Kunsi's Feather

By Sarah Wheelock (01BA, 04JD), 2020 Write Now Finalist

The Iowa Memorial Union had become Emily's favorite study spot. She desperately needed to bring her grades up to maintain her scholarships. When her grandmother died recently, Emily bombed her finals. She dreaded returning home to her reservation as a failure. Numb from hours of study, she rose and stretched her legs. Emily decided to jog the stairs to get her blood pumping.

Emily had never been to the top floor of the IMU and decided to explore. She let her fingers graze the wall and felt her fingers catch on something. A panel in the wall swung open revealing a narrow space with a ladder at one end. Her curiosity piqued, Emily entered the tiny space and the ladder began to glow, revealing writing:

Fate will lead you here
A place where you must leave your fear
To come back to this time and place
Your true self you must face.

Raising her brows, Emily began to climb. A moment later strong hands gripped her and hoisted her onto a sandy hill. The sun was setting, and the smell of brine hit her unexpectedly.

"Are you ready to go? If we don't get the message to the docks to send medicine and fresh water, more people could die," said a young man with long dark hair.

Emily was confused. Where was she? "I'm sorry, but I don't understand."

The man gave her a piercing stare. "Come on, Thelma. We all agreed that we would do anything necessary to continue occupying Alcatraz until the feds agree to our demands."

Emily looked around. People were moving between a dilapidated building and tiny boats down at the shore. Handmade signs declared, "THIS IS INDIAN LAND."

"Did you call me Thelma?" Emily was the spitting image of her grandma Thelma, her "Kunsi" in the Dakota language. Emily blinked. She had seen this man before. And this island. She felt weak as she recalled travelling with her grandma to see Alcatraz Island, where Kunsi spent time in the early 70s as an activist.

This man was no ordinary person. It was John Trudell—a great indigenous intellectual, who became known as "The Voice of Alcatraz" because of his radio broadcasts from the island. She blurted, "I can't get into those boats. I'm terrified of the ocean!"

John said, "But you've done this dozens of times! The coast guard blockades are making it harder every day to get what we need to stay here and our contact at the pier will only talk to you." Emily balked. His eyes narrowed, John whispered. "You're not Thelma, are you?"

"No, I am her granddaughter."

John sucked in a breath. "I foresaw this in a dream. The spirits have brought you here to help us reclaim our land and rights. You must complete a task.

"In my dream, you forgot who you were. You were wandering in the darkness. You cried out for help. Your Kunsi answered your call. When she died last winter, she joined me in the spirit world. She asked me to help you find what you seek. In exchange, you must deliver a message for the occupation."

He looked at her gravely, "If you fail this task, your grandparents never meet and you are never born. We do not get the supplies needed to stay on Alcatraz long enough to convince President Nixon to change federal Indian policy and save tribes from termination. Now tell me what you seek."

Emily said, "I want to figure out where I belong. I never fit in anywhere, not home or school. I don't know who I am."

He gripped her arms. "Don't you understand? Without you, we lose. Without you, our future is gone. You are Dakota no matter where you go or where you are. Claim your identity and help lead our people into a future where the government cannot erase us! You are the key." The edges of his face blurred. His dark eyes bored into hers as he faded into nothing.

Emily dropped to her knees. She had never felt that being Indian had mattered in this way or that by denying that part of herself, she would be part of the systematic elimination of her people. She splayed her hands wide and looked at them. She felt them, electric and alive, and finally felt the power that she contained. She closed her eyes and saw her ancestors standing before her, nodding with encouragement and hope. She was not alone after all.

Emily thought of her Kunsi. How she had prayed for her guidance when she received her first semester grades. Somehow, this was the test that mattered. As she walked forward, a little girl handed her an eagle feather, saying "Kunsi said this will keep you safe." Emily stepped into the boat. Terror seized her at the thought of crossing the bay in a small boat, but she held on tight to the feather and hummed Dakota songs Kunsi had sung to her when she was little. She would carry the message.

Hours later, Emily returned to the island where she met an older, wiser version of John Trudell, complete with his signature darkened circular sunglasses and hair shorn to his shoulders. He said, "Remember you are never alone. You are who our people need."

She closed her eyes. When she opened them, she was at the base of the ladder. New words shone there:

You are enough.
You are here for a reason.
No one can erase you
So long as you live with conviction.
All things are related.
So it was and so it is.
The power of your ancestors
Lives on in you.

A tear slid down her face. She knew who she was.
Downstairs, she found an envelope atop her notebook. Inside were a single eagle feather and a note:

Remember. ~J.

She would remember until her last breath.

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