Joe Donnell

Aug 28, 2015

All text and audio copyright, 2015 by the Native American Development Center ©

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Lorraine Davis:           Perfect. Today we have the stories of resiliency of the Native American people. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Joe Donnell:                My name is Joe Donnell. My Indian name translated I guess into English is Leader Charge from the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota. I still live there currently with my wife and my 2 children. My son's name is Vincent and my daughter's name is Annette. They're ages 5 and 6. I currently have a earned Master’s degree in theology from Continental Theological seminary in Brussels, Belgium where I studied.

                                    My current job is executive director of an organization called Warriors Circle which has been in existence for little over a year now. It's a leadership development organization. We work primarily right now with Native men from various tribes around the U.S. And Canada, work on inner healing, self-discovery, spiritual foundation, and career development, career placement, and just really helping Native men get to a place in their life where they can get past some of the historical trauma and different things like that, and then get them to a place where they want to pursue something with their life, and contribute and get back to their communities, and just helping [00:02:00] them along that process to get to the next step in their life.

                                    I grew up on 3 different reservations. I was born in Sisseton at IHS and that's where I'm enrolled. I moved to the Yankton reservation where my father worked for Indian house service as the director there. Then my high school years I moved to Pine Ridge. That's where I finished up high school and then went on to the United States Air Force.

Davis:                          You talked about growing up in Sisseton, Yankton, and Pine Ridge. Do you want to share a little insight of what it was like growing up in each of those reservations?

Donnell:                      Yeah, when I was in Sisseton and then in Yankton too, I get similar feelings. It's more of a mixed community. You have a lot of racial tension in your face at all times. That was an interesting place to be, but yes, the typical ... on all 3 reservations where I grew up ... the typical pattern for me growing up was just pretty much a party life. That's kind of what me and my friends were into, and also sports. That's what I was into, basketball. I went to state my junior year, and then played year of college basketball afterwards. That's kind of the 2 things that define me in the way I grew up.

Davis:                          You mentioned Sisseton and Yankton. How about Pine [00:04:00] Ridge? What was your experience there?

Donnell:                      Pine Ridge, when I moved there, it was really, really difficult to fit in there at first. There was a lot of people trying to fight me.

Davis:                          Oh. Why were they trying to fight you?

Donnell:                      It's just going there is really isolated and if you're from the outside, everybody knows it. Also I'm mixed, so fair skin. That was another one of the things that I had to overcome until I found out that I have cousins everywhere. Once I found out some of the guys were my cousins, we ended up becoming friends. Then I was in, so it was a lot better.

Davis:                          Did you find yourself having to prove yourself? Did you actually have to get into some fights to prove you're not scared?

Donnell:                      Yeah, I kind of had to just stand up for myself. I had actually a couple of elders that cooked there. At the school they just spoke broken English, but they were always trying to look out for me and my brothers. They were just always encouraging us and trying to make us laugh. That helped out a lot.

Davis:                          That made you feel more accepted and comfortable there?

Donnell:                      Yeah.

Davis:                          You talked a little bit about how you were defined or how you defined yourself; sports, basketball, partying. What would you say ... or I should say ... what were some of the values that you were taught, the good things that you were taught growing up?

Donnell:                      At a young age, when I was a young child, my dad was an [00:06:00] alcoholic early on and then he had a spiritual awakening, I would say, and really had a couple of visions while he was walking to the bar. He just had an extreme turnover of his life to God. That shaped our family. The values that we had, a lot of it was from church. Not just from church, but from actually encountering God, I would say, and just knowing that God is real, and just to have that ... encouraged to have that relationship where it was a real thing.

                                    That was the value system. Also in school I also was honored to receive a lot of traditional teachings and stuff also about understanding ourselves, understanding creation, and teachings on the circle and different things like that, the medicine wheel and different things about our people. There was a lot of value there too and about respecting everything that's living, and all those things. I would say I had a well-rounded value system that was in place. Whether or not I lived by it until later in life, that's another story.

Davis:                          That would be the spirituality aspect. How about things like marriage, family, parenting, that kind of stuff. Work ethic?

Donnell:                      My dad grew up really in poverty out in one of the districts in Sisseton. He was able to come up [00:08:00] out of that and then he really did a high leadership position. I forgot the question.

Davis:                          What were some of the values in regards to marriage, family, parenting, and then work ethic?

Donnell:                      My dad would take us to haul bales for farmers. He just ... any kind of odd job. Take us up to the grain elevators, we'd scoop grain and he would work alongside of us just to teach us work ethic, just to ... I think for him growing up the way he grew up, he wanted to make sure that we were going to get out there and make something happen, and we were going to work. That was good.

                                    Marriage, it is really a strong value and just watching how my parents, they stayed together, and it was lot of safety there, and it was just really high value on that.

Davis:                          Family? That would go hand in hand? Marriage, family, the covenant of marriage and family.

Donnell:                      Yeah.

Davis:                          And safety, is that right?

Donnell:                      Yeah. I had a lot of friends that had gone through divorces or just lived with one parent or another parent. You could tell when they brought them around, they really looked at us and we were, "This is different," to have that strong family. Not saying it was perfect, but it was just a really something that stuck with me.

Davis:                          Now talking about ... and you kind of talked about this a little bit ... being Native American, what's your perspective on being Native American just in general?

Donnell:                      Well, [00:10:00] I think this is a big topic, to look at this whole identity issue. There's people who have endless papers and books and all this stuff. For me I think there's a lot of ... it has to do with our ties to the land. It has to do with how the creator chose and the wisdom to put us where we are, and to identify with that which is around us in creation. Seeking to understand who we are, who we were is important.

                                    I guess for me it's more than just going to a pow-wow here and there, but it is trying to live the values. Then also to try to understand the wisdom, tradition that we come from, because I think once any people lose the wisdom that they have and the values that they have, things go down pretty fast. I think that's one of the challenges, to reach in the next generation and just for understanding where we come from.

                                    How can you have a healthy self-esteem and stuff like that if you don't understand that. To me those are the important things. Language, which I'm still struggling to learn. These are things that are important.

Davis:                          I think that such an important factor to bring up is that self-identity, bringing in that positive self-esteem. Even today at [00:12:00] 40-some years old, we walk around not knowing our culture, our cultural heritage, some of those traditional ways. I think that will be really valuable for us to bring an Indian center here in our communities off the reservation. Even on the reservation there wasn't maybe enough exposure of focus on that area. Not everybody has access to that as their parents and so on. Very important.

                                    Growing up you mentioned your father was like a teacher for you, taught your values. Your mother too. Was there anybody else in your life that taught you values and other things, culture?

Donnell:                      Yeah, I guess, one of my basketball coaches was Dusty Lebow, he really gave you a sense of being proud of who you are and where you come from, and just that warrior identity. I always got that feeling that you don't have to put your head down, you don't have to be ashamed of who are you. You can pick you head up and be proud of who you are as a Native person. That was something that was a really good mark in my life, to realize that.

Davis:                          Would you say that that boosted your confidence, knowing that somebody you had that support of; mentor, coach, teacher.

Donnell:                      Yeah, that was one thing, and then I think it's one of the other things is that often times, I’ve worked with youth a lot over the years. Usually it's the friends that end up being the influences. That was a good thing for me and it was also probably [00:14:00] not so good thing, that I ... We have a tendency that we want to go to someone we can relate to. Those are the other influences in my life. There was both good and bad with that, but that was probably primarily where I took most of my egging, most of my insight or whatever from, is just from my friends and what we were all dealing with.

Davis:                          That's very ... Whether they were teachers or they were modeling something to you, influencing you. That's a good point. Would you say that the environment has a big factor, just the environment itself, what kind of environment you live in? Off the reservation, on the reservation, which reservation, plays a factor?

Donnell:                      Yeah, I think environment. Like one of the mental health specialist in Sisseton, I was talking to her and she said, "Environment is everything. We know we've dealt with some foster kids and different stuff," and she said that's pretty much the deciding factor. I would say I have to agree with her on that, to say that also ... and I was a substitute teacher ... you could see what was coming out of the kids based upon what they were experiencing at home.

                                    The more you got to learn about their situation, the more you seen it reflected in their behavior. A lot of the behavior problems were just a tension issues where they weren't getting the attention that they needed from the people they needed it from. So they were going to do the bad behavior to get attention, until they figured out that, "You know what, that doesn't matter." When they find out that you actually care and stuff, then they start to [00:16:00] settle down.

                                    Environment, it's huge, and especially when the community would go through a hardship. You could feel the weight of that and the impact of that. One example is my brother, we were there during a time when the suicides were really bad. I just remember seeing empty desks because of suicide, and what that does to the whole environment, atmosphere of the school, and the community especially.

                                    A lot of our communities are not very big at all. So that's one of the things we needs to look at in the future, is we're going to need a generation of people that can stand up and make the hard decisions to change that atmosphere and environment.

Davis:                          Exactly. I totally agree with you on that. As a child growing up, you got exposure, you got a good perspective of a variety of things. Can you tell us about your personal journey, just through your adulthood, low points coming through to your high point in life.

Donnell:                      I think one thing that a lot of people don't want to talk about is traumatic experiences they've gone through. It's kind of taboo'd, especially in our communities, to actually speak up about things like sexual abuse and different forms of abuse and stuff. I had a traumatic experience when I was young. The best way I can describe it is that I felt like this cloud of oppression came over me ever since that incident in my life.

                                    I would say that the majority of my drug and alcohol use and all that growing up, and just wanting to stay high and to stay drunk, was stemming from that, of trying to [00:18:00] mask the pain from that one experience. You really have to put on a good face in the community and you don't want anybody to know that this is the real you, when you lay your head on the pillow at night, when you're feeling depressed. You just have to joke around and we're good at having humor to mask what's really going on.

                                    There's a lot of us dealing with a lot of things. That was the mark from my life until the age of 24, when I had my spiritual awakening. It was in my fifth year of the air force, and I just all of a sudden just felt like giving up on life, and just got really low ,and just really depressed. I just said, "Forget it. I don't care what happens to me." I started to use drugs and ended up ... some of the people I was with got caught, turned me in, and I ended up getting a year in the brig.

                                    That was a year of really reflection, but that was the year I had a power encounter with Jesus in my cell, where he revealed himself to me in a really powerful way. Up to that point I really was rejecting Christianity because of the history that of our people. When that encounter happened to me, I knew that I couldn't deny it. What happened was peace came over my soul for the first time. That was a huge awakening for me, that brings me to what I'm doing now, and actually having 2 visions that showed me what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life.

                                    I love it that our people are people of vision. We believe in that. These are 2 powerful visions that I had, that were just like we're sitting here doing this interview right now, it's just as real as [00:20:00] that. It's just really awesome to see that 9 years later, that everything that was shown to me in that vision is coming to life. It's just amazing and I have just great hope for our people to just rise up and to do great things.

                                    I think one of the awesome things is that we have the creator fighting for us, and that's the most important thing. He's the one who can bring true justice. That's what I see happening, especially with the guys I'm working with. To see them walk out of their pain and their sorrow, and just to rise up and to be leaders, and just with confidence and not to be afraid, it just shows that how much hope there is, and just what's happening.

Davis:                          You mentioned 2 visions. Are you able to share exactly what those 2 visions?

Donnell:                      Yeah. One vision ... the first vision I had, I was standing at just the time of prayer. I was taken ... I don't know if you would say ... it was like everything in the room ... there was other people in the room ... but all of a sudden no one was in the room with me. This giant screen comes out of the wall like a movie picture. I see my life all the way from the traumatic experience I had, all the way growing up and all the heartache and all the pain, and I could feel it as I was watching it over on the screen.

                                    It just brought this immense sorrow over me. Then I heard an audible voice of God talked to me and said, "You see, none of this stuff is wasted because it's already broken." He said, "I'm going to cause you to heal your people." I was like ... I just stayed there for 2 or 3 hours, and I just was weeping uncontrollably, and I didn't [00:22:00] have any control over it. I was just there. I don't know who else was around me, but that was my first vision I had.

                                    About a week later I had another vision, where the same thing happened. No one else was in the room with me, but this time I was standing in the center of a circle. I looked all around and I could see different tribes. That's all I knew, there was different tribes of the indigenous people of this land. When I looked in the people's eyes, I could feel the pain they're feeling in my soul.

                                    The voice came again and said, "Now I'm going to send you out to heal them." I didn't really know what that would look like or how it would happen. I started to go to school and try to prepare myself for that. The way it actually happened is pretty amazing, because the way that I've been taught by the Holy Spirit to help people has been to go into places of trauma in people's lives and to go into areas where they're being held with their emotions and all this stuff, and to just lead them through this process of prayer that will bring total freedom from whatever's holding them back.

                                    If it's a traumatic experience, that experience is healed, and they don't have to feel the pain of it any more. This is part of that vision. Along with that came the instructions that I will be someone who will raise up leaders who will go in and be able to help heal the people. That's where Warriors' Circle came, and even the name "Warriors Circle" came, as a revelation from God, that he was [00:24:00] ... and it's an important teaching on the circle ... that he was going to gather the people together in a circle and he was going to heal and mend that which has been broken.

                                    We're seeing that happen now on a small scale, but it's going to be huge and it's going to touch I believe all of Native America. I believe it's going to be part of healing this land and even blessing the people that have turned around and been the oppressors maybe, or been part of it, or been related to, or however you want to look at that whole thing, but to bless everybody in the land because we're all sick.

                                    We all need healing, especially when all the atrocities were committed on this land. It's not just our people who need the healing, it's what's going on in the world right now. I think that we can make a big difference.

Davis:                          You mentioned healing. What's your focus? You've mentioned a lot of different things, but let's talk about the specific one you mentioned, which is healing. You mentioned earlier about generational healing or ... I'll let you explain it.

Donnell:                      Yes. One of the things that we talk about when we're going through the healing process with someone, is things that are ... or cycles that are passed down generationally. These become what I call strongholds. There's a spiritual dimension to it, where there are evil spirits that will actually torment people that have gone through long patterns of pain and trauma. Even with some of the young people we've prayed with, they're actually the one who have attempted suicide [00:26:00] but actually survived, they will actually describe the spirit that tried to make them commit suicide.

                                    There are a lot of strongholds that we deal with, that stay within a family and their cycles. One of the things that we do is we invite Jesus just to break those things that are holding, that are cycles that go round and round in people's life.

Davis:                          Wow, that's pretty powerful. You mentioned some of the work that you do in your visions. What would you say, what do you give credit to? What brought you from where you were ... you mentioned the addiction and prison ... what brought you from where you were to where you are now in life?

Donnell:                      I would say the best way I can describe it for those of you out there listening, is a close walk with the creator through Jesus, through his son, which for those who believe upon Jesus, he says that his spirit comes to reside with us. It's the spirit of the living God that lives inside of me, but also that guides me, and that gives me the power to help people. That enables me to do what I do, and that give me the virtues that I need, the humility and the things I need to do to not live for myself, but to really just lay my life down for the people, and not to bring attention to myself.

                                    That's the main factor that changed everything. One of the things is that with the amount of drugs that I did, the [00:28:00] hallucinogens that I did, that I should be clinically brain dead. My mind was totally messed up. When I had that encounter with Jesus, that's really what happened is that my brain was even healed, so that I could do and study and go to school and go through my Master’s degree. Now I'm looking at pursuing a PhD program.

                                    For me that's what it is. It's not religion for me. It's not just Christianity or it's not just church. It's a real relationship that's living and that guides my everyday life. Just to see when someone gets their healing and gets set free from something, to see a smile on their face and just hear them say, "I haven't been free from this for 10 years," or whatever, and now they're finally smiling, it's worth it. It's just amazing to see that and just the results of them not going back into it, and just staying free from it is just amazing.

Davis:                          Wow, that's powerful. That's what we need more of today. More exposure to your line of work. When you were experiencing some of those challenges, addiction ... you mentioned drug and alcohol addiction ... what is that mindset? You mentioned first of all ... let me back up ... what brought you to the addiction was actually the trauma prior to the addiction.

                                    I think there's some people who've never been addicting, whether it's alcohol or drugs, don't understand why can't you just stop. Can you elaborate more on why that addiction is so powerful, and why it's hard to just stop using?

Donnell:                      When you have [00:30:00] a traumatic experience or you have something that's happened like that, it's kind of ... The way I would describe it is that it replays over in your mind, over and over again. It doesn't just go away. In the moments when you're not high or not on drugs, it's really strong and you're really forced to think about that pain and that what you've gone through, all of the things that come with it.

                                    It's not just the one thing that happens, but then it's the guilt and the shame even though you didn't do it. It's all these other things that are coming at you that you just want some freedom from those thoughts and from that depression and all that. You get a temporary high to get you off that. I think that's for me that's why I stayed high and I just wanted to keep going down that road of, I guess, self-destruction. I didn't really care about my life after that certain point.

Davis:                          Wanting to be medicated, wanting those feelings of guilt, shame, all of those negative emotions to just go away, and the only way to do that is just to get high?

Donnell:                      Yeah, and I think the only thing that can truly being ultimate healing, or not just coping with it, because I lived like that for a while where I would just try to just suck it up and cope with it, but to actually get your healing, I believe it really takes a connection to the creator. He's the one who created the universe and everything it is, and he's the one who knows how to fix us.

                                    For me that's been the most powerful and effective way to get healing and to stay free. Not only that, but now not to be so self-consumed with my life, but to turn around and say, "You know what, I'm going to make this about helping other [00:32:00] people and trying to get this message out to as many people as possible." I've prayed with a lot of elders who have gone through boarding school stuff. I've prayed with veterans who have gone through PTSD and seen them healed.

                                    It's just so sad that someone would have to live all the way till they're 70 years old and carry something from their childhood all the way through, and for them to be living in the first place, it's a miracle. A lot of people are walking around with 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, up to 10 traumatic experiences that they're dealing with every day, and rejection and the breakdown of the family.

                                    If you grew up fatherless, it is a huge, huge thing that needs to be healed. It can impact so much areas of people's lives, because we are created to have certain things from both sides of our parents. Really what the boarding school and the breakdown of what happened to our people, it dismantled everything. You're dealing with multiple issues. If you're dealing with rejection issues, usually it has to do with the nurturing stages, growing up. If you're dealing with fear, a lot of the times it has to do with a time in someone's life where they weren't safe.

                                    There's just so much to this, but I would say about 80% of a lot of the things that people carry ... and this is what I was carrying ... is that people that have ongoing dysfunction in their life, it has to do with forgiveness. Forgiveness breaks the chains of the things that happened. When I chose to forgive the person who hurt me, and I released them and I turned them over to [00:34:00] the creator, because the creator can bring the greatest justice.

                                    We can try to bring justice ourselves, but it's just only going to hurt us. It's like a poison that stays with us. When we forgive and we turn that situation over to the creator, what happens is that he will that in his hands and deal with it, and we can release it and let it go. Then all the depression and all that stuff, I simply just tell it to leave because it can't stay there no more.

                                    The reason it could stay there was because I had unforgiveness and it allowed these other things to attach to my life. Once I forgave, then the depression and the anxiety and all these things left. It's just forgiveness is such a huge thing. I could talk about that probably for about 3 hours, but it's just so liberating to forgive. It doesn't mean that you forget. It doesn't mean that what the person did to you is not wrong. It doesn't mean any of that.

                                    It just means that I'm choosing not to stay a prisoner because of what somebody did to me. I'm going to forgive them and release them, and let the creator deal with them, so I can move on with my life. That is such an awesome message and that's so powerful in and of itself.

Davis:                          I think you're right. We don't hear enough of that message. That's the message we need to hear on an ongoing basis. For some of us, daily, for some of us, incrementally in a day.

Donnell:                      See, that doesn't mean that I don't stand up for justice. I'm just as much of an activist as a lot of activists are. I still will stand up for the justice issues, but what forgiveness does is it allows me not to be controlled by anger and bitterness and all the things that go with it, so I can think when wisdom, more clearly, of how we're going to see this justice come to be. If you have all this bitterness and anger and unforgiveness in your heart, in your [00:36:00] soul, it will keep you from really getting to the place that needs justice.

                                    That's the way I look at it. It doesn't mean I've stopped fighting for my people. I will always fight for my people, but it's just the nature in which I will do that is going to be through an attitude of love rather than anger and bitterness.

Davis:                          That's such a huge, huge part of what you're saying is problem solving. You can't think about problem solving if you're just stuck about the emotion of being angry, and being focused on how you can fight back in a way that ... I guess, I don't know if I'm articulating that right, but ... you can't really move forward and try to problem solve if you're just still stuck in the past, is what I'm trying to say.

                                    In summary, how would you explain the way you live life today?

Donnell:                      I look at life a lot different. I look at it as being life, as before it wasn't ... what I was going through before wasn't living, but now I tend to enjoy the smaller things in life. I tend to just enjoy to get on the level with my children and look them in the eye, and get down and play with them, and enjoy that so much.

                                    It's like wow, whoever thought there could be this much fulfillment in playing with your kids. Just the smaller things. I like to hunt and fish. All the things that I feel like all them years I lost, it's just become [00:38:00] such an enjoyment with me and I don't have to be high or anything to try to enjoy those things. It's just amazing.

                                    I think when you have a relationship with the creator, you actually start to enjoy the things, the reason why he created those things was for his own enjoyment. We were created for his own enjoyment, for a relationship, for connectivity that we could have. When you have that relationship ... For me my eyes have been opened to enjoying and seeing things through another way, which just brings this deep satisfaction and joy into my life.

Davis:                          You know what's interesting, is you really can't experience that. You can't enjoy all the little things if you haven't been saved. Would you say?

Donnell:                      Yeah

Davis:                          Because there's something that needs to happen, that cloud that's over you, it's still got to be removed before you can actually experience that. Is that right? Is that what makes it spiritual?

Donnell:                      Yeah, I think the light has to be turned on, because what happens is that it's basically walking around wandering in the dark. Until that light is turned on, until that liberation happens, until that freedom happens, otherwise I was just talking about what I believed. Did I really ... was I really believing it because it was real to me? Probably not. That's the sad part, is that there's a lot of people walking around and I was one of them.

                                    I'm by no means better than anybody but I was walking around lost in the dark. Yet I had my values and I had these things I believed, but when the light got turned on, when I actually [00:40:00] had the encounter with God, that's what changed everything and that's what I believe is going to change everything for whoever wants that. It's just going to be amazing to experience that.

Davis:                          Definitely. Ending here, what is the message that you want to leave the people listening? What do you want to make sure that they end up taking with them?

Donnell:                      I would say ... I was listening to someone talk one time, and they said, "Basically if people's memories of the past are bigger than the future, the past will always control the future." I think we're living in a day ... You hear a lot of 7th generation talk and different stuff like that ... I think we're living in a day where we can embrace the past, we can see what happened. We can make sure that in the future generations, we'll do our best not to let it repeat itself.

                                    Really we have to embrace and we have to put this word out in front of us and keep pursuing it, and that word is "future." We have to have a future, we have to look into the future. We have to realize that just like the circle, if there's ever going to be change, if there's ever going to be a moment in history where things begin to change, it's going to happen from inside the circle, and it's going to go outwardly, like the center point of the circle.[00:42:00]