In a past life, I was a conservation organizer with the Sierra Club in Rapid City, South Dakota, working with a large group of like-minded organizations to garner support for what would have been America’s first national grassland wilderness in the southwest part of the state. I say “would have been” because, though we got as far as federal legislation being introduced, the project never progressed beyond that. It’s very painful to look back on this time for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the distressingly large number of deaths of people I had come to know, respect and love through this job: my beloved mentor and supervisor, Kirk Koepsel; the Club’s Northern Plains Regional Director Larry Mehlhaff; my good friend and regional coworker, Mary Wiper; our steering committee director, Rich Gordon; long-time Sierra Club volunteer Don Higgins; radio/TV outdoor show personality Tony Dean; and Keith Jewett, the father of my dear friend and immediate coworker, Chas Jewett.
Chas is the daughter of a Lakota father and White mother, born and raised on the Cheyenne River Reservation in northwest South Dakota. She joined our team in 2002 as an organizer, specifically focusing on tribal outreach. Though we supported each other extensively, my emphasis was more on partnering with “unlikely allies,” specifically hunter-angler groups. It would be a colossal understatement to say that we had many adventures during our five years as coworkers–unfortunately not all of them happy. It is significant to note that, while both of us were insulted, threatened, and even spit at during our time on this campaign, none of that disrespect was committed by her peeps (native Americans)–only mine (White people).
That being said, few people in my life know (or will remember) that although Chas is the first native American person I can call a friend, she wasn’t my first native American Sierra Club coworker. That person was, in fact, a Lakota woman named Charmaine White Face, who for years had been organizing native American folks on national forest management issues in the Black Hills area. She joined the grassland wilderness campaign shortly after I did in winter 2001.
Though they are both Lakotas passionately committed to environmental and social justice causes, I don’t know that I could have dreamt up two more different women, personality-wise. Charmaine was as quiet and understated as Chas is talkative and exuberant. Unfortunately, I didn’t work with Charmaine long enough to get to know her very well: she left the Sierra Club abruptly after less than nine months in the position.
One day, on a Friday staff call with the two of us, our supervisor, Kirk, made a thoughtless comment having to do with powwow attendees enjoying themselves too much and being hungover on Monday morning after the event Charmaine would be attending on behalf of the wilderness campaign. Kirk, recognizing this the instant it was out of his mouth, apologized immediately, owning his cultural insensitivity. I could hear the embarrassment, mortification and pain in his voice. His comment was meant as a joke about people in general having a good time over the weekend and “paying the piper,” so to speak, on Monday morning, but in context it was highly inappropriate and hurtful. Kirk knew (as do I, as do many White folks in western South Dakota) that many native American families have been affected–even destroyed–by alcoholism, and that alcohol, in fact, isn’t even allowed at powwows. Charmaine, for her part, seemed to accept his apology and understand how badly he felt about what he said.
Later the next week, Charmaine and I were in the office together, and I was on speakerphone with Kirk. To this day, I truly don’t know what set her off, but Charmaine suddenly flew into a rage the likes of which I had never seen. She screamed and cried and threw things; I was literally petrified with surprise and agonizing discomfort. I don’t remember what she called me, but I know it was something accusatory about conspiring against her. What I do remember is feeling completely and utterly at a loss about what to do with her boiling anger and the way she expressed it. I also remember feeling surprised, hurt and resentful that she would lump me together with Kirk and every other White person she was angry at: after all, I wasn’t the one who made the inappropriate joke. I wasn’t “in cahoots” with Kirk: I wasn’t a racist!
As a clueless White woman in her late thirties, I had no tools with which to break this down. I had no idea how to process any of this. I had never experienced anything like it. I wish I’d had the skills and the emotional maturity to talk to Charmaine about what happened and make an effort to heal our relationship.
Today, though, I am better prepared to view this incident with the perspective of time, education, life experience and ongoing self-work. I can unpack and analyze most of what happened–and recognize it when it happens in a different context. I understand intent vs. impact. I acknowledge that we live within interlocking oppressive systems built by White people for the benefit of White people, at the expense of people of color. I recognize and own my Whiteness and my racism. I try.
I hadn’t thought about Charmaine and this incident in a very long time. But I had recruited Chas recently to present a program on the concept of culture vultures, and her words brought it to mind. I was able to talk to Chas about why Charmaine left the Sierra Club. Over the years, I was able to have conversations with Chas that I probably couldn’t have had with anyone else. And truthfully, the vast majority of the time I was learning from her–not the other way around.
Kirk, too, spoke honestly about what happened with Charmaine after Chas was hired. I think we made a great team for the short time we were blessed to work together. I don’t doubt that Chas carries a similar kind or amount of anger towards White people that Charmaine does, but she expresses it differently–and, like Charmaine, has always seemed to channel it into her decades-long work in environmental and social justice. It may be that she expressed it differently to me than others. Over the years we got pretty good at calling each other on our shit, in a way that we can both understand and absorb without hard feelings. I know I deserve to be called out more than she does, and I appreciate her friendship more than she knows. Like my brother, Chas is another one of my heroes.