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Alicia Gangone at her in-laws lake house in Wichita, Kansas, on Wednesday July 19, 2023.

‘My Heart Has Been Yearning for Home’: An Indigenous Student’s Journey

About This Project

This photo essay is part of a yearlong Chronicle visual series that highlights the challenges facing first-generation students and others. The series is part of the Different Voices of Student Success project, which is supported by the Ascendium Education Group.

The photo essay was created by the photographer Julie Denesha, with narrative by Graham Vyse, a staff reporter. Erica Lusk, the senior photo and media editor, edited the photographs. Carmen Mendoza, the senior web producer, and Luna Laliberte, the editorial-events coordinator, coordinated interviews.

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.

Alicia Gangone adjusts a sign at a benefit garage sale for the Wichita All-Nations Pow Wow Council on Sunday July 16, 2023. The group is raising money for a pow wow in the fall.
Gangone adjusts a sign at a garage sale to benefit the Wichita All-Nations Powwow Council. The group is raising money for a pow wow, a social gathering of Native students, in the fall.

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.

Sitting around the table, (from left) husband Jaryd Porter, Alicia Gangone, (Jaryd’s) aunt Melissa Porter and father-in-law Ty Porter enjoy a traditional wild rice and chicken soup dinner Monday July 17, 2023, in Wichita, Kansas. Gangone took an indigenous cooking class while a student at the University of Kansas.
Gangone enjoys a meal she’s prepared at her in-law’s house with her husband, Jaryd Porter (left), and his aunt, Melissa Porter, and father, Ty Porter (both on the right).

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.”

A collage of photographs from Alicia Gangone’s family in South Dakota hangs in the living room of the apartment she shares with her husband Tuesday July 17, 2023, in Wichita, Kansas. (The woman in the white dress is Gangone’s birth mother. There are also candid and studio portraits of Gangone and her brothers)
A collage of photographs of Gangone’s family hangs in the living room of her apartment. The woman in the white dress (top left) is Gangone’s birth mother. Other photos show Gangone and her brothers.

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.”

Spooning up some wild rice, Alicia Gangone prepares a traditional wild rice and chicken soup Monday July 17, 2023, in Wichita, Kansas. Gangone took an indigenous cooking class while a student at the University of Kansas, where she learned about the affect colonization has had upon tribal culture.
Gangone prepares a traditional soup of wild rice and chicken. During an Indigenous cooking class at the University of Kansas, she learned about the effect colonization had on tribal culture.

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.

Working on the bylaws of the Wichita All-Nations Powwow Council, Mariah Sellin, (from left) Alicia Gangone and Janie Arredondo work through the details in Gangone’s apartment Thursday July 20, 2023 in Wichita, Kansas.
At her apartment, Gangone and Janie Arredondo work on the bylaws of the Wichita All-Nations Powwow Council.

“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.

Alicia Gangone discusses a project on a Zoom call with another grad student, Wednesday July 19, 2023 in Wichita, Kansas.
Gangone discusses a project on a Zoom call with another graduate student. The two have been working on a chapter for an academic project on missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“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.”

Alicia Gangone drives long hours for the rideshare company Lyft Wednesday July 19, 2023 in Wichita, Kansas.
Gangone drives long hours around Wichita for the ride-share company Lyft.

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.

At her in-laws lake house, Alicia Gangone wears a pair of beaded moccasins that her grandfather made for her Wednesday July 19, 2023 in Wichita, Kansas. She asked him to include a lightning bolt design because of her love for the Harry Potter book series.
Gangone wears a pair of beaded moccasins that her grandfather made for her. She asked him to include a lightning-bolt design because of her love for the Harry Potter books.

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.”

Building strength, Alicia Gangone works out as she takes instruction from trainer Lawrence Wright at a gym Thursday July 20, 2023 in Wichita, Kansas.
Gangone works out with a trainer at a gym to build strength.

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.

Alicia Gangone holds still on a scale in the Diabetes Prevention Program at the at the Haskell Indian Health Center Friday July 21, 2023 in Lawrence, Kansas.
Gangone is weighed for the Diabetes Prevention Program at the Haskell Indian Health Center, in Lawrence, Kan.

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.”

Alicia Gangone looks at a photo of her husband Jaryd Porter (from left) Gangone from their wedding day in her apartment on Tuesday July 17, 2023 in Wichita, Kansas.
Gangone looks at a photo of herself with her husband from their wedding day.

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.

Alicia Gangone watches from the sidelines as members of the Wichita Kansas Inter-Tribal Warrior Society participate in the gourd dance at a graduation powwow for indigenous graduates hosted by T.I.P.I. (The Indigenous Peoples Initiative) on Saturday July 22, 2023 at Calvary United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas.
Gangone watches a gourd dance at a graduation pow wow. On her arm is a tattoo depicting animated characters, two of which symbolize Gangone’s hunka sisters (“hunka” is a Lakota word for “relative”), including one who died in 2018.

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.

Paulette Blanchard gives a big hug to Alicia Gangone on the campus of Haskell Indian Nations University Friday July 21, 2023 in Lawrence, Kansas. Blanchard and Gangone attended school together and Blanchard happened to be passing by.
Gangone, dressed in a traditional Dakota ribbon skirt, hugs a former classmate on the Haskell Indian Nations University campus, in Lawrence, Kan.

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.”

 At her in-laws lake house, Alicia Gangone walks out on the boat dock with a book Wednesday July 19, 2023 in Wichita, Kansas.
Gangone on the boat dock at her in-law’s house, in Garden Plain, Kan.