Gasping for Air: Letter from Dyáni Brown to Allen Locke
Letter from Dyáni Brown (pictured)
Dec. 20, 2014
To Allen Locke,
On Oct. 11, 2015, the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, we gathered in the nation’s capitol in your honor. Brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, from among the more than 567 tribal nations traveled from four directions of Turtle Island to demand justice for your life. For the lives of John T. Williams, Robert Villa, Christina Tahhahwah, Paul Castaway and so many others whose lives continue to be tragically taken and tucked into the folds of history. Each soul’s violent removal from their bodies, said to be justified in the name of the law, perpetuates the removal of our ancestors from their homelands by treaty, force and war in what was then called justified removal.
Justified removal is what they said when, in 1854, 600 U.S. troops tactfully surrounded and slaughtered 86 Lakota men, women and children in their sleep. You probably joined your community last fall on the annual memorial walk to their eternal resting place at Harney Peak—callously named for the General who orchestrated their demise.
Again, justified removal allowed for the extermination of 300 more Lakota men, women and children at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1894. Twenty U.S. cavalrymen were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor for their victory.
During those times, the reward for killing our people even included monetary compensation. It was a sport, and the United States government issued prizes as high as “$250 per Indian scalp as proof for killing a redskin.”
More than 100 years later not much has changed. In 2006, our 21-year-old Navajo brother Clint John lay unarmed on the parking lot pavement as his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter watched an officer of the law fatally shoot their loved one in the head. That officer was promoted to sergeant one year later.
Nearly a year to the date before you were killed, the parents of Mah-hi-vist Touching Cloud Goodblanket called for assistance for their 18-year-old son who was experiencing a mental episode. With no regard for his mental health was shot seven times in front of his girlfriend. Those very officers were later granted Purple Hearts and Medals of Honor for their valor in the line of duty.
But you probably knew that. I imagine the tragic deaths of these young men are what motivated you to participate in your community’s #NativeLivesMatter Anti-Police Brutality Rally and March on December 19, 2014. We would never have thought that you would be added to that list a day later.
There are still so many questions surrounding your death. I don’t understand whose home you were at or why you were suddenly unwelcomed. I’m not sure what you may have done for the cops to label you an “unwanted subject.”
What we do know is that the coroner said you had a .208 blood alcohol level with THC, amphetamines and methamphetamines in your system. We also know is that eyewitnesses stated that you had a knife and your last words were, “It’s a good day to die.”
Yet, eyewitnesses also said that you never made any advance toward the officer; claiming that you froze in compliance with the officer’s commands. And while you did not drop the knife, you were confused when the first bullet pierced your flesh and still did not advance. Yet the officer decided to fire four more bullets into your body, creating just enough holes for your soul to escape.
It’s a good day to die.
I think these words to myself at times. Sometimes it’s because I realize I am blessed. I’m blessed to have survived an apathetic childhood and to be raised by a single mother who grew to love me unconditionally despite all odds. I’m blessed to have since lived a life of privilege and peace, never really wanting for anything nor having been severely affected by the kind of strife that I know so many others are forced to suffer. I could have been one of the statistics, but I escaped that fate. So, I appreciate my life. I recognize that everyone’s life is valuable. I am not untouchable or invincible, but I do my best to live my life in a good way and to do good for others. Whenever my time is up, I can honestly say: It’s a good day to die.
However, sometimes these words cross my mind because I feel like an old soul trapped in the wrong time. This world we live in is too fast and too convoluted with unnecessary gains and losses. With all our sacrifices—culture, family, freedom—is it really worth the reward of vanity and excess? They say we are free but in reality we are all a slave to capitalism, buying and selling everything from earth to air. My spirit transcends this superficial race for possessions and power. When I think back on those who came before us and look around at what we have become, I hang my head in grief and discontent. This defective reality frustrates me and I think: What is the point anyway? Any day is a good day to die.
Then I think of my mother, my aunts, grandmother and great-grandmother who have all taught me to persevere. I have learned through their actions, as they are strong women. Then I think of my brothers, my sisters, my nieces and nephews, both born and unborn, and I know that they are the reason why I must carry on. I look at them and know that I will do anything to keep them from harm. I will continue to do my part to fight for their justice and, if achieving that comes at the price of my life when so many others like them are considered disposable, then I will gladly stand before the bullet of injustice and with my last breath, I will say: it’s a good day to die.
I know you understand. As a Sun Dancer, you push your physicality to the extreme in prayer for the healing of our people. You internalized it all: the centuries of genocide and exploitation that plagued our ancestors as well as senseless violence and abuse that continue to threaten our current and future generations. It is remarkable that you took on such a large charge. I know your spirit was strong and your love for your people was great.
Although your soul had been conditioned to endure pain, your body was human and therefore vulnerable. Sometimes it’s easier to dress those wounds by escaping our bodies through alcohol, marijuana or other substances, if only for one night. When you purchased your bottle that night, did you look down at Jackson’s face on the $20 bill and remember the Trail of Tears? Every time I look at Lincoln’s face on the five-dollar bill, all I can think about is how he lynched 39 Santee warriors for defending their village from poverty. It’s a shame that everything around us forces us to relive these historical traumas—even the almighty dollar.
Your heart must have been heavy from the rally the day before. Thinking of Jon Red Hawk, Benjamin Whiteshield and Joy Ann Sherman, all who were products of an exploitive system that has left our Native communities in an endless cycle of unemployment, substance abuse, incarceration and suicide. There is no wonder we are afflicted with these epidemics at the highest per capita rate. What hope do we have when each time we leave our home we see the death of another brother, the rape of another sister, the theft of another child?
So I understand what you meant when you said, “It’s a good day to die.” You were ready to meet your fate where it finds you. That is what a warrior does. He stands ever ready to be a martyr for what is righteous in the face of what is wrong and torturous. The officer who encountered you had a choice that day. He could have used any other type of non-lethal force. But he chose to shoot you dead.
And it hasn’t stopped.
Since you died, we’ve lost Navarone Woods Gitxsan, Myles Rough Surface, Sarah Lee Circle Bear and Henry W. Rexdale. Sarah, a 24-year-old Lakota, was arrested following a traffic accident in South Dakota on July 3, 2015. Two days later, she was found unconscious and unresponsive on the holding cell floor in Browne County Jail. Witnesses said she screamed out to the guards in pain but her pleas for help were ignored. Henry, 53, was an activist like you as well as a medicine man, a stickball coach, a tribal council candidate for the Choctaw Nation. Sadly, he was found dead in Mississippi’s Neshoba County Jail on July 14, 2015. His crime was failure to pay a traffic citation.
They think they will break us by taking out our best and brightest.
They take, they rape, they kidnap and they kill in their utmost attempt to drain every ounce of “Indian” out of us. Indigenous people are only .8 percent of the U.S. population but account for nearly 2 percent of police killings. Our women are 2.5 percent more likely to be raped than any other race in the U.S. Then they take our children from us, convince them they are hopeless and exploit them for money. I read a report recently that said while South Dakota’s population of Indigenous children is 15 percent, they account for more than half the population of children in foster care. Further, all of them are classified as special needs children in order for the state to collect the benefits.
You would also be sick to know that just over a month after your death, a group of 57 Oglala elementary and middle-school-aged students from your territory were harassed and verbally accosted at a Rush Hockey game. Fifteen white adult men proceeded to spray the children with beer from their VIP seats as the taunted the children with racial slurs. The judge dismissed the Oglala 57’s lawsuit, saying that the men were only being celebratory, not racist.
Clearly harassment is the new sport.
I hear that this is a regular occurrence where you’re from. Border towns, towns that border reservations or areas with dense Native populations, like Rapid City, Oklahoma City and Albuquerque get it the worst. It is documented that 37 Natives died at the hands of Albuquerque police from 2010 to December 2014. I’ve read about homeless Natives being beaten to within an inch of their lives by teenagers while law enforcement stood by and watched. I’ve read about incidences where whites pitch not only racial slurs at Natives but also rocks and bags of urine. This blatant abuse makes me think of the movie “A Time to Kill,” when two southern white men throw full beer cans at a little black girl before they rape her.
And they still call us savages.
Civilization defies us at every turn. As survivors of cultural genocide, forced assimilation and racial exploitation, it is no wonder many of us have become resistant to police intervention. Can we really judge Corey Kanosh for his instinct to run or Daniel Tiger for his decision to shoot? It was the U.S. Army that rounded us up on reservations and the police who kept us there. Today racism chains us to the familiar for fear of the unknown. Poverty is more comfortable than any attempt to achieve prosperity. Domestic violence is safer than public abuse. Because it is “civilization” that teaches our children they are worthless, which makes them feel powerless. It is the reality of not fitting into “civilization” that forces them to become just another statistic.
There have been several proposed solutions to this ongoing epidemic of police violence: body cameras, non-violent training and crisis education. However, none of these tactics will get at the root cause unless people learn the history of America’s racial construct. If these lessons were taught as part of high school and police academy curriculum, then perhaps there would be less divide and more understanding. Moreover, a solution to the disenfranchisement of indigenous people would be for the media to include and respect us as human beings that can speak for themselves.
Turn the channel.
We see our insignificance reified in the media of our oppressors. On television there are no Indigenous actors who portray us. No doctors. No lawyers. No politicians. No musicians. No artists. No athletes. No Indigenous role models to show us our potential or contribution to society. They exist. However, the media has no airtime for us because to them our limited population means only limited profits. When it comes to bad news, the focus goes to #BlackLivesMatter and global matters, while your death and other Native issues hardly get discussed outside the web pages of Indian Country Today.
Unfortunately, the only time we are reminded of our existence is in the mascot images we are force-fed as symbols of “honor.” Cleveland Indians. Washington Redskins. We inform them of their offense and explain that these images do not reflect the legacy of our heritage. We let them know there is no honor in trivializing our culture as drunken entertainment at sports games, Coachella concerts or Halloween parties. But our voices go unheard. We are the invisible minority.
But we must not be silenced. We must speak louder and allow our actions to be a conduit for justice and the restoration of hope.
It is our children who graduate high school or get a technical certification; or who choose sports over drugs and arts over alcohol that give us hope. With the right support, they can go on to become lawyers, activists and leaders in their tribal communities. Our tribal nations must band together to advocate and uplift one another in this plight, just as you began to do in your community.
And each day we must show and say to our children:
Your life is valuable.
You are worthy of recognition.
You are worthy of respect—despite what the world around us teaches.
The resilience of our ancestors who persevered has prepared us to overcome. And so we will. On behalf of all our relations.
Aquene & Wuniish,
Dyáni Brown, of the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Long Island, New York, is an honors student in the School of Communication, majoring in public communications and minoring in marketing.