Members of the St. Louis area Native American community gathered at the Center for Spirituality and Sustainability to discuss the mistreatment of Indigenous people by the United States and relationship building between these two groups, both in the past and present. 


During their introductions, the panelists provided background on themselves and the Native American peoples as a whole. Saundi Kloeckener, a panelist and Cherokee and Ojibwe descendant, described her place of residence not as St. Louis, but as Cahokia. 


“I live in the old trading town, and when I say that, I mean Cahokia, and I don’t mean right there at that avenue and at that museum, I mean the region,” Kloeckener said. “They didn’t have state lines, there was no Illinois, there was no Missouri, there was no Iowa. This was a Mecca of trading.”


Galen Gritts, another panelist and enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, reflected on insensitive remarks and stereotypes he has encountered throughout his life. Gritts said he has heard everything from, ‘We should have killed you all when we had the chance,’ to ‘You’re still here? I didn’t think there were any of you left.’


Gritts said people tend to forget that Native Americans are not solely a people of the past. 


“There are more ideas about who we are than there are Native Americans,” Gritts said. “We’re not frozen in time in John Wayne movies.”


Tina Sparks, a Diné and Hopi descendant, spoke about some of the present effects of the discrimination Native Americans faced, as well as how they tried to avoid such discrimination. 


“Sadly, I think that there is some kind of legitimizing that happens when you find the documentation for what you already feel on the inside and what you already know on the inside,” Sparks said. “Because of all the splintering that happened during colonization, it has caused a lot of skepticism … Part of the fallout for that is that a lot of mixed-blood people have a hard time finding their way home if their paperwork was destroyed.”


Sparks also gave examples of some of this fallout, including her own ancestors’ experiences in the New Mexico area. 


“[My ancestors’] paperwork was stored in church basements,” Sparks said. “A lot of times, those buildings caught fire and there is no paper trail, and so you can go to some census bureaus, but a lot of times people were lying about who they were, if they could pass for Mexican or Spanish, to avoid the discrimination against indigeneity. It’s very challenging when you don’t have a road to go home.”


Kloeckener said Native Americans, though not a monolithic group, have had to deal with a fractured identity because of colonization and discrimination. 


“One of the highest prices that we’ve all paid as Indigenous people is the fracture to our identity,” Kloeckener said. “When you look at it through that lens, that encompasses every aspect of colonization that they encountered, whether it was displacements from our lands, which displaced us from our food, which displaced us from our absolute knowing of who we are, because each tribe did not just live on the land, they lived with the land.”


Sparks also works as a therapist and said she incorporates some Indigenous ideas into her practice. 


“I think the more that a therapist knows themselves, the more they have to offer to their clients,” Sparks said. “Everybody has intuition, and our society cultivates it out of us from the time we’re little kids.”


Sparks said she emphasizes intuition in her patients, as well as for herself. 


“Intuition is active and natural. The more we tell them, ‘There’s nothing there,’ we dismiss what they know, and we teach them not to trust what they know,” Sparks said. “So they start to shut it down, because they can’t rely on it … and then we grow up and we don’t know how to trust ourselves, so we wind up relying on education, doctors, priests, religious leaders [and] political leaders for them to tell us what’s real and right.”


Sparks said regaining that intuition can be a very lengthy process because of some of the current structures in place in the psychological field. 


“We have to retrain ourselves to trust that we have knowing inside that’s valid and valuable, and that it is there for us, not against us, and while mental illness is real, there are times when the Western medical model pathologizes that natural knowing,” Sparks said. 


Sparks said children are often considered sacred in Native American traditions due to their intuition and connections with the spirit world. 


“We believe we come from the spirit world, and we’re born into this world and live, and then we go back to the spirit world,” Sparks said. “So when we’re born into this world, we’re still very much intact and connected to all the elements of that [spirit] world. So kids, we believe, are sacred, they’re still sacred because they’re still very much connected to all the threads of the spirit world.”


Mary Weber, a student in contemporary Native American studies class at SIUE, attended the panel with hopes of hearing the points of view textbooks cannot offer. 


“I’m looking forward to a personal perspective, not a perceived one — what’s actually happening for them,” Weber said.


Weber, whose minor is in anthropology, said she took the class in part because Indigenous history is often glossed over in standard history classes. 


“It really touches on the contentious history that I think was pushed under the rug for a really long time,” Weber said. “Our focus is on our own issues.”

For more information on events at the Center for Spirituality and Sustainability, visit its website online.

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