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ILI reflection: Part 3, Lakota Territory

Updated: May 29

The Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI) is a year-long intensive leadership program for artists, culture bearers, and arts practitioners. It is a collaboration of Alternate ROOTS, First Peoples Fund, NALAC, PA’I Foundation, Sipp Culture, First Alaskans Institute, and The International Association of Blacks in Dance. These organizations founded ILI based on their experiences with leadership programs that prioritized dominant cultural norms, which conflicted with their commitment to cultural equity. ILI's intercultural approach emphasizes shared experiences, mutual accountability, and the challenge of dominant social norms while honoring diverse histories and traditions. It aims to develop leaders in the arts and culture field who can respond to significant societal changes. As a peer cohort, ILI leaders enhance their personal and professional skills to impact local, national, and global communities, promoting greater awareness, resources, and action in the arts and culture sector.

As a member of the fifth cohort of ILI, I participated in monthly meetings and three cultural intensives alongside twenty four other creatives across the country. My experience in the cohort was challenging and enriching.  It taught me a lot about myself, others, other cultures, and ways of relating across cultural differences.  The following is a written scrapbook of my experience: a collection of quotes, observations, and reflections from ILI cohort 5 from my perspective.

Reflections from Lakota territory

Before me is a map. I love maps. When I arrived in Rapid City, South Dakota, I immediately grabbed a paper map. I wanted to know the lay of the land and where I might find food and culture. This map, presented by Helene Gaddie, represents a place where one is located on sacred lands and simultaneously among the stars. The Lakota belief, “What is on the earth is in the stars, and what is in the stars is on the earth,” is beautifully depicted through this map.

Lakota culture bearers Ruth Cedar Face and Janice Richards present tipi teachings that depict a home, open at the top displaying the dark night sky, where families learn the way of the stars. Generations of attentiveness to the stars teach the Lakota not only about the night sky but also about themselves. Humans on earth are connected to the stars above, a connection honored with story, prayer, ceremony, and a way of life.

Lakota Star Knowledge charts an intimate familiarity with the geography of the Black Hills and links that sacred place to the astronomy above. This kind of knowing of place and sky grows from a long abiding with land and cosmos. It develops a familiarity and kinship that defies the laws of gravity and time and exchanges them for a spirituality, a way of life that is deeply rooted in a sacred attentiveness and relationship.

I admire the Lakota Star Knowledge and the sacred attentiveness it requires. The Lakota way of life is vastly different from my own, yet it inspires me to reflect deeply and learn from their wisdom. Participating in the Intercultural Leadership Institute cultural immersion weekend does not make me an expert; I only skim the surface of a deep well of wisdom. I feel immense gratitude and honor for the little I have learned. It prompts me to wonder what connections I might make to myself and the lessons I have learned from the Lakota people.  

For the past year, I have been working on a series of maps: a map of the neighborhood I live in, a map of myself, and a map of the healing elements I find there. Like the map of Star Knowledge, the maps I create defy the laws of gravity and time. From where I stand on the map, I have one foot on Tuckaseegee Road and one foot in the murky depths of loss. In my line of sight is an invisible memory of what once was and a sign of healing growing from the soil. I am standing at an intersection on the map, and I am the map itself. Chart the map of my body and find stories of play and pain, places of intersection and connections.

Parts of me are connected across time to places in the past, the soil of my upbringing, and the elements that shaped me. This map draws a line of relationship between the clover, catalpa, and me. 

This kind of knowing grows from a long abiding with land and cosmos, developing a familiarity, kindredness, and relationships that defy the laws of gravity and time.

In her essay, In the Footsteps of Nanabozho: Becoming Indigenous to Place,                                  Robin Wall Kimmerer asks if it is possible for people to re-indigenize themselves. She writes,

 “America has been called the home of second chances. For the sake of the peoples and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become indigenous to place. But can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying? With both feet on the shore?...Against the backdrop of [American Settler Colonial] history, an invitation to settler society to become indigenous to place feels like a free ticket to a housebreaking party. It could be read as an open invitation to take what little is left.  Can settlers be trusted to follow Nanabozho, to walk so that ‘each step is a greeting to mother Earth?’”

To me, she is asking if it is possible for non-indigenous people to defy long-held laws they have been taught. Is it possible for settler society to become so familiar with land, sky, and spirit that they, by way of life and spirituality, forsake old dogmas in exchange for a way of sacred life?

Kimmerer points out lessons learned from the Plantain plant.  Plantain is not indigenous to US land.  It was brought over on the shoes of the first settlers and traveled with them across the land. Unlike many invasive non-native plants, Plantains do not take over, they coexist within their ecosystems, they provide medicinal benefits as well. Kimmerer writes, 

“Plantain is so prevalent, so well integrated, that we think of it as native.  It has earned the name bestowed by botanists for plants that have become our own.  Plantain is not indigenous but ‘naturalized.’...Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground…To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s futures matter, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it, because they do.”

I see myself in Kimmerer’s description of becoming naturalized.  For 20 years, I have devoted myself to my neighborhood and community members.  By making the map, I am making the interconnection of neighborhood relations visible. By placing my own image in the body of work, I am visibly expressing my naturalization process. In creating these maps, I am expressing the connections between land, sky, plant, animal, neighbor, and myself. I am grateful for the teachings I have learned from the Lakota people and the ways in which they influence this body of work going forward.

Reflecting on my time in Lakota territory, I am deeply moved by the profound connections between land, sky, and spirit that the Lakota people embody. Their wisdom has inspired me to see my own maps not just as tools of navigation, but as representations of the intricate web of relationships that bind us to the world around us. The lessons of Lakota Star Knowledge and the practice of creating my own maps have taught me to honor these connections with a sacred attentiveness. As I continue my journey, I strive to integrate these teachings into my life, fostering a deeper connection with my community and the land that sustains us. The Lakota way of life has illuminated a path for me to walk with greater awareness, gratitude, and reverence for all that surrounds me.

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