- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

My Sistagirl, Corrine Skye Killsprettyenemy, says, “One of the things I like about you is that you know you don’t know, but you ask.” So I asked the striking Ms. Killsprettyenemy to meet me at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian last week to view this historic happening through her Lakota eyes.

“WakanTanka, the great spirit, made it happen,” she said of the weeklong American Indian festival that felt like a big family reunion, “with the largest gathering of indigenous people in the history of the country.” Ms. Killsprettyenemy had been so caught up in the colorful opening ceremony and meeting other “native people” on the Mall that she didn’t have the opportunity to stand in line and see the treasures housed in this emotive museum, 15 years in the making.

“It’s a good start, it’s long overdue, but I still have some pain,” she said after our tour. Ms. Killsprettyenemy, a member of the Standing Rock band of the Lakota tribe in the Dakotas, said, “I wanted to break down and cry a couple of times.” She thought of “being from the reservation where people don’t live long,” of “being a recovering alcoholic for 22 years,” and “all the times I should have been dead from drinking.” Instead, she was on the Mall dancing in her fringed white buckskin traditional dress.

You don’t join the ritual dances just for fun or show; you must be granted permission and undergo purification before you can participate.

“I feel so spiritually blessed to be a part of what’s going, because I am aware and conscious that so many native people couldn’t make it for mainly economic reasons, and that the ancestors were there.” As we sat awestruck in the round Lelawi Theater, embraced by the three-dimensional video “Who We Are,” she gasped: “This is how it looks back home, oh my God, this brings back memories.” Indeed, it was as if we were sitting under a tepee as she watched “familiar scenes” of desolate Dakota plains.

Then, Ms. Killsprettyenemy got “a wake-up call.” We were in the “Our Universes” exhibition, which features artifacts from Indian tribes, including exquisitely beaded Lakota moccasins and dresses adorned with symbolic colors and markings, which she translated into English.

“It shocked me into something I’d forgotten because some of those [items] could have come off some of my people. It was like a slap across the face,” she said.

That was where we encountered a Lakota originally from the Pine Ridge Reservation, William Underbaggage, who is a producer for the Indigenous Nations Network.

“A lot of these things came from massacre sites and were taken off dead bodies,” Mr. Underbaggage said. “These things have spirits in them. … And a lot of bad things happened to those families who had them … and that’s why they were willing to give them away.” Mr. Underbaggage said the museum is “a good first step … the beginning of our reparations.”

Andrew Conseen Duff, vice president of the board of directors of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, agreed. However, he said, “the museum is here not to honor tragedy but to honor life.” He proudly noted the number of Indians involved in the planning and design of the museum, and he was lobbying Congress to get more funding and recognition on their behalf.

Ms. Killsprettyenemy said, “We’re not all cut from the same mold,” and American Indians have as many diverse opinions as they have customs and languages. At the museum, she said she felt like speaking Lakota. At the “Oneida Indian Nation of New York” sign, she thought of her grandmother. “There were whole tribes up and down the East Coast that are no longer in existence. But we are still here, and we’ve overcome the challenges and obstacles of trying to fit into this society,” she said.

Near the “Window on Collections” exhibit, which houses steel drawers full of arrowheads and pistols, David Majors of Temple Hills said he told his wife that he needed to sit down because “this place has an eerie feeling.” His “uneasy feeling” got worse after Ms. Killsprettyenemy explained what the term “redskin” really means and why she finds it offensive.

Ms. Killsprettyenemy said she hopes people get a lot of good information from the museum because “it’s amazing to me how many people I encounter who don’t know much about native cultures.”

Ms. Killsprettyenemy is based in Phoenix, where she is the regional director for Native American outreach for Second Chance Employment Services, which was founded by Ludy Green and is based in the District. Last week, Ms. Killsprettyenemy appeared in her traditional dress during a fund-raiser for the organization, which provides job training and placement for victims of domestic violence.

She said she is grateful for the museum because she saw a lot of really old things she had never seen before, and “without [the Smithsonian] to preserve the artifacts, God knows where they’d be.” Last year, a holy man gave Ms. Killsprettyenemy permission to paint her face with the Sun Dance markings that usually are worn by men. The red dots, above the black line drawn pointing down from the nose toward Mother Earth, signify “a new beginning for a new life.”

“One important aspect of this museum is going to be about healing. That’s not just for indigenous people, but for others,” Ms. Killsprettyenemy said.

“Guilt is the glue that holds prejudice in place. Healing is about forgiveness, which a person has to do to move on and get serenity.” If you don’t ask, you don’t discover powerful personal perspectives that foster better understanding for all.

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