Month: October 2002

Suzanne Blue Star Boy Leads Women to peace as newly appointed Director of V-DAY in Indian Country

TNV: The V-DAY Project is kind of shocking in this area of the country, in South Dakota. It is certainly breaking new ground here…

Suzanne Blue Star Boy: It’s important.

What I’ve had to do my whole life is not be afraid to stand up. I come from the Yankton Sioux Reservation. My father is from the Ihanktowan Dakota people and he was a tribal leader. But also what he did in the community was, he was a boxer. So part of what I grew up with was that fighting was a sport. We didn’t have fighting in our house. Boys didn’t hit girls. My father was someone who really stuck up for women. So, I didn’t know that other men didn’t do that except when I looked out my door as the reservation built the housing and all that. We were all put into a situation where we were too close to each other. You know that old saying “Familiarity breeds contempt”? That’s what happened on the reservation. We were too close to each other, physically. Combine that with people who don’t have jobs or they drink alcohol, or there’s frustration. And all of a sudden, there would be fighting. So I grew up in this community where the people I loved during the day, at night I didn’t like very much. They seemed dangerous to me.

TNV: Do you have any insights you’d like to share about how cluster housing affected the extended family system?

SBSB: When you grow up in an Indian community, you’re taught how we’re like, “Keepers of the Land.” And here we were in a HUD project, that was not about being keepers of the land in any way. It was about creating kind of a suburbia that didn’t really fit – not even in South Dakota. They took a city concept, and took it out to the reservation – I’m sure it was for economic reasons – and they created a different kind of slum. It was 1971. At the time it was brand new, and it looked fine. What happened to us, it was too close, too familiar, and they put strange combinations of people together. Anyone could move anywhere. So, people who had lived off the reservation moved back onto the reservation, and people who had lived on the reservation moved into those houses. And there was already strife. They ignored the tiospaye. They combined a bunch of different people together and conflict happened.

How we addressed the conflict was…my Dad was a boxer we set up a boxing ring in our backyard. We saw men hitting women, boys and girls fighting each other…So, we started a recreation program, and we just put gloves on everybody, and put them in for three 3-minute rounds and let them duke it out. I’m gonna tell you something that happened: all the gang fighting stopped. They’d wake us up in the middle of the night, drive their cars up to the boxing arena, and they’d say, “So and so was fighting. George, would you referee?” My Dad would get up, I’d time ’em, and they’d box. We’d have these boxing matches in the middle of the night. But it stopped the violence.

TNV: Why do you think it stopped the violence?

SBSB: Well, because no one really wanted to put on those gloves. No wanted to get in the ring. You have to be an athlete. My father was put in the South Dakota Hall of Fame for his contribution to Indian Country. He started the Silver Gloves in Mission. He trained Indian boys and (non-Indian kids) from all over South Dakota. He didn’t discriminate.

TNV: Do you know how to box?

SBSB: Hell yeah. You can’t have 5 brothers and not know how to box!

TNV: How did you come to work on domestic violence issues?

SBSB: I lived in Alaska for 20 years with the Tlinget and Haida people and one of the things that happened to me living in Alaska was that I had my own journey. The main turning point in my life was that I got clean and sober. In fact, on October 30th, my birthday, I will be 20 years sober. That’s so significant, but what happened was that all the things that I didn’t do I started to do in my life. I started to be a better person, I picked up the pipe again…a pipe was delivered to me when I was 16 years old and I wrapped it away and I knew I could never use it because I drank alcohol and did drugs. So when I got sober I took it out and I started following traditional thought and ways and I used it in all the best ways. We are like these spiritual creatures having this human experience. What happened to me was that things just started being put into place with me and I started my own business probably about 12 years ago and I ended up getting my masters degree in organizational development and management consulting. I train leaders how to lead in companies and corporations.

TNV: It’s needed on the rez.

SBSB: Exactly. I started working in the villages in Alaska. It was great and what happened to me was that my own self worth, well being, and leadership kind of just took off and I ended up leaving Alaska and going to Washington, DC. I didn’t know what I was going to do I thought that eventually that I would probably make films or that I would do something really creative. But at that time Oglala Nation called me, Karen Artichoker called me and asked me if I would help them with reauthorization of the Violence Against Women bill. I then became part of the larger women’s domestic violence and sexual assault group that looked at rewriting the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women act…I had never in my life thought I would be representing Indian Country.

TNV: How did you get hooked up with the V-Day project?

SBSB: Eve Ensler came to Washington, DC and a friend of mine arranged for me to meet her. I went the show [The Vagina Monologues] and I was totally shocked and…I loved it. I couldn’t wait to meet this women. We met at a restaurant and just kinda connected. Her heart was just so out there. We talked for hours…and that night she said to me, “I am going to do something with V-Day, with Vagina Monologues…I’m not sure what it’s going to be yet, but will you be on of my Warriors?” I go, “Yeah!” But then I said, “What does that mean?” and she said, “I have no idea, yet.” We stayed in contact. After talking for over two years, Eve said “Will you come to New York, because we’re going to do this V-Day in Madison Square Garden.” I couldn’t go, but I read about it and heard about it, it was an amazing event according to everyone who was there…It was the beginning of “V-DAY.”

I told Eve, “I know you’re all over the world, but you know something…you gotta help these women in Pine Ridge.”

TNV: But you knew about the violence problem in Alaska and you knew bout it in Yankton (Ihanktowan Dakota), too.

SBSB: I did.

TNV: So you understood this was an Indian Countrywide problem.

SBSB: Absolutely.

I knew that when I was living in Alaska, they had the highest rates of sexual assault in the U.S. …You can’t be Indian and not know what’s going on in the rest of the nation. But I said, “These are the women, this is the project I’m working on (in Pine Ridge), will you help them?” I wrote her a proposal and sent it to her, asking for her to consider our project as one of the three she was going to choose. She called me back and said “I didn’t read your project, but I’m picking yours…We trust you, so if you say we should do this project, we’ll do it,” eve Ensler has this way of being in the world that is so authentic, and she’s interested in doing real work with real people. She’s the person who has made this project possible. After she came to Pine Ridge, she looked at the statistics around the U.S. and decided to develop a larger project. I handed the project back to her at that point and she said “Forget it! You are going to be the warrior, you brought us this project to begin with and you are going to lead this larger Indian Country project.”

TNV: Let’s talk about what happened at the V-Day event in Rapid City last Spring…I was there. At the last minute everyone was afraid that not many people would show up, and the crowd kept growing until there was standing room only in a very large room. It was incredible.

SBSB: It was men and women, people from all walks of life, all colors, all ages. It was incredible. Everybody was there. We raised $50,000.

TNV: For a single event in Rapid City to raise $50,000 is unheard of…unless you’re the NRA…

SBSB: Yeah.

TNV: For something that’s about minorities and about women and about justice and about taking care…it’s unheard of around here.

SBSB: Well, Eve did something really interesting. She said, “Let’s get the right combination of people there.” So, she brought Jane Fonda, Tantoo Cardinal, and Ulali, and Dana Tiger from Oklahoma. She created a synergy by bringing the right people.

TNV: So, what’s the next step?

SBSB: I could have worked anywhere but it was Eve who said to me, “You know Indian Country, I don’t. So we want you to go out there and talk to people.” So, I’ve come to South Dakota and talked with people in Eagle Butte, Lower Brule, Yankton, Rosebud. All of them have agreed to do V-Day events in 2003 on their reservations. Their version of V-Day, whatever that is. They’re all in planning stages, talking about what they want to do. Because the United States is so big, we chose two regions to start with: South Dakota (because, we already started here and I’m from here), and Alaska, because it has the highest rate of sexual assault and domestic violence in the United States. In Alaska, we already have five villages that have agreed to do V-Days.

What we’re doing this year is asking everyone, “What would your community look like if there was no violence in it?” So instead of just being reactive to the situations, we’re asking people to be pro-active and asking them to imagine what their villages, their communities would look like.

TNV: Like visioning the future.

SBSB: It’s been really interesting. When I asked the women in South Dakota, “What would your communities look like with no violence?” They all sort of stopped, and said “We’ll, just like it used to be before, like when our grandparents were alive and people followed our language. It was a place where we all wanted to live.”

This is something we can say and do – we can begin to have the dialogue in our communities and ask our elders what it was like before violence was rampant. It’s reinventing our communities. This is Eve Enler’s idea. It comes from her love of peace, balance, and community. This project feels like a compelling voice that has come through us. It’s important not to be afraid. There are grass roots women leading the way all over the place. Women all over the world are joining together as a team to work against violence and re-invent our communities.

TNV: How do you believe that we can fix what’s broken?

SBSB: The problem is not just the Department of Justice. We have a systemic problem in Indian Country that started when we signed the treaties. But we can’t keep going back and blaming things on what happened back then. To solve the problems we have to start where we are now and look at how we can collaborate – but we all have to stop blaming each other. What I know about is the process of healing. We all need to be able to see the truth and to bottom out and get honest about what’s going on.

Part of the reason I am doing this work is…while I was in the middle of doing the V-Day stuff, my first cousin, who lives on the reservation, was murdered by a man. He beat her up with a telephone. I understand now that she had taken many beatings by this man and he finally ended up killing her. That was about a year and a half ago. This was really hard…she was my age, I grew up with her, I danced with her, she was a traditional women. She got caught up in that reservation life – drinking and partying and all that. She couldn’t get out and ended up dead. Man…it really broke my heart. My sister and I were like, “How can this happen, how can this be true? Here I was, working in domestic violence and sexual assault and here she is dead by this man. I was really angry but I knew that relationship was not an option. I needed to do something that would help other people. That’s why this has become such a plight for me. My cousin’s murder really motivated me to do this work. It’s no longer outside my family…it just makes me totally understand why I’m here doing this work. ‘Cause it’s real.

TNV: Thank you.


An Interview With The Drs. Henderson: Dr. Jeffrey A. Henderson and Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson of the BHCAIH, Black Hills Center for American Indian Health

TNV: First of all, what tribes are you from?

Dr. Jeffrey A. Henderson: I am a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe

Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson: And I am a member of the Dine’ Tribe or Navajo Nation. I am born for the Near of the Mountain People and I am related to the Big Water People.

TNV: If you don’t mind me asking, how did you two meet? How did this partnership come together?

PH: We met at an Association of American Indian Physicians conference in Portland, OR. I was a medical student and he was a physician. The Association is good at setting up medical students with native physician mentors who have previously gone through the program. Jeff would call me and check on how I was doing in medical school…this progressed into a friendship, we started dating, and eventually we got married in March of 2000.

TNV: How did this evolve into the BHCAIH?

JH: We had just started dating in the fall of 1998 when I moved to found the center here, the center was created in November of that year. In early 1999 I spent a lot of time living in New Haven where Patricia was going to school at Yale. I was a half time faculty member for the University of Colorado School of Medicine and I worked on the Strong Heart Study. This was after I left the Indian Health Service and I was grant writing and trying to lay the ground work for success here at the center. But, at the time the center was still just a virtual center, the address was my home address we weren’t living together yet. The corporation was at my home – it had zero in the bank account it was a real grass roots kinda thing.

Patricia finished medical school, I was continuing my work at Colorado, learning how to conduct research, and I was continuing as an investigator in the Strong Heart Study. When Patricia graduated from Yale Medical School, she had the option to do a residency and become a practicing physician, or to be part of the second group of doctoral degreed Indian people to go through the research training experience at the University of Colorado. With her masters degree in public health, she already had a background in how to do research. Patricia decided to [stay with research] and enter the program where she continues today as a full time faculty member. Patricia is our research physician.

By that time I had three grants in for the center; they were all pending. We still didn’t have this facility or any employees…About a year later we hit the pay line on all three grants.

TNV: I am intrigued by your vision of a whole paradigm shift in how the tribes relate to research becoming a more proactive, visioning process rather then a receptive sort of laid back process.

JH: The standard way that tribes become involved in research is to have a research team, usually from a university or college, develop a research idea. They then involve some graduate students and/or some junior faculty. A grant proposal is written up and submitted, often without identifying ahead of time what tribal groups they propose to work with. Only after the grant is reviewed favorably and is going to get funded does the research team go looking for the tribal group to work with. So [at that point] there is pressure on them to go out and identify a tribal group, a “target population” to work with or they can have their funding pulled.

Some researchers may have enough integrity to approach a tribal group before submitting a grant.

TNV: Are tribes in a unique position to have a say in how research is done on their tribal members?

PH: Yes. Tribes are implementing IRB’s (Institutional Review Boards) into their health departments that review all of the research proposals and are basically there to protect the people who are being researched, the “subjects.” this is a standard practice.

TNV: Do you have to go to IHS (Indian Health Service) for approval for a research project?

PH: Yes, they have different IRB’s [for research to be done on IHS patients].

TNV: How did your vision for the BHCAIH start?

JH: It started with my work in Eagle Butte, SD. I was living fifty feet from the emergency room door of the hospital. There were four of us physicians for a good size population, so it was very busy work. About six months before I decided to leave I kinda stepped back and took an objective look at whether what I was doing, you know, whether being the “Indian Marcus Welby” in the community was helping anything.

On the whole, socially, the reservation was no better off and probably worse off actually than when I had started – drug use was on the rise, alcohol use was unaffected by our work. There was no improvement in the number of direct services that were being provided; they weren’t limited because of manpower, they were limited because of funding. Once I realized this, then I began the process of trying to figure out what change needed to happen on the individual and tiyospaye and tribal levels to effect real change. What I proved to myself was that my two years of working on that individual level was like chasing my tail, and that what was really needed was population-based strategies that would influence larger numbers of people in the communities. This can help more than just one person at a time…But they don’t teach you how to do that medical school.

TNV: So you were looking for a better way to help your people?

JH: Yes. To [medically] treat, but also to find better ways to prevent some of the major conditions that our people encounter. Lots of these conditions are preventable but individual will power alone is not likely to work; there is pervasive history and a great amount of dysfunction that’s multi-generational that cuts across all fabrics of reservation life.

PH: While we bring [medical advancements, training and equipment] to Indian reservations and communities it is really frustrating for me that our communities don’t take health seriously. We say we live in harmony, but is that true? People are smoking in their homes around their children or drinking…Health really starts with the family and brings balance back into the family.

TNV: Give us an example of your vision, your philosophy.

JH: You need a vision to get things done. Most visions happen with just one person. You have to be able to imagine how things can be, able to envision how you would like things to be. A decade or so ago I was working with our tribal council (Cheyenne River) to try to envision a different Main Street in Eagle Butte, SD: How we would like to see it ten years from now? If we were to walk down Main Street blindfolded what kind of different sounds would we like to hear? What smells we would like to smell? What things would we want to feel around us? But that just wasn’t exciting for anybody because the needs are so great on the reservation that to ask a council person to envision these things is difficult if not impossible…a person needs to, be able to clear the mind (and clear the desk) to see the grand problem and therefore find grand solutions. You only have the ability to vision like that when you are in the center of the Medicine Wheel, when your mind is calm enough to see past the daily distractions, when you are balanced.

TNV: Thank you for your time it has been very insightful. We hope that your project, The Black Hills Center for American Indian Health, can benefit all native people.

JH and PH: Thank you.

Reflections of a Plains Indian Artist: Oglala Lakota Don Montileaux on the Work of Art

Donald F. Montileaux (Oglala Sioux) is a seasoned veteran of the Art World, and is one of the best known and most popular artists in the Northern Plains region. His work is held in many private and public collections and is instantly recognizable to the initiated. Montileaux’s highly developed style is a harmonic balance between the historic reference and his contemporary perspective, often using cultural symbols for content and lively colors for effect. The one constant of his work is a vision of life in motion. Said Montileaux, “I learned from my teacher Oscar Howe that we as Indians have a natural sense of motion, of movement in ourselves, and it translates into our artwork.” Don is currently a mentor to The First People’s Fund project, which trains artists in the business (and survival) aspects of the Arts.

TNV: When did you first have an interest in Art?

Don Montileaux: My interest in art started when I was five years old. My dad and I used to draw Mickey Mouse all the time and my mother was a judge so that began my interest. It was my first introduction, really, because he was my first mentor. From that it just grew. The interest was always there, but I went to parochial schools so I never had any education in art until I went to 9th grade at North Middle School (in Rapid City, SD). This when I actually got some training in art, then high school years and the on to the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, NM. I started there in 1966 and on through to 1969, the golden years as they refer to them. During that time a lot of the other noted artists used to tell us that only 10% of us would become artists. I think we proved them wrong because I believe it was more like 40%.

TNV: When did you first start making it into a career, or building a livelihood from your art?

DM: I’ve always tried my wings as an artist throughout my career and my life. I used to work for United Sioux Tribes and tried there for awhile, but I don’t think my style was quite ready for the Market. So I went to work for the Sioux Indian Museum and from there I went to work for the Rapid City Civic Center. For 22 years I worked as a manager and really learned a lot about the discipline of the world, because there we had to wheel and deal and do a lot of events. So I learned how to keep track of expenses and all those things I needed to have for my business career, and about four years ago I became a full time artist.

TNV: I see a lot of your art in many places like IHS hospitals, tribal buildings, and one law firm uses your art in one of their ads. When did you start to sell your art work?

DM: Even though I was at the Civic Center I was always doing my artwork. I never really quit my art since I got out of school in Santa Fe, NM. I have actually been doing my work since 1966 and, in doing so, building a reputation; steadily working and creating a style that is very unique. People who see my horses know that it’s me, and I copied those horses off Herman Red Elk, who was my mentor and who was a hide painter from the Ft. Peck Reservation. Oscar Howe was another teacher of mine way back in 1964 and 1965, so I have to give those gentlemen credit for where I am today, too, because they are the ones that gave me a sense of belonging, of who I was as a Lakota person. I developed a good rapport, getting my name out in the Indian community, and I think being accepted in our Lakota world by our elders and our peers is really a lot greater achievement than to be recognized in New York City or some place like that. As an artist, I’m portraying a life style traditionally that was art, and when entities such as law firms, hospitals, casinos and such, solicit me to do murals they, are in a sense saying, “This is truly one of our own people doing this art,” and they accept it.

TNV: Have you ever struggled financially keeping your art career going? There’s the term “starving artist,” did it ever get to that point in your career?

DM: I have always been in my heart an artist, but in order to live I always had another job and I always entered art shows. I know how it feels to be hungry because sometimes you can’t afford to buy your material to do your art work. Truly, it’s your inner self that is really struggling because you can’t do something with your creativity, so then you’re hungry all the time to do your art. I had to go to another job and leave my artwork where my heart was, and then going into the non-Indian world to buy a home and get food for my family is important; above all, it always caused me to struggle internally. I guess I’ve always been a hungry artist but in these last four years I have been fulfilled in the sense that I could create. I wake up every morning and I know where I am going, happy to be there. There are a lot of times that I am a little scared about where my next ten or twenty dollars is coming from, but a painting comes through for me and it will generate a good feeling.

TNV: When The First People’s Fund started how did you get involved with it?

DM: It started three years ago. I was at the tribal arts show in Sioux Falls, and Jackie Sever and Paul Szabo — we’re all acquainted very well — started talking about this program, and it was so nice to have something like that happen. I think not only artists but people themselves, we all need to know how to keep track of our daily itinerary and project costs, know what shows we want to go to and things like that. I felt that I wanted to get into a program like that as a fellow, but I think with the business sense I learned working at the Civic Center I got a hold of Lori Pourier (the Executive Director of The First People’s Fund) and told her I was very interested. She was trying to get people with my background, people involved to be mentors; and so for two years now I have been in the program. I truly believe in the philosophy of this program. I think it is unique in that it’s training that’s needed for any person trying achieve something in this world.

TNV: Did Lori talk you into becoming a mentor?

DM: Yeah that was kinda a bad deal … hehe … but, yeah, she said I had more to give as a mentor (rather than being a Fellow in the program). And really, in the program itself you use your art as a vessel and we put the foundation in for you through the business sense. We don’t try to change your art, but we show you how to market it, make a business out of it, how to maintain all those costs and, at the end of the year, the real bonus is that you can apply through a bank at the Blackfeet Nation through the First People’s Fund.

TNV: So First People’s Fund teaches you how to understand the business aspect of selling your art?

DM: Yeah, which is the most important part of selling a product. We have a real hard time, I think, because people that sign up for First People’s think we’re going to try to show them how to improve their art, but that’s not it. We are going to show them how to understand the business sense of art. No colleges across Native America teach you how to maintain a business.

TNV: Have there been a lot of successful artists who’ve come out of the program?

DM: You can probably put numbers and stats to Tim Audiss’ success. He applied for and got the loan and started a gallery (in Rapid City), so all those things you can see physically and you can see on a piece of paper. But truly, there has been more success than that. Everybody that’s been through the program has achieved success because maybe all of them aren’t ready to do what Tim did, but I’ve witnessed them all become better business people, which is the ultimate goal of First People’s Fund. All the artists’ successes are equal, but measured in a different way.

TNV: What kind of advice can you give to the up and coming Native artists when they approach places that buy art?

DM: There are a lot of fine, fine artists on the reservations, some of them better than I am. They have a good skill but don’t market themselves well. That’s what I know how to do. They need to know how to retain a copyright on their art so they can reproduce them into print. That one image can do a lot for you, and that is what I try to tell all these young guys; how to market and keep all their records so they know where their money is going. And they know that if they want to buy a brush they need to buy a quality brush rather then a cheap brush. Cheap brushes take you a little ways where quality lasts a long time. I think our younger ones today are becoming a little bit stronger. I can see that because twenty years ago the Native youth were shy and coy. They didn’t have something, something was missing, and in these last couple of years I can see a real sense of pride. They really know who they are, and I really feel our younger people today have a stronger understanding of their culture and of who they really are. I respect that, but we do live in two worlds — our Lakota world, but we all have to exist in the non-Indian world, too, and we have to learn how work by their rules. And no matter how hard we try not to do it, it’s just a fact that we need to learn how to live in that competitive world.

TNV: Any last words of advice?

DM: I have a web site,, and this year I am the featured artist at Northern Plains Art show in Sioux Falls. And to add another eagle feather to myself, I just became a Grandpa at 1:26 p.m. today, a little girl, so my extended family is now even better.

TNV: Does that make you an elder now then?

DM: He he … I guess in spirit I will never be an elder, but in age, maybe.