When I was a boy, I dreamed of saving the world. That seems so silly now. Yet, it feels possible more than ever to save the world with Indigeneity. But growing up in the ambiguous world called “Indian Country” didn’t hold much meaning for me when I was that scrubby-faced boy running around the small reservation towns of western Montana. It wasn’t until I grew into a man that I would sense the meaning of this. And it wouldn’t be until my college years that I’d realize how important Indin' communities are going to be in the decades to come. Humanity is yearning to see the world again with new eyes, and these eyes will be colored by the perceptions of Indigenous peoples.
Being Amskapi Pikuni (Blackfeet) in a culture dominated by Western ideals is something none of us are prepared for when we’re children. This direct clash between a family-based system and a property-based system has resulted in the world we now live in, and the issues we’re now scrambling to solve. As a child, these polar concepts were confusing to me. My young self couldn’t see the simplicity of the truth, so I rebelled. I chose to actively suppress my ancestral ways and stopped believing in the wisdom I learned from the cultural practices I’d participated in as a boy. This was the end of my childhood, and the beginning of my journey toward learning what it means to be a man, and toward realizing my own identity as a warrior.
Alcohol abuse, drug addiction, and misdemeanors became the dream of my life. I didn’t know at the time, but I was living a dream of hell. Eventually, my rebellion waned, and my war for freedom began. I explored everything I could find for over a decade trying to find the answer to something my ancestors knew without words. I was searching for the truth.
Although I’d attempted college in 2003, I walked away from that after four years, again falling into drug addiction, and again falling away from a path some would call “the straight and narrow.” I bounced from methamphetamine to cocaine to alcohol and back again for a couple of years while my true passions burned deep within. My truth was hidden by a tapestry of lies, woven into a perfect masterpiece of self-deception. Then I experienced something that had a profound impact on my entire existence. This moment shifted my paradigm and got me taking small steps toward the things in life I knew were the real expression of the real me.
I came home from work one night and sat on the couch, turned on the computer, and softly placed my palm on my chest. I remember feeling the Jaguar’s claw digging into my skin as I leaned back, my palm laid gently over the necklace under my shirt. I focused my attention on that beautiful and powerful animal. The Jaguar…
Suddenly, I was frozen, I couldn’t speak, I could barely breathe, and my non-functioning body sensed an overwhelming euphoria wash over it! As I experienced this rush of sensation, I watched a dark figure come through the wall and stop in front of me. My vision twisted into a distorted tunnel at this moment, forcing me to focus very intensely on this thing. It moved toward me and the feeling intensified. When I just couldn’t take anymore, the figure withdrew and I knew something was exchanged. This became the first experience in my adult life that was true without the need to rationalize it. Once I finally regained control of my body, I realized I was crying.
The reason I tell this story is that at this point in my life I was completely against practicing my culture. I thought my traditions were bullshit, and that they were simply superstition and metaphors. Boy was I mistaken. I remembered those ceremonies where people prepared for these kinds of things. I remembered preparing as a child and then walking away to learn in a different way as a young man. I wasn’t prepared for this experience, and it shook me to my core.
I continued to go about business as usual after that night, but something had changed inside me. A spark had been rekindled and I knew the land and my ancestors were there to guide me. But that it’s up to me to listen, and it’s up to me to learn.
With my new-found strength, I picked up the pieces of my young life. I forced myself onto a tribal college campus and into the enrollment office. Everything seemed to move at the speed of light. Before I’d even realized what happened, I was learning again and filled with a childlike joy that I hadn’t felt in years. The spark that kept me going in my darkest moments grew into a flame that set my world ablaze with beauty!
I successfully completed degrees in Environmental Science, Forestry, and Geospatial Science. But these accolades are unimportant in the larger scheme of things. We’re facing unprecedented issues in the modern world. Climate change is poised to change the face of the earth, but Indigenous Science teaches us to be adaptable. Water shortages will force nations to war, but Indigenous Science can lead us back to the land. And food disparities will bring us to the brink of starvation, but Indigenous Science gives us the wisdom to reconnect to place and learn to listen. Integrating Indigenous knowledge into every discipline will be a vital step toward a hopeful future and a sustainable way of life.
This perspective comes from a strong Indigenous upbringing, as well as the dissident path I followed. With these roots, I was able to flourish in a nation that’s oppressed my people for 150 years. Now I can teach others that it’s not important to go to college to be successful, or to get a degree, or to learn in a certain way. No. It’s important to learn how to listen.