Education is Liberation: 2016 Lower Brule High School Commencement Speech


I gave this speech at the Lower Brule High School Graduation on Friday, May 20, 2016 at the Lower Brule High School in the Lower Brule Sioux Indian Reservation.

Hau Mitakuyapi. Cante waste. Nape cuzyapi. Tatanka Ohitika imaciyapi. Nick Estes wasicu imaciyapi.

It is with extreme humility and humbleness that I shake each of your hands, congratulate you, and greet you with an open heart. There is no greater honor than being invited by young people to give this commencement speech. It means more to me than I can ever express in words.


You all are excited and eager to receive your diplomas and celebrate with your families, and you didn’t come here to listen to me. I’ll try my best to not be that stereotype of an “Indian man with a microphone” and drone on for three hours. Trust me, I’m not that interesting, I’m too young for that, and you probably won’t remember what I have to say anyways. And that’s okay because today is about you.

Let me begin by saying, pilamayelo. Thank you. When they sent smoke to the sky, it was you the ancestors prayed for. You are the ones we have been waiting for. Do not take the importance of this day, your responsibility, and your achievements lightly.

For you to have a successful, healthy life in the future, however, it is my job as a historian to remind you where our people came from — however boring that may be! You cannot know where you are going in this world unless you know where you came from. Indeed, we are descended from powerful people. Go anywhere in the world and people know the Lakota, for better or worse!

Who are the Kul Wicasa Oyate? To know us is to first know the land. After all it is the land from which we became human — inyan (the earth), mni (the water), ska (the sky), and tate (the wind). Out of the wase — the red earth — we became Oyate Luta — the red people, the red nation. It is to the land we return as ikce wicasa — common people.

Along life’s journey, we make kinship with each other — wotakuye — to our human and nonhuman relatives. For us, the Brulé, Sicangu Tintonwan, we have this river who is also our relative — the Mni Sose, the Missouri River. Our history is also the history of this river.

In 1803, the wasicu — the fat-takers — claimed this stretch of the river as part of what became the largest real estate transaction in world history. The fledgling United States “bought” 827 million acres from the French Crown in the Louisiana Purchase and sent two white explorers, Lewis and Clark, to claim and map the newly acquired territory. Of course, the Lakota, like many Native Nations, never consented to sale of their lands, let alone acknowledged the supremacy of the United States. Lewis and Clark were considered illegal trespassers; and it was only after they failed to earn passage from our nations that we stopped them here, very close to where Lower Brule now sits. They called us “the vilest miscreants of the savage race” because we asserted our right to exist on this land and we did not consent to European invasion and colonization — beginning one of the longest and most hotly contested struggles in the history of the world.

The rest of the nineteenth century was an effort to suppress, annihilate, and dispossess us of our rightful claim to this land. Despite popular belief, however, we were never militarily defeated. In 1854, we laid waste to Lieutenant Grattan’s forces after traders who trespassed into our territory and mocked and degraded our people. In 1866, Red Cloud waged a successful military campaign forcing the U.S. states to the sign a peace treaty in 1868 at Fort Laramie, which guaranteed the Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho confederacy sole owners over the vast 25 million acres of what became known as the Great Sioux Reservation. The U.S. broke the 1868 peace when General Custer and white miners trespassed into He Sapa, the Black Hills. In 1876, we killed Custer and his men at the Battle of Greasy Grass. For more than four decades we repelled invading forces, which costed us many lives and was in the end unsustainable because the federal government sponsored the wholesale slaughter of 10 million buffalo to starve us out. Many were forced onto reservations — the world’s first open air concentration camps. Life here was never supposed to be sustainable. We were never meant to live.

Like good Lakotas, we persevered and mastered reservation life. In Lower Brule, we were the second tribe in the nation to adopt the Indian Reorganization Act in 1935, which gave rise to our modern tribal governments. We did so not to acquiesce to a superior government, but because the newly formed state of South Dakota wanted to dam our river in the 1920s and 1930s and divert its life-giving waters to white owned ranches and farms against our wishes. We organized under the IRA not because we opposed the development of the river, but because we wanted the best for our people. We wanted irrigation for our crops and livestock, and, above all, we wanted access to electricity any development would bring. What happened instead was the Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and South Dakotan politicians collaborated and decided to build a series of dams on our river, the Mni Sose, without our consent. They called it the Pick-Sloan Plan. As a result, both the Fort Randall Dam built in 1957 and the Big Bend Dam built in 1963 flooded tens of thousands of acres of bottomlands and one third of our population was relocated. Many left the reservation for good. This also ended many of the successful tribal ranching programs and forever destroyed access to plant medicines that grew along the river. What greater crime against our nations could exist in the twentieth century that forced the relocation of thousands of Native families and flooded half a million acres?

As people invested in a moral universe that compels us to be good relatives to each other and the earth, we have to name the systems that caused this great upheaval and destruction of life — capitalism and colonialism, the twin systems that violently ripped us from our rightful place in this land and destroyed our relationships with the nonhuman world and each other. These two systems place profits above people and the planet and have now thrown everyone — not just the Indians — in the fight for their lives.

In the course of two centuries, we went from free peoples — free to live on this earth according to our own will — to people confined to reservations and forced to live as paupers in our own homelands, as the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. We went from 25 million acres of territory in 1868 to 9 million in 1889. In 1889, the year South Dakota became a state, the Lower Brule possessed almost a half-million acres. In 1907, white settlers with the backing of the federal government had reduced our reservation to less than a quarter million acres. From 1907 to 1934, that land base was reduced to half its size. Pick-Sloan dams flooded another 23,000 acres, leaving us with just 95,000 acres.

Our entire population, our entire nation, is now expected to live in a reservation that is smaller than the total land owned by some wealthy billionaires, such as Ted Turner. Imagine that, one individual owns more land and wealth than an entire nation of peoples whose land it was first, the same people who never agreed the land was for sale. That news should not be shocking. If you’re like me, it is insulting and outrageous. For this country to become the “the greatest democracy” in world history, Native people of this land had to give up so much. Let’s not forget that when our leaders affirm democracy abroad, it came at the expense of our people.

But our history is not just a history of loss. What is most striking about the history of Native peoples is that we possess one thing no others can claim: we came from this land and to this land we shall return. We refuse to go away. We refuse to disappear. And we refuse to be quiet about it. And that’s a beautiful thing.

For the class of 2016, you join the tens of thousands of Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota peoples of the Oceti Sakowin who have strived and achieved an education. You may not know it, but our intellectuals, our thinkers, are world famous. They have led political movements and social causes not just in the 1800s in the so-called “Indian Wars.” In the early 1900s Zintkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin) from the Ihanktonwan and Ohiyesa (Charles Eastman) from the Isantyi founded the first Native-led intellectual and political society in the United States, the Society of American Indians. Nicholas Black Elk, an Oglala medicine man, explained WoLakota, the nature of the Lakota cosmos and the meaning of our cultural life. Luther Standing Bear, an Oglala writer and actor followed in their footsteps and penned a series of books on Lakota life. Soon after the titan Vine Deloria, Jr., an Hunkpapa from Standing Rock, became a world famous Lakota scholar of politics, history, law, and religion. His famous 1969 book, Custer Died for Your Sins, became the manifesto for the 1960s and 1970s Red Power movement and paved the way for Indigenous peoples to achieve international recognition at the United Nations. From this part of the world, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, the Santee and Ihanktonwan scholar and writer, has penned fourteen books on the history and politics of the Lakota and Dakota nations. There are many Lakota and Dakota scholars and writers alive today, people such as Delphine Red Shirt, Megan Red Shirt, Joel Waters, Tasi Livermont, Kim Tallbear, Laniko Lee, Lydia Whirlwind Soldier, Joseph Marshall III, Taté Walker, Richard Meyers, Deanne Stands, Mabel Picotte, and many, many more. We are fortunate to possess our own tribal national Oceti Sakowin writing group, the Oak Lake Writers Society, that writes not for dominant society but for our tribal reality.

Among our own people, we have intellectuals and writers. From my family alone, Ruben Estes was the first chairman of Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and an active member the first treaty council. My late grandfather Frank Estes, published the first book written by a tribal member: Make Way for the Brules published in 1963. In 1971, my grandfather George Estes published the first tribal history of the Lower Brule called Kul Wicasa Oyate.

Despite the profound challenges posed to our nation, we have drawn from the longest traditions in the history of the world. It is a tradition of resistance and resilience that began in 1492. The opposition, the unwillingness to just disappear, lies in our ability to accommodate and resist rapid and violent changes. To do so, however, has required us not to just retreat within ourselves, to seek isolation from the world, but to engage it head on, sometimes with brutal truth and reality. The scholars and thinkers I have mentioned did so, and for it they have contributed to our forward momentum of history.

We are often thought of as backwards peoples, mired in a history and culture of a bygone era. In fact, we are just the opposite. We are, in many ways, more modern and more progressive when compared to our non-Native neighbors. For example, just down the road the Chamberlain school board is still upholding racist practices that do not belong to this century. They have banned our Lakota and Dakota honor songs from their commencement ceremonies. But we will win that fight and drag those who resist change, inclusion,  and equality and justice, kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. We will show them by example by leading the way that we have a right to exist as peoples with dignity and respect in our own homelands.

When the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere said, “no, the Black Hills are not sale” and, “no, we don’t want your money, TransCanada,” we did so as an assertion of our right to exist on this earth according to our teachings and ways that place life above profit and material wealth. For that, the Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that, yes, the Black Hills were illegally taken. More recently, because of our strident opposition the Keystone XL pipeline, the President of the United States canceled TransCanada’s contract with the State Department. Our non-Native neighbors took the money and have just experienced largest oil spill in this history of this land in eastern South Dakota. As I speak, construction has begun on the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota that will trespass, once again, our treaty lands. Future oil spills are inevitable unless we put a stop to not just the pipelines, but end the system that threatens the annihilation of the entire planet. To accomplish this monumental feat will require Native and non-Native cooperation on a scale never before seen in history. To coexist peacefully in this land, however, it will require the correction of historical wrongs and the upholding of the original agreements — the treaties — we made with the U.S. and acknowledgement that indeed this is stolen land.

While these are colossal tasks, the burden does not lie solely on your shoulders as young people. One of our most valuable assets that has helped us survive thus far is our kinship.

Wotakuye — kinship — is not a technical skill that can be learned in school, like math, English, or auto mechanics. It is a virtue, like kindness and humility. It is something we aspire to, an aspiration we may or may not achieve in our lifetime.

In this society, we have been taught to look down on each other, especially our most vulnerable. We cannot begin to embody the people our ancestors prayed for until we practice wotakuye, that all our relations matter, not just some of them: our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and Two Spirit relatives matter; our women and children matter; our elders matter; our poor and homeless relatives matter; our relatives who suffer from addiction matter; and our relatives who live behind bars matter.

Change in this world begins with how we treat each other, it begins with how we treat our most vulnerable, the poorest and most dispossessed in our society. It used to be the highest insult to Lakotas to act as though you had no relatives. To act as though you had no relatives meant that inequality triumphed, while people suffered and went hungry. That used to be considered an embarrassment. Today, as a society that is our normal.

It is not my intention to tell you how to live your lives. It is up to you to decide. As someone who has been a lifelong educator, let me say this: we need to listen to young people. Your generation, more so than previous generations, is more open and demands a more democratic and equal society. We follow your lead.

Your generation is not afraid of taking risks and challenging arbitrary authority and outdated and harmful social norms. Your generation is open and diverse. It is smart, compassionate, and caring. It possesses the changes we have been waiting and praying for, the promise and hope those of us who lived through trying times and kept the light for a better future lit no matter how dark it got. And these are dark times, indeed. But that should not discourage you. You have the generations of our ancestors at you back and the collective momentum of history pushing you into the future. The world is watching this generation and we are impressed by what we see so far.

If ever you doubt, just remember that the collective will of our nations has persevered for you to be here today in spite of everything. It is not a miracle but a testament to the tenacity, the sheer determination of our people to assume our rightful place in this world and in this universe. For that, you should be proud. I am. I am proud of you and I love you with all my heart, as a relative. For those of us who stand in the sun for four days a year without food and water, we do it for you. You are the culmination of our prayers and hopes for the future. It is through our education, something — unlike our land — that can never be taken from us, that we, as a people, as Kul Wicasa, will achieve our collective liberation. Today, class of 2016, you further that project of liberation and fulfill our ancestor’s vision.

A sincere congratulations!

Hecetu Welo!