Podcast from Intelatin: Twila True and the Black Hills

Oct 19, 2015
10:01 AM

This month at Intelatin, I am featuring Twila True of the Oglala Sioux in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Music for the podcast is performed by Robbie Robertson, Xavier Rudd, Ana Tijoux, La Yegros, Ceci Bastida, Lila Downs and Mercedes Sosa.

For my audience, I don’t need to get into a long history lesson about settler colonialism in the United States and how it oppressed the Great Sioux Nation. The history was worse than you could ever imagine it. The history did however touch me in January of this year, and so I resolved to dig deeper.

A successful woman by the name of Twila True lives in Newport Beach, California. She was featured in the Orange County Business Journal for being a conscience voice in the business community of an unconscious region. I called her up and told her that I would like to interview her for Intelatin. She agreed, and I sat down with her and a homeboy named Forrest. She told us her story, and we’ll dig into that in a minute. Before that, I want to tell you why Forrest was involved in the meeting.

Forrest represents a company called Roofs Across America. They purchase real estate nationwide and then they broker the transaction. To understand why I connected Forrest and Twila True, understand this: Twila True has a nonprofit whose mission is to improve the lives of the individuals living in ghastly poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Just down the hall from the nonprofit is her for-profit business unit that purchases single-family residences nationwide and then brokers transactions. Twila True would like to double the number of properties in her portfolio. Forrest could get her those properties. Everybody would gain in the transaction. If Forrest could build her the properties in Pine Ridge, Twila could create a much needed housing infrastructure in Pine Ridge where currently there are 17 individuals living per housing unit. I wondered: Why don’t we all join powers and create this housing infrastructure in Pine Ridge?

Sioux South Dakota Black Hills

The starting point was to hear Twila True’s story. Twila is an Oglala Sioux tribal member from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, part of the Lakota tribe of the Great Sioux Nation. She was raised by her grandmother, a very traditional Sioux woman named Lena Bartlett. She has an English last name because she was raised in the time when the children were removed and given English last names. If you look at her birth certificate, it was revised at the age of five, and the topic made everybody uncomfortable, so the family just dropped the issue. Twila doesn’t know much about her background. She doesn’t know her parental father. Her mother was pregnant at 15 and had her at 16. She says this is not unusual in her culture. Twila’s mother struggled with alcoholism, but with her grandmother, she was fed and clean and felt supported. The Sioux believe that the entire community — not only parents, siblings and other relatives, but every tribal member — are all family.

At an early age, Twila moved to El Monte, California, and began a new life with a stepfather of Hispanic descent. She considers this man to be her father because he raised her with love and kindness. Economically, they struggled and Twila dreamed of having financial stability. When she was old enough, she began to take accounting classes at Pasadena City College and she worked in the accounting office of an aerospace company. Twila was taken in by the family of this particular business and earned their trust by working hard and controlling the finances tightly.

Twila’s next job was equally successful. She was hired as the first employee at a startup making Christmas products. They grew to be 50 employees, and she became like a daughter to the owners of the startup. After three years, she hit the ceiling, and when she was 25, she joined a company that was owned by a private investor. Her salary increased, and she joined a staff of about 500 as the lead manager of the accounting team. About six months in, she went into her first manager meeting. Twila was really nervous because this was no longer a family-run business with the intimacy and dynamics of such a business. This was a major corporation. She immediately noticed that among the managers, she was a different color, gender and age. All of the individuals in the room were 50-plus, male and white.

The president of the company said that they had to make their emergency list. Who would assume responsibilities in case of an emergency on a Sunday night? It was a list of who to call first, second and so on, and in the room of 12 executives, Twila was volunteered as fourth or fifth on the list. The operations guy sitting across from her laughed, looked at Twila and then said, “What is she gonna do? Why put her on the list?” Twila felt the blood flow in her head, but she decided to make a chess move. About a year later, he lost his position and Twila took it.

She worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day and made herself irreplaceable. Twila was honest, dependable and motivated. Two years later at 27, she became the president of the company and the investor that owned the company asked her to sell it. Twila sold the company to Teradyne, and she began to get big offers from big companies in New York. Most of them wanted her in sales, and she thought it would be easy to repeat this pattern. Twila was dating a man at the time. On a night out together, she was telling him about her plans to go to New York, but he wasn’t sharing her enthusiasm. At the time, this man was starting up a businesses, so he countered Twila and asked her to not go to New York, to marry him and to work with him in his company. Twila said yes, and a few days later, they moved to Hong Kong.

Twila and her husband lived in Hong Kong and Taiwan for 14 years, growing and nurturing the True Family Enterprises. Today they have 50 employees and she has four children: a boy who is 14, a boy who is 12, a girl who is seven, and an adopted girl from Pine Ridge who is now two years old. In January 2015, Twila started the True Sioux Hope Foundation. The statistics of Pine Ridge are worst than most Third World countries, and it’s approximately the size of Connecticut. The three pillars of of the mission of the foundation are:

1) Emergency need with the very young and the very old. We want to start with a one-house orphanage to help lower the infant mortality rate. Emergency need with seniors and getting them heat during the winter.

2) Sustainable living

3) Long term education. High School. The average now on the reservation is 6th to 8th grade.

So, now, let’s widen our focus from the individual scale of Twila True to the Great Sioux Nation as a whole. I asked my homegirl Ruth Robertson at Last Real Indianswhat are the most pressing obstacles in front of the Great Sioux Nation today?

The obstacles facing the Lakota, in Pine Ridge and on other Reservations, are interconnected in a vast web of colonial oppression. The root causes of our devastation fall under historical trauma and imposed poverty. Historical trauma has been caused by centuries of genocide, the forced removal of our people from their homelands to reservations, and the federal policy of termination and assimilation, where our religious beliefs were outlawed and our children were stolen and shipped off to boarding schools to be indoctrinated with christianity and colonial white supremacy and to be turned into a labor class. Native children placed in boarding schools were beaten for speaking their own language, given English, Christian names, had their hair cut (long hair has cultural significance to the Lakota), and many were sexually abused. Children died from malnutrition, exposure and were even murdered at these boarding schools. Survivors were left damaged, culturally disconnected, and often had developmental and emotional problems, as they were separated from their family unit at a young age. These people became parents and grandparents to the current generation, and passed on some of that dysfunction.

With the culture and belief system outlawed, stigmatized and hidden, some Lakota loss their sense of identity and didn’t learn healthy coping mechanisms. Enter substance abuse, and health issues related to it. Lakota are impoverished because the Black Hills and all its resources were stolen from us by the United States government. This has been established as legal fact by the Supreme Court of the United States when they ordered the government to pay the Lakota for this theft. The Lakota refuse to take the money because they want the land. The land is more valuable to us and is our birthright.

Lakota were moved to the reservation, in an isolated place with little resources and no economic opportunity for development. This led to high unemployment rates. The government also owes treaty obligations to the Lakota — health care being one — but the Indian Health Service is notoriously underfunded and mismanaged, and health care is sorely lacking. Lack of health care across the board leads to low life expectancy rates, sometimes as low as 46 years of age on Pine Ridge.

Because of this imposed poverty, Pine Ridge is plagued with many issues that are related to low socioeconomic status: violence, high crime rates, suicide, etc. We have Lakota who have managed to hold onto our traditional culture and belief system, and also those who are educated. But the system itself, one of government bureaucracy and a broken tribal government system that was not ours to begin with, often impedes progress.

What happens to the role of the investor who wants to invest in Pine Ridge? 

Unfortunately, money is a necessary evil for us because of the system that has been imposed upon us. Economic development in some form is needed to liberate us. In the realm of prophecy, my wicasa wakan (medicine man) Chief Arvol Looking Horse (Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe) has foretold that the Lakota will survive, that we will remain long after this Western civilization that currently occupies our land has passed. That’s why we must hold onto ancient traditional teachings that show us how to thrive on the land: our medicines, our lifeways, our star knowledge, etc. We believe that our sacred rites keep us in balance with the universe. They empower us as well.

Really the best thing for us is a complete dismantling of white supremacy and this false form of government that has been forced upon us. Getting the Black Hills back in Lakota hands is something I’m actually involved in. We aren’t ready yet but we are setting up the means to take them back responsibly. The process started in 2012 when my organization, Last Real Indians, raised enough money to buy back the sacred Lakota site Pe’Sla. We also began to reorganize the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation).

After we went to war with the U.S. government and were subjugated through the breaking of treaties and massacres, along with the establishment of prison camps called reservations, we were separated by our various tribal bands. That’s why you see Lakota, Nakota and Dakota reservations scattered throughout the northern plains. We need to reassemble in order to make decisions about the Black Hills and other issues our Native Nation faces. We need to set up an infrastructure. This will happen.

Part of the difficulty is the Lakota’s view of land management is different than that of Western society. In order for us to take back the Black Hills, we would have to fit our method of management into government regulation.

A one-time disbursement of funds would not be helpful in the long run. What is needed is something self-sustaining. The investor would need to work with other groups and individuals for it to work, on the ground. Anything would help, really, but to make a long-term impact, management and cooperation are necessary.

Sioux South Dakota Black Hills

I have a picture of the Black Hills, a real photograph from Instagram taken this year: rolling green pastures in all directions and an interstate highway running through the grasslands. I imagine myself there just as I imagine myself in Guanajuato or Veracruz. Given a job that would allow me to earn a living to pay for a mortgage, travel a little bit and eat clean food, I’d go there tomorrow to get away from Southern California — assuming there are no jobs because, in reality, there are no jobs. What has to happen if I want to create my own job in or near the Pine Ridge reservation of South Dakota?

When I moved to Vermont in 2000, I stayed in a beautiful horseland hotel for a week while I looked for long-term housing. I found an apartment at the Inn of Montpelier for $500 per month: Hardwood floors, tin ceiling, claw tub, kitchen, living room, bedroom and green room, plus a view of the Onion River. It was the most beautiful home that I have ever rented. I worked in high technology and earned close to six figures. On the weekends, I traveled around the state and into New Hampshire and Canada. It was, without a doubt in my mind, the most peaceful experience of my life. I’d love to live that way again.

I have a plan for Twila True, who is in the fortunate position of having funds available to her. I have Forrest who is in the fortunate position of having resources as well. I have Ruth Robertson and Jacqueline Keeler, who know all the media entities in Indian Country. It seems to me that there is a way to break this cycle of poverty in Pine Ridge regardless of whether or not the federal government wants to be helpful or if they want to continue to be a hindrance. There are less than 30,000 individuals on Pine Ridge today. The opportunity for liberation is right in front of us. Like my homegirl Mercedes Sosa says, “Todo cambia.”

Join me next month on Intelatin, and I thank you for listening to our podcast.


About Intelatin: The radio broadcast for Intelatin was started in 2012 at California State University Long Beach as outreach for their majority Latin@ campus. The broadcast aired on KBeach Global and KKJZ 88.1 FM. It podcasts in 2015 on iTunes and Audioboom. The next Intelatin episode will be released at the end of November. Intelatin is managed by Sergio C. Muñoz. Connect on Twitter: @Intelatin.