Erica Littlewolf is Northern Cheyenne from southeastern Montana. She is knowledgeable in restorative justice, critical race theory, Indigenous issues, and decolonization. Erica enjoys conceptualizing new, old Indigenous ways of doing things outside of white supremacy culture.
Music by: @siryalibeats
Portrait Illustration by: Olivia Lim
Patrick: Hey, what's going on. It is Dr. Patrick Reyes here and today we have the one and only Erica Littlewolf from the Mennonite Central Committee Central States. I adore Erica, she's one of my leaders of leaders. She is Northern Cheyenne from the South Eastern part of Montana. She does restorative justice, critical race theory, indigenous issues, and decolonizing this tradition for the next generation. One of the things I love about this interview is that she talks about the way that grief plays out in vocational discernment.
So welcome Erica Littlewolf to the Sound of the Genuine. All right, Erica. It is good to see you. It has been good talking to you before we even recorded. Thank you for joining us. How are you doing?
Erica Littlewolf: I am good. Looking forward to this interview.
Patrick: So you do a lot of cool things. Like one of the coolest people I know and don't actually know how you got into any of this work. So tell me about yourself. Where did all this energy to do this life saving, people saving, culture saving work begin? Take me back to the beginning.
Erica Littlewolf: The beginning. You know, it's interesting, I would usually start with myself, but lately I think further back and I think it actually began with my ancestors. I'm not doing anything new. I think it looks a little revised due to the conditions we live in today, but it started with my ancestors and the resistance work that they did to colonization and to their lives being changed by colonization and all the waves of genocide through boarding schools and forced assimilation and moving onto the reservations. I think that is when it started. I was born into it. I feel like I was always justice oriented but I wasn't exposed to social justice work till I think it was my freshman year of college. I took an anti-racism training and there was something about the languaging of the systemic racism, like the critical race theory that really stuck out to me I was like, huh, I have had all those experiences in my lifetime!
And I didn't know there was language to name all those things, white privilege, people of color. I didn't even know there was these concepts. Once I had that language I started applying it to all my situations and I feel like it just opened up my whole world. That and some of the education I received is kind of how it started. But I always look back and I think all of these little instances of like childhood that also kind of frame you. I was always the one, I guess, not behaving how I was supposed to? My parents would call me a difficult child.
And so I think I always had that little like resistance, you know, like, wait, I need a say in this process. And so living out in the country here on the Rez I always pushed the boundaries. If my parents would say, like go feed the pets, I'd say, okay. They never gave me a timeframe. And I think their expectation was like, do it now. And I was like, oh, I have all day to do this. And so I think some of those little things that you don't think of, but it's like, oh, that's the resistance in the making - refusing to assimilate to what my parents were asking me to do!
But it shaped me into always questioning or finding loopholes. When someone wasn't clear, I was always like, oh, well I'll just do it this way because technically I'm not, not following a rule.
Patrick: I mean from one fierce resisting child to another, I mean, that's how I feel like I was, maybe my parents would disagree, but I feel like I was disciplined so much that I was equally as fierce. What did you imagine you would do when you grew up? What were your dreams? What are your hopes and dreams as a young person?
Erica Littlewolf: You know, honestly, I didn't think I would make it this far. I learned about murdered and missing indigenous women when I was probably in first grade or five years old. And I had seen people die at such young ages that I didn't really have that much of a dream, or I couldn't imagine that I would live to be old because I had no examples.
[On] my native side, my grandparents died young and so I wasn't around them. And so I had other grandparents to take care of me, but I had trouble like imagining that. you know, at school, they always, what do you want to be when you grow up? I would always say like, oh, I think I want to be like a lawyer or something like that mixed between like, a teenage ninja turtle or like a teacher or something like that, but I really liked art too at the time. So I always wanted to mix art in there. Maybe like some animal rescue of some sort. But I think those were the dreams but I couldn't ever imagine them actually happening. That's why I think it's interesting like the way your paths fall into place, even with your inability to imagine them being able to happen.
Patrick: You mentioned going off to college though. I mean, at some point these things that you're imagining, they start to take shape. You've said you got this critical race theory, where did you end up going to school? And why did you choose that school? And what were your hopes as you went through that kind of experience, as you were trying to discern what you were going to do as an adult who had made it to, you know, at least young adulthood?
Erica Littlewolf: You know, it's really weird cause at the same time I was a resistor, I still followed a lot of rules. Finishing high school was a given, like you had to finish high school. Along with that was you had to finish college. And then after that is when I kind of can decide what I want to do for my life. And so I felt like it was that generation on the reservation...even the elders were saying we have to be the generation that's educated. Like we have to be the ones that know our culture and know our language, and then go out and learn the white man's way of being too. The idea was that we would be the generation that would come back with that knowledge and be able to share it with our community.
I didn't put much thought into it and the university I chose, Black Hill State University in South Dakota, I honestly went because I wanted to get the heck out of Montana. And I just wanted to like completely get away from everyone I knew. And the first semester everyone has to take an introduction to American Indian Studies class.
And I was just like, what the heck is a Native doing having to take American Indian Studies class? But I took it and it was the professor and it was the angle and it was all this information that I was like, I have never had access to this kind of class before. I love this! After that then I enrolled in the Native Studies program as a double major. That was a part of also framing me along with the critical race theory that I was attending all these workshops on the weekend. Doing that and then I also got interested in some bereavement work and then working and volunteering like in the hospice, so that's kind of how it started evolving.
And honestly, I've never been a person that had goals. I remember they would have these motivational speakers come in and give us this process and for me, I'm like, this was never believable. When I've been reflecting as an adult, I'm like actually, what I would do unknowingly is, I always set intentions and I realized now that like goals and intentions are extremely different.
Like goals for me, I was always thinking of it in my head - it was like a head process. But when I would set my intentions, it was just like a whole body experience. Like it was coming from even a spiritual place that I had the intention of doing this, but ultimately releasing some of that grasp of the control of things. That there's a bigger power or there's a creator that is ultimately going to guide that, but this is what I intend to do. There's a give, you know like a giving away like, maybe my intentions aren't best for my community or myself or whatever.
Whereas I always thought of goals as being completely individual, kind of selfish in some ways, that like I'm going met and it has to happen this way, regardless of if I'm getting new information that maybe I shouldn't do this. But it's like all about following through with that goal. But with intention, you know, then you start looking to your intuition and your instinct about, this isn't maybe feeling right, here's some more clues, maybe I need to reevaluate this. As an adult I realized that I wasn't without something, I just wasn't doing goals. I was setting intention.
Patrick: Now I'm curious about this setting intention because it seems to me also the way you're describing it, that it's in relationship and it's more of a communal act. It's not just your piece. You're in college, you get through, you got what sounds like a communal intention that you were the generation that comes back with all this knowledge, all the stuff. What do you do post-college with your own intentions, with the community's intentions? How do you balance this? How do you find what you're going to do? How you're going to spend your time, where you're going to be? How do you make those decisions and what decisions do you make?
Erica Littlewolf: So after college, I knew that I didn't want to go back home right away. I had felt like I had been given to so much that I was just like, oh what can I do? And so what I did is I actually applied to AmeriCorps. I was down to two programs, one in San Antonio and one was in Phoenix and I chose to go to Phoenix because I have family there. And what it was, was doing Habitat for Humanity and building houses in, I think it was in South Phoenix at that time. I would do that for a year for AmeriCorps.
Patrick: And so what do you end up doing after Habitat? You got this college education, you got Habitat, you've been in Phoenix, South Dakota, and Montana, which let me just say for those who don't know FTE’s work you know, the way that we think about support, those are three - at least two of them are rural areas.
And I would say not a lot of energy goes into Phoenix, outside of people who work at the resorts to get there. I mean these are places that not a lot of resources flow to help discern their next step or call or find your purpose. What do you imagine next as you spend time in these places that are really kind of rural. They're not big cities, they're not tons of universities. What do you imagine at that in your life if I want to do this work, where and how do you do that?
Erica Littlewolf: That transition from college to AmeriCorps literally that was probably one of the hardest transitions in my life. I was also very angry because I felt like I had been lied to and I felt like I had been set up to not live in the real world. I had literally been told probably my whole life once you get a college degree, it's like the jobs are flowing and they're plentiful. And so I found this place and I ended up being an academic counselor.
I got paid like $28,000 a year. I'm thinking, yessssssss! But when the paychecks finally rolled in I couldn't even make ends meet. And along with that, it's like all that other stress of the world's not what people told me it would be, I started having health problems - just from stress. And when I quit AmeriCorps, I didn't have any healthcare. And so I was just like, what kind of world is this? And so through that transition, I would have really appreciated someone helping me discern in college about what should I do after college? It's like in college, the main goal was just like, let's just like get them out but not really like what do they do with their skillsets after?
There's probably like a four-year period there where I tried a lot of things to figure out where I fit. And I didn't fit in any of them. At the time too, in graduate school, I was pumped I was in a social work program. I was thinking I was going to be a counselor and I had all my social justice theory and I was thinking social work was like social justice. And then hurricane Katrina hit.
And in one of my “diversity” with quotes class, every single social worker in there, when we were discussing Katrina, didn’t think there was systemic racism in the Katrina response. And all these people in Phoenix had their internships in Native communities. And I was like, I cannot be in this program.
I felt like I was enabling the incompetence in my own communities. And that's when I realized, and I look around and I’m like when did I become the only Native up in social work? Here I am with a bunch of helpers I don't even know if they see me as their classmate or if I'm more of the kind of people they help.
Then I just went through like, I can't do band-aid work. I gotta look at something that’s looking at root causes, that's looking at systemic racism, that's using privilege language like doing all that deep root work. God bless those people that do like seriously, because we need them too, but I could never sit across and offer people something that isn’t complete. And that’s not a value judgement. That’s just me. Because I do believe we need brown people in social work. Heck yeah. We need brown people in social work and they need to get paid more.
Patrick: I think a lot of folks of color who go into higher education spaces or graduate school, or even in these, quote/unquote are the “helping professions”, which weren't designed for us anyways. How do you, as you're discerning this, as you're seeing this kind of play out to the system level, like y'all are really doing band-aid work. I think so many students who go into that, then ask that next question that you did and saying, well I want to do something that actually benefits my people, not just for this generation, but for generations before.
And I'm just going to add in there what, and I'm using your language, what sort of intentions were you setting going all the way back to your introduction that maybe this is, I don’t know, a remix on what your ancestors have been doing? What was your remix in this moment and intention you set to move your level from this band-aid type work to thinking about systems?
Erica Littlewolf: I still go back to that critical race, the analysis I had. You know, there should almost be warnings on those classes in a good way that like you won't ever be able to see the world in the same way. Because I always think back to that class about getting the languaging, because it didn't necessarily teach me what to think, it taught me how to think. All those years of schooling that is supposed to teach me critical thinking. I did not learn critical thinking. I learned how to retain and regurgitate. And so once I had this critical thinking and started questioning things, the problem was I was doing graduate school, but I was also apprenticing to be an anti-racism trainer on the weekends. And so then I'm having one completely different experience in school with an experience I like on the weekends. I'm just like, I got to go completely to this experience that I like.
And since hurricane Katrina did hit, because of the people I knew they needed someone to do a listening process, lead that process. And so they asked me to do that. That's what started me. I had always volunteered with the organization as a summer youth. And so I had all that volunteer basis. And when they asked me to do that, it was built upon those years I had done volunteer work. And I just started meeting new people, started working on listening projects like that, got exposed to restorative justice, the mainstream restorative justice. And then that's when I started working, doing indigenous social justice work, there was a position that opened up, with the organization I work with. And now I've been with them like 16 or 17 years.
I think at that time, to be honest, I don't know that I had real intention other than I needed something that was going to make me feel alive. Intentions look different now to me. Because at that point in time I was leading from a lot of my trauma and looking in other spaces to feel things. I had always been an overachiever, high achiever, and looking back, you know you never see this at the time, I had quit achieving because I wasn't in college. And the interesting thing which could honestly be very embarrassing is then I started dating to get validation. Honestly, I was
highly distracted. I can’t imagine that I have much intention at that point other than to get my immediate needs met, which were validation. And that’s when I ended up getting married and it didn’t work.
Patrick: I want to get to this. You've been with this organization for 16 years, you see this position open, you apply for it. What is it? What is the work that you're actually doing? And my big curiosity here is between both the intention setting this, going to college and having both the Native American studies program, forming a critical race theory, your volunteerism, the intentions that both you set and the community set for you to return. What has this last 16 years been? What has the work been and how does it fit into those intentions and those hopes of your family, of your community?
Erica Littlewolf: When I first started the work, it was my organization, Mennonite Central Committee actually had physical service units on a reservation. And so at that point I had to relocate. I was married and my ex-husband and I worked at that unit on that reservation. And what it was doing was mainly meeting the social needs of the community. I would say we did a lot of firewood that people needed. We bought crafts. We gave out micro-grants. He was from that community, I was not. But we would constantly go through this discernment process with the community and eventually the community was like, you guys are this like international organization. We don't really need your help here.
Like we have these other agencies that can get our needs met. And so you guys have access to the United Nations. You have access to a Washington office, can you guys focus on like those big issues? The macro issues is what we were calling them instead of just the intricacies of how like one little tribe works. And so through that I started out doing that type of work and then what it has gone into is more looking at the doctrine of discovery, boarding schools, the church's role in boarding schools, the churches continued role in the doctrine of discovery and the role they've played in the assimilation and the killing off of native people, churches and land - what happens with that? When I went to college and I did my psychology and American Indian Studies degree, my advisor was like, why don't you do psychology and sociology? And I was just like I'm not interested in sociology. Because that was the common thing that people did.
And so they didn't understand why I would do psychology and American Indian Studies, but for some reason, it just intuitively made sense to me. And oddly it was the exact kind of mix that I needed for the work I was doing on this reservation. But that took like 10 years, right, to see the fruition of this decision I was almost advised not to do. I think that some of that intention...because intention to me sometimes comes from intuition. It doesn't necessarily come from like this thinking place right? And so sometimes people think, they're not making good decisions, but you can't look to other people to validate your intention.
Maybe people can validate your goals, but not your intentions, they come from somewhere else. And so eventually we closed that unit down and then I could live anywhere within like a 16 state region so then I moved to Albuquerque and did the work out of my home there.
I think we assumed that the communities would have spaces for us when we were educated. But you know, one of those things that I guess was never thought about when the elders were like advising my generation to go get educated was, we were too educated to come back. A lot of us chose to pursue jobs outside our communities, because for one it's like our communities couldn't handle us.
Uh, I don't know how to say that. That's not how I want to say, but that's the easiest way to say it. And it's not like derogatory towards my community it's just that there wasn't like that infrastructure to handle people coming back with like masters or doctorates, because that wasn't really needed.
That along with...it was an unrealistic expectation to think that we could go off and maintain our cultural values along with this high academic standard and come back and almost like re-weave back into our communities. It just didn't happen that way. A lot of us got used to city life. I know a lot of my friends got married to people in other places and that changes dynamics and coming back wasn't as we all thought it would be. I don't know that any of us have necessarily come back permanently yet.
I just moved back after 20 years away but I'm not employed by my community. So I think that that is still something yet to be realized but what it has done for me is it makes me think more and especially with COVID coming around, that we've lost so many of our elders. And with so many elders and older people dying, I look to my community to see how old I am.
So technically I'm forty but I feel like with all the people that have died, probably over 150 just from COVID, I feel like a 50 year old within my community which means I'm a little bit lost at the moment as to what gap needs to be filled.
And where I am, because we haven't been able to gather as a community, I feel like I don't necessarily know what my role is right now. I think when we start gathering again as a community, I'll be able to be like, oh, this is where I fit. Because I know I'm no longer who I was before COVID, which was this young person still being able just to soak in everything from an elder it's like now I kind of have more responsibility because the elders have passed on.
But what that made me realize is how many career centers or vocational programs only look at the individual - what are you interested in, as if that individual exists just as an individual. It would have been really helpful to sit in a room with elders that helped me discern like, what am I interested in and what is needed, actually needed in our community? Because at that point in time we were all convinced that we needed to go other places to get what was needed.
When I come back, I'm like, I'm not convinced we need to go other places because we got these academics trying to get in to get our knowledge. And so what would it look like to have this community oriented, discernment process about vocation? So that's what, what I'm interested in now. So I don't think that everything has come into fruition. I guess it's still happening along the way, maybe?
Patrick: There are so many things I want to talk to you about because it's 90% of what I tried to tease out in The Purpose Gap. I got so many, so many parallels but we're a stick with your story, Erica. As I think about this communal process and the fact that you are employed by the MCC, which is outside, and you come on other side of COVID, what is that going to look like? What is your work gonna look like to try to do this communal…that's both on and off, the community inside and outside, the ancestors and descendants. I mean, you're teasing together like multi-dimensional work. How do you do that? How do you imagine doing that on the other side of COVID?
Erica Littlewolf: I'm not sure because what I did not realize until I didn't fly as much, at all I guess, since COVID, that my body was taking the hit. And so now that I think about it I'm like, okay, I'm not taking the hit. Like I'm not into that savior mentality.
I'm not taking no hit for no team. The other thing I think about is I don't know! And that's part of what is both beautiful and both makes me anxious. On one hand I do have a job asking me like, Erica, what's the vision? Yet, I'm living in this community that is very much in grief. I'm in an organization that says, oh, we understand, but what are you going to do with your program plans? And I'm living in a community that says, and they say it non-verbally, you know, like we're grieving. We grieve a year.
And people haven't quit dying. We're still masked, our reservations still closed down. and so the question I ask myself and I think where things are going and what COVID has done is it's like still asking me to be present...and I don't know why. I have to get comfortable with why with a period. I need to quit thinking of why with a question mark, like getting caught in that. I can still say why, but I can't get stuck there. And I think part of it also is I just need to be present in the grief with my community because we need to see who's going to be alive when the bulk of this is over.
Like we don't know what's going to be important. Maybe those things pre-COVID that we thought were important, they may not be important in a couple months because I've already seen them backtrack. I think it's just about being patient right now, which is very hard to do when there's an organization that wants stuff. And is very good at kind of waiting, but still wanting stuff. It's always been the hit has always been taken with my body and so I think right now, I'm just trying to figure out where does the hit need to be? And what is actually realistic. And now that I'm living in my community it's, to me, it's more taking lead from my community, which is just very loudly, like we're grieving.
And we're ahead of the broader indigenous community that doesn't have access to vaccines or to healthcare. And I have a good friend in the Philippines. Just returned home from the U S and they just had their first case of COVID this February. And so they're getting like their first wave.
And so just thinking about that it's going to be a long time for the indigenous community globally to recover. And so it's hard for me to think about my community isolated from that global community, because I've participated in the global indigenous community so much and we've built like these coalitions and stuff that I can't imagine that much of the work can go forward without their voices there as well. If that makes sense.
Patrick: It makes so much sense. And it ties into my last question, which I've asked all the guests on here and I can make big assumptions about what your answer might be. But as you think about your own sense of call, your own sense purpose or discernment or intention, however you want to do this, how much of what you're doing, this patience that you have right now in this moment, is driven by some sort of sense of self or intention you've set for like, Hey, I need to ground myself here. I need to listen - getting okay with this patience, and how much is it really driven by the community? And I'm going all the way back again to the beginning of the interview when you said this is a continuation of what your ancestors did, this is your rebel spirit from when you were young, from the studies that you did, all the volunteer hours you put in, and the various jobs and wanderings, how much is driven by your community - what you're in right now, this discernment period you're in?
Erica Littlewolf: I want to say it's both/and, but it's more than both/and. I feel like I don't exist without my community. All my achievements are not my achievements alone. It's my community. It's so clear to me because of COVID when I cannot figure out where I fit because so many people have died. I never knew that I was so immersed in my community after being away for 20 years, that I relied on them to tell me my age. I think this period of patience, like I think of my ancestors all the freaking time, because they would have gone through hard periods of times of massacres and famines and smallpox and all these different things.
And I don't know if I ever gave him enough credit for the healing they must have done in between such traumatic events and the patience they must have had and the willingness to wait and the uncontrolling nature of everything, you know, like not knowing if they're going to have a meal because they're looking for buffalo.
And I think what it teaches me is that even as modern as things are, we're still not that modern. It takes something like COVID to show that we're just as vulnerable as they were but we have been deceived by our technology and our electricity and our access to groceries to think that we aren't vulnerable. And so I think my patience just exposes more of my vulnerabilities and shows me how to be present each day. Like that clearness that every day isn't promised so what is your intention?
And I think from my ancestors, they had to have had that intention, some sort of intention. You always hear stories of these profound incidences they've had traveling and to me it's all a reliance on the creator and that intention and that intuition, that to me comes directly from the creator. That's where I'm at, that's what's being asked of me is to sit in that and to absorb some of that patience and that learning how to listen to my intuition, learning how to come to terms with all these different things that maybe I thought were a given. You know, like, oh, I'll get in an airplane and go somewhere and now maybe not. I really am grounded. and it really has given me space to be on the land and spend time with my dad. Spend time, more quality time with people on electronics. I feel like I've calmed my nervous system down by not being on the go so much.
And I feel like I've also really learned to grieve. I think grief is a phenomenal teacher and I realize my community is extremely gifted in grief, unfortunately. That dominant society does not grieve. Like we've had all these deaths from COVID and no one even seems to be grieving. The one thing I love about grief is her ability to just stand her ground. You could be doing something in a day and when grief hits you, she demands to be felt. And she demands to be felt in the present even though you may be thinking of the past or the future that you had planned on, she's demanding and she stands her ground and she's emotional and she don't make sense. And she's that why with the period, not the question mark.
She’s hopeless, so freaking hopeless that she makes you hope again. That's what I'm starting to see. And I can't imagine that I'm seeing anything new. I'm just seeing the story unfold that my ancestors also saw or that my ancestors left for me, little pockets of stories that I’ve slowed down enough to run into.
Patrick: Erica, thank you so much for sharing your story, for the love of your ancestors. I know mine are rejoicing that we are able to spend a little time together to have a moment to grieve together, to set intention together and being able to slow down and pay attention to what's emerging. I'm so grateful to know you because it's a word that I think so many of us, especially as we think about vocation, meaning and purpose, and the folks that we work with, it is about getting to the next thing. It's about not paying attention to your community, it's about focusing on what you desire. And I hope that this series and conversations like these are corrections to that record, that this is a communal act that it needs to be slow and needs to make room for grief.
I just love and adore you and thank you for being on the Sound of the Genuine.
Patrick: Hey, I want to thank you for listening to the Sound of the Genuine. As always, you can hear this story and so many others by subscribing to this podcast. And do us a favor. If you've enjoyed listening to this, if you've gotten some out of it, share this podcast with a friend. I want to thank my team, Heather Wallace, Elsie Barnhart, Diva Morgan Hicks and @siryalibeats, who put this wonderful episode together - just so grateful for their work.
And as always, you can find these resources and many more at fteleaders.org. We'll see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.