Growing up in New Mexico gave me the chance to understand the importance of cultural identity, even if it was not mine that I was learning about. Our history lessons included field trips to the landmarks of victory and defeat for the Mexican, Spanish, Chicano, and Native American (23 sovereign nations) culture and heritages. I grew up on a steady diet of green and red chile, the rapid tones of Spanish, attending festivals no one knows about (Zozobra), and La Llorona always at our heels. I drove past the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center on 12th street nearly every day because we lived in the North Valley, a neighborhood divided by rich and poor, and you knew exactly where that line was drawn. Brew Town was the local gang, Columbus Park was a battleground, and I skittered around all of it with my dark skin, belonging everywhere and nowhere. I still remember being invited to observe the ceremonies and traditions of the pueblos (you still must be invited in); long dirt roads led to hidden communities where hornos were used every day, the bread placed on adobe bricks leftover from a build to cool before eating. I learned the language of heritage in New Mexico and it ran as steady as the Rio Grande, even in the times the flow was minimized to a trickle. Never mind that I was an import from Asia, we all flew under the NM banner, the red zia on a yellow flag, and I am lucky for having that experience.
Aligning ourselves to causes that matter is important and as we are now witnessing, finding the ones that speak to you matters as well. My husband and I founded a nonprofit, Friends of the Lakota Nation. Its manifestation into a 501(c)3 is a long story. It starts with Scott growing up in South Dakota, living just behind the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock reservations. His town’s population, a very small one, did not always see what is in his heart—a kindness and love for everyone regardless of race, color or creed. He started helping the Pine Ridge Reservation by helping out his classmate, a Lakota/Dakota member, on a couple of donation runs. Nearly 10 years later, we are still trying to support our Lakota friends in the capacity they allow us to assist. As a general mission, we now try to help more pointedly with family and support supplies, food access, build projects, and hopefully in the future, education initiatives.
Over the years, despite my work behind the scenes, I knew that I was supporting Scott in his endeavor to assist. I understood the struggle having grown up in New Mexico, but I did not grow up in South Dakota nor have his context. It wasn’t until I stepped through the doors of the emergency foster care in 2018, when small arms immediately wrapped around my neck and knocked me off my feet (literally), that my cause came flooding back to me. The emergency foster care and those like it on the reservation exists to help those children who find themselves in need of a safe place ON the reservation (this is important), in case of family upset for various reasons. For a moment (days, weeks or months), they are displaced and therefore, live in a teacher housing unit crammed to capacity. I am a brown-skinned ally that can step onto reservations with a semblance of understanding of what it means to live with dark melanin. That does not make me an expert on anything more than the need to forgo sunscreen (not really) because what is the point? But what I do understand is displacement. I understand that those who are displaced from their homes need to find a new one, if not permanently than temporarily.
I was displaced because of war. I was displaced under the guise of staffing changes. I was displaced in a country that I thought I could belong to and even, sometimes, the one I do belong to. I often feel like I have no home, which is why, sometimes, I keep looking—which is why I changed my name, which is why I own a business that spoke to the part of me that was my home (the creative arts), which is why my writing gets spit out into the world with sadness and bitterness and longing. My cause is displacement and that is why I work so hard to build fences or walkways and gather supplies for those who were displaced from their lands when the colonists arrived 400+ years ago. Displacement, I get.
As you read about and try to understand the wealth of societal issues that need reform, I hope that you will find the cause that speaks to you. Black Lives Matter may not be it, and quite honestly, that’s okay only because no one wants a false friend. But it’s also good to support the cause of systemic injustice as a whole and Black Lives Matter does fall under that umbrella, so if you are turning your head to one, you are most likely turning your head to the whole system. That is the problem. While you’re sorting that out, here is some general information
Poverty volunteerism is wrong. Being a white savior is wrong. Using someone else’s pain to promote your privilege or your sanctity is wrong. These are just the basics. I’m sure others can add to that list.
Once again, I’ve said too much and way too little. But, for this moment I will use my expertise, my field of study, OR my lived experience, and tell you this: You do not lead by taking the reins or because they are already in your hand. The horse will let you guide it only because it trusts that you will do it no harm
Ally on, my friends. Ally on.
Video and interview taken by Kyle Wright for the Gather our Children Home Fence Build Project, June, 2019.
Joie N. Lê is an educator, writer, and mother of three. She has a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction with an emphasis in Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Education Technology. She is a guest speaker on qualitative research methods, diversity in the classroom, and topics related to Vietnam's orphans of war. She geeks out on poststructural philosophy, ontology, epistemology, existentialism, and historical fiction.