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.
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…
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.