by Maggie Boyle Judi
Sheldon Spotted Elk is a warrior. He is a descendant of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, and the son of Navitt and Maxcene Spotted Elk, a Northern Cheyenne and a fifth generation pioneer.
These days, he fights for the indiginous people of this great country. He fights for reconciliation from the atrocities committed against these people and the native lands that were taken.
He fights for their well-being in the present, he encourages them to have pride in their culture, communities and in themselves.
Of his work, Sheldon says, “Its all about all of us having the courage to engage, not only the courage to speak the truth, but the courage to listen to the truth.”
In 1999, Sheldon Spotted Elk was the Steph Curry of the San Juan Bronco basketball team. His prolific 3-point shooting skills were developed starting as a young kid under the tutelage of his Dad, Navitt Spotted Elk, who always told him, “You can’t ever give up because you come from Dog Soldiers (Cheyenne Warrior Society) and they never give up.”
Sheldon also remembers time spent with Thomas Morris, who worked for many years at the White Mesa Rec Center, coaching decades of young boxers and ball players. Morris took his team of Ute players, and one Cheyenne who hailed from White Mesa and surrounding areas, to play in games all over Utah, and the Four Corners area.
Spotted Elk remembers the times with that team fondly and tells the story of the biggest loss he ever suffered as a basketball player, bigger to him than losing the 2A state championship game or any college game he played in. In his words, “our team was pretty good.”
Thomas Morris took them to a tournament in Green River where the young hopefuls found themselves in a game against another team from Blanding, an all-star team, and there were no natives on that team.
So, says Spotted Elk, “We had all this cultural pride that we wanted to win this game so bad.”
It was a back and forth kind of game, with a close score until the bitter end when the Blanding team pulled away and beat Spotted Elk’s team by a few points.
“I still kinda take it as the hardest loss I’ve ever had on a basketball court,” he chuckles 20 years later, realizing the irony that a sixth grade basketball game could illicit such disappointment.
“It’s so funny, when I look back at this, because I ended up playing basketball with those Blanding kids, and football with those kids. Some of those guys ended up being my really close friends,”
He says he thinks that perhaps the very sport that once divided them, helped them to realize that, “You’re a human being too, you know, you bleed just like me, you put on your pants just like me, and all that hatred and anger we had towards each other was unjustified.”
He goes on to put it in present perspective by saying, “...learning that lesson as a young guy it is valuable to me now in what I do, trying to build bridges into these communities where maybe there are fences… and work with people who maybe think just a little bit different than you, and see the world just a little bit different than you and being accepting of that is what I learned and it’s really stuck with me.”
Spotted Elk builds those bridges these days as the Director of the Indian Child Welfare Program for Casey Family Programs in Denver, CO. He helps state courts and agencies to be in compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). ICWA was enacted in 1978 because of the high removal rate of Indian children from their traditional homes and essentially from Indian culture as a whole.
Before the ICWA, as many as 25 to 35 percent of all Indian children were being removed from their homes and placed in non-Indian homes, with presumably the absence of Indian culture.
Sheldon and his wife Callie recently moved their two sons Isaac and Roman, from Ft. Duchesne, UT to Denver, where Sheldon works for Casey, which is the largest non-profit organization working to reduce the number of children in foster care.
Casey Family Programs hopes to reduce the number of children by 50 percent in just five years; a staggering feat, it seems. But when the blood of Dog Soldiers courses through your veins, nothing seems impossible.
“Our goal,” says Spotted Elk, “is to build communities of hope, where children and families are empowered and safe.”
We hear that word a lot in our culture – “empowered” – but to Sheldon it means,” effectuating positive change within Indian country. He explains, “It occurs organically when tribal sovereignty and culture are broadly acknowledged.”
Part of his job with Casey involves a contract to host tribal and state judicial roundtables. “These roundtables,” explains Spotted Elk, “bring tribal, state and sometimes federal judges in to build relationships, learn from one another and understand their roles in complying with ICWA , or other laws that require inter-jurisdictional collaboration.”
He is passionate about putting the culture back into the way Native Americans govern their tribes. Culture is the identity of a people, and allowing that to be a part of the justice system gives people a sense of ownership.
Spotted Elk illustrates it this way: “There is a nexus in Indian communities of (Tribal government) cultures who have more culturally relevant laws, and economic development within their communities.
“When a group of people is allowed to embrace who they are, the natural result is a confidence builder, a paradox of who you are and hope for who you can become.
“You have more investment in your community, you have more investment in how things happen in your community and the community begins to thrive.”
During the 2014 Utah legislative session, Spotted Elk gave an impassioned speech as he presented testimony on the Senate floor on a joint resolution on recognizing the atrocities against the American Indians.
He speaks of his great grandfather, a two-year-old boy named Spotted Elk, who survived a bloody and horrific holocaust of his people at the Sand Creek Massacre. His life was saved by a sister who hid them in the bank of the creek on that freezing cold November morning as their parents and siblings where slaughtered.
Spotted Elk speaks of the need for a national museum of the atrocities the indigenious people endured in our past. He says of the resolution, “It’s not completely about a national museum, it’s about the beginning of reconciliation of the atrocities and today’s traumas of brothers and sisters that we may live in harmony.”
He goes on to say that he believes this resolution “has the power to transform our identities and shift our paradigms about how we talk about American Indians and how to improve our humanity, ‘lest we forget.’”
Sheldon ends his speech by speaking a phrase in his native Cheyenne, which says, in effect, “We all have struggles, all of us. What’s going to define us is how we deal with those struggles.”
He ended his speech to applause as Senators rise from their seats in reverence for the many Natives in the room and the powerful words of the great grandson of Spotted Elk. The resolution passed.
The once prolific shooter (I bet he can still sink a trey) is now a prolific advocate for Native Peoples the world over. He tells a story from history that is the essence of what his life’s purpose.
A few weeks before the death of the Great Lakota Chief Sitting Bull, the embattled warrior found himself imprisoned by white men, and Indian agents alike, and forced to sit and begin “negotiations” on a treaty that would rob the Lakota and its tribes of homelands in the Black Hills area of South Dakota.
Despite his back being against a wall, despite the knowledge that he would probably not live long and that His people would be forced to leave their ancient homelands behind, being robbed of their lands and rights, he said, “Let us put our minds together and see what life we make for our children.”
Sheldon Spotted Elk, posterity of Dog Soldiers, uses that mentality of never giving up every day. And because of his passion for his forebears and their struggles and successes, for his own posterity, the future is bright.
(Out of the Blues is a periodic article that explores the interesting lives of prior residents who grew up in San Juan County.)