Two students discuss tradition, philosophy, and Native American identity at CSU
Two philosophy majors had an unlikely connection. Weston Jones, named CLA Outstanding Grad, is Oglala Lakota and a first-generation student from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Maeve Marley, an Irish American student from Denver and Philosophy Outstanding Grad, led an alternative break service project to this same reservation in her junior year. The two came together to discuss their experiences at CSU and what they could learn from each other about philosophy, culture, identity, and allyship.
The following dialogue was edited for clarity and brevity.
Philosophy as the Bridge between Worlds
Maeve: When you go home, what are the things that you tell your family about college and or what are the questions that they ask you about college?
Weston: When I go home, my family doesn’t really understand what college is. Because when I say that I’m first generation, I’m not just first generation of my immediate family. I’m first generation of my uncles, my aunties, my grandmas… I’m first generation of my whole community. They don’t even know what college really is. They just know you go to college. It allows you to get a good job. It allows you to make more money. They don’t know the culture of college.
Maeve: Why did you decide to go to college? Did you want to? Did you do it because you wanted to leave the reservation? Or, did you want to go to college and then come back?
Weston: In my high school years I was really opposed to Western education. I felt like I could learn more in my community than I could if I went off and learned from some White person telling me about education. I really thought I could learn more at home by spending more time in traditional ways and learn more traditional stuff as opposed to Western stuff.
I decided to go because my sister and I were arguing about whether education could help save the world. We were discussing whether education could help the people on our reservation. I said no. I said the only way that we can do and help our people is study traditional knowledge and forget about Western education and forget about college.
Then, my sister said something that stuck with me. She said we need to combine traditional and Western thought. We need to combine them together because we live in a world that is essentially two worlds. When I go home, that’s one world, but when I’m at school, that’s another and these worlds have to coexist, right? Because that’s the world that we live in. I can’t resort back to my traditional knowledge in the way that I could hundreds of years ago. I can’t just go live in a teepee in the middle of a park. I can’t just go out and hunt anywhere I want to go hunt because our land rights were taken away, our hunting rights were taken away, our fishing rights were taken away. We have to be able to coexist in two worlds essentially. My sister and I were both crying in this conversation. She was frustrated that I didn’t get it, but I was frustrated that she didn’t get it. But we came to a common ground and I thought on the coexistence of two worlds and combining traditional and Western thought together to thrive in this modern world. At that moment, I decided to go to college.
Maeve: Do you feel like you’ve been able to do that in college—to combine the two worlds? Especially when you’re at CSU, do you feel like you can be Oglala Lakota?
Weston: It was really hard at first. I accepted to try to combine the two. I was looking for a bridge. Where is this bridge my sister was talking about? Where is this bridge between Western and traditional ways? I was looking at different degrees. I was looking at different majors. I was looking at different educational institutions. I was looking all over. And that’s when I like fell upon philosophy. I discovered that philosophy was very similar to my traditional knowledge in my traditional ways. But all I had to do was translate it. I had to be able to translate what these philosophers—these white philosophers, these Chinese philosophers, all these different philosophers throughout the ages—were saying. How is what they’re saying similar to what my ancestors said? Once I was able to translate them and connect them in a way, then I found that bridge my sister was talking about. I found that bridge between Western and traditional thought. Philosophy via translation.
Maeve: Do you consider yourself to be a philosopher in the same way that you consider your ancestors to be philosophers? Where do you see similarities and differences?
Weston: My ancestors didn’t have to go the extra step that I’m going through right now. The extra step of translation. My ancestors would just think a thought, say it, and then that was it. Right now, if I think a thought I have to translate that two ways. I have to translate it into a Western way so that I have credibility. Because nothing you say has credibility unless it’s said in a Western manner and essentially in English. And then I also have to go home and say it to my family, into something that they will be able to comprehend in a traditional way. I have to go the extra step of living in two worlds compared to my philosopher ancestors back in the day.
Native American Connection & Responsibility
Maeve: Do you have an example of philosophy in translation? I’m also wondering about how your tribal culture informed your approach to philosophy.
Weston: Yes, there’s this Oglala Lakota woman named Charlotte Black Elk. She’s the great granddaughter of Chief Black Elk, the medicine man and holy man. Charlotte Black Elk is a really well-educated woman in both traditional and Western education. She spoke some words one time that I hold true all the time. It’s that there’s a difference between knowledge and knowing. Western thought focuses on knowledge, while traditional and indigenous thought emphasizes knowing. Western thought has knowledge about certain things and indigenous people have knowing about certain things.
I can use lightning as an example. The difference between knowledge and knowing is value. When the western world was colonizing North America and creating advancements in science, they put a value on their knowledge and they said the value of our Western knowledge is far greater than your knowing of indigenous science. For example, my people hold a ceremony every spring and we go to the top of Black Elk’s Peak in the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota. We go to the top and we just have a simple ceremony. We’re welcoming back the lightning every spring and we’ve been doing this for thousands and thousands of years on the spring solstice. That’s what we do. We welcome back to lightning because we knew something about the lightning—that it helps the earth. We knew that when lightning came, spring came. The birds came back; the flowers grew; the grass turned green. Life was rejuvenated when lightning came. That’s what we know as indigenous people. That’s how we know that lightning is sacred.
But then you go into a western science class and learn that lightning energizes the particles in the atmosphere and lightning creates nitrogen oxides. And, they say, “this knowledge of lightning creating nitrogen oxides in the Western sense is more valuable than your ceremony. Your ceremony on top of this hill is a prehistoric, savage way. This makes no sense to us.” There’s a claim there about value, with knowledge being more valuable than sacred knowing. The true essence of it is that there is no difference in value. My ceremony means just as much as advancements in science.
Maeve: I’ve done that hike to Black Elk’s Peak. I went with the Pine Ridge Girls’ School. And we did a ceremony where we tie colorful flags to trees, perhaps it was part of the same ceremony. My supervisor at Trees, Water, and People, Dr. Valerie Small, who herself is Crow, is very well educated in both traditional and Western science. And I think the biggest thing that I’ve been able to observe, and this rings true with what you said, is that indigenous knowing and indigenous science include people as part of the knowing. But just a part of it. This is opposed to how we can view Western science. We can start to question Western science and ask: why do we isolate things and then observe them in isolation? Why would you take it out of its surroundings and watch it and then say we know what it is? Isn’t that taking it away from what it is? The lightning, the ceremony, that’s a part of it all. The ceremony you have when the lightning comes back is part of the lightning; it’s part of the rejuvenation. It’s part of the whole thing. I just thought that was really cool. I had never heard it put in terms of knowledge and knowing, but I think I get it.
Weston: I didn’t know you hiked up Black Elks’ Peak. That’s pretty cool.
Maeve: What is an experience that you think everyone needs to have, and particularly every white person needs to have?
Weston: I’m going to get philosophical on this one. I believe that every white person needs to experience a cosmological meditation in the most sincere way that they can. I could even expand this to everyone. I believe everyone should meditate on their cosmic position. This is often overlooked in modern society. We disassociate ourselves from our position on this earth, underneath the stars; we disassociate from plants, from the animals, from our relatives, from other people.
We should all ask ourselves: What is your relationship? What is your position in the universe? What are you doing? Where are you going? What are you going to do? What are you going to leave behind when you die? What are you going to do so that the generation coming up can have something? What is your purpose? I feel like everyone just needs to find their position on this Earth. Everything is essentially connected in one way or another, big or small, and you just need to find your position in that web.
Maeve: I remember when I was at the girls’ school in Pine Ridge. They all introduced themselves in Lakota language and part of the introduction was their ancestors’ names too. And I thought that was really cool. I usually don’t even tell people my whole name and my middle name is my grandmother’s name. But most people don’t even know my middle name.
The storyteller, Iron Horse, told us that when you pray, you pray to your ancestors. When you look for guidance you look for things, especially an eagle flying overhead. That shows you what your ancestors are telling you to do. And I thought that was really cool because praying to God never really made that much sense to me.
Weston: Another piece of this is our responsibility to this interconnection. I think seven generations ahead of me and seven generations behind me. I have this responsibility two ways, in both directions to better live on this earth. This includes philosophy and the thoughts we leave behind. One example of this is the work I’m doing to reestablish the Lakota language that was once lost, for both my ancestors and the younger generations. That’s my responsibility. I could take my philosophy degree and go do something that is irrelevant right now that doesn’t help my people and that doesn’t pertain to my responsibility. I could disassociate myself from my connection from everything that is. But I can’t do that. I need to fulfill my responsibilities to my people and this land.
Maeve: I remember when I first heard the term seven generations back and seven forward. It was Henry Red Cloud and he was talking about the work that they’re doing. They build solar power stoves and do other kinds of climate change related work. He was just so clear about serving the seven generations ahead and the seven generations behind. And I thought that if everyone thought like this and everyone cared like this, we would not be here not be in this mess that we’re in today—environmentally and otherwise.
Allyship and White Privilege
Professor Ashby Butnor: What kind of advice do you give to allies or potential allies in thinking about the situation of indigenous people in the US today?
Weston: I would say you, Maeve, are a good example right there. You’re putting in that that extra effort. I’m not saying that we as Indigenous people require something from white people. I’m saying that if there are people aiming to harm us—my people, my nation, my thought, my culture—speak up about it. To this day, we are still experiencing genocide, cultural genocide, physical genocide, environmental genocide. We’re still experiencing all these things every day. Just speak up. That’s the simplest thing you can do. If you want to do more, then speak to my people. Come see us; come talk to us. We have big hearts even for people that were once enemies.
Maeve: I would say the thing that I always tell people relates to white privilege. I say the biggest privilege you have is you get to decide when you want to be uncomfortable and when you don’t. And you have to decide to be uncomfortable. If we’re afraid of being uncomfortable and we get to decide that we just don’t want to be uncomfortable, then we never even get to a point where we even we know to ask the question.
Ashby: Weston, how do you view the relationship between white and indigenous peoples today? There’s a long history there and, as you said, harm is still being done. What do you think we owe Native American tribes today?
Weston: I think that white people need to recognize that we are the original stewards of this land. We have been here thousands of years before them and we will be here thousands of years after them. This is our home. This has always been our home. We, the Lakota people, have star maps that outdate the Bible. And these star maps are geologically situated in this land. We just need the recognition. When that recognition is given, then we can begin to have in a relationship.
Ashby: How do you feel about the CSU land acknowledgement?
Weston: It’s a start, but it’s not giving the land back. Give us the Oval, at least. Give us the Oval and say that’s traditional land. We won’t destroy it. We won’t change it. We will keep it as it is, but make it our land, tribal communal land. Action speaks louder than words.
Ashby: Earlier, you said the first step of building relationship is recognition. Are you saying that recognition involves the giving of land? Do you think the giving back of land is really the only way that you could begin that relationship from a good place?
Weston: No, we don’t. We, native people, don’t care about a property title, really. We care about how that land is taken care of; how it is being occupied. In all reality, giving the land back to indigenous peoples to whom it is rightfully owed is the best way to go about it. But all we wanted from the beginning since colonization was equal consideration and equal cohabitation of this land.
Ashby: What do you think is the best way that we can live together and share land in a way that’s good for the earth and people?
Weston: Like I said, we live in two worlds, so we can’t resort back to the ways things were. But to native people, we hold certain places on this continent as very sacred. We hold Horsetooth as a sacred mountain. But nobody knows that. Nobody knows that certain areas are sacred. Because we live in these two worlds, all we want as indigenous people is to be in the conversation.
One of the things that we, as environmental activists and justice seekers and Indigenous people, are asking for is name changes. Change Horsetooth to a traditional Lakota name. Resort back to its original name. In the Black Hills, our sacred mountain was called Harney Peak, named after an explorer colonizer who supposedly discovered this mountain and built a fire tower at the top. And then we called that whole mountain Harney Peak for a hundred years. Now, when we call it Black Elk’s Peak, people start recognizing it as indigenous land. This is how we can begin to recognize what sacredness of the land means. Maybe the closest understanding a white person has is walking into a church. You’re now in a sacred holy place. To indigenous people, this whole river is sacred; this whole mountain is sacred; this whole cave is sacred. All we’re asking is just to be in the conversation about our land.
Weston: Maeve, what sparked your initial interest and motivation to know more about indigenous culture?
Maeve: I remember when I was in high school, I did a research paper on indigenous people and forced assimilation, boarding schools, and the Dawes Act. I started to question why I didn’t know about this history and my friends didn’t know this history.
My dad is first-generation American from Ireland. The Irish were among the first people that the British colonized. On the other side, my mom’s family came over on the Mayflower. There’s definitely a large history with colonization and benefiting from colonization on my mom’s side of the family. I’m trying to understand that and feel proud about where I came from in some ways. For example, I know my great, great, great, great, great grandfather fought in the American Revolution. That’s pretty cool, but what else happened that I may not be so proud of?
When I started doing Alternative Break and I applied to be a site leader, they assigned me to the trip to Pine Ridge. Immediately, I declined and I didn’t think I should do that. I thought this was a bad idea and that they should pick someone who is indigenous or knows a whole lot more than I do. It turns out they didn’t have a native person who could lead the trip, so I decided to do it. However, I did do a lot of research and met with many folks before the trip, like Dr. Doreen Martinez and members of NACC. And, I had been working with Trees, Water, & People who have a long-standing relationship with Henry Red Cloud. I started interning with Trees, Water & People because I really wanted to know more and understand more before I was supposed to be the person leading others.
Leading this trip was the one of the best things I could have done to learn more about something that I think that everyone should know about. And your tribe is just one out of so many. I wish I knew more about other indigenous peoples. I just took the opportunity as it was presented to me.
Weston: Let me tell you something. I don’t want to overgeneralize, but if you truly know one tribe with your heart on a human-to-human level you pretty much know all other tribes. We may say things in different ways in a different language, but we still welcome back the lightning and have our certain ceremonies. We have all been on this continent together, kind of as one big family for thousands of years. There are many differences, we but share this similarity as well.
Weston: What do you think is the primary thing you learned from your trip?
Maeve: My whole attitude was that we are doing this trip and the related service work in exchange for learning. I think we all understood that there was a lot more to learn but that we had to listen for what was being taught in each moment. We learned more about the horrible crimes committed against indigenous people and the ways in which our education system manipulates those facts. We also learned about sustainable energy practices.
I think I came back and I understood knowing better, similar to what you were saying Weston. I came back wanting to understand better where I am and who I am. I feel like I came back and I felt different about what I was learning and why I was learning it. And, I was intrigued listening to Henry Red Cloud talk, and hearing about this other way of experiencing the world.
Weston: I think native spirituality in its most basic form is about acknowledgement: acknowledgement of the stars; acknowledgment of the summer solstice; acknowledgement of spring, summer, winter. It’s about the way the eagle is the highest bird in the sky. We acknowledge that, and that’s why we wear its feathers in our hair—to acknowledge this as sacred because it is physically the highest thing in the sky. It’s an acknowledgement of the natural world, of the things around us, of our connection to everything.
Maeve, you said you came back and just thought about things a little bit differently. But the true philosophical aspect of that experience is some kind of self-transcendence. Other peers might have gone and just said they went on a trip to some crazy impoverished place and thought our ways were weird. But you found the beauty in that and you applied it to your life. It sounds simple, but in reality it’s a big thing. That’s why you’re a prime example of how an ally should be.