Mni Wiconi



A long time ago I lost part of my heart to the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.

I first traveled to Standing Rock just about ten years ago. I was sixteen, and really had no idea what I was really going to be doing there. While in flight to Bismarck surrounded by a small group of fellow students I barely knew, I remember asking myself why I was doing this. I was part of a partnership trip. It was a long standing relationship, where a group of students from my home area in Philadelphia would travel to volunteer their time at a summer camp for Native/First Nations students.

When I arrived, all of my preconceived ideas about this area were shattered. Honestly, I thought North Dakota would be a  dry and ugly place, with large expanse of open space. Although the latter was true, I was amazed by the beauty of the rolling plains and the mystery of the buttes that seemed to transform underneath the setting sun. If you have never sat alone beneath the stars in a prairie after watching the sunset, you are missing out.

I had no idea that this trip would actually be a life changing event for me. It didn’t hit me all at once, but as I take time to reflect back on my visits to Standing Rock, I see that fundamental parts of who I am as a person were formed there.My eyes were opened as a white middle-class citizen. I realized tangibly for the first time what it really means when people say things like, “winners write the history books”. There is an incredible amount of misinformation about the Indigenous Tribes of North America. One of my favorite parts about returning to the rez every year was being able to ask questions. My dear friend, Terry, would walk us through the Native American History Museum in Bismarck and point out the artifacts donated by his family. He’d tell us story after story in the oral tradition of the tribe. We would meet with community elders and hear their stories and lessons. I learned how to make fry bread from a recipe that I'm fairly certain was never written down. These experiences - seeing culture thriving despite all odds, first hand - had a tremendous impact on me as a person.

After that first trip, I returned as a volunteer the following summer. The next two summers I spent my summer on staff working closely with the local community. I brought a group of friends from college with me to help with construction over our spring break one year. Each time I returned, it felt like coming back home. Friendships that formed and sustained via phone calls, text messages, and social media slowly evolved into family. I was given that reminder - one I will never forget - on February 24, 2014 when Terry sent me a message at the end of a long conversation letting me know that my new husband, Travis, is equally accepted into the Goodhouse/Mauai/Star family along with me. It was a reminder of the importance of that community in my life, and a tremendous honor to know that my husband became part of that family as well. A week later, Terry passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. I stopped painting for a period of time until I felt ready to re-enter into a part of my life that was so full of reminders of Terry, of my family, and of a community I loved and missed.

Perhaps one of the most important "life lessons" that I learned from my time there is the importance of how family is viewed. The tiyospaye is the basic unit of Dakota and Lakota society. New relatives are added to the Lakota's families by birth, marriage or adoption. Family is who you are related to, but also who you trust and adopt into your family as well.

When asked “who are you?”, I may give a definition of the work I do or the area I live, or perhaps list some of the things I am passionate about. For the Lakota, answering that question is tied directly to tiyospaye - it is about kinship and history. Who you are is about your identity as a member of a community and of an extended family, as the concept and actual belief in family extends far beyond the traditional American view of the nuclear family unit.

So this is why I am here, typing this out and working with Grace Gulley and Mya Kerner to use our art for a purpose. Using art as a means of communicating the importance of this situation only seemed natural. Today, I would call myself a socially minded artist with a passion for preserving community and culture, and I credit that directly to my time on Standing Rock and the family that grew from the decision at age sixteen to get on a plane. The influence of Standing Rock is woven into much of my work as I learned the importance of appreciating the land and elements, and stewardship of the gift of this Earth. My brother and his wife, their children, my former students, and my friends are standing together with tiyospaye from around the nation (and even around the world) to protect their rights as a sovereign nation - to protest the destruction of sacred land, to protect their water resources, and to protect their rights as a tribe and as a community.

To join us, please visit

artKait Masters2 Comments