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Making visible the invisible

By Yvonne Hileman

“My time in South Dakota among the amazing women from Dakota Presbytery taught me that it is important to pay attention to what is made visible about Native people, but it is also important to notice what is invisible,” said Alexis Presseau Maloof, a participant in the September 2010 USA Mission Experience trip to South Dakota. “What are invisible from public discourse and the dominant consciousness are the voices and perspectives of actual Native peoples—telling their stories, teaching their history, speaking for and about themselves.”

Alexis’ thoughtful reflection prepared the crowd for her co-presenter, one of the most moving plenary speakers thus far: Running Woman, or Danelle McKinney. Danelle is a member of the Dakota tribe and a descendant of one of the earliest Presbyterian Dakota ministers. She spoke of healing and forgiveness. She spoke of the vision of her people. She spoke with pain in her face and in her voice and, like those in the audience, was moved to tears.

Plenary attendees heard the voices of other Native Americans in a video made by young Native people from a school in Todd County, South Dakota, called We Are More Than That. The teens talked about breaking stereotypes, saying that they are about love, peace, intelligence, bravery, understanding, resilience, personality, wisdom, motivation, hope, and so much more.

“This video breaks past the narrow and reductionist depictions of Natives and reservation life and forces the audience to view these young Native Americans through a different perspective—from their own perspective—[giving voice] to what so often has been rendered silent,” Alexis said.

But, she said, “I’ve learned that in order to see what is invisible and to hear what has been silenced, we must do the difficult work of interrogating our own limited perspective, so that we can learn how to build new perceptions and understandings of the vibrant and diverse communities of Native peoples. Let us listen to what has been silenced by oppression and domination and stand alongside our Native brothers and sisters. Let us help make the invisible visible.”

Danelle also shared a story that was, in effect, making visible the invisible. She told of the Dakota 38, Native Americans whom Abraham Lincoln ordered hanged on December 26, 1862. She then shared a film clip with other Native voices speaking about the killings.

In the video, Jim Miller, a Native spiritual leader and Vietnam veteran, shared how he organized a memorial ride in 2009 for the Dakota 38 because of a dream he had several years earlier. In the dream, he was riding on horseback across the great plains of South Dakota. Just before he awoke, he arrived at a river bank in Minnesota and saw 38 of his Dakota ancestors hanged. At the time, Jim says he knew nothing of the hangings, the largest mass execution in United States history.

Jim and a group of riders retraced the 330-mile route of his dream on horseback from Lower Brule, South Dakota to Mankato, Minnesota, to arrive at the hanging site on the anniversary of the execution. (Watch a trailer for the full-length feature Dakota 38 or order a DVD.)

“We can’t blame the wasichus (white people) anymore,” he said in the video. “We’re doing it to ourselves. We’re selling drugs. We’re killing our own people. That’s what this ride is about, is healing.”

Danelle (Running Woman) echoed Jim’s resolve saying, “We are ready to accept the challenge. It is time for us to come together. It is time for PW women to help Dakota women.” She believes that the USA Mission Experience to Dakota was “just what God intended” in the effort.

The USA Mission Experience was significant for Alexis, as well. She has spent the two years since the trip reflecting on her experiences and noticing how Native Americans are depicted in the dominant culture. She notices how rarely contemporary American Indians are featured, and that when they are, they are portrayed as “troubled” and “impoverished.”

“It’s interesting,” Alexis told those in plenary, “that so much of what is visible out of the numerous and extremely diverse tribes and cultures of the Native American peoples are these images of poverty and scenes of degradation. By drawing attention to this concept of invisibility and silence, I do not mean to diminish or take away from the very real and material needs and challenges faced by many communities of our Native brothers and sisters, to which we are called to attend,” Alexis cautioned.

She then applauded the work of individuals, women’s groups and congregations who heard about needs identified during the USA Mission Experience, and responded in appropriate and relational ways. Danelle also referenced these relationships. She said that when the first Dakota Presbyterian mission was established in 1835, “you forever changed the outcome of the Dakota,” and with the USA Mission Experience, PW built upon that change.

Referencing advice from her grandmother to give if you have been given something, Danelle said, “We cannot repay you now, except to say thank you. But the thanks will come 150 years from now, when my great-grandchildren look back on this moment and say, ‘This is when it began.’”

Through tears, first in Dakota, then in English, she said “I love you, PW, in a special way. I love you wholeheartedly.” She ended by singing the hymn her grandmother told her the 38 men hanged in 1862 sang as they went to the gallows, “Wakantanka Taku Nitawa,” or “Great Spirit God.”

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