Mandy Foster belongs to the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe. She works as a Cultural Interpreter at at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
I was born on the prairie on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in the middle of a blizzard in January. Growing up in South Dakota was good. Once you manage to survive that many sheer days of freezing cold weather you become a stronger person; at least for my ancestors, I know that is true.
The prairie is magnificent. Sometimes you get this feeling that you are the only person in the world, and that can be intimidating — although it isn’t quite as intimidating as moving over a thousand miles away to live in the nation’s capital. I never imagined I would be living and working in the D.C. metro area. On a recent trip back home, I found a book that I wrote in the 3rd grade. In it, I wrote, “I want to live in Maryland when I grow up because that’s where the President lives.” I don’t even remember writing that, but it’s funny because it happened, granted I was a little off on where the President actually lives.
Education has always been important to me and it is a big part of how I got where I am today. Just ask my dad about my first day of kindergarten when I came home crying because I didn’t learn how to read and you can see its value to me. I’ve always had support from my family to do well in school. When I graduated from high school, I received my first eagle feather and was given a star quilt my great-grandmother had made: both symbols of honor in Lakota culture.
I chose to continue my education at Black Hills State University. My grandfather was exceptionally proud, he truly valued education. It was there that I really began to understand the complexity of the history of Native people in America. I learned about issues concerning the history of Native people that had never been discussed before in formal education. I had many realizations during this time that gave me a desire to help people understand the history and lives of Native people. I earned my second eagle feather when I was granted a B.S. in Sociology with a minor in American Indian Studies.
I first came to NMAI after I graduated as an intern in the Visitor Services department. I was amazed at the museum. What I loved the most was that it is a living cultural museum. I returned to work here as a Cultural Interpreter so that I can take what I have learned and share with people the important history and presence of Native people in the Western Hemisphere.
I am rewarded every time a museum visitor expresses to me that they have learned something new that changed their perceptions of Native people. Education within our communities and outside of them is what can move us forward as Tribal Nations. I believe I have a responsibility to my family and my ancestors to make sure that people know the story of who we are and where we come from, even if it’s a prairie a thousand miles away.