The Big Balancing Act

I was born in Fort Yates, North Dakota, on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, in an Indian Health Public Hospital. I am enrolled with the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. Like many American Indians, my father is a veteran of the Vietnam and Korean wars. We were very poor, which is also typical of most reservation residents, but it wasn't because my parents didn't try. It was just the way things were.

As an adolescent, I became involved in gang violence. In fact, many of my friends entered the Spirit world thanks to drug- and alcohol-related violence such as automobile accidents, suicides, homicides, and even fatal health problems. Although I have never lived in the inner cities of America, from what I've read, my experiences were much like those of the youth who grow up in those areas.

Still, I did well in school, even though I didn't do much homework. I even took home first place in two local science fairs, and second place in another. Science was pure and true, unlike most things in my life at the time. One of my early mentors, a young science teacher at my school, believed in me like no one else. I am sure I broke his heart when I became pregnant at 17 and barely managed to graduate from high school. I was married to the child's father soon afterward. From there, I wandered from job to job, working as a housekeeper in a casino one month and as a seamstress another month. I know what it's like to live in a slum and spend my last dime on diapers for the baby.

In 1996, I decided to give college a try. I enrolled in Cankdeska Cikana Community College on the Spirit Lake Nation of North Dakota. It was there that I first learned about American Indian history and who I was as a Dakota (Sioux). I began to gain confidence in myself and my abilities. After graduation from Cankdeska Cikana, I worked as a grant writer for the tribal radio station. In the year and a half that I worked as the principal fundraiser for the nonprofit radio station, I was able to raise funds amounting to just over $400,000. Although working as a grant writer was a rewarding experience, I deeply missed the study of nature and life.

Currently, I am a senior biology major (chemistry minor) at the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks. My primary reason for selecting UND was that it came looking for me. From my experience, it was the only university in the area that seemed interested in and committed to recruiting American Indians. There were several American Indian staff, faculty, and advisers that could serve as role models for me. And I received financial support in the form of scholarships and grants.

When I first began my studies at UND, it was the first time I had lived away from an American Indian reservation. I suffered from culture shock for months. Everyone was always in a hurry. No one was related, and the "Indian" accent (that I didn't know I had) was now embarrassing. As a science major at UND, I had the opportunity to participate in a field experience through the science teaching department at a local high school. The experience was disappointing. A few high school students used racist derogatory terms in reference to me, in my presence. I had never felt so isolated and vulnerable. I felt like a foreigner in my own country. However, my science adviser at the University of North Dakota provided me with the support I needed. He showed me how to handle the situation with calm dignity and walk away from the experience with my pride intact. The whole experience helped me realize that I don't have to be ashamed of who I am.

Oftentimes, society in general is anti-Indian. And even though there is quite a bit of controversy over the "Fighting Sioux" logo of UND, there are many people of all colors and creeds here who are above all of it. I believe there is hope for understanding and racial harmony at the University of North Dakota because the logo is no longer concrete. People are beginning to listen to one another and speak the truth, using patience and rationale, even if it hurts.

Since I enrolled at UND, many individuals including relatives back on the reservation, sheltered Caucasian classmates, inspired advisers, and curious professors often ask me, "How do you do it?" To be more specific, how do I balance raising three young children, paying bills, coping with married life, and handling the disciplined work of my studies all at once? One might think that just being an American Indian woman in the sciences would be enough of a struggle. Some even say what I have managed to do in my 26 years is impossible.

The first step toward a promising future is believing in yourself and realizing that there are more possibilities than impossibilities. Now, I do know the rules and implications of the scientific method. In that realm, I realize that there are some events and possibilities that are less likely to occur than others. But I must still hold true to the potential of all things. My oldest son is autistic, and he is the miracle who taught me this lesson, just by living his daily life.

I would be lying if I didn't tell you that time management and good organizational skills are the key to balancing my family and educational responsibilities. Like many working mothers, I have become the queen of multitasking. Did you know that one can wash dishes, cook dinner, talk on the phone, download lecture notes, and study the effects of interference and electric field vectors (thanks to a few refrigerator magnets) all at once? With children in school and day care, and a husband who is also a full-time college student, it is critical to stick to a schedule.

All of the advice I've spouted in these last few paragraphs is perfectly useful and quite general. Unfortunately most of my trials and tribulations come from another factor: I am half Dakota (Sioux). I was able to survive my many trials and tribulations because of my belief in Wakan Tanka (God). I walk the Red Road. It is a belief among the people of the Seven Council Fires (the Sioux nations) that to become a whole person, in tune with nature and the Sacred Hoop of Life, and in order to be holy, one must walk the narrow way--the road less traveled. It is a decision and a commitment to separate oneself from destructive practices, to walk righteously with the creator, and do what is best, as a servant, for my people. Although this road is hard on the traveler, the prophetic teaching of it tells us that there will be counselors and guides along the path, who also travel the Red Road (whether they realize it or not) and act as mediators, mentors, and supporters as they are needed.

One of my most surprising findings here in this society is the number of non-Indians who travel the Red Road and who have served as mentors and counselors for me at just the right time. They honor me and my people through their virtuous character and their desire to preserve the sanctity of the human race.

My destiny is along this narrow way. When my husband and I return to our home reservation we will be a part of the mending of the Sacred Hoop, the enlightenment and healing of the ancients, through their descendants.

Which brings me to my final point, the most essential key to success--you have to want it REALLY bad!

* Ruth Hopkins (Cankudutawin-Red Road Woman) is a biology major (minor in chemistry) at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. In addition, she is a member of the Golden Key International Honor Society Chapter and a writer for Native Directions magazine. Ruth is working toward becoming a secondary education teacher. For further information, please send e-mail to