Sep 19, 2023



Megan Joslin

Embracing relationship with Indigenous culture

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Megan Joslin, photo

From as early as I can remember, my grandparents have called me by the nickname “Magoo.” The word originates from the Native Mandan language from which my family comes, and ironically translates to “grandmother.” While it seems nonsensical to nickname an infant a name referring to an elderly parental figure, “Magoo” has journeyed with me into adulthood, and is an integral part of my identity. My aunt was first given the name Magoo by my great grandfather, and it was my grandfather who first gave me the name; the connected relationships fill the name with meaning beyond its literal definition. Names in our family connect us to who we are, and the ancestors before us.

When I visit my family on the reservation, the name “Megan” goes out the door. My name, Magoo, points me toward my greater relationship with nu’eta, the people. There is no greater honor than being loved by my family in the names they have given me that are rooted in our culture and tradition. 

For the last few years, I have grown more passionate in developing an Indigenous hermeneutic that better encapsulates the Native experience and communicates the Bible’s closely paralleled theology with Native culture and ideology. The more I commit to this passion of mine, the more I find myself experiencing intense imposter syndrome. For a year or so, I looked in the mirror and saw a white woman who lives in Kentucky. How dare I try to write for others’ oppressive experiences when I have felt none of it? 

There is no greater honor than being loved by my family in the names they have given me that are rooted in our culture and tradition.

I recognized a lot about my privilege while reconciling my understanding of what it means for me to be Mandan. I realized it’s okay to recognize my cultural blind spots while pursuing a relationship with my Native ancestry, in a familial and academic setting. What matters most is that I ask myself this question— 

Who am I in relationship with?

The word “relationship” is integral to my understanding of what it means to be a Native American woman and member of the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara tribe. Ultimately, I’ve come to know my relationship with family matters more than how people see my skin. A similar question can be asked of those outside of immediate Native ancestry, too—“Where does my life intersect with Native American culture? Where can it begin to intersect where it once was overlooked?” 

Growing up, I struggled with people who said, “I’m Cherokee (or Sioux, Cree, etc.)! I’m Native, too, just like you,” to try relating to me. Sometimes it felt genuine, while others felt like an attempt to make what was so central to me feel insignificant. I more recently found this question, again, to be a helpful follow-up in such conversations, and reveal the true nature of the sentiment communicated—

What is your relationship to the Indigenous aspect of your life?

It isn’t wrong to be proud of Native American blood that runs through many American veins, even if it’s .0001%. What we should examine, however, is claiming to be in relationship with an oppressed group when the claim is made simply to avoid looking “too white” to other Native Americans who may actively endure the consequences of centuries of colonization and oppression. Avoidance and shame cannot build authentic relationships. 

Thankfully, there is always an opportunity to take a more thoughtful, curious approach to Indigenous culture here and now, in our local neighborhoods, reservations, and worldview. Now is the time to ask—how can I be in relationship with Indigenous culture?

My gardening endeavors began last summer with one tomato start I planted in a pot outside my door. The entire summer, I lived under the assumption that the tomato plant was here for me to eventually take everything from it. It was in my yard because I bought it, I owned it, and I had every right to bear its fruit and eat it. I hardly watered the poor thing and didn’t give it the correct soil mixture for it to thrive. 

The Western Christian perspective I have closely clung to failed me when it came to how I take care of the earth around me, above me, and under me. I often viewed my Christian faith separate from Native culture, because I assumed the Native aspects of spirituality and theology were in conflict, and therefore needed to be barricaded. I cannot begin to express how wrong I was; ignorance begins with assumptions, and I made many. My faith has grown and become my own as I navigate my ancestors’ understandings of physical creation and how we steward it. My originally selfish and misguided worldview was founded on the idea that God made me above Mother Earth and I didn’t owe her a single thing. But this summer, everything changed.

Americans are saturated in private property economics, which means we only understand the world through buying and selling, owning and leasing. With this lens, we can’t help but think we have a right to consume—take all the tomatoes from the tomato plant. Private property economics makes indulging ourselves in overconsumption the only viable lifestyle, but it’s a foreign trade to Mother Earth’s soil.

My garden is not about what I can take from it, but what I can give to it, and how I can nurture it.

Before the white man came, gifts were currency. Gift economics looks more toward the needs of the neighbor instead of the individual. Much of my experience with a gift economy comes from interactions with my family and friends near the reservation, and the book “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. 

When I attend a memorial at a Pow Wow for a passed family member, I do not think about what I need or the gifts I can receive from the community, but how I—and my family—can honor those joining us in grief and love. My family stands at the end of the line during a feed (a meal prepared by our family at a memorial or other ritual celebration) we prepared for the community, because our gift was for nu’eta before ourselves. When someone tells me they like my shoes, the mindset I must adopt is how fast I can take those shoes off my own feet and put them on the one who complimented them. My garden is not about what I can take from it, but what I can give to it, and how I can nurture it.

Who are you in relationship with? 

My garden is overgrown with abundance because I changed my relationship with Mother Earth. I give to the garden, and the garden gives to me. I plan to ensure most of its fruits and veggies go to those who have helped me tend it. I leave a berry or two at the top of a few bushes for birds to take, and some berries on the bottom for smaller creatures. I don’t need it all, nor was I meant to take it all. Overconsumption goes out the door when I walk into my 8x6’ garden bed, because the Indigenous way taught me how to love the gift Mother Earth has given me. 

You might not be a beginner gardener like me, but you can find your own introduction to relationship with a new, Indigenous way of thinking. You can check your blind spots when it comes to Native American culture. Remember what land you stand on. Remember that white people were not the first people here. Everyday, we live our lives on stolen land. This isn’t a request to return it, this is an invitation to not overlook where you stand, and how much you can be grateful for. The relationship can begin when our ignorance is acknowledged. 

Read Native authors. My top two favorite books are “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer and “Becoming Kin” by Patty Krawec. There are many others, but when it comes to gift economics and relationships, these ideas are heavily influenced by these brilliant, Native female minds. 

Learn about real American history. Understand where Natives hurt and why they hurt. Read Native history and learn about a culture that could be lost if we stop pursuing its legacy. 

Donate to Native non-profit organizations. Look up local organizations. Where is the Indigenous life in your local neighborhood? 

Learn more if you are aware that you have Native blood running through your veins. Listen to those who share your heritage. Rekindle the relationship with your tribe even if the family is passed on, or unknown. You are the spark that kindles the fire of relationship.

Give generously. Read more about what it means to live in a gift economy. How does your understanding of life and love for others change when it becomes less about what you get and instead is focused more on what you can give?

Treat the earth as a loving family member that you can communicate with daily. How does she respond when you water her? Where is she dying? Where is she living? The deeper meanings possible behind our interactions with the world communicate more to us about the human condition than we can often process. 

My garden flourishes not because of me, but because of the relationship the earth and I formed by listening to each other. I get to send pictures to my grandma and grandpa and share stories back and forth about how we’ve seen the earth teach us. I have learned the most about Native culture by listening to mealtime stories in my own Magoo’s living room. When they read this article, I hope they know that I owe it all to them, for having the passion to tell my story. Maybe someday I’ll tell more of theirs, too. Life arises from remembering, and as a part of nu’eta, I invite you to be a part of our story of healing and reconciliation. Who are you in relationship with?

Megan Joslin is pursuing her Masters of Arts in Theological Studies with a focus in Biblical Studies at Portland Seminary through George Fox University. When she isn’t studying, she enjoys working as a sales associate at Anthropologie. For fun, Megan adopts the hobbies of a wannabe homesteader—knitting, canning, gardening. She lives in Lexington, KY with her French Bulldog, Rosie, and her husband, Jeren.