs. She says there is no word for poetry in Lakota, only a word for song. The book was published and is sold by our friend Craig Howe’s organization, the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies, that does a lot of Lakota Studies work throughout South Dakota and beyond. You can listen to Lydia talk about Survival Songs and her approach to writing grounded in Lakota culture and worldview on #NativeReads episode 10: Memory Songs w/ Lydia Whirlwind Soldier of the Red Nation Podcast.

Thank you for reading.

[1] K. TallBear. South Dakota Review, Spring 2000, Vol. 38: 9-10.

[2] K. TallBear. In Florene Belmore and Eric Ostrowidzki, eds. Gatherings: The En’owkin Journal of First North American Peoples. Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, Fall 2001 (Volume XII): 175.

[3]Dakota Conflict. PBS, aired January 27, 1993. 56 minutes, 24 seconds.

[4]The Past Is Alive Within Us: the US-Dakota Conflict. PBS, aired December 26, 2013. 1 hour 56 minutes, 54 seconds.

[5] K. TallBear. In Florene Belmore and Eric Ostrowidzki, eds. Gatherings: The En’owkin Journal of First North American Peoples. Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, Fall 2001 (Volume XII): 179. I changed a word in this poem from its original published version. It is a word that could have been read as ableist.  

[6] Lydia Whirlwind Soldier, Survival Songs. Martin, SD: CAIRNS Press, 2020: 31.