A Native American Experience

Ryan Rickerts
15 min readOct 17, 2021

It is a few days after the now (F)ederally recognized Indigenous People’s Day, beginning with Oct. 11, 2021. I have been very intentionally choosing ways of honoring this confusing rebranding of Columbus Day, trying to get cozy in the obvious contradiction. I am transcribing the essay below to Medium from five pieces of burnt paper while eating a greasy breakfast in a late-night diner. I wrote this while attending WWU in 2003 for a course called American Studies 202.

I am transferring the ink on singed paper to this digital form unedited, other than the typos that the instructor (apparently named Dan) corrected in the margins. While it existed in digital form already at one point, I no longer have access to that storage. It pleases me to type it out once more, almost 20 years later, as if it was written on a typewriter and the only way to preserve it is to trace over every letter chosen by a former version of myself. Perhaps a small gesture of honoring “those that came before” or even “that which came before.”

For one point of confusion on Biden’s proclamation, Columbus was never officially canceled. This new meaning was just layered on top in a complex gesture fitting of our highly contradictory political age.

No doubt, death for death, the U.S. Government has visited more atrocities on Native populations than Columbus ever did, and continues to do so (counting also neglect). Looking up to this fabricated (and really, quite fragile) national government entity for approval or guidance to, on just one day per year, honor indigenous practices is a strange invitation. Somewhat like attending the sentencing of a murderer just to hear the words “I’m sorry.” but letting the perpetrator pick the day and send out the formal invites. It’s a welcome change of tone, but selecting a formal day of recognition without any real structure to it (my daughter did not get the day off from school nor receive any special instruction) is not a genuine apology. That being said, this intro has some good meat to it:

For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures. Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society. We also recommit to supporting a new, brighter future of promise and equity for Tribal Nations — a future grounded in Tribal sovereignty and respect for the human rights of Indigenous people in the Americas and around the world.

What does that word mean, “recommit”? Maybe all federal employees, after taking their mandatory COVID shot, have to attend a play called What about those promises?

To give Biden credit where credit is due, he did appoint Pueblo of Laguna member Deb Haaland as the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. She is overseeing the Dept. of Interior which also includes the BIA or “Bureau of Indian Affairs” (another odd naming convention due to Columbus’ confusion over where he actually arrived).

Meanwhile, the About Us page for the BIA declares the following as part of their mission statement:

Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is the oldest agency of the United States Department of the Interior. Established in 1824, it is responsible for the administration and management of 55 million surface acres and 57 million acres of subsurface minerals estates held in trust by the United States for American Indian, Indian tribes, and Alaska Natives. Their missions is [sic] to: “… enhance the quality of life, to promote economic opportunity, and to carry out the responsibility to protect and improve the trust assets of American Indians, Indian tribes, and Alaska Natives.”

Being “responsible for the administration and management of 55 million surface acres and 57 million acres of subsurface minerals estates held in trust” sounds like a difficult and noble task. However — and this comes from my very colonized perspective — referring to the land this way and the “management” of it is extremely far from understanding or respecting what it means to be indigenous. It beams lasers from the eyes of a colonizer.

a poster found in a thrift store hanging in a cheap plastic frame in my rental house

I recently burned down my new workshop due to leaving some old t-shirts soaked in linseed oil-based stain in a pile on a flattened cardboard box on the floor. The tiny mound of cotton erupted via spontaneous combustion and overtook the entire building by the time I awoke at 2am. It was one of the most terrifying experiences in my life, with a strong dose of feeling helpless against the oncoming destruction of a space I had carefully curated.

After the local volunteer-powered fire department subdued the blaze, the only items I could retrieve seemed the most vulnerable — pictures my father took in Vietnam in a photo album with a thick cover, and my notebooks from five college years at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA. They were soggy but perfectly legible, and reading this story brought back welcome memories amidst this disruptive and tragic life event.

I don’t remember everything about my first exposure to this special culture back in 1996. Although I still tell the tale in person, the memory was much fresher in 2003. Here is that impression, well preserved by a high quality printer smashing black ink on fibers formed from downed trees, plucked from a fire after a long and heavy rainstorm.

A Native American Experience
Ryan J. Rickerts
Amer. Stud. 202
June 2, 2003

When I graduated from Coeur d’Alene High School in May of 1995, I had worked very hard adhering to the formula of our education system. I rose above and beyond the expectations of the median student, showed discipline, intelligence, and ambition, so I would be recruited into a good college and have continuing opportunities for success.

When I finally got to college, it occurred to me that I was mislead or mistaken by the promises of high school. Nobody was very impressed with what I had done. Nobody thought I was exceptional and opened up a special door for me. I was just another student that had to keep on working — no different than before. Yet I was tired. I was tired of classrooms. I was tired of sitting. I was tired of talk. I was tired of promises and no action. So I left school — I left behind the scholarships, the programs, and the promises — and started hitchhiking around the country alone.

I had a few significant adventures on the road before I wound up at a Rainbow Gathering in the Ozarks of Missouri. This is a gathering place for those fed up with the system, those looking for a way around the laws and the programs. They are seeking a way for people to succeed by just working together cooperatively. In a one week stay amongst the throngs of bugs and dancing people, however, I didn’t find my group. I didn’t find people with whom I wanted to work together on a special task, where I could feel like I belonged and was appreciated. It was time to move on.

As I was heading out of the woods through the giant field of parked cars and buses, I came across a man preparing his large school bus for departure. He was dark skinned and had shoulder-length, black hair. We spoke for just a moment. He gave me a small flyer describing the need for help for the Diné people in Arizona. It said something about Black Mountain, being displaced from the Hopi reservation, and their last Sun Dance on traditional lands. He seemed concerned and in sincere need of help, so I decided I would travel to Arizona and meet the people he was helping.

A week or so later, I was making my way, car ride by car ride, across Northern New Mexico. Having spent most of my childhood in North Idaho, this seemed a very foreign place to me. At first, the cities and towns had an obviously strong Mexican influence and cowboy atmosphere. Then, as I approached the four corners region of Northeast Arizona, the presence of a reservation and a Native population became apparent. There were roadside Indian novelty stores and other cheap tourist attractions, but development became generally more sparse. All the surroundings seemed more desolate and gave me a feeling of desert wilderness. I became concerned for myself, because I know how to fend for myself in the forests or the snowy mountains, but not here. How do you find water? What kind of snakes and scorpions are out there? Most houses I saw were isolated — no power lines leading up to them (I presumed no water lines, too), no car out front, no porch swings, driveways, or lawns. It seemed like a lonely and tough existence, and I wondered how people subsisted in this way.

I was following the simple directions on my flyer, and short rides were easy to come by. Having a hitchhiker or two in the back of your pickup seemed natural to the people that could afford pickups (during one ride when I was leaving the area, the Native family in the nice, big pickup truck I was riding in the back of also picked up a poor Native man who didn’t seem to speak much English. He had a terrible nose bleed, so I gave him my favorite “Ross Perot for President” t-shirt to wipe up the blood with. He seemed grateful but was quiet). Just when I found my directions were inadequate to bring me to the Sun Dance encampment, I gained a ride from two Native fellows. They looked at me and already guessed where I was heading. They drove me out of their way to the camp, but were silent as thought it was something they shouldn’t be doing or didn’t necessarily approve of. They dropped me off right at camp, turned around, and left.

Now I was in a friendly place. No one came out and greeted me or gave me a grand tour of the place, but there was drinking water, shelter and shade, supplies for preparing food, and happy people milling about. There were also a few other young white folk that looked like they could have come from the Rainbow Gathering, so I began to feel more comfortable.

Of course, there were no beds for the “helpers” and I had no tent, so I chose a spot under a nearby tree for sleeping. There weren’t an abundance of chairs either, so I mostly sat on the ground and watched the Native people, trying to figure out what was happening and how I could help. I watched in awe as some elder Native woman cleaned a goat they had slaughtered on the ground right by the kitchen shelter. The entrails were all treated delicately — the intestines were even squeezed gently until empty and saved for some use that I cannot imagine. I had never seen a woman prepare a dead animal for food, let alone a woman old enough to be my grandmother. I wished I could have learned something from them, but I’m not sure they spoke English.

By the next day, activity and preparation for the dance was increasing. I saw the man who I had back in Missouri and invited me out to Arizona, and I learned that not only was he a Diné descendant himself, but that he would be participating in the Sun Dance as a dancer. I was surprised that he traveled around, went to Rainbow Gatherings, spoke without an accent, looked and acted like a somewhat ordinary American citizen (maybe of mixed blood?), and yet was still considered a tribe member of enough conviction to be worthy of their ceremony. He was fasting and trying to purify his mind, so I did not talk to him.

Finally, I was given my first real task. I could now demonstrate my intelligence, determination, and ambition so I could be given even more significant tasks. My job was to help build a “Moon Lodge” for the women away from camp. I believe that the energy associated with menstruation could interfere with the ceremony, so they would need a shelter a hundred yards or so away. When I arrived at the site, a few of my fellow European-descendant youth were already discussing the project. Naturally, one of their ideas was better than the other, but no matter, the other guy was starting off with his plan anyways. Egos were flaring, and I was truly embarrassed. I thought we had come to visit another culture and learn something from Native Americans, and all these boys could do is apply the same independent, competitive, superior attitude to their tasks. We were supposed to be learning the Native ways, not showing off our own. I slipped away quietly without explaining myself.

Early the next morning, I was sitting in the kitchen area thinking about breakfast. There were basic ingredients around, but not a lot of food. I was asked by a man to follow him up the road a bit. We shortly came to a new area where an immense tangle of tree branches sat and a small fire smoldered. There was another boisterous youth waiting there, and we were given instructions to collect some good wood from the pile and carry it to the fire. As we began working, the other boy began talking loudly. He was bragging about something, snapping branches, stomping on the biggest ones he could find, and generally not paying attention. I didn’t think much of him, but I acknowledged his statements now and then while I selected nice, middle-sized branches that were easy to pull off the pile. I had a fine pile growing without having to snap a single twig. I guess I was conserving my energy that early in the morning.

I glanced behind me once and noticed that two Native men were observing us while we worked. Before fifteen minutes had passed, the man that had instructed us approached us again. He asked me if I would help with their sweat-lodge ceremony. I could see the disappointment in the other boy’s face — we did not realize this simple job was a test. I concluded that I was perhaps selected for my carefulness, humility, and lack of aggression in my task. I was very honored and glad I acted naturally that morning.

I was escorted over by the fire where a few low, dome structures were located. One was covered in heavy, green canvas, and the other was just a skeleton of branches woven into the dome structure. I was impressed that they could build such a sturdy shape with simple, gathered materials. I was handed a long, solid stick with a forked end and shown some rocks in the fire. He told me to stand close by and listen for my cue; then I should pass him a hot rock. I was also supposed to keep the fire and rocks hot. The two men removed their shirts and slipped inside the lodge where several others were already waiting in that tight, hot space.

I became very intent at doing this task well — it seemed like my golden opportunity, even though it was very simple. Maybe I would be accepted as an authentic part of their movement and taught some important things. I stood by and listened while they chanted inside the sweat lodge. I tried to understand what they were saying, but it was all in their own language. Soon the flap opened and the man by the door asked me for a rock. I simply picked one up, passed it onto his own short, forked stick and watched him place it in the center of the circle. Water was slapped on the rocks with some leafy twigs, and the flap was closed. I couldn’t believe that I was permitted this close to their purifying ritual. Did they want to pass on some of their knowledge to a deserving white person? Or were they just in short supply of people who cared about these old ways? Perhaps both. When they were finished, I returned to my place down by the kitchen.

The next day, news arrived that an elder in their tribe had passed away. This would delay the ceremony, because death somehow disturbs the preparation of the dancers. It was more important for them to mourn her than focus on their dance. It could be several days before the ceremony could continue. I could see the strain in the face of the man who invited me there. He had already been fasting for several days, and this would extend his time without food.

This change of events also had ramifications for my plans. My mother’s side of the family was having its first full reunion back in my home town. While I greatly respected the Diné and their ways, my lineage is Irish. These were my people — even though they were ordinary Americans, I felt a conviction to them over any other. I was hoping the Sun Dance would finish before I would have to leave, but with this delay I would miss my family gathering. I would have to leave right then.

I asked the man who invited me if he agreed with my decision to place my family before this opportunity to help a struggling Native band and learn sacred ways. He addressed me and my choice respectfully and bid me well, but I don’t think he was too surprised or concerned about another wandering white man. I told him I would try to return in time for the Sun Dance, but I never did. I have some regret for leaving their ceremony so early, but it was only an experience, not a place for me to stay.

The memory of those three days is a powerful one. I felt more satisfaction from being selected to help with that simple sweat ceremony than I ever did from earning A’s in school, getting scholarships, or being admitted into an Honors college. I wonder if the manner in which I was disenfranchised with the school system and felt like the bargain with society is really one-sided is similar to the experience of Native peoples. It seems they were promised some great opportunity if they gave up their old ways and joined Western society, but all they got is menial work and a meaningless existence with television, alcohol, and the company of the poverty class as a reward. It is a sham we’ve all been sold, but many of us who were born into it for many generations cannot see another way.

These Diné seemed to recognize the false promise and were giving every effort to remain autonomous and continue their traditional practices, no matter how difficult it became. I felt an affinity with them for this reason. They knew more about cooperation and sovereignty than all the aimless hippies at the Rainbow Gathering sharing love and calling me brother. They had strength that came from their roots in tradition, and a concentrated purpose that came from having one distinct band of people to care about. I enjoyed being with them, although they never knew my name. They gave me hope. I would like to follow up on their story to learn if they have succeeded in their cause.

The instructor wrote in pencil on the top of the first page, now a crispy, carbonized margin: “Ryan, this pleases me. Dan.” The grade offered was 100. Does this mean I did everything right? I should expect a promising career trajectory, where many managers and bosses will offer similar levels of approval on my timely TPS reports?

Following up on my desire expressed in the closing line of my essay, I looked through their digital newspaper for some expressions of disdain for or dissatisfaction with Indigenous Peoples’ Day as I theorized above. The Diné are also known as the Navajo Tribe, and this story from the Navajo Times gives a great clue with a quote in the title, ‘We embrace this day as ours’:

Perhaps Tre Riley explained it best when he shared the core values for which his Zuni heritage taught him to strive.

Wearing his turquoise necklace and headband, Riley spoke on Monday at the University of New Mexico Student Union about what Indigenous Peoples Day means to him.

A fourth-year student, majoring in physical education, the Zuni native said he thought long and hard for four days about what it meant to him.

Riley, 24, said he was not sure which direction he would be taking when he graduates. He is certain he wants to work at a Native-based school as a physical education teacher.

When he was asked to give a speech at a KIVA Club-sponsored event, it got him thinking about what he what he wanted to share.

He saw his poster, the teachings he said he read every day, hanging on the wall at his home.

“I realized, ‘Well, I have it right here, why not just share with the people, share with my Native brothers and sisters and my relatives and non-Indigenous people?” he said. “Let me share these values that I grew up with that we still have to this day.’”

Speaking at the student union, he said, “I settled upon one thing that I wanted to share with you all, that I wanted to express from my Zuni Pueblo heritage. I decided to talk about our core values from Zuni Pueblo, and why they resonate with me.”

Amid chitter-chatter of the crowd, Riley held up a poster with several Zuni teachings written on it. Three of which, he said, shaped him into the person he is now.

“Hon dewulashshi’ iwillaba’ a:ho’ik’yanna,” he said in his Zuni language. “It translates to, ‘We will be kind and generous one another.’

“Why that means so much to me is because I grew up in a family where we worked with what we had,” he said. “My mother taught me that no matter how much you have, you always have enough to give to others as well. And I hold that to my heart and I will continue to live by those words.”