Art by Stephanie Littlebird Fogel
Written by Jana Schmieding
Important to the story is that I am a Lakota woman who raised in a small, white community in Oregon. My siblings and I were brought up at once as traditional dancers, practicing the customs and spirituality of our Oceti roots instilled in us by our elders, all the while singing Schubert’s Ave Maria in our high school’s seasonal choral performances. Like many Urban Native folx, we learned to exist in the awkward but not uncommon space between Indigenousness and white, sheltered but not removed from the intergenerational traumas resulting from settler colonialism. We taught only our closest non-Native peers how to pronounce our Lakota names.
As a sophomore at Very White University, I was a theater student and grassroots organizer with a multicultural organization and the Native Student Union. I was active in the Native community at school, always with my hands in different projects, always busy with plays and organizing. In my private life, I gazed enviously at my peers’ romantic abundance, making silent agreements with myself that my body was probably the reason I wasn’t sought after by men, or that perhaps I was just “too much” of whatever for whomever. But for reasons I still can’t quite articulate, intimacy for me was always bound to danger and extreme personal risk. So when Guy (name changed for privacy) arrived on the Native scene at my school as a graduate student, my interest was piqued. He was the first Native crush I’d had since middle school (when I let a dude I used to pow wow with touch my boob under a blanket at his house.) I wasn’t even that attracted to Guy- but he was interested in me first, so I figured I ought to jump at the opportunity.
Our first date, he made me a traditional dinner of salmon and gifted me with a piece of homemade jewelry. It was a lot of traditionality, and normally I would raise an eyebrow at all this. But long story short, I gave it up to him. It only took about three weeks for me to begin using the word “love” to describe my feelings for Guy because intimacy had always been extremely rare in my life, and in the past, romantic interest had only been shown by strange and emotionally immature men. It all moved pretty fast.
There were awful things about Guy that I ignored in that first month. Like how the morning after we slept together that first time, he wanted me to lay naked with him on his couch and watch Pokemon cartoons. Or that he loved the song “I Get Knocked Down” by Chumbawumba so much, that he insisted on listening to it on repeat in his car whenever we were driving. Or that in our second week of dating, he decided to come into the bathroom to brush his teeth while I was urinating.
“No, it’s cool,” he reassured me when he saw my appalled expression.
The cherry on this salmon sundae was that he had only really learned about his tribal affiliation one year prior, and this discovery led to a sort of obsession with his own Nativeness.
It felt weird to me when he started to insist that I join him on his personal “ceremonies.” He took me to the coast in autumn and made me hold his blanket while he rushed naked into the icy tide. I was supposed to feel honored to be there, but I just the towel girl in his spiritual game (and I was freezing.)
You see, I’ve never been one to flaunt my Nativeness to others in my circles; I simply live it. I’ve always been wary of inviting others into my cultural practices due to the risk of appropriation or racism, but this dude wanted me to learn his customs asap so that I would worship him. His spirituality had no relational boundaries and maintained no privacy. He wanted others to see him as a cultural leader in our Native community but he was young to the identity, and therefore careless.
Guy began to use our courtships as a bit of a race: Who is Indian-er?
Two months into our relationship, I sat him down in the café near the student unions and dumped his ass. I was surprised when he seemed fine with it, and I carried on through a long day of student organizing.
I rode my bike home at 11pm and told my older sister all about the freedom of the breakup over a bong rip with Sex and the City playing in the background. Suddenly, Guy called claiming he had left some things at my house and would like to come pick them up. Sure. It was as good a time as any. He could clear out his Pendleton blanket and that hand drum that he couldn’t properly play, as well as any other Native-ish chachkies he had left in my bedroom. When he knocked on my front door and entered regaly carrying an eagle feather fan, my sister and I exchanged a what-the-fuck glance and anticipated the worst. I followed Guy into my room and at once he took my arm and led me to the edge of my bed where he began to weep, and beg for me to take him back.
“Please don’t do this. We are meant for each other,” he wept. “This was the best thing for both of us. We had something amazing.”
I tried my best to pinch out a tear or two because he made me feel guilty. We sat there for a good half hour, well into the midnight hour while I issued plenty of excuses as to why I didn’t think we should continue to date. But, like I said before, he entered my home holding an eagle feather fan like a spiritual elder and he meant to use it. Essentially, Guy wanted to use our similarly held spiritual beliefs against me. He wanted to ceremonize this breakup in “the Indian way” proving once and for all that he was the higher-order Native between us. He would be the one to legitimize or delegitimize our bond under the watchful eye of the Great Spirit.
This is when my boyfriend of two months conducted a made-up divorce ceremony in my bedroom.
Guy wiped his tears and steadied himself. In a stoic gesture, he reached into his bag to pull out an abalone shell the size of his palm. He had split the shell in twain and in the nook of each, he poured small mixtures of rocks and herbs and shit that he said was “our medicine.” He looked into my suspicious eyes and told me in the most Hollywood Indian tone, “This shell represents our union. This is where the shell has become unattached, and if you truly believe that we should not be together anymore, you will turn the shell so that the sides do not match.” So with a smirk, I took one half of the shell from his hand, gave that sucker a 180 and set it back down. Guy took a lighter to the “medicine” in both shells.
He worked longer than should have been necessary on igniting the stuff and said as spark after spark flew off the shell’s walls, “The smoke of this medicine will drift into the wind. Our connection will disappear from the naked eye for now, but will live for eternity in the spirit world.” An eternity in the spirit world?! Oh hell no. At this point I was losing my damn cool. It was approaching 1:00 am and the my bed was beckoning away from this disgusting display. Once the paltry flame took to the rocks and herbs, I breathed a sigh of relief that this nonsense would soon be over. But it continued!
Guy pulled out a very small, framed picture of himself and poured the smoldering ash from the shells into the back of the picture. “So I’ll always be with you,” he commented as he placed it tenderly on my bedside table.
I had a vision of crunching the tiny, framed picture between my teeth right before his eyes, snarling at him through bleeding gums. I hated him. How dare he! He left my room stoically with his head held high. I didn’t stop him because by that point I was so confused and so deeply angered by the whole scenario, I just wanted him to disappear.
As I thought back on our relationship then, sitting in my bed at 2am with a grimace hugging my face, I realized our entire relationship Guy had been using his spirituality, however contrived, to control and manipulate my attachment to him. He needed me – a strong Indigenous woman – to validate and honor his Native identity, even above my own. I learned last year after interviewing Caroline Laporte of Stronghearts Native Helpline, that what I had experienced with Guy has a name. Cultural and spiritual abuse affects people from Native communities often enough that a definition has been developed. The way Guy made me participate and observe his clearly made up ceremonies in order to make me feel spiritually less than makes this man abusive. That bullshit breakup nonsense with the eagle feather fan and the burning medicine humiliated me and put me in a position of feeling apologetic for cutting him out. Abusive.
I realized our entire relationship, Guy had been using his spirituality, however contrived, to control and manipulate my attachment to him.
Ultimately, I wish I would have had the language as a younger Native woman to identify cultural abuse when it affected my life and my ability to trust. Since that relationship, my willingness to enter into intimate partnerships with men has been very slim, and when I have had relationships, I’ve been extremely hesitant to express my Native identity. Being a part of a silenced people poses this issue: if my beliefs and values as a Native person are to be ridiculed, humiliated and cheapened in mainstream culture, what prevents those I’m close to to inflict the same harm? I’d like more Native women to join this conversation. I want this ridiculous story and others like it to be taken seriously.
About the writer: Jana Schmieding is a Lakota Sioux writer, performer and educator currently performing regularly in Los Angeles. While working as an education specialist in New York and California, Jana puts a lot of focus into her artistic and activist work as the creator of the podcast and accompanying live show, Woman of Size where brilliant people discuss their bodies.
About the Artist: Stephanie Littlebird Fogel is an Indigenous artist and writer based out of Portland, Oregon. Her work seeks to exalt the feminine divine in all womxn, presenting an offering of visual medicine to a world that desperately needs femme power.
The StrongHearts Native Helpline (1-844-7NATIVE) is a safe, anonymous and confidential service for Native Americans affected by domestic violence and dating violence. Advocates are available at no cost Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. CST when you are ready to reach out.