top of page

Coming Home to Self: Lead for America Keynote Speech

Niyat Ya Wapitnu.

My name is Star Woman.

I am a Lumbee and Black woman from Lumbee/Cheraw territory known as Pembroke, NC formerly known as Scuffletown, NC. My mom is a Jacobs from “Hog Town” or Fairmont, NC. She comes from a family of tobacco tenant farmers. My grandma’s cousin was the firekeeper. My mother taught me to question everything and the teachings that were preserved by my ancestors. My great-grandmother knew herbs, medicines, and she was a praying woman. We are in the East Direction. The direction of tobacco and the direction of first contact with European colonizers on the East Coast. During the Termination Era, our leadership at the time changed our name to Lumbee to account for the amalgamation of tribes that fled to the swamps of Robeson County to avoid genocide and removal with the Lumbee Act of 1956. We are survivors of genocide, slavery, and Jim Crow.

My father was originally a Leek from Pittsboro, NC. My grandfather is from Gary, Indiana. He had 11 brothers and sisters, ran track at Johnson C. Smith, and attended NC Central for law school. He was a Black farmer. He was Bobby Leek, but he changed his name and my father’s name to Abdul Ghaffar upon his conversion to Islam in the 1970s. He wanted to choose his name instead of taking the name of his ancestors' slave owners. Both of my grandparents' families were well educated, during an era when schools were still largely segregated-- they found a way.

These are my people. This is who I come from.

As an advocate, I fight for the inclusion of non-federally recognized tribes in legislation, Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, and Black and Indigenous Solidarity. I share resistance content on a personal blog that addresses social justice, lateral violence in Indigenous communities, finding common humanity between marginalized populations, and misconceptions about Southeastern Indigenous culture and origins.

I have a masters in Physiology and Biophysics with a concentration in Integrative Medicine. I still reside in Lumbee/Cheraw territory, and recently founded Good Medicine Woman LLC for research and consulting. I am the Primary Researcher, Graphic Designer, and Artist for Breaths Together for a Change- an initiative I began working on to complete a graduate practicum at Georgetown University. My practicum entailed working with a small cohort of Alaskan Natives on using meditation to heal historical trauma. We look at bias, bigotry, and hate as a disease and are looking at creating holistic interventions using Indigenous-centric meditations to reckon with white supremacy. Our model looks at healing historical trauma, but also stopping perpetration.

BTC Perpetration/Trauma Healing Graphic.

Today, I look around and see a room of cycle breakers, dissenters, system challengers, innovators, and freethinkers.

I want to start with a quote from a poet by the name of Yung Pueblo, who some of you may be familiar with from social media. In his poetry book Inward he says,

“The world itself is currently shifting from being ruled by the fear of ego to being liberated by the love of consciousness; what we face internally is a microcosm of what humanity faces globally-- this is why growing our self-love is a medicine for our earth.”

As we all experience this paradigm shift through Lead for America's platform, I ask us to always remember that when the problems get too big to grasp tangible solutions to look inward, because the answer is in self-love and the love we have for ourselves serves as a model for how we can love others.

I spent a good portion of my life trying to rediscover what it meant to love myself. I thought that I could find gratification in society’s very shallow definitions of success. In pursuit of these accounts of who I was supposed to be by society’s standards, I lost myself and therefore lost my sense of purpose-- my sense of grounding.

1323 and counting. The bodies of Indigenous children are finally being exhumed from near these Catholic Boarding Schools in Canada and the US. I find myself in existential conversation with other Indigneous people I met online at a national economic development conference for Indigenous business owners at RES 21 in Las Vegas last week. I have a glass of wine in my hand and my colleagues hold non-alcoholic beers in their hands. We discuss the role that social media and the general media has played in serving up our deepest traumas on a platter. I find myself conflicted about the impact of movies like Indian Horse, which gives an onscreen account of Indian children being abused, beaten, and murdered by Catholic nuns and priests. The story develops into a boy becoming a hockey star, but I couldn’t get that far.

I watched with my hands over my face, my heart racing, and trying to hide my tears from the people sitting next to me on the plane. I turned the movie off.

Wind River had a similar impact on me. It’s a story about a woman being assaulted by men occupying a man camp to build an oil pipeline through Arapaho territory. The FBI is brought in to investigate her murder. Although the perpetrator is brought to justice, I wouldn’t call it a happy ending.

Both of these films are intended to create a visceral impact on their audience-- however, impacted communities, families of victims, and survivors of these atrocities are revictimized and retraumatized by these onscreen accounts of historical and collective trauma. This also applies to police brutality against Black Americans-- Hollywood exploits and profits from BIPOC trauma.

For some white allies these films serve to appease the guilt they feel from what their ancestors did, yet neglect to show the mutations of these direct actions of racially motivated violence into current manifestations of perpetration that continue the cycle of systemic oppression in marginalized communities.

People view these films as a check box of allyship against the powers that be.

I’m conflicted because I want to support these stories being told and represented in the media, and in some cases the BIPOC storytellers that create them, but I also don’t want my body to relive the accounts of my ancestors nor the vicarious collective trauma of my relatives.

My friends and I discussed the duality of this dilemma. Social media contributes so insignificantly to movements for justice and sovereignty. It’s a tool to spread awareness, but we have to be cautious about becoming complacent after resharing or reposting about issues with no follow up. Our solutions have to be more than capitalistic retribution. We need cultural shifts. We need revolutionary love. We need divine action.

Last week, I found out that I got rejected from medical school for a second time after being waitlisted for three months. I was with my partner at Dunkin Donuts ordering coffee when I saw the email. I was dejected. Our coffee total came out to $7.77. My partner smiled at me and put his arms around me and said isn’t that a good sign baby? Completion. That’s what I had been taught the number 7 meant. This pursuit in my life has come to a well timed halt. I cried, but only briefly, because for the first time in a while I felt free. I was no longer confined to that outcome, and I released the attachment to that path for my life. For I had put my all into both applications and held back nothing. During my track days, I would say I left it all out on the track.

A few days later I was surrounded by Indigenous entrepreneurs talking about collaborations that were rewarding, revolutionary, and fulfilling. Our generation has completely rejected set conventions-- we challenge the status quo and are finding other paths to success while simultaneously challenging systems of oppression.

Upon self-reflection, I asked myself:

“How could I spend so much time teaching people about Indian Boarding Schools and what they did to Indigenous children while simultaneously trying to conform to be an ideal applicant to an institution that is structurally designed to kill my spirit?" I got physically ill at the thought of my dissonance when I spent a good portion of my advocacy criticizing others complacency.

I thought that infiltration would be my big contribution to the revolutionary cause, and it still may be for others--- but not for me. I had the blinders on, but now I can run free like a wild pony. I was so attached to this outcome that I didn’t realize that I would be metaphorically shackled and bent into conformity. I wouldn’t have the range I actually needed to make the changes that I want to see from within these systemic structures. But from the outside, the possibilities are limitless.

My Northern Cheyenne sister, Cinnamon Spear Kills-First wrote a beautiful poem that goes:

I am not my thoughts

I am that which has thoughts

I am not my feelings

I am that which has feelings

I am not my body

I am that which has a body

I am a spirit

I am that which has limitlessness

The progression of this life cycle for me has gradually moved from constricted-ness to liberation-- individually and collectively.

For a long time, I needed external validation about my identity-- especially as an Afro-Indigneous person from a Southeastern Woodland tribe. I sought validation through what society deemed success through academic and athletic feats.

When those things stopped coming so naturally or took a turn towards failures, I couldn’t wrap my head around putting my all into something and not getting the outcome that matched the level of effort I put into it.

I was puzzled and frustrated. I became depressed. I needed to succeed because people were watching and judging. I had to impress them with my accomplishments or I was worthless. I see the error in that thinking now. Unhealed people will view you as they view themselves.

But when I turned Inward-- courtesy of Yung Pueblo’s poetry, I realized that the only validation I needed was my own.

The chains and shackles fell off of my psyche and I became free to truly experience life and in that I found appreciation for not only the successes but the character molded by failures-- or at least what I had been conditioned to see as failure. Failure is actually very subjective.

But Failure holds hands with Freedom. We need to be free to be happy. We need to be happy to serve others.

So I started to take time to explore who I am or who I was before I was tainted by society’s conditions for living the so-called American Dream.

And I found her.

She was there all along.

She was occupied.

Distracted by all of the things she had been told she needed to be to make a change.

She was dormant, waiting to be reborn and re-emerge as a powerful force to be reckoned with.

She needed to create and I found her frail from starvation.

She needed a bigger canvas for broader brush strokes.

She was imbalanced.

She needed structure, but not so much that she couldn’t bend the scaffolding.

She needed to remember how to let go of all the things that were no longer serving her.

Relationships, friendships, paths that corroded and stole from her spirit and left her empty and breathless.

After finding homes in other people, places, and institutions that brought me to these conclusions, I could finally come home to myself. I could share these lessons of self-reflection and awareness with my family and then my community. The hardest healing to do is the healing closest to home, but when I get overwhelmed I go Inward and I rest. My mentor Tommy Woon and his wife Thea say that, “Rest is also an act of Resistance.”

I leave you with this quote from Valarie Kaur, author of See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love,

“Today I remember all that is beautiful and good and worth fighting for. Today I remember that the labor for justice has gone on for centuries before me and will go on for centuries after me.

Today I remember that I am not alone - that if millions of women are listening to the wisdom within them too, and still choose to return to work, then we will usher in a new era - where women are believed, where women lead.”