All text and audio copyright, 2015 by the Native American Development Center ©
Sandra: Bonjour. My name is Sandra Bercier, [...] because my native name is Keeper of the Medicines. I'm an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. I currently live in Mandan North Dakota. I've lived back here in the Bismarck area for a little over 3 years but I did move here when I was 18 and I just went home for about 9 years to help take care of my mom. Otherwise, I've always lived here or I did spend a couple of year on Standing Rock as well. I have five biological children. Four daughters who are all grown up and having their own families and I have one son who will be turning 18 in May and graduating from high school. I have nine biological grandkids. I say biological because I have step kids, I have children that I've just adopted into my heart and it would be impossible to even count all of those kids.
I got my bachelors in Social Work from the University of Mary in 1985, a long time ago, and then I
earned my masters in business administration from Gonzaga University out in Spokane in 2008. Right now, I am the intern director for the Native American Training Institute. Previous to that, I was the training director. I've been there about three and a half years. Spent most of my career working with people with some type of disability, developmental disability, alcoholism, mental illness in a both private nonprofit sector and for my tribe.
Interviewer: Well, thank you for that, Sandra. Very good background and I can see how this would be very useful in the line of work that we're doing, and so we apprecite you coming here today and sharing your story with us. I know it's a humble thing to do and that just goes to show the authenticity that you have to helping our Native American people. I'll just continue on in asking you more questions to kind of share with the community in educating non-natives and also our Native American people ourselves in understanding us, our culture, our life experiences, our value systems and things and hopefully it will help other native Americans to utilize those tools and those resources so that they can achieve what they want to do in life. We'll start with your background. You mentioned that you grew up in Bismarck North Dakota for the most part of your life.
Sandra: After I turned 18.
Interviewer: After you turned 18. Okay. Prior to 18, you grew up ...
Sandra: I grew up in the country on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation.
Interviewer: Okay. Okay. I want to just to …
Sandra: I grew up on ... We raised cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, geese.
Interviewer: Wow. Your family was a farming family.
Sandra: Yeah, a farming family.
Interviewer: My husband's from Turtle Mountain too and his father, his mother grew them up that way too. I'm seeing a commonality of that, the farming background in Turtle Reservation. I don't think very many ... Well, I guess I would say none natives but including native Americans don't really know that that there is native Americans who are farmers.
Interviewer: That's very interesting. Thank you for sharing that. You grew up in Turtle Mountain all the way up until the age of 18. Can you share what that was like and then go into sharing that transition how it was different moving to Bismarck and just the differences of society?
Sandra: Okay. I went to school at first, it was my first school experience it was called Great Walker Indian School. I imagine it was a preschool but we had to take long bus ride to get there and it seem like there was a lot of us there. It seemed almost I'd had had to feel of, I think, what a boarding school would have had. From there, I went back to public school in Belcourt and we were bullied on the bus by one particular family. My transferred us when I was in 5th grade I believe to the Catholic school. I went to Catholic school through 8th grade. I loved it there. Grew up in a real Catholic family so that the school fit right in. Catholic school only went up to 8th grade, so high school had to happen at the public school.
That was a hard transition because we were used to really small class sizes. At the high school, there were a lot more people and there was kind of a competition between the Catholic school kids and the public school kids so it took a while to work through that with the kids that I was going to school with but I worked real hard on my grades. I was the oldest of six kids. When I was about 11, my dad left us alone. My youngest brother was only, I think he was 6 months old. My mom was an alcoholic or became an alcoholic after my dad left. I spent a lot of my time taking care of my brothers and sisters. I took the parent role. When my mom did sober up when I was about 16 years old, that was hard for me. I also had a baby when I was 15.
I was a very young mother. We all raised. We really all raised her, my mom and my brothers and sisters. She was just like one of the younger kids although I was responsible for her but I had a lot of help raising her. When I graduated from high school, I scored really high on my SATs, ACTs, I can't even remember what they were called then but I scored in the upper 2 percentile in the United States, so I was offered all these academic scholarships all over the United States and I chose to go to UND and I went there without my little girl. I immediately within probably 8 weeks called my mom crying so I could come home. I bummed out at UND. The transition from a small school even though Belcourt is a fairly large school, it's still small in comparison to UND.
Interviewer: That's really interesting. I had a similar experience. I had every intent of carrying on what was taught to me, go get your degree. Go to college. Go to college. With all intent in achieving, but once I got there, I was 2 months in and I was scared the whole time. I remember it very clearly. I was mostly scared of financially making it. For me, it was a financial thing. Of course, the cultural thing was all different. It was scary, and so share about that. What have helped you in that transition to stay in college?
Sandra: One of the things I think would have helped me is if I had chosen to go to the dorm. I chose instead to live in an efficiency apartment. I lived alone for the first time in my life. I slept in a bed by myself. My and my sister grew up sleeping in the same bed than when Harmony was born. She slept with me. It was really the first time I ever was in my own bed trying to be a grown up. I was still really just a kid. I would always recommend if somebody's going to go to college to do the dorm because then at least you have people around you.
Interviewer: That are encouraging, and so then it's important to choose friends wisely as well.
Sandra: Yes. Yes.
Interviewer: You really have to have your mind dead set on achieving that goal to even pick the right friends that are staying on track. Otherwise, will veer off to what we're trying to do. If we're trying to party, well then, we're going to go those friends, right?
Sandra: Right. Right.
Interviewer: Did you have transportation? I mean was that ...
Sandra: I had a car, yes.
Interviewer: You did have a car. Okay. So many are unfortunate to even have a car. Can you share even how did you have a vehicle at age 18? It's not common for the native American population, generally speaking.
Sandra: When I worked, I started working probably for the Cedar program when I was 13 years old. Then when I had Harmony, I could be on AFDC.
Sandra: I had some income. I worked. I had AFDC. When Harmony was born, found that I needed to have my own car so I had a car when I was 15.
Interviewer: And so you saved?
Sandra: I saved and then, like I said, I had AFDC which helped tremendously but ...
Interviewer: I am not familiar with AFDC.
Sandra: It's Aids to Families with Dependent Children. Now, it's TANF.
Interviewer: Okay. That goes to show ... Thank you for sharing that because that goes to show that that does help a person get on their feet. Not everybody is just using TANF just to get by and live that way of life because I think sometimes there is a perception out there with maybe more so the people who don't utilize or never utilize TANF and that it actually does help low income single parent types of families.
Sandra: Yes. It helped me get through college.
Interviewer: It helped you get through.
Sandra: Get that first degree that I got. I was on AFDC the whole time.
Interviewer: How about housing assistance? Was that something that you had ... You had an apartment so I'm just interested in knowing well ...
Sandra: When I was at UND?
Sandra: No. I don't know if my parents helped me. I don't remember.
Interviewer: Oh okay.
Sandra: The rent I remember wasn't that much. It was a small efficiency apartment.
Interviewer: You weren't paying rent yourself, so that have must have been ...
Sandra: I might have been with my TANF or my AFDC.
Interviewer: You just don't remember.
Sandra: I don't remember.
Sandra: That's a long time ago.
Interviewer: I'm kind of taking you way back here.
Interviewer: Okay. Well, that's good information. You went to college. How long did you last did you say?
Sandra: Probably about 8 or 9 weeks.
Interviewer: 8 or 9 weeks. Okay. We were about on the same page.
Sandra: Yes, then I went running home. I missed my baby. That was part of it too. I think if you do have a child, you needed to try to keep that child with you. I think if they have children in high school then a lot of times, somebody else might ... They wanted to help me. They wanted to help me succeed but being away from her was ...
Interviewer: That makes a bigger difference.
Sandra: ... so heart breaking.
Interviewer: Definitely. It is like a void in your heart the whole time. That would be hard to focus. Interesting point, so you have good intentions. It's just life circumstances can take us away from our goals for a temporary period. Let's see. You went to college. You went back home. Can you share what your experience was after you left school and you went back home to take care of your child, your baby? You're a single parent and now share what your path was like.
Sandra: All right. I'm going to be completely honest.
Interviewer: Thank you.
Sandra: At this point.
Sandra: When I got back home, I had given my auntie temporary custody of my little girl and I couldn't get it back right away. I began to party. I began to smoke pot. I really lost my way for a few months. My mom ended up kicking me out and then I lived with my mom's best friend for a few months. She kicked me out. It was a rough time of my life. I ended up staying with a family, the Lafountain family. They helped me. They gave me a job. They have a gas station. I had a job began and I kind of got my life back on track and decided to move to Bismarck.
Interviewer: Okay. By that time, you were ...
Sandra: I was 18.
Sandra: I was 18 when I moved here to Bismarck.
Interviewer: Then when you moved here, did you stay with somebody?
Sandra: There were like five of us, girls that all moved here at the same time and so we would get apartments and share in the cost of an apartment. That stayed like that for a couple of years. We all stayed together and then ...
Interviewer: Okay. It was like working and paying the apartment, pitching in, cost sharing on that.
Sandra: I went to school when I got here. I found a program that was through BSC which at the time was BJC I think. It was a secretarial certification program. I went through that and then after that, they help you find a job.
Sandra: My first job here in Bismarck was actually working for your father-in-law, Jim Davis and he was with the North Dakota Indian Education Association located out at United Tribes so Jim was my first boss over to Chutes.
Interviewer: Wow. I didn't know that.
Sandra: Yeah. I got my little girl back at that point.
Interviewer: You did.
Sandra: Once I could show that I was making money that I'd straightened up my life, I got my little girl back.
Interviewer: That is great. Okay. That's definitely showing some resiliency in that whole process because you don't never give up. I mean you make mistakes. It's life. We're human but you come back and you know, there's an internal value system that's in there that brings you back, would you say?
Sandra: Uh-hmm. (affirmative)
Interviewer: Can you share what those values are that you looking back in hindsight you had and have?
Sandra: Well, I come from a family that is really self-sufficient goal-oriented and supportive if you're on the right track. I have a bunch of aunties that have been my guides, I'll say, through my whole life. My uncles as well but my mom has sisters and we grew up real close. When I grew up, we were always taught like respect your elders. Although we didn't talk about them and say they were the seven teachings of the Anishinaabe, that is really how I grew up, to respect, to be humble, to be brave. Different things like that. My mom had already ... After my dad left and after she sobered up, my mom went to school. Got her bachelor's in ... I think she got a bachelors in teaching or counseling and she went on to get her masters. I had my mom as a role model and I just couldn't imagine not getting a better career, a better job, a better choice.
One of the things that drove me at some point was an AFDC worker who was very rude to me and belittled me. She made me so mad that I told her one day, I said, you know what, one of these days I'm going to be your boss, so you might want to think about being a little bit nicer.
Sandra: Yeah. Maybe God put that in my path. I don't know.
Interviewer: Right. It's kind of like a revelation, right?
Sandra: Yeah, yeah.
Interviewer: Really. That's a good point because we need to talk about that kind of thing a little bit, these perceptions that were just on the system not trying to do anything or lazy. Although all those negative misperceptions of native Americans and really it's the uneducated non-native American who doesn't understand the historical trauma that has been brought into our lives. We have to break those cycles. When we're in that process, we're just judged from the outside. They don't really know our intentions of getting there. It's a good point about that AFDC worker, today it would be called the TANF worker, a SNAP eligibility worker that kind of thing in today's society.
I think even including going into some of the state government employees and their attitudes, I would bring in Department of Corrections even. Their attitudes of holdings us in contempt. It's kind of the contemptuous kind of treatment that we get, and so I agree. I think we have to step up and say things like that sometimes. We're not being argumentative but we stand up for ourselves. I appreciate that. I think more of us need to do that and not just accept that as a way because we are oppressed people and we have to break that. I think if we show that we respect ourselves, that's a beginning point.
I am glad that you shared that because my hopes is to educate non-native Americans to help them understand and be a little bit more compassionate in when they serve us because we're working towards an end goal and we're trying to break these cycles but it does take time and we do need to utilize these services to do that that we're not just native Americans that are lazy, that are drunks, that are just on these negative statistic data lines. We are doing things and we have a lot of educated native Americans. But there is the stereotype and I think we're doing a good job in breaking that in today's world. If you want to add anything else to that?
Sandra: I would say that one of the ways that I found most effective in changing people's viewpoints is just doing it one person at a time. You can go to a group meeting and talk till you're blue in the face and find that things don't change. When you make friendships and you develop relationships with people of who you have stereotypes and racist, that you're racist against. I've done it myself. I'm not going to sit here and I say that I haven't had racist thoughts or done some type of discrimination. I have. I think we all do. I think we have to admit that and then we can work on it. It has to be really one person at a time.
Interviewer: I really like that and I really agree with that. Just being that good person and so instead of reacting to racism on incident of racism, whether it's directly or indirectly towards you that you respond in a way that's respectful. Otherwise, we contribute to what they already think. I know that we're prideful people and some of us lost our way even in having dignity because of it could be addiction where that's brought us. I mean if you been in to, say, the Department of Corrections system in and out of jail or just beat up by addiction and not being able to quit and you just start losing yourself esteem and you get to a point, a very low point in your life where you just kind of start believing the way people are mistreating you, that you're not worthy and all of these things.
Those are the ones I really feel for because I get it and we get it. Many of us get it who've been there and so we can treat them as a human and treat them with respect just for the fact that they're human, just for the fact not about race, not about color, just for the fact that you have a human heart and you have compassion. We need that in today's society instead of looking at them as you're bad. You're not contributing to society. Maybe not right now but maybe if we step out and approach it that way and we can help them if we have a more loving approach, we can actually contribute to helping one person at a time.
I'm so thankful that you shared that because that is what the Native American Development Center believes. That's our philosophy is that we're going to help a person one person at a time because we have all of these different approaches that are out there and they're all needed because we need them from all these different angles but what we see was missing is that just one person at a time just through love. It sounds cheesy when we say just love a person but it's so powerful.
Sandra: I always wished that people would be critical thinkers when they're in different types of settings. For example, Weight Watchers. Weight Watchers is a group that you go to to lose weight. Well, one of the things that I've realized is that when we're at Weight Watchers ... Well, I haven't been there lately but when we're there, people non-native people will be talking about how they saved their points or whatever so that they could drink on weekends and have wine or whatever type of drink and they're all laughing and they think it's so cute or whatever. I don't know. Then, there'll be a group of native people, women mostly, that if we were having the same conversation about saving our point so that we could drink, the perception of those two things would be different no matter where you're at. We would be looked at like, oh my god, you're saving your points so you can drink. The non-Indian can just sit there and giggle and laugh about it. It's those types of situations where we have to look at it critically and change how we think about one another. That's just an example.
Interviewer: There is, I don't know if you've heard of this author. His name is Daniel Goldman.
Interviewer: I am so with you. I am just excited. I did this research in here in my own personal development being aware, learning how to change my own thinking. There was a big sense of freedom when I discovered in my sobriety path, when I stopped drinking and learning that reading books, reading self help books, I'm involved in the Christianity way so I read the bible but there was a discovery that you had to be mindful of how you think. It's assessing our own thought process and challenging it to change it. You take the self assessment for example of how you think. You really just start monitoring your thought process and your interactions. There is power in that because then you start discovering that, wow, I really just thought negative for a long time and not really paid attention to that and realizing that the power comes in and the freedom comes and realizing that it starts with your thought process. They call that today as mindfulness.
Sandra: Mindfulness, yes. Michael Yellowbird does a lot of work on mindfulness.
Interviewer: Really. Okay. I'll have to get in touch with him because that's a huge part in this discovery process and then you have to be able to be mindful of your own self thoughts to be able to start changing them to good thoughts which results in positive attitude and behaviors.
Sandra: I'll tell you a quick story that made me realize how where I was sometimes in my own thinking and that it really opened up my eyes. I was at a pow-ow down in Fort Yates one day with my children. They were small then, 9, 10. There must have been five of us, five of them and me. We're sitting in one of the stands there and I had just enough money to buy me and my kids each one of those freshly made lemonade drinks that were oh so delicious. We're sitting there in the hot sun drinking our lemonade and I see one of the men that they talk about used to hang around in what they called Cirrhosis Park. They're chronic alcoholics. They're homeless. They live outside winter and summer.
He's sitting down the bleachers a little bit and he's looking at me and my kids over and over and over and I was like, oh man, he's going to come up here and he's going to ask me for my lemonade. I just know it. Here he turns to his friend and I noticed then that he has 8 quarters in his hand and he