I was born and raised away from the reservation, like the vast majority of Native youth of my generation. However, my grandfather grew up on the family allotment near Ada, Oklahoma. Papaw was the biggest cultural defender in my family. He was a Chickasaw artist who could draw, paint, sculpt, and carve with equal beauty. When I was a toddler, Papaw carved me a bow and set of arrows so I could accompany him during archery practice in the garage. He told me that we must always use a bow to hunt because it wasn’t fair to the animals to hunt with guns. Papaw’s lithographs of Geronimo and Sitting Bull smiled down upon us as we practiced.

Papaw passed away when I was just nine, and even now, his death remains the most traumatic loss of my life. There was no one left to teach me my culture. My childhood also was deeply unsettled by alchoholism and abuse. Many times, I felt like I didn't know who I was.

School and the media didn’t help much either. I only learned about Indigenous people in the first chapter of my history textbooks and from works like Disney’s Pocahontas and The Lone Ranger. While I was lucky enough to grow up in a place where Native culture is visible—Albuquerque, New Mexico—harmful depictions of Indigenous people had the biggest influence on my childhood. I didn't begin to piece together the broken shards of my heritage, or receive accurate information about other Indigenous people, until much later in life. I shouldn’t have had to go to college to learn that the U.S. allows approximately 65,000 Diné (Navajo) people to live without tap water—I live only a few hours away from the Diné homelands. I shouldn’t have had to wait until college to learn about the Trail of Tears—I am a Chickasaw person.

I didn't learn until much later in life that my Grandma Great, Papaw’s mother, had been forced to attend a residential school, along with her sisters. My Grandma Great worked as a cook, and she would steal food for her sisters so they didn’t starve. They all tried to run away but didn’t know the way back home. Since Grandma Great died just a few years before Papaw, I didn’t know her long enough to ask her questions about our family. I didn’t even learn about the true horrors of residential schools, or that the last one didn’t close until the early 2000s, until I attended college.

I wish that the U.S. government, schools, and the media gave me the tools to become a well-adjusted Indigenous person in the twenty-first century. There are few burdens heavier than having to justify your Indigenous existence to a non-Indigenous person.

As an Indigenous person, it is impossible for me to do anything without feeling intense internal turmoil. Above all, freedom for me as an Indigenous person means freedom from this shame. I wake up every day with the guilt that I am living on another Indigenous peoples’ land. As I walk into the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee, I grow angry thinking about the people who displaced my Papaw off his allotment in Oklahoma. I grieve even more because Oklahoma isn’t even where my people are from. We are from so-called “Tennessee,” “Alabama,” and “Mississippi,’’ and cannot return. Land for Indigenous people is much different than for others because our entire identity is tied to a very specific part of the world.

Freedom for Indigenous people means that non-Indigenous people share this shame with us and take action to help us in the healing process. We have somewhat seen this through the invention of “land acknowledgements,” through which institutions bring attention to their own role in Indigenous land theft and genocide. A land acknowledgement effectively allows non-Indigenous people to share in the reality that Indigenous people cannot escape.

While a land acknowledgement is a step in the right direction, a land acknowledgement is not enough; reparations are mandatory. But land acknowledgements and reparations are not intended to shame non-Indigenous people or institutions. Instead, they are designed to involve non-Indigenous people and institutions in the process of healing.

I want my Chickasaw children to live in a world where their mothers, aunties, and sisters are not ten times more likely to be murdered and where other Indigenous people have their basic necessities provided. I want the world that they’re born into to already have an accurate understanding of Indigenous people: their histories and current realities. I want my future Chickasaw children to be supported in remembering their culture. They will know how to stomp dance and to cook pishofa, and it will be as easy for them to learn as baseball or Christmas. I want them supported in being different instead of fighting to be equal.

I do not want to forget what the U.S. and other institutions have done to Indigenous people over the last 500 years. But one day, I want to sigh in relief because the United States government, institutions, and people all over Turtle Island are making concerted efforts to join Indigenous people in the healing process. With the way things are right now, this is hard for me to even conceptualize. A lot of healing is needed. Focusing on truth and healing instead of shame and guilt is what ultimately offers me the hope to press on.

Smith, a rising junior, is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and a 2021 Udall Scholar for work in tribal public policy. He is currently with the Duke Gardens Equity through Stories Program to bring Indigenous voices into a space that sees over 500,000 visitors annually.

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