In many American Indian languages, a word that translates to “warrior” doesn’t even exist. As Women’s Week 2020 special guest Madonna Thunder Hawk describes of her people, the Lakota, “women didn’t need a designation because it was a matriarchal society, so everybody knew who was in charge.” The focus of the Lakota and other Indigenous tribal nations was far more focused on survival, a goal that knows no gender or age. However, as citizens of a colonized culture forced to navigate and conform to a vastly different way of living, all while facing innumerous threats to their very survival, there was truly only one English word that came close to describing the candor and drive of women like Thunder Hawk, warrior; and its meaning to each individual is as adaptable as those whom it defines.
“American Indian populations endure the unique dynamic of almost exclusively being referred to in the past-tense and as damaging as that reality is on its own, it’s unfortunately not the only kind of conflict they’re experiencing.”
During Women’s Week, a documentary was screened detailing the stories of Thunder Hawk and her daughter, Marcella Gilbert, titled “Warrior Women.” According to Merriam-Webster, a warrior is: “a person engaged in some struggle or conflict,” and unfortunately experiences of struggle and conflict are far too easy to find among American Indian populations. During a panel following a screening of the film, Franci Taylor, Director of the American Indian Resource Center, spoke of one such problem as she urged attendees to not “place American Indian people in history. We are still here today.” American Indian populations endure the unique dynamic of almost exclusively being referred to in the past-tense, in social studies classes and textbooks, rather than as the contemporary sovereign nations they are; and as damaging as that reality is on its own, it’s unfortunately not the only kind of conflict they’re experiencing.
Thunder Hawk described her own story as “a lifetime of resistance,” beginning with a childhood which saw children, herself included, forcibly removed from their families and placed in government-run boarding schools. At a young age, she had already been confronted with extremely aggressive, violent pressure to conform, an external conflict. It was during this time that Thunder Hawk remembers really beginning to question authority and not simply accept things the way they were, which was something she continues holding strong to this day.
On a different side, Elizabeth Kronk Warner, Dean of the S.J. Quinney College of Law, spoke of a largely internal struggle. She explained, “My mother grew up in a society and community where she could pass as white… she didn’t learn her language, her culture, or traditions until she was much older. It’s therefore odd that I’m in a place where I desperately want my culture and traditions again.” Kronk Warner is now taking steps to both accept her upbringing outside the culture and traditions of her Sault St. Marie Chippewa ancestors and learn the language and customs as a way to reclaim that part of her identity.
“These women weren’t just experiencing these situations, they were deciding to actively engage the conflict’s source.”
Among these and the many other stories panelists shared, one crucial trait, pulled right from the definition of warrior, became evident: these women weren’t just experiencing these situations, they were deciding to actively engage the conflict’s source. How do they take on such beasts, you may ask? Shirlee Silversmith, Director of the Division of Indian Affairs within the Utah Department of Community and Culture stated,“the weapon we use today to be warriors is education,” and Tamra Borchardt-Slayton, Chairperson for the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, advocated for starting by truly understanding the history of issues important to you. She reasons, “our past mistakes are what get us; so if we don’t know the past we will never figure out our future.” Thunder Hawk, like many other seasoned activists for whom higher education wasn’t even an idea, urged younger warriors to equip themselves with knowledge. “The halls of learning are important,” she asserted, “because we need to be able to stand toe-to-toe with the rest of the world.”
According to Gilbert, younger generations are taking that task very seriously. She has observed, “especially after Standing Rock, we have a whole new generation of activists now; and they’re all colors and all ages.” She attributes much of this swell in numbers to common interest, particularly in preserving basic needs such as water sources and awareness around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) on the rise. With such fresh energy and determination beginning to take the reins, Borchardt-Slayton acknowledges, “sometimes the lights within us dim because of environmental factors;” but each panelist reminded this new wave of warriors to find strength in their ancestors and community when it’s difficult to keep fighting. Thunder Hawk specifically emboldened the up-and-coming generations to “wake up and take over,” but to also hold one truth close no matter what, “your ancestors are your strength, and I can’t wait to see what you’re gonna do.”