A Native American Muslim’s Story
by Lois Stands-Ali
All Praise is due to Allah, the Creator who guided me to ISLAM—the Way of Life—the Red Road—the Straight Path.
I began my journey on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, in one of the communities called Oglala. When I was born, my earth parents went to the city and left me behind with my father’s’ parents. My grandmother was a mid-wife, a spiritual woman, and we attended many ceremonies and pow-wows, and I witnessed other spirits begin their journeys. I was taught to respect MITAKOYASIN (all of my relations) and to know that I was LAKOTA(the people). My grandmother shared many words of wisdom. As a child I did not understand all that she shared, yet throughout all these years, all that she told me has helped in every way you can imagine. One thing that really stuck in my head was when she told me: “There are WASHECUS (white people) out there, another world, one day you will have to learn to speak their language. Learn everything about them. Learn how they think and to out-think them because one day they will try to kill you.”
My grandmother told me that TUNKASHILA (the CREATOR Grandfather, The Wakan Tanka, The Great Holy One, Mita Onje Ate) made many people, all different, but he was the same Creator of everything - of the sky people, water people, earth people, fire people, the four-legged and the two-legged.
I remember laying my head down on her lap and she would tell me stories, and I’d fall asleep and when I woke up she would still be talking. At that time, I did not realize she was giving me the best form of education anyone can give. Now I realize that my ENA (mother), the only one I knew, was preparing me for the outside world. One day her journey ended, and when I saw her lying in this box asleep, I knew that she would be back. One day, as I played outside she came walking up to me and said :you will be WENYA CHANTE WISHAK UHA (Woman Who Has a Strong Heart).”
She told me that her spirit’s journey was not over. One day my earth mother and father came and got me from my grandfather and took me up north to my earth mother’s reservation called Standing Rock. But, the government was taking one child from each home to send to boarding schools so at least one would get “educated” as they called it. At that time, there was what they called The King Alfred Act in effect, which allowed them to take Indian children and teach them to assimilate to the white culture. There were many boarding schools, some run by the government and some run by missionaries. I was one of those taken to the boarding school.
I feel now that the Creator allowed all of this to happen to me, and that the Creator was shaping and molding me to be a strong spirit. For nine years, I was in a boarding school. Out of 500 Indian children taken from all reservations, there were about 50 of us who had been raised by our grandparents and we weren’t allowed to go back home during the summer when school was out, when the other children raised by their parents were allowed to go. I knew those of us who were raised by our grandparents were different. They were harder on us, and we were stubborn and refused to speak English. We were beaten if we were caught speaking our own language, the only one we knew, but of all the confusion, my ENA’s words came back to me about having to learn the WASHECU’s language. I knew that my ENA was a wise woman and for whatever reason I was to learn, but that still didn’t keep me from resisting change.
As a child, I experienced much abuse - physical, mental, emotional and verbal but today I can look back and thank TUNKASHILA for protecting me when I spoke the truth and was punished for it. My spirit only became stronger. I knew I was LAKOTA and I decided to get smart and like my ENA said learn everything about the WASHECU, especially how they think. Those of us raised by our grandparents were kept separated from the others a lot of the time. We were given extra duties, kept busy, but we would pray together (and have to sneak to do even that) because we knew there was power in prayer. Sometimes our brothers and sisters would tell on us and then we would be punished.
We were even forced to attend different churches. We were made to sit in the back and not with the washechus. The so-called Christians would say: Love your neighbor, we were that, yet they didn’t love us. As children we were treated very special by our elders, yet the WASHECU was different, they had no respect for children and only wanted to make them just like they were: to speak like them, to think like them, to dress like them.
One day, I met some Mormons, who called us Lamanites. I knew that they really believed in their Book of Mormon, so I consented to go to a Mormon school. Yet that religion and the people in it did not respect my beliefs even though they looked at us Indian children blessings from God, but they tried to force me to respect their beliefs and accept them. These Mormons said us dark skinned people were God’s chosen people, so I asked why our Black brothers couldn’t hold the Malkeztic priesthood (one of the highest calling in this religion), and they said the Black people were a cursed people. I instantly knew that the Creator wouldn’t curse any of his creation as he loved all of us the same, and we were here for the same reason.
I listened to these preachers and my spirit would listen for a message from the Creator, but there were very few. So, when I was asked to bear witness that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the LDS church was the true church, I asked my spirit and my spirit spoke out and said: “No, He’s your prophet, not mine as I believe the White Buffalo Calf Woman was sent to my people, as I know the Creator sent one to every people as the Creator would not withhold a calling from any of His creations, and so I cannot go against my beliefs.”
I was sent back to the reservation because I couldn’t bear witness as they wanted me to. I know that many of the Indian children bore witness, but again, those of us raised by grandparents were different and more stubborn although we were punished for it.
When I was 16, my earth father said I was to marry a man who would take care of me. He was right, I was given the material things, yet I wanted much more, and it wasn’t in this material world. But, where was I going to learn the truth? I was still resistant and looking at the character of people and the path they walked. I believed in the Red Road and tried to stay on it by doing good, by being generous, by praying to the Creator and asking for guidance and protection. I always prayed for a helper even though I was married and was blessed with being co-creator and bringing four beautiful spirits into this world through my womb to begin their journey.
One day I was so miserable, I knew I had to seek the truth of why I was here. My marriage was not a good one, and I decided to leave and begin my journey. The sad part was that my children chose to stay with their father as he was a good father to them even though I did not think he was a good husband to me. I went to the big cities. I met other Indians who were lost. I saw how the outside world was corrupt and the values and morals were nothing I wanted to be a part of, yet where was I to go? I continued to pray for guidance as I moved from one end of this continent to the other. I moved far from where there were Indians from whom to get knowledge and learn wisdom. Away from the purification lodge, the ceremonies, the pow-wows, the traditions, the culture. I felt alone except for the Creator always with me.
One day in Atlanta, Ga., I heard about a Black man who was a minister that was going to speak at the Omni Theater. I decided to go. I stood in line to buy my ticket and everyone was looking at me as I guess I did look different with beaded earrings, a drape scarf over my head, a long dress. Then as I waited in line, I heard the intercom come on and this man start to sing.
My spirit let me know instantly that this was a prayer and I became reverent and listened. I didn’t understand the language, yet it seemed familiar, this song. I felt something like lightening coming up from mother earth, all the way up my back and out the top of my head. I wanted to cry. My spirit was feeling happy. It was being fed by this song, this prayer. I later learned this was the ADHAN (the call to prayer) and it was followed by Al-FATIHA.
I asked someone who the man was who was speaking, and they told me he was a Muslim. I wanted to learn more about who these people were with this powerful prayer because I didn’t experience these feelings except in the purification lodge, at the sun-dance and ceremonies. Over time, my excitement grew as I finally found some believers and began my introduction into ISLAM. All praise is due to Allah!
Now, when asked if I am Muslim, and knowing it means “one who submits to Allah, the Creator” I feel pride when I say Yes. I can bear witness that there is no God but Allah, the all-in-all, and that Islam is the way of life, and Prophet Muhammad is the messenger. I know that the Creator would send his true religion meant for us on our journey in this life to all people, the same as the White Buffalo Calf Woman came bringing the PEACE-PIPE through which our prayers were sent, and the way of life, THE RED ROAD, THE STRAIGHT PATH to my people. Then there is the Qur’an, the book of truth, as we Lakotas didn’t have a book, except inside us.
Now, I can be among brothers and sisters who believe as I do. And, most of the time I feel at home among my Muslim brothers and sisters, as I look most of the time through spiritual eyes. But, sometimes our cultures and traditions get in the way although I have left behind those traditions that didn’t apply to Islam and the Red Road. Other traditions are so similar to Islam that I’d like to share them to understand and be understood. We also pray to the East. The tipi doors were faced to the east and when log houses were built the doors faced the east. We believe in one God; in respecting yourself by the way you dress and carry yourself. We pray daily, especially the FAJR (morning) prayer as UMPA comes (the dawn of the new day) and wash the body, keeping it purified.
As Allah puts Muslims in my path, I know I have a family, and yet there are times this world and its control through traditions can still have a hold on us, my brothers and sisters, and can dictate to even those of us who say we are on the straight path, and cause us to look at each other on the physical, material plane.
For example, if we say we are seeking a soul mate to fulfill the other half of our religion, and are given the opportunity to meet a good spirit who too wants to fulfill the same purpose and we judge through the eyes of this world, not looking through spiritual eyes at the content of the character and the spiritual principles followed in daily life that is said.
our religion says that a woman cannot marry a non-Muslim. Recently I met a Muslim brother and mentioned marriage, and the first thing this brother looked at was that I was an Indian and our different cultures were not compatible. A sister said, “Perhaps it would be better if you could meet a Native American Muslim.”
“Where?, ” I asked.
The woman said that Allah has guided me to become will not bow down to man himself or to traditions. The man Allah would want me to share my life with would also bow to the Creator and only the Creator!
I recently read The American Muslim, and my spirit urged me to contribute my experience as a Muslim. If it will be the will oft he Creator, I hope other Native American Muslims will also share with the whole Muslim community as I feel it is important to help our brothers and sisters gain an awareness of Native Americans.
However, I would prefer to be simply called a MUSLIM as when we separate ourselves in this physical world, it also separates us in other worlds.
Note: Since this article was published, Sister Lois has married and has moved to Ohio.
Originally published in the print edition of The American Muslim as a special issue December 1993