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Arts & Life

Good Neighbors: Robert Swaney-Bordeaux and finding identity through poetry

Robert Swaney-Bordeaux is a poet who spent almost all of his life disconnected from his cultural identity being Native American and a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

“I grew up just a couple hours east of here around De Smet, Lake Preston, South Dakota, with my mom's grandparents,” said Swaney-Bordeaux, “so I'm a South Dakota kid, tried and true. My mom's non-native, my dad is Sicangu Lakota, but I didn't connect with my dad's family until about a year ago. “

Growing up in a small town like De Smet, Swaney-Bordeaux was faced with adversity.

"I always told people, concerning my time growing up, is that I was considered Indigenous, considered Native when it suited someone else's stereotype or joke,” said Swaney-Bordeaux. “A lot of times it was bullies and folks who just wanted to make fun of me. Then I was called the slurs, then I was talked about being an alcoholic, the stereotypes. But then when there was time and space to assert myself in a beautiful way, to take up space as who I am, I wasn't enough anymore in those situations. And that really sums up my experience in those spaces."

That beautiful way of assertation is expressed through storytelling and with Swaney-Bordeaux, he does it through his poetry. Recently, he has been rediscovering his cultural identity and his attachment and belonging to the land he is descended from.

“I think part of that fire is feeling like I missed out on 30 years of this knowledge and knowing that has shaped me so much over the last six months, 12 months, 18 months,” said Swaney-Bordeaux. “And also, yeah, understanding. I think some folks who grew up off the Rez or disconnected kind of romanticize. I've been thankful to, I've gone through therapy, I've lived a life and I can come here understanding that there are complexities. And there's also beautiful things that go on. I mean, we're talking kind of ground zero.”

Discovering his ancestry, culture and customs has not only given Swaney-Bordeaux insight into his people, but also helped him find himself.

“I think for me, it was just discovering that I have access to me and have the ability and tools to know me better than anyone else and that I can stand firm in that,” said Swaney-Bordeaux, “and I think that is what allowed me to find that space to just be. And on top of that in this world, not everyone's going to like what I say. Not everyone is going to finger snap at me when I read a poem out loud and that's OK. I'm not for everyone. And so we all aren't for everyone. And I think a lot of people get caught up. They're thinking it's about growing. It's about making as many people happy. And I've learned that leaves us in a watered-down space where there's no movement. And really what I care about is movement, whether it's external movement or internal movement, movement in our heart. That's really what I like telling stories for.”

What does it mean to be a good neighbor?

“When I think about what it means to be a good neighbor, a good relative, I think about what it means to listen,” said Swaney-Bordeaux. “When we're sharing space and community, a lot of times there are shared experiences we all have. And also there are going to be many experiences that are not shared, that are unique, especially when we talk about people existing on a land where there are thousands of different cultures and lived experiences existing in proximity.”

still hope

by Robert Swaney-Bordeaux

The creek ignites with fireworks,


What a miracle it is

to see the sky reach down

and touch the water

with such soft hands.

Birds sing in the distance

as the gentle rolling hills

beckon me to get lost over their horizon.

Construction saws slice through this holy moment

to build a single family home across the creek.

A train rumbles through

and shakes the earth to its bones.

The water tells me it’s sick by its color,

as it’s forced to carry pollutants from upstream.

But the creek still ignites in celebration,

as the raindrops explode on its surface to acknowledge its survival.

Acknowledging how it is,

although scarred and in pain,

still here since the war that started against it in 1492.

A little baby fish swims up to the rock I’m sitting on and tells me,

“Keep fighting, there is still hope.”