Sean Sherman, the Sioux Chef, is sitting across from me at the restaurant Jefe, in Minneapolis. He is not eating as I imagine a chef would eat. He does not seem to be sampling and weighing and evaluating, appreciating his food the way a musician might listen to a score. Rather, he eats as though this is both his first and last meal. His eyes are a little vacant. The food goes in fast and is gone. The food (Mexican) is awesome, and so is the restaurant. (Jefe is not his restaurant, but he is friends with the chef.) Sean is solidly built, substantial. His hair is long and tucked back behind his ears. He has a wide face, wide jaw, widely set eyes. An Indian face. A handsome face. If I had not seen him in action and tasted his cooking, I would not be able to guess that Sean is the mastermind of the most surprising food in Minneapolis, and that his efforts at promoting indigenous cuisine are the sharpest spear being thrown into the heart of so‑called authenticity across the country.
Outside the restaurant, the day is tailing off, dappled with sun and shade. People walk along the Mississippi, the roaring hush of the water going over Saint Anthony Falls in the distance. The old mills along the river have been converted into condos, exposed brick and smoked glass aestheticizing the city’s past, though only some of the past is fit for commodification and so survives: You wouldn’t know it, but we are sitting steps from where, in May 1850, the Ojibwe chief Bagone-giizhig once hid from his sworn enemies after murdering a Dakota leader in broad daylight in St. Paul. (That tribal animosity between Ojibwe and Dakota has long-since faded.)
Earlier, Sean, his partner, Dana, and I had driven out to Wozupi Tribal Gardens, near Prior Lake, just south of Minneapolis. Wozupi was the brainchild of a Mdewakanton tribal member who had dreamed of a “sustainable clean food source,” in the words of the employee who greeted us at the farm. The tribe, which owns a very big casino, had the means to make the dream real. Wozupi was established in 2010, on just over one acre. Eight years later, it has grown to more than sixteen acres, and there are plans to expand further. It produces a gorgeous array of heirloom, organic, and what can only be called historical indigenous varietals. Cherokee beans. Potawatomi lima. Oneida corn. Arikara yellow squash. Hidatsa shield beans. Lakota squash. Gete-okosimaan (Anishinaabe for “old squash”). Maple sugar and syrup. Honey. Juneberries. Chokecherries. Wild plums. Apples. Apricots. Eggs. Tomatoes. As the farm has grown, so has the tribe’s vision for it. The goal now is to get their goods into all the restaurants and casinos the tribe owns, and into private homes as well. It also supplies restaurants like Jefe. Sean himself left Wozupi with ten pints of juneberries and a box of elderberry blossoms. “These?” he responded when I asked him what they were for. “I’ll make a sauce out of the berries and freeze it. Juneberries drop so fast. The blossoms I’ll use to make a syrup. It’s got a really unique flavor.”
Sean’s recipes—his whole gestalt—rest on using and combining indigenous ingredients in both old and new ways. “Our philosophy and politics are: indigenous, indigenous-produced, local, organic. In that order.” He isn’t interested in “Indian” food per se (salmon on a cedar plank) or even in dressing up Indian comfort food (fry bread or macaroni) in some new way. “I make indigenous food. I don’t use pork or chicken or beef. No sugar or eggs. I try to cook only with the foods historically available to the indigenous people of the area I’m working in. So for me that means Lakota/Dakota and Ojibwe ingredients.” Like? “There’s so much. So much all around us,” he said on the drive to Wozupi. “See that?” He pointed at a brown, sorghumesque weed in the ditch along Highway 13. “Remember what we ate on Monday? Amaranth? That’s amaranth. It grows all over around here. And goosefoot. And sorrel. Not to mention berries, wild rice, squash, and corn.”
Sean is Oglala Lakota. He grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, but the family moved to Spearfish when he was thirteen. “I was working all the time, supporting the family,” he says. As a teenager he worked in restaurants around Spearfish. Right out of high school, he worked as a field surveyor for the US Forest Service in the Black Hills. His job was to go to certain coordinates and take a sample of all the plants growing within a given distance from those spots. He came to know pretty much all the plants that grew in that environment. Being curious and having worked in restaurants, he learned which ones a person could eat. In 1997, he moved to Minneapolis and got a job at California Kitchen, the “nicest” restaurant in the then relatively new Mall of America. He lasted six months. “I could not wake up and drive to work at a mall anymore,” he recalled. He landed a job at Broders’ Pasta Bar, a popular spot between Minneapolis and Edina. There, too, he wondered: How did this evolve? Where did it come from? What was it like a hundred years ago? Two hundred? Three? He consulted books. He moved on from Broders’ to a variety of restaurants—Mexican, Asian, American. Each cuisine he mastered he followed down to its root. And now what he makes is not “artisanal” or “indigenous-inspired” but, rather, archival food arranged in combinations that are delicious and inspiring—and for an Indian like me, something more.
Sean’s rise in the field of indigenous cuisine was something I couldn’t have imagined growing up on the Leech Lake Reservation in the 1970s and ’80s. For us, “Indian food” was fry bread: flour, baking soda, and lard or Crisco mixed with water and fried in oil. For many Indians (my mother among them), “Indian food” was whatever they could make out of the rations they received from the government as part of its longstanding treaty obligations to tribes, as well as more modern poverty-assistance programs. It may seem strange to note that how the West was “won” was not so much a matter of bullets and cavalry maneuvers as it was paper and food.
During the heyday of the treaty-making that ended in 1871, when Congress stripped the presidency of its power to treat with tribes directly, most treaties between tribes and the US government were (at best) a kind of compromise. Tribes gave up some of their land and retained a much smaller portion of it in exchange for the recognition of certain rights—to harvest, hunt, trap, travel, worship, etc. (Lest we forget, tribes have always had these rights, have always exercised them, and will continue to do so.) Additionally, the government agreed to pay for the land they got in the exchange, often in the form of annuities (cash payments), funding for schools, missions, roads, hospitals, and food. Beef and dairy cattle, pigs, grain, seed, and flour were often included in the provisions of treaties.
This was the paper part of westward expansion; the food part was more insidious, especially for western tribes. Beginning in the 1850s, bison began to die at astonishing rates, due, in part, to efforts by the US government to force American Indians onto reservation lands and transition to an agricultural way of living. This was accomplished by killing the Indians’ main source of food—bison. In 1840 there were as many as 60 million bison remaining in the US and Canada; by 1900 there were just over 300. This subsidized near-extermination allowed the government to control western tribes who depended on bison, turning the Great Plains into a food desert. Other depredations of natural habitat and resources (in California and the Pacific Northwest) resulted in similar problems for other tribes. In this way, tribes became dependent on the provisions promised them (but often denied) in the treaties they signed.
Food suppression may seem like a problem of the past, a dark and distant episode. But it’s not. We fully recognize that governments throughout history have used scarcity as a form of social control, but it’s difficult for Americans to recognize that their government is capable of the same thing. My mother grew up on fry bread and biscuits and flour gravy. Everything revolved around flour and fat. The family harvested wild rice and hunted deer and snared rabbits, but these were not constant or dependable sources of food. The only dependable food sources were flour and lard, and being a good cook meant being able to make both commodities stretch and taste different despite repetition. In reality the high rates of diabetes and heart disease and stroke seen in the Indian population can be traced to the diet imposed on Indian people during the nineteenth century. My mother passed that diet on to us. It didn’t help that my immigrant father embraced the meat-and-potatoes approach to nutrition of his adopted country. Spaghetti, ham and potatoes, meatloaf with boiled potatoes—these were the staples of our diet on the reservation.
The first concoction of Sean’s I ever tasted was cedar tea sweetened with maple syrup. One sip, and the barstools and track lighting and tile disappeared, the space rearranged itself into a snow-covered path crowded with spruce and red pine on one side and tag alder and birch on the other. This is the trail my older brother and I walked in the winter when we were kids, an old logging track known only to us. It ran straight out of our backyard through plantation pine and on between a hill and a swamp before reaching another small hill covered in old-growth pine and a sprinkling of birch. We’d walk up the hill and look down on the Mississippi. In the summer the river wasn’t much more than a rumor, but in the winter you could see it, if you looked hard, peeking out from behind the lowlands of ash and elm. We’d make a campfire and pick cedar and boil up swamp tea in an aluminum pot while the wind scudded snow off the branches and the snow hissed at the fire’s edge and a jay called in the distance to the stuttering annoyance of red squirrels around us.
The rest of the meal was equally memorable. It included smoked walleye spread with fresh blackberries and sorrel, duck pâté and maple-brûléed duck in an apple broth, a salad of foraged greens topped with tamarack blossoms—citrusy and piney and tannic—and cedar-braised bison with a flint corn cake. Dessert was a sunflower-and-hazelnut crisp with popped amaranth. Sean’s skill rests less in the fusionary (though the combinations of flavors are astounding) than in something harder and more daring: He seems to trust in the flavor of the food itself, in the completeness of the ingredients in their own right.
Since debuting as the Sioux Chef in 2015, Sean has experienced a level of attention and success that most chefs can only aspire to, featured on radio and in magazines and at symposia. He’s all over the place in Minneapolis, too, cooking for summits and special events, hosting pop‑up dinners. He’s helped the Little Earth housing project to establish the Tatanka food truck, developing the concept and menu, training the staff. In the fall of 2017, to the strong and vocal disappointment of its patrons, the truck was closed down: The physical vehicle was sold to the White Earth Band of Chippewa Tribe to help kickstart the White Earth Mobile Market initiative, a project aimed at addressing poor access to food among the northern Minnesota community. The move has also meant that Sean has more time and energy to put into a new nonprofit project called the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, which seeks to create culinary hubs and satellites all over Minnesota that emphasize indigenous ingredients. The truck, the new projects, they are all, like Sean’s own brand, adamantly, proudly, and creatively indigenous. Among a chronically malnourished and diabetes-stricken community, to serve bison and turkey and walleye pike, cedar tea, and corn is something of a revolution. And Sean’s cooking has found a loyal and enthusiastic base not only among foodies and wild-food devotees but also among reservation and urban Indians, both rich and poor. To my mind, that’s because the politics of Sean’s food confront the private demons of pretty much every modern Indian. Whether we are urban or reservation, our story—the story of “the Indian”—has been a story of loss: loss of land, loss of culture, loss of a way of life. Yes, Indians remain—we remain across the country, as modern Americans and modern Indians. But inwardly we wonder: How much of our culture actually remains? How authentic, really, are we? At what point do we cease being Indians and become simply people descended from Indians? Sean’s food, the whole conception of it, affirms us: All is not lost, it tells us. Much remains—of our cultures, our knowledge, our values. It literally rests at our feet and over our heads; all we need do is reach out and pluck it. This is a profound politics, but one that can be difficult for people to understand.
“You wouldn’t believe how hard it has been to explain what indigenous food is,” Sean tells me. “I’ve had the same conversation over and over again, over the past year and a half. I have to go back to the beginning all the time. I was in Ohio, putting on an event, and I began talking about Native American food. This woman asks, ‘There’s food?’ Yes. ‘There are Indians?’ Yes. ‘How’d they get here?’” He smiles and shakes his head. His food is an answer to that question: It and we have always been here. We’ve always been changing and adapting to climates and politics and peoples. As singular and exciting as Sean’s approach to cooking is, he is part of something much larger afoot in Indian Country.
For so long the Indian struggle for survival was a strategy aimed outward: to cajole, scold, remind, protest, and pester the powers that be to rule the right way in court cases, to pass the right legislation to protect tribes and tribal sovereignty, to honor treaties, and simply to remember both our past and our continued existence. But the 1990s added an inward dimension. People like Sean are engaging in a new brand of activism. In addition to, say, occupying government installations or engaging in civil disobedience, they occupy a cultural, social, and political space where they actively remember and promote indigenous knowledge—and not just because it serves Indians but because it serves modernity. Perhaps this is why what’s happening in Indian Country today is so hard to see.
Of course, every society’s present is harder to see than its past. We are forever caught up in the flow of the current moment, not just freighted with the icy inventory of history. And recent years have not been as distinctively marked by policy shifts or judicial decisions as have years past. Whereas we can speak of the evolution of federal policy in past eras—the treaty period, relocation, allotment and assimilation, reorganization, termination, self-determination—the past fifty years seem to exist largely outside the brackets of federal policy. To be sure, there have been important legislation and policies that affect tribal life, just not as many. And federal Indian policy seems to have settled into the track laid down during the Nixon administration: that of self-governance, self-determination, and a government‑to‑government relationship between the federal government and the tribes. It is almost tempting to believe that the era-less character of our era reflects our having fallen outside the national gaze—to take it as proof of our final, fatal inconsequence. But our numbers belie this interpretation, as do our actions. Tribes—affirmed and reaffirmed as sovereign nations—still do battle with the government. Activism is a permanent necessity. But our focus is different now: We’ve turned inward.
In the 1960s and ’70s, to be a “woke” Indian might have meant joining the Trail of Broken Treaties and caravanning to Washington to occupy the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Now it is just as likely to mean sitting in a classroom at a state university and learning a tribal language. Although Native American languages have been under attack through government-assimilationist policies since the late nineteenth century, and only twenty out of many hundreds are expected to remain viable into the twenty-second century, programs teaching these vanishing languages are on the rise, with the intent of bringing the Indian past into the present, and bringing the present into Indian lives. Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum, recruited Diné voice actors from across the Southwest (there remain more than one hundred thousand Diné speakers around the world) and dubbed Star Wars, and later Finding Nemo, into that tongue. Speakers of Ojibwe and Choctaw and a host of other Native languages are using Facebook and YouTube and Twitter to speak and promote and communicate in the languages of the First People. And increasingly, Indians are founding, controlling, and populating tribal and community colleges on reservations—at least thirty-five of them in more than a dozen states at last count—to study Native languages alongside computer science, math, English, history, and business administration. Transforming education into something that we do for ourselves, rather than something that is done to us, goes a long way toward healing the deep rift between Indians and the educational system.
In its misguided efforts to solve the “Indian problem,” the United States government essentially created Indians over and over and over again. For decades, our political and social reality was determined—usually for the worse—by the government’s approach to our existence. Allotment exacerbated reservation poverty, boarding schools disrupted family and culture; to be “Indian” was to be defined by those problems, the definition always shifting in such a way as to produce Indians with problems. But Indians like Sean Sherman have found a way to exist outside those definitions. For him and for many like him, there is no contradiction between indigenous knowledge and modern life. This, too, contributes to the invisibility of Indians in the present tense. These days, Indians aren’t out in the world only or merely “being Indian”—but they’re not, as outsiders might assume, “passing” or acculturating. The census tells a different story: More and more people are claiming Indianness than ever before. There is no longer any reason not to. I remember, back in 1991, others and I were trying to start an American Indian studies program at Princeton and an administrator said out loud, during a meeting, that one couldn’t be both a professor and a medicine man. I had no idea what he was talking about. I couldn’t see any contradiction there. “Who says?” I responded angrily. “You? Who are you?”
The government, after contributing to efforts to exterminate the bison, gave us flour and lard as replacements. Poor diet did damage to our culture and our health. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease—these are the products of oppression. Sarah Agaton Howes, a young Ojibwe mother from the Fond du Lac Reservation, is, like Sean, another modern traditional fighting the system that would end us, with a focus on achieving community health through exercise. But what Sarah does and what she tries to get others to do is not merely exercise; it’s not merely a lifestyle choice. It is instead a way of bringing health to her community by waking up her body to the ancestral past, the calling up of an ancestral sweat.
We are in a bougie coffee shop—actually, the only coffee shop of its kind—in Cloquet, a former logging town just off the Fond du Lac Reservation in northern Minnesota. Sarah is cheerful, a mother of two and proprietor of House of Howes, a contemporary Ojibwe design, art, and lifestyle store. She is also a passionate runner who is, she says, known as the “Run Stalker” of the reservation. She pretty much lives in activewear.
Sarah grew up on the rez. She lived in Cloquet for most of high school, and then in Duluth. “My grandma’s dad built our house after the Cloquet fire in 1918. He was Creek. I’m Ojibwe and Creek.” Sarah’s dad was a cop—“the only Native cop in the whole county. He had a full-time, year-round job. That was rare for men around here back then.” Her mother is from California, of Norwegian descent. “My mom was traveling the country, she wanted to live off the land. My dad was like, ‘My grandparents’ house is out there, no plumbing, no electricity. I don’t know any woman who’d want to live there.’ And she’s like, ‘I do!’ and that was that. They met when he was a member of the American Indian Movement, and they went to a big-drum ceremony. But as I grew up they got into this really weird church, so I didn’t grow up going to ceremony.” Her father’s job influenced the family, too. “That kind of job makes you see people in a certain way—one way. He knew all the bad things that were happening in the community and I think that kind of pulled us away from what was going on. We still lived there, but it created an isolation.”
So the family kept to themselves in their two-story house. Sarah did spend a lot of time with her cousins, but her Ojibwe life withered. Surprisingly, it was their diet—or the consequences of it—that changed things. When Sarah was eleven, her father had a heart attack. The event shook him. “He completely changed his life—again. He went back to ceremonies, he went back to our roots. Everything shifted at that point.” Her parents divorced, and Sarah stayed with her mother. Her father, meanwhile, was secretive about his newfound ceremonial life. Eventually he developed diabetes and, like his own father, died at forty-nine. “Average for an Indian in those days,” she says. “A lifetime of stress, genetics, unhealthy eating, and being too sedentary.” Now she has brothers who are into their forties, and she worries about them, too. Despite her father’s secretiveness, his late-life connection with traditional ways “planted a seed,” as she put it. “He created the possibility of other directions for me. So in my twenties it was me trying to find that life, basically. Trying to find my way back to it.”
After high school and college, Sarah married and got pregnant. They were expecting a girl. Near her delivery date, she began having contractions and went to the hospital, but was sent home after a stress test failed to show anything was wrong. “I had contractions all night,” she recalls. “I went back in the next day and everyone makes this face: We need to go to the hospital.” Her baby had no heartbeat. “This is a time in your life when the whole page turns,” she says. “I remember thinking: No—no. Wake her up! Do something! This is the 2000s, this doesn’t happen. I hadn’t known anybody who lost a baby.” Her baby was stillborn, and no one could answer why. “I had to make peace with that, with not knowing,” she says. “It was rough. I was on this desperate mission to have a baby.”
Four months or so later, Sarah suffered a miscarriage, and finally, after three years of trying, she gave birth to a son. “It was both wonderful and horrible. Scary as hell. I used to stare at him breathing. I didn’t sleep for over a year. I would wake myself up because I thought it was my job to keep him alive.”
After the birth of her son, Sarah says she wanted to get pregnant again. During a checkup, a doctor tried to talk to her about her weight. At five-foot-five, she weighed 211 pounds. The doctor told her she was likely to develop diabetes by the time she reached her forties if she didn’t change something. “She was a tribal doctor and she was being nice,” Sarah says. “She didn’t want to discourage me.” Her son, Rizal, had graduated from baby food, and Sarah was careful about his diet. “I’m feeding him organic squash and stuff like that. And me? I’m eating potato chips and grilled cheese!” Sarah came from a place—culturally and geographically—where everyone was significantly overweight, and she could see that “eventually these two worlds were going to merge. Eventually he was going to start eating chips and cheese and not eat squash and I’m going to have diabetes. I didn’t want him to watch me take shots, or watch me in the hospital.”
That was when she started going back to ceremony. After her first baby was stillborn, people had suggested it, but she’d demurred. “I thought those big ceremonies were for when you were really, really sick. Not for being sad.” But eventually she acquiesced. “I had no idea of even what was going to happen. But I had to get to a better place. A good place physically, spiritually, mentally. Even with my kid, I had anxiety and fear that someone was going to take him away from me.” For Sarah, it was as if she was waking up into her ceremonial life, and the life before was something she didn’t understand: She had been a person she no longer recognized.
Choosing to deal with her grief through ceremony was one of the first big healthy choices she’d made in her life, and she began to see how her physical health was connected to her spiritual and mental well-being. But she didn’t know many physically healthy Indians. One woman from her reservation, who also attended ceremony, had run a half marathon in Duluth. “She’s like, ‘Us Native people should be out there!’ I blew her off. I was like: ‘No way.’” And yet: another seed planted. Sarah ran a 5K. “It took me forever. It took me so long the police car had to drive behind me at the end, like I was the president.” When her daughter had died in utero, “I felt I died, a little,” Sarah says. But this, the running, was embracing life. She remembers thinking: “I want to be alive. I want my son to see me be a fully vibrant person. I want to run. I want to move. I want my body to work. I wanted to know what it would feel like not to be a prisoner in my own body. To be overweight like I was for so long, there was so much I never even tried to do. So much I never attempted. So much of my life was wasted that way.”
Sarah started out with small, realistic goals: lose the eleven pounds she thought of as her “grief weight” and get back to her “regular” weight of 200 pounds. After she ran that first 5K, she joined a Weight Watchers group on the reservation. She didn’t know anything about cooking or nutrition, but she followed the program, cutting out fat and junk food and eating nothing but chicken breasts and broccoli for a month. Her husband joined her. Soon they added other foods to their diet, trying a new healthy recipe every week. She had never been so disciplined, but she had decided to go through ceremonies in June and to have another baby, and she knew where she wanted to be for that to happen. She lost eighty pounds in six months, got pregnant, and had a healthy daughter. Then she set about losing the weight she’d gained in pregnancy. “I thought, ‘I’ve been through this, I can do it.’ And I knew how to do it.” She lost eighty pounds. “People asked, ‘Are you on meth? Are you eating?’ I had to show people I was eating and was being healthy. Those models weren’t out there.”
Sarah began running with other Indian women. “There was this one girl I started running with. She lost over a hundred pounds. Diet and exercise. And together we are like: We can do this. We have to show other people.” She met a serious runner who encouraged her to run a half marathon. “At that point I’d run two miles, maybe three, up and down my road in my sweats. No gear. No nothing. And I was like, ‘You think?’” Her friend paid for her registration and trained with her. “The first time I ran on a trail with a group of Indian women I was like, ‘What is happening right now? I’m out here running in the woods with a bunch of Anishinaabekwe. All these Indian women running through the woods? It hasn’t happened in a hundred years around here!’ And it was one of those clear moments in life. One of those moments you know: This is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing right now. This is exactly perfect.”
From there, Sarah started organizing the group—“like herding cats a little bit”—but at least three and as many as seven of them have run together, long runs of ten miles or so, at least once a week, kids and jobs notwithstanding. She started a private group on Facebook called Kwe Pack. She’d rope in any woman who had ever even thought of running through the sheer power of her enthusiasm. “I became that person. I was like, ‘Hey, if you can run three you can run six. If you can run six you can run twelve. I am the Run Stalker.’” She does it without formal tribal support or grant money or program funds—“Nothing but the will for Indian women to gather and run through the woods toward better health, toward strength and camaraderie.” She keeps it exclusive to women. “We need our own spaces, it’s important we learn how to support each other as Anishinaabekwe.” She does it because it’s important, that’s all. “And I like it like that. I like that it’s just us in the woods—no grants, no supervisors, no paid employees. It’s so important for these women to support each other, to do this together.” Not content with her weekly runs and short races, Sarah has begun training for and running ultradistance races. Marathons, ultramarathons, trail races. “We’re trying to change it back: We’re trying to make it normal to be healthy.” It might seem like a small thing Sarah is doing, gathering a dozen or so women to run in the woods, but in Indian Country, perhaps the most radical mode of resistance is to choose to be healthy.
When she first moved back to the reservation, passing cars would slow down to get a look at her, wondering if she’d escaped from the nearby treatment center. “Or they’d ask me if I got a DWI because I wasn’t driving. It was so abnormal to see Indians out running.” Now, everyone knows who Sarah and the Kwe Pack are. “‘That’s them girls that run,’ they say. I try to run in the community so people see us. And we’re making a difference. It’s becoming normal. I feel that shift.” It’s amusing to imagine that while the archaeological record from 5,000 years ago in Florida and coastal California consists of large shell middens, 5,000 years from now, on Sarah’s reservation, the record will likely consist of running shoes, earbuds, computer parts, and vegetables.
In the 1990s and 2000s, a slew of laws affirmed (legally and in terms of policy) the kind of shift in Indian life that had occurred in the lives of Sean and Sarah and many thousands like them. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Languages Act, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The 1992 amendments to the Native American Languages Act put money behind efforts to undo the damages done by residential boarding schools, where, as we have seen, the government tried to eradicate our languages over the course of almost six generations. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act serves to protect Indian artists by making the sale and distribution of “Indian” art made by non-Indians and advertised as “authentic” a crime. In 2013, the Violence Against Women Act that had been passed in 1994 was reauthorized and strengthened. Among the new provisions was the empowerment of tribal courts to charge and prosecute non-Natives who raped or assaulted Native women on Native land. This was important legislation for Indian communities. More than half of Native American women have experienced sexual assault or rape, making them the demographic with the highest rates of sexual violence in the United States. Over 90 percent of these assaults are perpetrated by non-Natives. The majority of Native women are married or partnered to non-Natives, and the majority of rapes and assaults take place in or near private residences. Yet for decades, those who attacked Indian women were able to escape prosecution through jurisdictional loopholes or simply because local authorities were reluctant to prosecute. The revised legislation is a potent weapon for the defense of Indian women.
Then, in 2009, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas introduced “a joint resolution to acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the federal government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.” The resolution was eventually passed and signed by President Obama as a rider on a defense appropriations spending bill, appropriately enough, albeit in a form like iced tea left too long in the glass. Rather than a full-throated apology from the United States government, Obama apologized for “the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.” It was an apology made on behalf of a constituency in semiprivate, accompanied by no public ceremony, and without any teeth whatsoever: The resolution included a disclaimer making it clear that the “apology” did not authorize or support “any claim against the United States,” and the resolution does not “serve as a settlement of any claim.”
Still, a half-felt apology to Indians is better than a fully formed policy inimical to our existence. All in all, the period of 1990 to 2015 had a pointillist feel to it: One can see points of light—disparate, separate—beginning to come together into a picture of Indian survival, resilience, adaptability, pride, and place in modern life.
A friend asked me recently with some frustration, “Where is our Martin Luther King? What do we want, exactly?” I thought about this and remarked that we don’t have a Martin Luther King. Coming from a household where my father had made us listen to King’s speeches on records, I had always considered this a loss, a gap, a hole. But maybe it’s not. Maybe we don’t have one because we don’t need one. Nor is a King necessary. We Indians are a plurality. We have always been a plurality. There are more than 550 different federally recognized tribes in the United States, and we all have different cultures, histories, landscapes, and ways of organizing politically. And we are not only “still here,” we are here and are working to undo the violence of the ages. We are united by the legacy (and current practices) of colonialism, to be sure. But we are and have always been more than what the government has done to or tried to do to us and failed: mainstream us. And while, like African Americans, we have fought for and won some (but not all) of our civil rights and equal protection, we have always fought for something quite different from that, too: that we are American and Indian, and as Indians we belong to sovereign nations and have treaty rights—pared down though they may be—that have always been our rights, rights we had long before the United States existed. Nor do we have, like the African American civil rights movement, a single institution like slavery to define our struggle and a hard date for when that was to have ended.
At a dinner recently in Albuquerque, while looking up at the pink-tinged Sandia Mountains, someone who worked for the Indian Health Service told me something of the work he’s doing. He mentioned that for many Indians in the Southwest, especially the elderly, access to health care, especially for mental health, is extremely difficult. Who, he wondered, would drive two hours to Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, for instance, to talk to a therapist? Assuming they even have a car, or a license. He also told me—and this was something I couldn’t verify—that Indians possess and use smartphones at a rate that far exceeds the national average. Think about it, he said. So many Indians are transient: They move from here to there, they sleep on a cousin’s couch. They don’t have homes and so don’t have computers. For many Indians out there, their smartphones are their laptops and desktops, their only computers. And so his staff thought they could make use of that and began offering mental health services via Skype and FaceTime for Indian veterans and others too sick or too remote to come in. I wondered out loud if he could use the same thinking to develop apps for Indians—who suffer from diabetes at staggering rates—to check their blood and enter it into a program that would then feed into their health records at the Indian Health Service. It would make monitoring and treating diabetes so much easier and could emphasize preventive care in ways not yet explored. And maybe do something else as well. In 1891 the superintendent of the Eleventh United States Census, Robert Porter, wrote in his findings that “there can hardly be said to be a frontier line.” That sentiment was taken up again by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893. For modern Indians, however, the “new frontier” has shifted; it brings the past into contact with the future. Sean and Sarah and others like them are each in their own way doing this through cuisine and health. Others are doing it through language revitalization and education. The old Western frontier might have been closed in 1890, but the modern Indian frontier doesn’t face that direction anyway.
When I was a kid, our role models were more or less outlaws: the rezzy guys who drank and smoked and had shootouts with the cops; who measured their lives by how much they got away with before they died young. The men (and the women) were tough, but they weren’t healthy. Most Indians could name Billy Mills and Jim Thorpe as two amazing Indian athletes of the twentieth century, but it would be hard to name more than those two until recently. Maybe it was the shadow of colonialism, of understanding ourselves as subjects (rather than citizens) of the state that encouraged us to admire men who did damage to themselves rather than people who didn’t. Health was something that rich people had, or could buy if they didn’t. Health was for white people. It wasn’t for us.
I remember being a lonely Indian kid on the margins of Leech Lake, certain only that there was no one else out there like me, stuck in a kind of radical subjectivity. Surely my sense of my own isolation was hardly unique: Many teens, and many teen Indians, feel this way. For so long we were undone by our solitude and by the differences within our communities, which loomed as great as the differences and distances between us and the dominant culture. This began to change during the boarding-school era, when Indians from different tribes were shoved together at school. That isolation was further eroded during and after World War II, when Indians served together and with a wide variety of other Americans. The Indians of the next generation are quickly closing the gaps that separate us. In past eras, it might have been enough for Indians merely to survive; the biggest shift I can see in my own lifetime is a kind of collective determination to do much more than that.
Our identity politics reflects this sea change. In the 1970s and ’80s, who was or wasn’t authentically Indian was determined largely in those endless clashes over how dark you were, whether you were enrolled, whether you came up hard, how much damage you could do to yourself and others and still keep on living. This is no longer true. To be Indian today seems to be more a matter of action. I hear it all around me—at powwows and ceremony and online. Do you speak your language? Gidojibwem ina? You hunt? Did you go ricing this year? You headed to the drum dance? Did you go to Standing Rock? Less and less do we define ourselves by what we have lost, what we have suffered, what we’ve endured. Being healthy might be a lifestyle to non-Natives, but it is a radical politics for a people who were expected, who were encouraged, to disappear and die out. What if we eat as Sean would have us eat, and what if we move as Sarah would have us move, and what if we extend our life expectancy and productivity beyond the fifty to seventy years that the average Indian lives to seventy-five, eighty, ninety? What if we choose health and give ourselves twenty more years of productive fight, twenty more years of memory, twenty more years of supporting and being supported by our children? In some ways, the most radical thing an Indian can do is to choose health. Because in choosing health we are defying a government who would be done with us.