A Ponca tribe member stands on a road
Felecia Welke, a healer with the Ponca tribe, carries a bundle of sage she harvested on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

Felecia Welke isn’t sure she’ll vote in Tuesday’s presidential election because she isn’t sure her vote as a Black indigenous woman matters.

“I have never lived in an America that was really supportive of a person like me,” she said. “I have never lived in an America that I felt supported me as a Black indigenous woman, previous foster care child. The system never worked for me.”

“…The system never worked for me”

But Welke, a Lincoln member of the Ponca Tribe, said she is certain she’ll be voting for the Ponca Tribe’s council members on Nov. 3 because she feels represented in the tribal elections.

In other elections, however, the issues Welke cares about aren’t being addressed.

“I’m not hearing any of the (presidential) candidates talking about water rights for indigenous people or reparations for Black people,” she said. “Those are things that are big to me and if they’re not talking about it, they’re not acknowledging indigenous people.”

Welke, an advocate and healer for the Ponca, didn’t fully discover her native identity for many years. She grew up in the foster care system and lived in over a dozen foster homes until she was finally adopted at age 11. Although her adoptive family wasn’t able to support her indigenous and African American roots, Welke found her way home to the tribe. She met her biological family in her late teenage years and from then started connecting with the Ponca tribe in Nebraska.

“Knowing that I had some skills and passions that I wanted to contribute to my native community, I was able to navigate my way into my traditional society setting amongst my urban natives,” she said. “I feel at home here.”

Welke is involved in Nebraska’s Ponca tribe in many ways — as an herbalist, sun dancer and community activist. In addition to practicing various rites of passage and ceremonies, she works with the Nebraska Water Protectors, which focuses on water rights on indigenous land, and  helped with the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access pipeline.

“I live as close to my ancestors as I can, and I keep ceremony very centric in my walking practice,” she said. “It’s just intertwining the culture into a daily practice and lifestyle. It’s just who I am.”

As she ponders the upcoming tribal elections, Welke said she is analyzing and focusing on the mental, physical and emotional wellness of tribal leaders. She believes that personal wellness is the key to both success in society and political involvement.

“We have to center ourselves,” she said. “We have to center our children and our families and make sure we are able to and have the protocols on how to prepare ourselves to step out into the political realm.”

Welke worries about native leaders adopting a westernized view of life instead of the tribe’s traditional practices and worldview.

“I would like to see more indigenousness,” she said. “I would like to see our leaders in a sweat box ceremony; going on their vision quest. Those who are really practicing the traditions of our ancestors.”

For Welke, advocating for her native community is her mission. And voting for the tribal leaders on Tuesday is part of her responsibility to her community.

But for now, she doesn’t feel the same way about voting in the U.S. presidential election.