Heritage: It’s Who I Am

Published on November 21, 2023

Young Dakota (left) and sister Dallas (right) dressed in hand-made regalia.

Dakota Aitson is a Native American from the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. He received his master’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Toledo, where he researched the effects of tribal sovereignty and the law on criminal prosecution in reservation lands. He currently works to improve health and equity for underserved communities at his local county government in Washtenaw County, Michigan.

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we invited him to share his cultural experiences as a member of the Kiowa tribe and what his heritage has meant to him.

It’s who I am. I am defined by those who came before me, a history of both culture and family.

Kiowa Boy, English words for the name my grandmother gave me at birth. A baby bundled in an old cradle board, once how working mothers carried their infants on their backs in the plains, now passed down for generations and swaddling me.

Pow-wows, being just old enough to walk, clad in hand-crafted regalia to honor my ancestors and dance. The book, recounting my very first ancestors as recorded by missionaries and the birth of our family name, Killed-Him-On-The-Sly. Older now, trained in the Grass Dance, the first to tamp down the tall grass for the other dancers to come.

Ancient artifacts and traditions handed down to me, decorating, posing, proud. Mocking and ostracizing, other children insulting a culture they do not know or understand. Rising above the discrimination to become more and learn from others who stand up for the indigenous every day.

Finally, full mature understanding. The spiritual and creation stories of my people. Their encounter and adaptation to a changing world. Their trials and suffering under an invasive, all-consuming greed. Their persistence, OUR persistence despite forced assimilation and removal, a planned and ongoing attempt to destroy the last vestiges of our heritage.

And we are still here, living, working, passing down our ways and shaping a better future right here next to you.

This is the importance of heritage. For those like me who have and remember it, it can be a guiding beacon, a greatness to compare and live up to, and a reason to persist and persevere like those who have come before. The love, the sacrifices, and the accomplishments endure because the ancestors and their traditions are not forgotten.

Knowing and honoring this shared past is knowing and honoring a big part of yourself, and seeking it starts with you. Respect and learn from your elders; they often pass down what they have learned if you only take the time to listen and care. Search for your name and your family in this wide world of connected information, and you may find more hidden truth of your heritage closer than you think.

This knowledge has made me who I am. It has determined my culture, my creed, and everything I hold dear. I am Kiowa. My heart knows the ones I am descended from, and I carry this name with reverence to them. Someday, I too will be woven into that heritage and passed down. It’s who I am.

The Aitson family poses at a Pow-Wow c. 2023. From right to left: Dakota (author), Damon (father), Dallas (sister), and Shauna (mother).

Interested in reading more about Dakota’s family? In the book, Kiowa: A Woman Missionary in Indian Territory, Isabel Crawford features the firsthand experiences of his direct ancestor, Lucius Aitsan.

Want some literature about the Kiowa tribe? Check out renowned Kiowa author, N. Scott Momaday, who has written extensively about the tribe’s history, experiences and culture. Dakota recommends The Way to Rainy Mountain and the Pulitzer Prize-winning, House Made of Dawn.