College Essay: Connecting with Native Roots

Wakan Austin
Wakan Austin

One hundred years ago, what I did last month would have been illegal. A few students from the Native Youth Council and I spent a day volunteering as chaperones on a field trip to Bde Ma Ska, a local lake in South Minneapolis. The week before, I heard a man speak about how the gathering of Native people was once illegal. Our traditions of drumming, smudging and speaking in our natural language landed his grandfather in jail multiple times.

“What if, as a people, our best days are still yet to come?” the man asked. “What if?”

My entire life, I have heard stories about how great life was for our ancestors: how North America was a Garden of Eden before colonizers came. Hearing the “what if?” had my head spinning as thoughts of denial and acceptance over the man’s words instantly clashed in my mind. If he was right, how could we as a people ever truly recover? If we don’t strive for recovery and progress, then what’s the point?

As the day at the lake began to wind down, I helped hand out lunch to the children and elders as we all sat in a circle on the grass. It was a beautiful day with life everywhere you looked: ducks on the lake and joggers running by. The Minneapolis skyline towered in the distance. I felt the sun on my skin, but the lake breeze kept me at a comfortable temperature. There was small chatter among everyone sitting in the circle until we heard the deep voice of an older man. He explained that he was a Dakota man and would be praying over the students, as well as the food. Although I couldn’t understand his words, I could hear the passion and serenity in his voice, a combination you often see in Native people. Very carefully soft-spoken. His prayer reminded us about how time isn’t a line for Native people — it’s a circle. All our ancestors and future generations are here right now with us, he said. It felt positive. I couldn’t help but imagine my people from another time surrounding us. In my imagination I saw ancient Native people on crafted canoes in the water; I imagined how they were playing lacrosse. I imagined joy and laughter being a common theme among my people.

The woman translating the man’s Dakota to English pointed to the sky. When I looked up, I felt my body shiver. It wasn’t a cold or a scary shiver, but a shiver of realization. There was a bald eagle soaring above us. It felt unreal seeing the eagle, especially during our prayer. It felt like a perfect scene out of a movie. It felt like that because the eagle could have been anywhere on the lake. But the eagle was flying over us as if it was trying to grab our attention. As a Dakota man I felt even more connected with this eagle; Dakota people used to live along this lake. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a message from them. To most people an eagle is just a bird, but to Native people the eagle is the spirit of strength and bravery. Seeing the eagle made me think about the quote I heard the week before. It made the “What if?” feel real. “What if?” our ancestors and future generations are here right now? “What if?” that eagle wasn’t just a bird, but “What if?” it was a sign from our ancestors that our best days are ahead of us?

I want to be a part of that future, and I want to be that eagle for my future generations.

One hundred years ago I would have been arrested for celebrating my culture in this country. What will change 100 years from now, and what part will I have to play in that?