One of those markers of giant political shifts occurred last week, as Erin Thin Elk Contreras drove me across the homelands of her people, after picking me up from the Sioux Falls Airport. Her bright spirit stirred me from the sleepless haze of my all-night flight, and I remain impressed by the way she walked nimbly over ice and snow in high heels as she wheeled my suitcase to her car. (Now that’s a skill, another new category for the Olympics!) For the first time in U.S. history, Barack Obama, a visionary leader and a black man was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States.
We tuned to listen to Barack Obama’s inauguration speech on the AM station, as we headed out for Vermillion over sunlit plains. Our ears perched close to listen as he accepted the presidency of this very young and troubled country. In Obama’s voice the whole world heard that his mind is clear, free of clouded and contentious knots. We appreciated the finely crafted oratory of Obama’s speech, and the careful choice of words spoken to bring American citizens together into a vision of helpfulness and compassion. There is a direct connection between the clarity and resonance of one’s speech and the shine of character. In Obama we have the gift of an intelligent man. How refreshing. You can hear in his voice that he listens to the ancestors. The last election gave us a man who said: "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."—Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004. He left the country in a wreck.
Many questions surfaced as I listened, and later watched the inaugural events on television in my hotel room. Will there ever, or can there ever be an indigenous president? Where are our indigenous leaders, those who can bring us together, can inspire us? We need those who can see with Seventh-Generation eyes. We need to see beyond skin color, past laws and rules that go in and out of season, such as the recent attempts to throw away children and grandchildren because they don’t have the requisite amount of blood. (We aren’t pedigreed dogs. We are human beings.)
Very early the next morning Erin picked me up to drive me back to the airport. At twenty-nine she’s a very young administrator in the university’s diversity program, the Indian student advisor, and is the mother of three young children. The youngest, not much over two-years-old, dozed in her car seat as we drove East in the dark. Erin and I talked carefully in the dawning morning. At dawn the crack between worlds opens. This day we carried hope for our country. And this day, like every day has a soul. We shared stories that mattered to us. She spoke carefully, with clarity. In her I heard the old people. I heard the young, smart and beautiful young Lakota woman whose life is a balancing act between the eternal and the everyday. In her I saw that we are growing our indigenous leaders. They are among us.