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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

A Lakota runner says she’s done hiding her identity: 'Why should I have to make myself little?'

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
AJ Holder stands proud at the starting point for the cross country running trail at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence.

The captain of the Haskell Indian Nations University women's cross-country team no longer feels shy about her Lakota identity. "That's who I am," she says. "I shouldn't have to cover that up to make you comfortable."

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Every morning, shortly after the sun comes up, Alexandra Holder — known to her friends as AJ — goes running on a grass trail that departs from the campus of Haskell Indian Nations University. She's training as part of the cross country team.

But she's also praying.

"My grandpa used to tell me, whenever we would go into Inipi, which is like a sweat lodge, you go in there and pray about whatever's bothering you or your family or your people," she says. "Then you could either choose to pick those things back up when you leave or you can leave it where you prayed about it and just let like the spirits handle it. So I kind of think of it like that when I'm running."

Holder will be the first to admit she's not the fastest in the pack. That's especially true now, as she gets back in shape from a lost year of training.

COVID-19 shut down the Haskell campus completely for the 2020-2021 school year: no powwows, no in-person classes, no dorm life. For Holder, it also meant a junior year without cross country.

Coaches regularly checked in with athletes via email and Zoom, just to be sure everyone was doing OK, and sent workout suggestions, but not requirements. On top of her online coursework, Holder had a lot of family responsibilities to juggle at home.

"My dad was deployed at the time," she says. "So it was just my mom and my two brothers and I. It was difficult."

At her fittest, Holder ran about 10 miles a day for conditioning. Right now, she's closer to four. But she's still happy to be back out — being the absolute fastest isn't what motivates her, anyway.

When she wears a purple Haskell uniform and runs, Holder hopes to be truly seen — in a world where stereotypes of Native Americans sometimes feel more visible than actual Native people, that matters.

"Growing up, like you see things like the Kansas City Chiefs or the Washington Redskins, stuff like that, you sort of have this bad perception of yourself as a Native person. Cause you only see those stereotypical images of yourself," Holder says. "Once you have started to see more good role models, you have a better perception of yourself. There's always younger kids looking at you, no matter what you do."

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Carlos Moreno

Holder grew up in Kansas, in a Lakota family, practicing Lakota traditions. She didn't live on a reservation, but in Lawrence. After attending an elementary school with lots of international students, near KU, Holder and her brother attended a predominantly white middle school and high school.

"My parents said once I started going there, I got more like Americanized," Holder says, laughing at the word "Americanized," which she puts in air quotes. Pressed to explain it, she clarifies: "We got more loud, I guess."

Holder says it may have looked to her parents like she fit in, but that's not how it felt to her.

"You go through days, like, comparing yourself," Holder explains. "Growing up, you kind of want to be like the cool kids or the popular kids. And so I recognized that a lot of the popular kids were skinny white girls."

The color of her skin wasn't up for negotiation, so she focused her attention on her weight. "I wanted to be skinny," she says.

Then in high school, Holder made a friend — her first Indigenous friend who wasn't related to her. Before, she mostly just hung out with her cousins.

Spending time with a new person who shared her identity, Holder began looking at herself and her culture differently. "I was like, 'Oh, it's OK to be brown,'" she recalls. "'It's OK to be Native.'"

In 2016, these high schoolers heard about a grassroots, Indigenous-led protest movement — NODAPL — to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through Lakota land, mostly in North Dakota.

"I guess I was, like, following social media, and me and my friend had talked about it, and even my mom, like she stays up to date with those things," Holder explains. "I saw what was happening, and it made me mad."

Holder, her family, and her new friend started working with a group of local activists to send food and supplies to the protesters. But Holder yearned to stand with them — literally.

"I really wanted to go because my grandpa and my grandma, they were big activists when they were younger. My relatives were at Wounded Knee," she explains, referring to a 71-day standoff in the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973, where Lakota people demanded the U.S. government make good on treaties from the 19th and early 20th centuries. "And so I was like, it's something that I need to do for my people."

Her parents seriously debated whether they should let their daughter physically participate in a contentious, and possibly dangerous, political fight. But Holder's argument about honoring her grandparents was too compelling to deny.

So over spring break, Holder got in a car with her friend and their cousin, and they drove all night without stopping.

"The protest site was actually really pretty," Holder says. "There were flags of all the nations that went there, like all the tribal communities. We went there early in the morning, and there was this older woman, a Lakota woman, cooking breakfast for people."

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

At the camp, Holder was surrounded by Indigenous people. She played handgames — a traditional pastime where players conceal objects in closed fists and opponents try to guess which hand — and sang songs.

Camping there meant stopping the pipeline construction.

"People were taking up space and standing their ground and saying, 'No, you're not going to push us around,'" Holder says, her voice rising. "You have no right to try to put this pipeline on Indigenous land where it's only going to affect Indigenous people."

Shortly after Holder left the site, law enforcement dramatically escalated their response to the protesters. "That's when it started to get kind of crazy, with the rubber bullets and stuff," she says.

Still, Holder came back to Kansas more confident than when she left.

"I think I became more unapologetically Native, because like I seen all these strong Native women activists and that, you know, they're not sorry who they are," Holder says. "So why should I have to make myself little in these spaces so that it makes other people comfortable?"

Holder is trying to be one of those strong Native women, like she met at the NODAPL protest. Running is one of the ways she does that — even if she is a little slower after her pandemic break.

Running is a prayer, after all, not just a competition.

"I really am like putting in the work and like, putting the effort to become a good runner, on my own level," Holder says.

Holder plans to stretch her final credits over two years instead of one, specifically so she can run again next year. Finish out her college career strong.

Because who knows who might be watching, and how it might change them.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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