‘My Heart Has Been Yearning for Home’: An Indigenous Student’s Journey
Alicia Gangone thinks a lot about her relatives.
The 31-year-old master’s-degree student studying criminal justice at Wichita State University, in Kansas, says relatives can be family, friends, community members, or even the plants and animals around us. As the founder of the Indigenous Student Collective, a new student group on her campus, Gangone is working to build stronger relationships between relatives at her school, create community among Indigenous students, and educate non-Native American students about Native culture.
These missions feel personal to Gangone, who says she’s struggled throughout her life with feelings of abandonment, searching for belonging, and navigating health problems. She says she’s spent her life overcoming challenges, and she hopes to make things better for people like herself.
Gangone grew up in South Dakota, first in the city of Mission, on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, then on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation. She says her upbringing was “engulfed in loss,” starting with the death of her mother when Gangone was 5 years old. “I don’t remember what it’s like to be comforted by a mom,” she says. “I have a stepmom, and I love her, but there’s always been a bit of a disconnect between us. I’ve spent my life gravitating toward women with mother-like qualities.”
Gangone describes reservation life as tight-knit. (“When you’re on the reservation, you’re pretty much related to everyone,” she says.) Yet that didn’t make it any easier to deal with the loss of two grandfathers — or the fact that her relationship with her actual family could be difficult.
Shortly after she graduated from high school, at Tiospa Zina Tribal School in 2010, her father and stepmother moved away with some of her siblings. After that, she felt as if she didn’t really have a home. “It was surreal and painful to come home from our senior trip to a house that was bare bones except for our bedrooms,” she says. “Most of everything was gone, except for our things.”
After her father and stepmother left, Gangone says, she “relied heavily” on her best friend’s family to take care of her. She went for a semester to Sisseton Wahpeton College, a community college in South Dakota, but struggled academically.
“It was hard emotionally,” she says, “because I’d go home and things wouldn’t feel good.” At the same time, she is grateful that she’s had friends and other families who’ve helped her periodically with money, housing, and guidance. Ultimately, at the urging of some mentors and community members she trusted, she went to Haskell Indian Nations University, a public tribal land-grant institution in Lawrence, Kan.
“I was hesitant,” she says, “because although things were hard, they were what I was accustomed to. I was scared to leave my brother. I was scared to leave my friends. I was terrified. I’m a bigger woman, and I was self-conscious of the spaces I take up. I felt like at least people on the reservation knew who I was and weren’t going to treat me badly because of how I looked.”
Gangone concluded she’d be disappointing people in the community who’d helped her along the way if she didn’t go to college — letting down friends and adults who’d taken her under their wings.
“I knew that in order to survive in this world, I needed to get an education,” Gangone says. Though she was afraid of leaving behind the world she knew, she was also fearful of being, as she puts it, “just another person stuck on the reservation.”
Even though she knew it would be financially challenging, she also thought continuing her education could provide her with a place to learn and live in the short term, and a pathway to financial stability in the long term.
At Haskell, where the student body comprises approximately 150 different Native cultures, Gangone found community and learned more about other Native Americans. In 2015 she earned her bachelor’s degree in Indigenous and American Indian studies, focusing on environmental justice and studying subjects like fracking, oil spills, and toxic waste dumped on tribal land.
However, her lack of money and family connections could be challenging. She didn’t always have enough money to do what the other students did. She noticed that some of her peers could call home for financial and emotional support in a way she couldn’t. “Haskell became my home,” she recalls, “but the thing about having a university as your home is that it’s only there when it’s in session. I had to figure out what to do with myself during summer and winter breaks.” For the first couple of years, she went back to the reservation and stayed with her aunt. After that, she found herself house-hopping, staying with friends and other community members who took her in, and needing to borrow money.
“When I graduated, I was kind of in a panic because I didn’t have any place I felt I could call my home,” she says. Even though many people offered her a place to sleep and told her she was always welcome, she says, “in my head, I’m a burden to people.”
From 2016 to 2021, Gangone worked at Haskell as a resident assistant, monitoring dorms and assisting students, mostly on overnight shifts, and tried to sleep during the day. She began eating badly and frequently drank energy drinks and other sugary beverages to stay awake. She developed sleep apnea and struggled to get more than an hour of sleep. In 2019 her weight rose to 569 pounds, the highest it’s ever been.
“It was around this time that I thought, I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to die,” she recalls. At one point she had to carry around an oxygen tank to help her breathe. “I could barely walk down a hallway before I needed to sit down,” she says, and she developed atrial fibrillation.
Fortunately, Gangone found a physical therapist, a nutritionist, and a therapist who helped her — a “triangle of support,” as she puts it. “I’m down almost 70 pounds,” she says. “I’m doing a lot better. My walking is a lot better. I’m still at a size where, to me, [the weight loss] isn’t very noticeable, but people say there’s something different. My relationship with the world around me is getting stronger. I know that, with all the right people in my life and the continued support of loved ones, I’ll accomplish what I need to accomplish.”
She met her husband, Jaryd Porter, during this time as well — and she says he has helped her “overcome the part of me that told me I wasn’t beautiful and that no one would ever want me.”
In 2022 she earned a master’s degree in Indigenous studies from the University of Kansas. “The flame I’ve always carried with me for education was reignited,” she says. She was especially taken with a course on Indigenous food and health in which she says she learned about “food sovereignty” and “the history of colonization and how changing Western diets affected Indigenous people.” Gangone began to think differently about how she could make natural food good for her.
She decided to continue her education at Wichita State and founded the Indigenous Student Collective there when she didn’t see anything being done on campus for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. “It didn’t seem like there was a Native American presence” on campus, she says. “I was like, Where’s all my Natives at?”
“The Indigenous Student Collective is about creating a home in a university setting for Indigenous students who may have come from a reservation and, like me, been afraid to leave — afraid to leave behind what they’ve always known, that strong culture on those bits of land the government left for us,” she says. The group held its first meeting in March and is planning future events, though it’s still waiting for formal approval from the university.
Gangone wants to give back to the community where she grew up. “My heart has been yearning for home. I want to take all of these experiences, all of this education, all the love, gratitude, and hope I’ve held onto all of these years and take it back to work with my people. One of the things I want to do is create a garden specifically meant for the tribe, a place where people can come to get food. I want to help young people with homework and to get through school and have programs to prepare for college, but I don’t want it to be like a Boys and Girls Club.”
When asked to reflect on everything she’s been through and the lessons she hopes to impart to others, Gangone pauses, collecting her thoughts. “Be a good relative,” she says. “We all go through a lot. Many of us have heavy, emotional circumstances in our backgrounds, which can lead us down bad paths. And we often feel alone. But if you can get yourself up in the morning, go outside, and give thanks to the world around you, it does make life easier. You can recognize there are relatives all around you — life all around you — and be willing to take care of it, no matter what it takes. That will do a lot of good for you, and you’ll recognize you’re not alone.”