“Mommy? This isn’t just a normal night. This is the specialest night. I’ve been waiting for this night for a long, long time.”
These are the words a Lakota wakanyeja (sacred little one) shared with her mother this past Friday following a powerful evening of reconciliation at our Lafayette, CO hub.
By chance or by Spiritual appointment, the visit of our dear friend Tom Hollow Horn for our monthly Nagi Circle Gathering coincided with the arrival of a new friend to our community - one with an ancestral connection that led him our way.
You see, Tom’s great-great grandfather Toka Kokipapi (Enemy Fears Him) was a survivor of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, in which 300 unarmed Lakota men, women, and children were killed by the US Army’s 7th Cavalry. With three bullets lodged in his body and the image of gunned-down family members still burning in his mind, Toka Kokipapi fled to a nearby canyon, and lived to pass down the harrowing story to the generations that succeeded him.
And as fate or Spirit would have it, Brad, the new friend who reached out to join us for Friday’s Gathering, is descended from an ancestor who stood on the other side of the cavalry’s Hotchkiss guns on that bitterly cold day in 1890: Colonel James Forsyth.
Pictured above, left: Tom's great-great grandfather, Toka Kokipapi , who survived the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Above, right: Brad's great-great grandfather, Colonel James Forsyth, commander of the 7th Cavalry during the massacre.
Tom has heard family stories of Wounded Knee since his childhood, and lives each day above the very ground upon which his ancestors were slain. For him, December 29th, 1890 is a living reality. The trauma and discord sown by the massacre continue to underpin daily life in his community on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Brad has spent years learning about his own familial connection to Wounded Knee. In a spirit of prayer, reconciliation, and truth, he has dedicated himself to the redress of his ancestor’s crimes, and has made great efforts to be in relationship with Lakota tribal members and spiritual leaders.
And so, as these two fated friends came face-to-face on Friday, with so much going on under the surface of their DNA, their hearts, their spirits - reconciliation began to organically take shape.
“It’s among our ancestors now, brother,” Tom said as he softly smiled and clasped Brad’s hand.
“Wašté yelo.” Brad replied, before bringing his new brother into an embrace.
Pictured: Tom and Brad greet one another for the first time at our hub in Lafayette this past Friday.
Later that evening, Brad and Tom continued down the road of reconciliation. There, in the tipi, they shared their stories with one another and with the group gathered before them. Tom passed around pictures of his ancestors who survived the massacre. Brad spoke on the return of items his ancestor’s troops had taken from the site.
Tears flowing. Deep breaths taken. Something heavy but warm in the air around us. Spirit.
Two brothers, one Lakota and one not, held one another with a tenderness and kindness that may never have seemed possible in the days following the 1890 slaughter.
On the prayers uttered and dialogue had, Tom later shared: "Our spirits became alive with one another, made a special prayer for the Tokata Wakanyeja (Future Sacred Children), and reflected on the past with a warm heart - Ihanni wokiksuye canté wašté."
As I continue to reflect on Friday's events, I find myself equally moved by the healing that took place and haunted by the questions: How late is too late? Is it ever too late?
For some, it is. For 300 Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee, it is. For thousands in Palestine and in Israel, it is. But for those who remain, for our humanity, for our shared future, for the inescapable fact that we can and must live together, perhaps it is not too late. And I think, given love, honesty, self-reflection, and no small amount of courage, we will soon find that there is a better way forward - one that we can walk together. I have to believe this is true.
Tom and Brad - kolas (friends, brothers) - proved that to us on Friday night.
I spent a week recently volunteering in the ancient pueblo villages of Tewa and Walpi on First Mesa located on the Hopi reservation in Arizona. It is sometimes challenging to stay focused on the job at hand working on the roofs of 900-year-old adobe and rock homes clustered from one end of the mesa to another. The views from the rooftops, constructed at the top of a 300-foot mesa, reach all the way to Flagstaff mountain 100 miles to the west and circle in all directions from there.
If one pays attention, the view back into history -- and into the way a community used to thrive -- is as clear and inspiring as what one can see with the eyes. While working alongside community members recently, I would occasionally hear a tribal member in one of the plazas, call out to no one in particular: “Askwali!!” Within seconds, someone from a different part of the plaza or mesa, would echo back: “Askwali!” And the call would reverberate from each direction, sometimes for ten seconds -- sometimes for as long as a minute. Interspersed within the female’s calls of “Askwali!”, I would occasionally hear a male pick up the call: “Kwakwhay!” “Kwakwhay!” It was hard not to stop what we were doing and enjoy those words echoing around the mesa.
It was a beautiful . . . and gentle . . . . back and forth with no apparent reason understood by a visitor in this enchanted and ancient village. No one in particular would start the chain, or end it. Just every now and then: “Askwali!” “Askwali!” “Kwakwhay!” “Kwakwhay!” When the echo stopped and we returned to our work, I wondered what the words meant, and occasionally would try to understand the context behind them. When the call would start, it was comforting in some sort of way – and once quieted, I would await the next call, if only to be reassured that the people were still there. It became almost a song. . . . a window into the past . . . and then a prayer . . . . and then a beautiful lesson on the power of living in a community rooted in Indigenous wisdom.
During one of our breaks, when we sought shade in the scorching desert heat, I inquired of one of the local residents as to the meaning behind the two words. Both words, my friend explained, meant the same thing – though one was spoken by the females (“askwali”) and the other by the males (“kwakwhay”). Like so many first languages, the words themselves were more expressions of content, and are gutted if one attempts to translate them directly. “Askwali”/”kwakwhay” might be quickly (and improperly) translated simply as “thank you”, though that translation barely describes what happens on the mesas when those calls go out. The elder explained to me that the words are expressions of gratitude but not simply just a thank you. The words -- when the call is echoed and carried forward -- reverberates as encouragement and then gathers power in their song and then as a prayer.
I remember now sitting on the hot roof that day and hearing the words – being soothed, encouraged and inspired to continue the work. Having left the mesa now, I oftentimes want to call out “kwakwhay” as I move about my day in gratitude for those of you who support the work we do. But also, for those in my community (the first responders, the teachers, those working on the roads and infrastructure, our medical providers, our friends and family whom we walk with, and all of the others). I imagine if the world echoed in that same way, how different it could all be.
This story is the first of the four-part Our Mission in Action series! Honoring Indigenous Wisdom is one of four pillars of our mission - and the spirit of gratitude that permeates the Hopi & Tewa communities of First Mesa embodies the ancient teachings we seek to acknowledge and amplify in all that we do.
Your support for our mission will help us continue uplifting Indigenous wisdom and serving Native communities in a variety of ways!
Indigenous Wisdom, Alleviating Poverty, Reconciliation, and Gen7 Youth are the guiding pillars which integrate across all our activities. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as we dive deep into the three remaining pillars of our mission!
Simultaneous volunteer service projects often require supply runs, tools swapped and delivered from crew to crew, and other challenges resulting from the long distances between worksites on the reservations we serve.
But on our final day of service during the recent August Volunteer Trip, traditional Hopi architecture helped us avoid that common obstacle!
The villages of the Hopi - who are a Puebloan People - are made up of adobe homes which share walls and surround a shared plaza, in which ceremonies and social gatherings still take place. This type of architecture reflects the Hopi & Pueblo emphasis on community and sharing - Indigenous wisdom that still guides the Hopi today.
Thanks to these ancient architectural practices, our entire volunteer group was able to work side-by-side on three different projects at Sitsomovi Village atop First Mesa:
1. Finishing touches to a new wood shed for a Hopi family
2. Installation of a wheelchair ramp for a Hopi elder
3. Waterproofing of the roof of a 17th century Hopi home prone to severe leaks
Just one of the many ways Indigenous wisdom helps bring this work to life!
In the video above: See volunteers work side-by-side to complete three projects on the final day of our August Service Trip to the Hopi & Navajo Nations!
A wheelchair ramp for a Hopi elder.
A new, accessible shower for a 96-year-old Diné great-grandmother.
A shed to shelter sheep on whom a community relies for cultural and physical nourishment on the Navajo Nation.
A wood shed for a family who depend on firewood to stay warm in winter.
A flatbed of trash picked up from a village on a journey of healing from its trauma, past and present.
Repairs to a Hopi corn shed housing a year's supply of heirloom corn.
Firewood split and distributed to elders and families preparing for cold temperatures.
Gutters installed at a historic home on First Mesa.
Two layers of plastic sheeting on the leaky roof of a 17th century home in need of extensive repair - a temporary solution to complex problems faced by the community in which the home sits.
None of these acts of service solve the deep-seated challenges of poverty and cultural loss, of historical and present-day trauma. But in 11 years of this work, we find that it is the little things which move reconciliation forward, which bring communities separated by conflict, colonization, discrimination, and isolation together in a spirit of friendship, which remind each of us of the importance of showing up, as we are, at service to a shared purpose and a more connected future.
It is a drop in the bucket - but if enough good people make the effort to contribute a drop, whenever and wherever they can, a tide of healing is bound to flow someday.
On the Navajo Nation, sheep are not just a source of food and wool - they are the lifeblood of a resilient and rich culture, a reminder of those who came before and the embodiment of an ancestral wisdom that continues to sustain Diné communities today.
In a quiet, rocky enclave at the center of the Navajo Nation, three Diné women are carrying on the legacy of their ancestors as the stewards of a flock of two dozen sheep. For their family and the surrounding community, the sheep provide meat, wool to be woven into traditional textiles, cured hides for sleeping mats, and a connection to the generations of sheep-herders that preceded them. No part of the animal goes to waste - particularly in a food desert like the one in which the flock is located, where some families face food insecurity on an ongoing basis.
For a decade and a half, the sheep have faced harsh, high desert winds and bobcat attacks that have revealed the need for a sturdier and more permanent shed to house them. In partnership with the family who cares for the flock, volunteers on our May and August service trips have helped construct the roof, walls, and fencing of a new shed to house the sheep.
This week, construction was completed on the shed, and the sheep are now protected from wind and predator species! In their new home, these stunning animals will be able to provide physical and cultural nourishment to their community for years to come.
This project was truly multigenerational and cross-cultural: youth and elders from Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River, the Navajo Nation, Colorado, and Washington D.C. have worked side-by-side to bring this project to life, sharing laughter and building lasting friendships along the way. Collaborations like this help move all four themes of our mission forward.
Pictured above: Tomatoes, melons, squash, corn and more are peeking through the soil at homes across Pine Ridge!
In early June, a crew of volunteers and Lakota community members worked together to install and plant garden boxes at over a dozen homes across the Pine Ridge reservation. A month and half later, these small but mighty seedlings are continuing to grow strong!
Gardeners on Pine Ridge are up against a unique set of challenges; horses and dogs are prone to disturbing the seedlings, water access is limited or altogether unavailable in some homes, and families have had to mitigate the effects of hail and an unusually wet summer on their plants. The Pine Ridge families and youth with whom we work are engaging with these challenges in a spirit of curiosity and learning. The hard work of these gardeners, many of them first-timers, is beautiful to witness!
Gratitude to volunteers Jane and Deanna (pictured below) for making the journey to Pine Ridge earlier this month and checking in with families and their gardens.
This project is being conducted in partnership with our friends at Common Name Farm - we're so grateful to them for these seedlings and for exchanging plant knowledge with Pine Ridge gardeners! Stay tuned throughout the growing season for more garden updates.
In this edition of the Reconciliation through Education blog, learn about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Indian Child Welfare Act and explore related resources from Native voices.
Pictured: Kimberly Jump-CrazyBear, (Osage & Oglala), demonstrates in support of ICWA at the Supreme Court, November 2022. Image credits to Jourdan Bennett-Begaye/Indian Country Today and The Signal.
On June 15th, 2023, the Supreme Court upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law considered the “gold standard” of child welfare policy. The act, which gives tribes exclusive jurisdiction over cases involving the custody of Indigenous children, was called into question when a non-Native family brought forth a lawsuit challenging it on several grounds.
Passed by Congress in 1978 in an effort to help keep Native children with their families and communities and protect them against forced removal from their cultures, ICWA guarantees a tribal voice in determining the placement of Native children into foster or adoptive homes. In the decades prior to its passage, over one-third of Native children had been removed from their families, with most placed permanently into non-Native households. Often, the children were removed from intact families on the grounds of perceived poverty rather than any suspicion of neglect or abuse.
These family separation efforts formed part of the US government’s Indian Termination & Relocation policy, a doctrine that underpinned federal relations with tribes in the mid 20th-century. But in the wake of the American Indian Movement, efforts by grassroots organizers and tribal leaders had begun to shift this policy, with the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act and other federal laws signaling the US Government’s mounting focus on tribal sovereignty and self-determination.
Pictured: A fancy shawl dancer celebrates the Supreme Court's decision to uphold ICWA, June 2023. Image credits to ABC News.
In 2018, Texas parents Dr. Jennifer and Chad Brackeen set forth a challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act. The couple, who are non-Native, wished to obtain custody of two Diné (Navajo) siblings after forming a bond with the elder sibling as their foster child - but under the terms of ICWA, placement with a Native family member or, in the absence of a willing and able family member, a non-relative Native family within the child’s tribe, is prioritized. The Brackeen’s case contended that ICWA is unconstitutional, arguing that its provisions violate the Equal Protection Clause, and that its terms undermine state jurisdiction in cases relating to family law.
Other non-Native couples who had attempted to adopt Indigenous children joined the litigation, which rose to the attention of federal courts in 2022. Arguments in support of their collective case were heard by the Supreme Court last November - ultimately, the Court did not side with the Brackeens et. al, with 7 out of 9 justices ruling in favor of the constitutionality of ICWA last month. In a majority opinion authored by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the Court asserted the right of Congress to create legislation regarding tribal affairs and child welfare, but did not address claims that ICWA violates the Equal Protection Clause.
While the Indian Child Welfare Act has been upheld on a federal level, threats to its fulfillment in individual states and municipalities persist - only 14 state legislatures have written ICWA’s provisions into their own laws.
Dive deeper into this topic at the resources linked below.
On ICWA and the history behind its passage:
A summary of ICWA from the National Indian Child Welfare Association:
"Dawnland," a 2018 documentary chronicling the removal of Native children from their homes on the Wabanaki Nation in Maine throughout the 20th century, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission aiming to heal the wounds of this tragic history: https://dawnland.org/
"ICWA History and Purpose" from the Montana Department of Health & Human Services:
"The Brutal Past and Uncertain Future of Native Adoptions" from the New York Times:
On Haaland v. Brackeen, the Supreme Court Case that nearly overturned ICWA, and the Supreme Court ruling in favor of ICWA:
"Who Can Adopt a Native American Child? A Texas Couple vs. 573 Tribes" from the New York Times:
Full text of the Supreme Court's Majority Opinion on Haaland v. Brackeen:
"Win for tribes as high court upholds ICWA" from the Cherokee Phoenix:
Actions to take in support of protections for Native children:
Urge your local representatives to support the implementation of ICWA in your state:
Additional educational resources to explore from Native voices on this topic, compiled by the Protect ICWA Campaign: https://linktr.ee/protecticwa
Sources for this newsletter include: Coverage of this topic from Native News Online, ABC News, the New York Times, the National Indian Child Welfare Association, and NPR.
A seed sprouts, a leaf forms, a harvest arrives.
And all the while, a child learns to lovingly tend to a garden; a family gains access to the tools they need to grow their own food; a mother sleeps a little easier knowing there will be homegrown fruits and vegetables to put on the table when the plants are ready.
This is our hope for the gardens planted at nearly two dozen homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation earlier this week. This labor of love is the result of months of community collaboration, planning, and a whole lot of sweetness between friends from Colorado, South Dakota, and beyond!
As it so often does, a need in the communities we serve found its way to the ears of folks with kind hearts and a desire to work together - in this case, the ears of our dear friends at Common Name Farm! After visiting Pine Ridge families in April, the Common Name farmers have worked continuously to create home garden plans, build planting boxes alongside tribal members, nurture seedlings, and gather materials in support of this garden initiative, which aims to provide the families we serve with the tools and skills they need to grow and harvest their own supplemental produce.
The installation process for each of the gardens was collaborative and joyful, with teams of volunteers and staff joining local community members, elders, and youth at homes across the reservation to plant tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, melons, and more!
On Tuesday, as we left Pine Ridge, we saw a familiar face from the road - a young Lakota boy who helped us plant five gardens earlier in the week, peeking up from his family's new garden and waving at us with his green watering can, his thousand-watt smile on full display. It is for kids like him and families like his that we do what we do - it is an honor to work alongside the youth planting these little seeds of hope.
We’re holding deep gratitude for the farmers from Common Name, for volunteer Sven and his willingness to share his gardening skills and plant knowledge with our crew and the local community, for the Lakota youth leading their families’ gardening efforts, and finally for the plants themselves, and the food & hope they will bring.
A group of 30 volunteers and tribal members from Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River has spent their week here on Hopi & Navajo lands for a week of service and connection!
We've enjoyed every moment of work and play while repairing homes, splitting firewood, constructing a shed for a Navajo sheep herd, planting Hopi gardens, & spending a unique day on the First Mesa with a grassroots organization.... read on for more about this incredibly special project!
When the Spirits see people of many races working together to help the earth, they look kindly upon them and send rain as a blessing. This wisdom was shared with us by a remarkable Hopi & Tewa family whom we had the honor of meeting this week during our service trip to the Hopi & Navajo Nations.
And on Monday, our team watched in awe and gratitude as young people of many different backgrounds came together towards a common purpose; sharing of themselves through service, through laughter, through new friendships forged in joyful, hard work and a well-earned shared meal. To us, it’s nothing short of magic!
We were so grateful to spend the Monday of our May service trip on the Hopi and Navajo nations assisting with a trash clean-up led by Tutskwat Oqawtoynani, a grassroots organization led by a Hopi & Tewa family on the First Mesa. Inspired by the environmental and spiritual stewardship of the land passed down to the family's grand daughters by their grandfather, their name loosely translates to “helping the earth regain the strength to heal itself." Their mission to clean First Mesa top to bottom - rooted in traditional teachings and a deep respect for the land that is home to the Hopi & Tewa people - is brought to life through the organization's community-driven trash cleanups on and around the Mesa. In this way, Tutskwat Oqawtoynani seeks to nurture and preserve Hopi cultural lifeways and positively impact the mental health of their people.
The accumulation of trash along the First Mesa is a complicated issue rooted in systemic challenges; a complex web of historical trauma, decades of harmful government policies, funding challenges at a local and federal level, and a lack of access to infrastructure that would offer First Mesa residents an alternative to dumping have led to the pile-up of trash seen in the photos below. As one of the sisters who lead the organization explained: "The village's health is a reflection of the people's health."
What began as a chance encounter on Sunday afternoon between our volunteers and the family who leads the organization turned into a beautiful morning of service the following day; youth and volunteers from Colorado, California, Pine Ridge, and the Hopi Nation worked together to clear over 100 bags (one whole ton!) of trash from the ledges beneath the First Mesa.
From the bottom of our hearts, we thank our new friends at Tutskwat Oqawtoynani for the opportunity to work alongside them in service of their deeply important mission, for their incredible hospitality, and for new connections made which we hope will have a ripple effect of goodness. Kwa’kwah/Askwali (Thank you)
You can learn more about Tutskwat Oqawtoynani and their amazing work to clean the First Mesa HERE.
Last month, our team was able to assist with tagging and vaccinating buffalo alongside the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd at Colorado State University. This week, five of those buffalo joined a Lakota-led herd on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Read on for more!
In the video above: Five bison make the journey from Fort Collins, CO to Porcupine, SD on Monday, April 17th.
What does it mean for the buffalo to come home?
This question reverberated through the steel frames of the horse trailers housing five buffalo for a cross-state journey on Monday.
The exchange of buffalo between the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd at Colorado State University and the Knife Chief Buffalo Nation, a Lakota-led herd on the Pine Ridge Reservation, began in ceremony on the morning of April 17th. Diné wellness educator Darryl Slim sang prayer songs in preparation for the arrival of the animals to their new herd. Lakota youth smudged the group gathered at CSU with sage, and friends from Pine Ridge laid tobacco offerings in the trailers that would carry the bison to South Dakota.
A sense of anticipation and comradery permeated the air as the CSU team worked with attendees to ready the animals for transport, signaling that their mission of restoring bison herds in the American West has a ripple effect which unites the Native and non-Native community members whom they bring together. We at the Tipi Raisers were honored to have played a small role in this exchange by transporting the five bison in our trailers to the Knife Chief herd on Pine Ridge.
The caravan journey was a spiritual and reflective one, anchored by the traditional prayer songs Darryl offered throughout the 6-hour trip. That evening, as the buffalo took their first steps on Lakota lands under a South Dakota sunset, deep gratitude washed over the group - made up of volunteers and tribal members who helped ensure a safe arrival for all five buffalo relatives. The buffalo will live out their days in the sage-covered hills of the Knife Chief Buffalo Nation's ranch, where they will serve a cultural role for the Oglala Sioux Tribe and help form part of ongoing food sovereignty efforts.
Pictured: A 4-year old bull takes his first steps on the Lakota lands that will now be his home after a 6-hour trailer journey, and volunteers and tribal members stand alongside the leader of the Knife Chief Buffalo Nation.
What does it mean for the buffalo to come home to the lands their ancestors roamed? Does it mean revitalization of the culture, language, and lifeways of a tribe still recovering from genocide and displacement? Will it send out a call for the reconciliation of the history that nearly led to the destruction of this species? Does it mean the start of a new chapter for a people on the cusp of transformation? Perhaps.
What we do know for certain is that each of us who witnessed this homecoming will be forever changed by what we saw: five sacred beings settling into a new home deeply familiar to their DNA, standing tall in the grass onto which their predecessors breathed life for thousands of years; a symbol of hope for the beloved community that surrounded them.
Coming home is a powerful act - the change that follows in its wake is up to all with the desire, means, and compassion to continue building that home up.
In the video above: Tribal members and officials from the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd share reflections ahead of Monday's bison transport.
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