Jen and Sophia

I just got back from a week long journey to South Dakota. A friend of mine, Gloria, is a budding film maker and is working on her second project. It is set in South Dakota because a year ago she met and connected to a remarkable cowgirl named Jen, who is Native American, owns and operates the Native West Trading Company located in the small town of Interior and lives near the Lakota (or Sioux) reservation of Pine Ridge. Gloria was deeply affected by her interaction with Jen, the history of the Massacre at Wounded Knee and the on-going challenges that continue to unfold in this part of the country. She was inspired to make a film that has multiple layers:  a documentary which includes interviews with Lakota women and men, a story Gloria wrote, and a recording of the actual making of the film, including capturing the crew’s reactions and feelings about the experience itself. My main role was to assist with interviews and to facilitate processing with both the crew and the interviewees as needed.

One of the interviews I conducted was with a woman named Sophia. Jen moved to South Dakota from Nebraska when she was 19 and was “adopted” by Sophia’s father through a ceremony called a hunka.  They consider each other sisters, working side by side in Jen’s store and take care of each other as family.

Sophia is beautiful, quiet and soft-spoken, a private person, not someone who would volunteer to be in the limelight. Because Jen knows her well, she encouraged Sophia to be interviewed and talk about her experience of being sent to boarding school unexpectedly as a little girl, a common experience at one time. Sophia was honest about her reluctance but stated that she wanted to be open to new experiences and agreed to go on camera if I would ask the questions and direct the interview.

I have a lot to learn from the Lakota and know very little about their customs and culture. Two days before, Jen, Gloria and I had gone to a village on the reservation called Wanblee to interview an elder named Phyllis. It is customary to bring a gift out of respect and neither Gloria nor I had thought of this. At the end of the interview, Jen took off a ring that was her grandmother’s and gave it to Phyllis as a token of thanks. I was taken aback by this gesture, jolted by the sacrifice on Jen’s part (she had just lost her Mom a few months prior) and impressed with the generosity of it.

The custom of giving a gift need not be much, merely a gesture of respect or appreciation for something given. I had packed a simple bracelet made of beads that I liked and had made many years ago, but it was not a piece of jewelry that I treasured nor did it have familial meaning to me. I decided I would give this to the next interviewee of mine, which turned out to be Sophia.

Our interview was a sweet one, although at times awkward, as I was still getting used to knowing what questions to ask, and how to ask them, and also because Sophia is shy. Just as I would think the interview was over and silence hung in the air, she would disclose or say something poignant, and we would engage in conversation once again.

When we did finally conclude the interview, I took off the bracelet I had decided to offer and thanked her for being courageous and willing to be a part of the project. I was about to get up and turn off the camera when she started to unfasten a beautiful white loom beaded bracelet she was wearing that her Mother had given her. I had commented on it at the beginning of our interchange to break the ice and ease into talking, never dreaming that she would think of giving it to me.

Again, I was stunned at the lack of selfishness and the open-handedness of what she was offering me. I was not sure how to proceed. I had sense enough to say thank you, and was then honest with her that I felt uncomfortable and surprised by her reciprocity. She just smiled at me, and I can’t remember what else we said to each other after that because I was dazed.

I thought about this event for the next day and a half, moved by her gift to me, which has grown into something much more than the bracelet itself. The long history of how our government and we as white individuals have acted with such dishonor towards Native Americans is well documented and continues into present day. Part of my willingness to be involved in this film was because I want to be a link of change in this trend. I am keenly aware of racism because I am a social worker by training and have lived all of my adult life in the South, at first in Texas and now North Carolina. I am confronted almost daily with the resulting inequality and outcome of oppression and institutionalized discrimination. And it bothers me. It is a complex problem with no easy or simple answers. But if I care, and I do, then how do I act as an agent of healing, show respect and have healthy relationships with someone from a race other than my own?

Sophia would have every right to be suspicious of me, hardened because of all of the hurt from the hatred and greed shown to her tribe. According to www.native-languages.org, the word used for a white person in the Lakota language is wašicun and it means “non-Indian” and literally “someone with special powers.” Unfortunately, as relations between the two races deteriorated over the years, it began to take on a more negative meaning. The Lakota have a great sense of humor and many a play on words. The phrase wašin icu means “takes the fat,” (which in their culture would refer to the best piece of meat) and the spelling and pronunciation is similar to the word for white man. So wašicun--wašin icu (the white man--takes the fat), unfortunately fits all too well. Jen had told our crew about this pun as we were all talking one day during a shoot. So it felt like here I was, repeating history, being the typical white person, taking the best, even in spite of my wanting to do the opposite.

I couldn’t shake the bad feeling. Guilt is an appropriate emotion to feel when you have wronged someone, but useful only as a motivator to correct the mistake made and to make amends for it. Ruminating in guilt and shame is not productive for either party. I knew this intellectually but I was not able to shift into a place of peace. It didn’t help that the following evening the film crew went as a group to the site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee. We took an offering of burning sage, which is believed to help promote healing.      

Perhaps it was because of the smudging, but the next morning it occurred to me that there is a big difference between receiving versus taking something. Sophia had freely given me a gift and I was just as free to accept it. She is every bit my equal and if I show her respect through valuing her offering, then there is no room for shame. What if we related to one another from this perspective, on mutual ground, and appreciated our differences rather than judging or fearing them? I believe individuals, ordinary people like me, Gloria, the rest of the film crew, Jen, and Sophia can and will change the world we live in.

But make no mistake; it humbles me that someone who has so little is willing to give so much. May I learn from Sophia’s example how to be the best person I can be:  honest, courageous, open-hearted, willing to learn and generous.

Thank you Sophia and thank you Jen, from my heart, hahó hahó.