November is Native American Heritage Month, and we’re sitting down with one of our Native neighbors to debunk some of the biggest misconceptions about their culture and share the best ways to help.
“It’s time to start shining a light on the places that treat us badly or it will never end,” said Dawn Moneyhan, tears streaming down her face. “Every day is scary and stressful.”
Fear is something Dawn faces every day as a free, modern Native American woman living near Milwaukee. While Thanksgiving is a joyous holiday for many white families, it’s a heartbreaking “day of mourning” for Indigenous people – a reminder of the day the settlers arrived and their repression began.
But this is not a sad story. Although frustrated, natives like Dawn are now focused on sharing their side of the story to help others understand the barriers his community has not only faced historically, but also continues to face across states across America, including right here in Wisconsin.
Here is our conversation with Dawn…
Christina Lorey, UpNorthNews Editor: How do you answer the question “Who are you?”
Dawn Moneyhan, member of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians: I am a Native American wife, mother, grandmother, aunt, mentor and spiritual advisor. I am also a steward of Mother Earth and all that she holds.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Milwaukee. I lived in what many call “the neighborhood” or “the ghetto” on the south side of Milwaukee until I was 8 years old. When my mother remarried, we moved to south Milwaukee. At that time, South Milwaukee was an all-white suburb, and downtown students were not yet bussed.
Did you feel “different”?
Yes. Although I have a sister, she and I are complete opposites in every way, including our looks. She is light and I am dark. I was the only brown child in my school from 1978 until I dropped out and got married in first grade (1987), so I could escape my nightmare.
Where do you live now?
[My family] moved to Juneau, WI in 2007, a year after [I got] married to my third (and last) husband. My youngest daughter was about to start college and was going through a repeat of my childhood when she lived in south Milwaukee, so we vowed to find her a safe place to grow up. She has blonde hair and blue eyes and was the only white child in her grade level. I recognized the signs right away and was able to do for her what my parents couldn’t do for me. I got her out of there.
Do you feel at home in Juneau?
I’m stuck here and it’s getting worse day by day. By moving here, I put the burden of racism on my own lap. I knew this would happen; I made this sacrifice to spare my child. Now I’m ready to go, but I can’t afford to go yet.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about modern American Indians in Wisconsin?
It depends on who you talk to and what area of the state you are in. I think the biggest misconception I’ve come across is that we’re extinct, or the idea that we’re rich and don’t pay taxes.
How have these misconceptions impacted your life?
I have been in situations where I had to produce my tribal ID in an attempt to prove to someone that I was a “true Indian” after being accused at a living history event in to be “just a paid actor dressed to look like the real thing.”
The part that makes this encounter stick with me is that it was [a] child who first doubted [my background] then raw. [He] then went to tell his parents who openly berated him for believing, assuring him that I was indeed just a paid actor made up to look like a “real Indian”. It took at least 15 minutes of conversation to convince these strangers otherwise, after which they ignored and left.
And do you know where the misconception about taxation and wealth comes from?
It’s just nonsense. I want the rest of our state to understand how much our tribes contribute in taxes and charitable donations each year. It amounts to tens of millions of dollars in a slow year.
A lot of people think we’re getting sales tax relief. It is only on reserved land. First, all of Wisconsin’s reservation lands are in the northern third of the state. Second, not all registered Native Americans who live in Wisconsin are registered in a tribe. So most of us don’t see these little sales tax breaks. Already.
What is the ONE thing you wish all non-Native Wisconsinans knew about your community?
We are just as confused and disoriented as any other community, while facing overwhelming amounts of oppression by government and society at the same time and massive amounts of poverty.
We are still considered “savages” and often referred to as such in public spaces. We all want the same things. We want to have a space to exist, the same rights to practice our cultures and our spiritual beliefs in peace like everyone elseand if anyone wants to know more about us, we desperately want them to interrogate we instead of our oppressors, abusers and conquerors, and people who are not we but pretend to know on we.
We are always here, but society refers to us as stuck in the 1800s because that’s all everyone seems to know about us. We welcome those who come with respect and embrace allies, which is what we really need to have a voice in our society.
This brings us to the question of how we as white Wisconsinites can help. How can we support your community right now?
The one thing we need more than anything else is to be seen and heard. We cannot ask the world to respect us if it does not know us and does not even know that we exist. The mainstream media has eclipsed us since the beginning of the media. The few references to us tend to be when someone demonizes us again for their own agenda, as has been done at Standing Rock and the Oregon Wildlife Preserve.
It’s a constant repetition of history because the rest of the world knows nothing or nothing about us, so society is continually being force-fed with a narrative on us instead of of we. It’s important and it really hurts. We are still not free in our own homelands because we remain invisible. Fear of the unknown has caused some of the world’s worst tragedies, and we remain at the top of the list, and it continues today.
What can we, as white people, do about that?
Start asking your local media about us. Ask them why they don’t include us in anything. Why do they keep leaving us out? Our voices are not strong enough without allies. We are only 2% of the national population, let alone here in Wisconsin. We scream, but no one hears us. We need non-Indigenous voices to be recognized and recognized to help us become much stronger.
How do you stay strong and optimistic?
I survive this madness by writing about it. All. And every year I get bolder in person, because I’m sick of it.
A few years ago my husband and I were on the porch chopping down a plant before a storm hit. type of vehicle and started flashing white power signs at me as it drove past our house. I stopped what I was doing and my husband looked up. As he did, the old man turned his head away and continued to move forward, picking up speed.
Every day is scary and stressful. Some days I just want them to come to me so we can get it over with and get on with our lives, so I have the right to LIVE my life. Other days I want to crawl around a corner and just cry and never stop because the tears are the problem and it always seems endless.
Dawn’s faith also sees her through the steady stream of racist attacks against her, her family, and her culture. She is a spiritual leader at the Kwewag Indigenous Culture Church (KICC) just outside of Milwaukee. The faith of the Church is based on the spirit and welcomes everyone: indigenous and non-indigenous.