By Talon Ducheneaux
Hau, mitakyapi, I want to start by saying pilamaya yelo, thank you, for everyone and everything that granted me permission to be here and speak today. I find myself waking up to this thought more and more each morning: “I shouldn’t be here.” I plan on showing you that this thought actually has a positive connotation behind it.
Over the past few years I’ve had here at Penn, I’ve come to have somewhat of a spiritual awakening, if you will. For background context, I come from South Dakota. I am a proud Lakota and Dakota having grown up across many different reservations in the state such as the Crow Creek Reservation, the Cheyenne River Reservation, and the Rosebud Reservation. When I was born, my father chose to be one of the first in his family to step into college, where he’d then earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He and my mother went onto do their best to raise me and my little brother as best as they could. We would soon return to the reservation after my father earned his degree.
After a few years of being home, I began to learn about the make-up that my perceived difference actually was during those years of being a minority back in the schools that I had went to near my father’s old campus. I started to hear of the ancestry and history that I came from more and more, and simultaneously, I unfortunately became all too familiar with what seemed to plague us as a result of such a stripping history.
Part of this history that we each live with as indigenous peoples is one that threatened and shook our ways of life, our physical beings, our mental beings, our emotional beings, our religious and spiritual beings. It seemed as though anything that could be categorized eurocentrically as “injun” or “savage” was direct target for eradication or assimilation. “Kill the Indian, save the man.” We see the remnants of such a historical colonial attitude through the existence of the United States government, the existence of the reservations and tribes, through the existence of the United States in general. I look at these statues outside with a confused attitude most of the time; are most of these figures my national ancestry, or are they the ones who wanted to kill my grandparents the most? This history can also be seen through the existence of boarding schools like Carlisle, one of the more infamous boarding school examples being just a few hours’ drive from where we stand today. This little factoid in particular continued to stick out in my mind more and more throughout my undergrad years here in Penn. In the modern world, we have a common misconception of this history being over, complete, done, history. However, through the existence and the resistance of indigenous peoples we can see the true effects and life that history exemplifies in our very beings.
As I said before, my parents did really well for themselves during the initial years of mine and my brother’s lives. I was lucky enough to not witness my mother leave and to not see my father violently remorsefully drink his life away until I turned about 13. The superheroes I once had growing up didn’t slowly die before my eyes until I was about that age or so. Though, after that first night that my father tried to fight me, I knew it could only be downhill from there. Such traumas followed me to Penn, as I began to randomly shake myself awake in my dorm bed at any sudden thud, sweating in worry and fear almost every night. Back then, I used to pretend it was just the bass in my speakers. On these more recent nights, they actually were just my speakers.
During the years of my parents’ descensions into addiction, alcoholism, and neglect, I tried my best to grow up quick. I learned how to do everything on my own. Simple things. Wash dishes, cook, clean up the party messes, put my brother to sleep, tell him that everything will be okay, ‘The monsters in the living room can’t come in here.’ Simple things. Budget money to get all the cosmetics I needed, get over to my bus so I could escape to school each day, deal with losing some of the closest cousins and comrades I grew up with to suicide, violence, depression, addiction. Simple things.
We were funny kids, you know? Teasing each other, maybe a little bit too much at times, but we were family. I remember one time at the annual county fair, a cousin and I had teased our other cousin for being stood up by his then girlfriend, only to find out that I’d suffer the same exact fate at the same fair. He got me back, of course. We were funny like that. It was during my sophomore year in high school when I got a call saying he had tried to kill himself. They caught him in time, but the head-trauma consequences and brain damage ended up taking him away from us for good; they said his head looked like a pumpkin. While listening to it all at school on the phone, the only thought on my mind was ‘Who’s next?’ and ‘Will it be me?’
When I came to Penn, these issues didn’t stop. My little brother, who is now a freshmen in high school, began to face them alone. I stood with great pride and guilt as he told me how he’d handle each situation alone ‘just as I told him.’ He knew how to do everything I wished he’d never need to know. I wanted to go back, but I was never ‘free’ there, nor here, nor there. Instead, I found that my presence at home only brought more from my parents, more neglect, more nonsensical issues that dealt with them seeing me as the pass to leave and return randomly in fury and sadness. On top of that, I knew that I was in no shape to help anything.
After a summer’s visit that resulted in sending my own father to jail with a fractured rib, and a following winter’s visit of driving days with little to no sleep next to a belligerent strung out man in the passenger seat to barely catch my flight, I told myself that I could not go back until it was on my own terms. For everyone’s sake. My heart longed for home, while my mind did all it could to erase the scream I heard from my father as I knocked the knife from his hand and stomped on his chest. It’s been over two years since I’ve seen my beautiful home now. My large, beautiful, extended family, along with all the little cousins and nieces and nephews who still don’t really know who uncle Talon is.
I came back to Penn with a deep anger and frustration with narrow- mindedness, the same acts and attitudes that wrought destruction and chaos onto many tribes, just like mine, resulting in the greatest attempted genocide and holocaust this world has ever known. Watch the domino fall and hit a new generation of neglected children forgotten in the eyes of everyone, fighting to even be proud of who they are as indigenous. Yes, even today, we tremble at the fact that just a few nights ago we see even our children as young as 11 attempting suicide. All thanks to the colonizers we’d read about in the classes we were told to go to, because “You injuns can’t make it in this world without our education.” I cried day and night, through the pages of my writings, the tracks to my songs, the performances of my voice, knowing that there were and are still many kids like myself and my brother going through bad and worse due to this thing we call hate. Segregation. Categorization in the first place. Assumptions based upon skin color. Assumptions based upon dress. From then on, I questioned everything about anything including these assumptions, I felt a clear frustration and anger for what attitudes and assumptions can ultimately lead down to do to beautiful people, and I believe we are all beautiful. From the kid eating ketchup sandwiches because mom is strung out, to the kid being enrolled to one of the best pre-schools in the country. I believe we are all beautiful. I know that we are all beautiful. My reasoning was correct, but still, my relatives, I needed to learn something.
It was around the time that I got these tattoos you see on my wrists that it hit me. I was walking over to South St. I told myself, “I can spend a few dollars. I need to celebrate!” As I walked down nearly the entire street, I couldn’t decide on anything, and the rain started pouring down hard! I had no umbrella, so I just walked into the nearest building I could. It was a little bar/grill type place, and since I was by myself, I took a seat and ordered from the bar. Next to me sat this middle-aged man, having a beer and watching baseball. As soon as I sat down he started chatting to me. I didn’t really feel like talking, but I figured I’d be polite. He goes on and on, and then he says, “Man, you know, that Keystone Pipeline is horrible. They don’t even realize that they’re breaking treaty rights by going on tribal lands! Tribal lands!” I sat shocked. I got excited and found myself having the one of the best two hour conversations I’ve ever had in my life. I never expected an Irish man from Philadelphia to know so much about my own culture and have so much respect and openness about it. I never cringed once while talking to him, this stranger. Yes, my relatives, I still needed to learn something.
When I decided to grab the circles, to symbolize the equality of people, whether we choose to act it or represent it each day, I feared judgment from the tattoo artist. When in fact me and that tattoo artist ended up talking about it nearly the whole way through, and then some. Yes, my relatives, I still needed to learn something.
When I walked out with my circles, to symbolize equality, I feared judgment from cash registers, bank tellers, professors, colleagues, passerbys. “Minorities and tattoos don’t make people comfortable, Talon.” I ended up having some of the kindest and deepest conversations with complete strangers and their curiosities about what my tattoos meant. Yes, my relatives, I still needed to learn something. I had to learn to let these social constructs go, to stop allowing their consequences from harming my body anymore. My mind became reeducated as an interviewer once asked a big inspiration of mine, Saul Williams, the following, “Has the conversation about the civil rights movement gone away in America. And the racial conversation… should it still be had?” Williams replied, “I think that the racial dialogue in America on one hand is necessary to an extent, but then you have to leave it alone and acknowledge that it’s a social construct. And that if you become too engaged, too reactionary, then you start basing your life and your principles on this idea, that is simply that: an idea. And the endpoint has to be humanity as one. We are one. So if we don’t push beyond the idea of race, then we’re stuck.” My relatives, I cannot afford to be stuck anymore.
Now, in my culture, we hunka people a lot; we adopt people a lot. While here in Philadelphia, I have hunka’d a few people. My hunka auntie, Valerie DeCruz said something to me over and over again as we resonated with each other over this recurring discussion that I am talking about. If you ever get into a conversation like this with her, you may hear that beautiful quote by Audre Lorde: “For master’s tools will never dismantle master’s house.” And relatives, I cannot and will not try to end hate with the tools of hate. I still needed to learn this.
Now, I had every right to be mad, to be mad at myself, my parents, my history, this government, this world. Here in Philadelphia, I’ll sometimes close my eyes and remain haunted by the eyes of my father as he raged drunkenly through our lives, my brother as he cried for love, my mother as she cried for drunken hopelessness. And I don’t see them anymore; I look in their eyes as I close mine, and instead I see the colonization. Because the laws of motion saw ships land before and after 1492. The laws of motion witnessed an entire continent of people become identified as savage and devil-worshipping. The laws of motion witnessed human beings speak of other human beings, saying “Take away their hunting rights,” and “Let them eat grass.” The laws of motion observed as the tides washed out the mouths of children with soap and vinegar for speaking their own language. Those laws of motion only saw fit to then bring about the equal and opposite reaction, a loss of hope. From this stripping of religion and spirituality, culture, language, what better fit than to insert suicide, depression, violence, self-violence, dependency and abuse, and more.
I have every right in my entire body to be mad; I have every right to hate, but I cannot do that. I refuse to do that. I can’t show the opposite of love pretending to claim that I stand for it. I cried out loud and deep inside myself as I heard a wonderful man by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talk about the absurd philosophy that endorses this irony. The philosophies that come about during the time of midnight, where the only thing right is to get by, and the only thing wrong is to get caught. Dr. King said, “According to this tragic philosophy, it’s alright to lie, but lie with a little finesse. It’s alright to rob and exploit, but be a dignified exploitist so that it becomes embezzlement rather than just stealing. It’s alright even to hate, but dress your hate in the garments of love and make it appear that you are loving when you are actually hating.’Just get by.’”
We have a lot to be angry about, we have a lot to cry about. I find myself crying every day for my lost brothers and sisters, including the young girl of eleven who tried to end her life just a few nights ago. The family I never met due to unnatural death, and the family I cannot spend time with until I make the journey they took long and short ago. I think of those moments where hope was nowhere to be found at this hour of midnight, knowing that I myself was just a few minutes away from it. We have a lot to cry about, my relatives, but we cannot allow our many reasons to cry to diffuse our abilities and our rights to smile, our rights to love.
We must love one another, but do not worry, for love is not silent. Love does not allow hate to go unnoticed. Your beloved relative loved you when they told you, “Get out of my kitchen!” because they were cheffing you up the best damn love you’ll ever find. Love is the ability to tell your relative, “You’re hurting me. You’re killing me.” Love is to tell the world about the Keystone Pipeline, about Vernon Traversie and the KKK those surgeons marked on his body, Leonard Peltier and the Mandelic bars he still stands behind, Mary Brave Bird and the power she brought to the world, our stolen children and the families who cry for them back, our killed children and the families who long to be next to them again, our wronged and our wrongs. Love does not hold back, and love does not lie, even when we feel that it must in order to avoid negativity and uncomfortability. Love is real, and can never be successfully faked without dire consequences. Love is approaching the wrongs about yourself and those around you while acknowledging that you are still related and that you are still beautiful.
And history is not history. 99 percent of the horrors in my life come from the brutal domino that colonization pushed a long time ago. My tears are those that gather from the men, women, and children who were shot at Wounded Knee, at Sand Creek, at the Trail of Tears, at South Dakota, at Montana, at North Dakota, at Minnesota, at Mexico, at New Mexico, at Arizona, at Pennsylvania, at Wyoming, at Washington, and everywhere. My tears are those that drop on it all again, hoping to show the love and compassion that was then replaced only with hate and separation from those in which we cannot separate from, and that is everyone. My relatives, we have every right to cry from the bad, but those tears must not blur our vision away from the fact that we are still here in spite of it all, that all of us have the ability to acknowledge our survivals and our abilities to love one another, that all of us can still be as one, for we can never separate from one another. Look into the reservations of historical trauma and see extended families laugh with another, utilizing one of the things colonization could not take from us: laughter.
There’s another thing from MLK that resonates deep inside of my soul as I say this: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war, that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” My relatives, I wake up nearly every morning shocked yet thankful that I am alive once again, because history told me not to. I didn’t listen, and instead woke up with tears of happiness in my eyes, for it is another day’s worth of chances to give that unconditional love the final word that it deserves.
Hau mitakuye oyasin. Anpetu waste yuha yelo.