When I was five-years-old we lived in the village of Pejuta Haka (Medicine Root) on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The village had been re-named Kyle by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
One July, in the late afternoon, my father came home from his job at Chris Dam’s Trading Post, with several boxes of groceries. He spoke to my mother in the Lakota language telling her that he had to deliver the groceries and he wanted me to ride along with him. This would have been in the summer of 1939.
This incident was very vivid in my memory for most of my life and just before the death of my father, I spent some time with him and I asked him about what happened that night in order to check it against my memories.
When I told him what I remembered about that day he was surprised that I could recall so much because I was so young at the time. He said that I was pretty accurate in my recollections of what occurred.
I remembered that we climbed into my father’s Model A Ford and headed for the village of Potato Creek, between Kyle and Wanblee (Eagle Nest). It was dusk when we arrived. We stopped at the house of a family by the name of Under Baggage. My father went into the house and returned shortly, drove the car on a road that ran behind the house and there I saw several elderly (in their 80s and probably some in their 90s) Lakota men seated around a fire. My father visited with the men and they were all speaking in Lakota while a couple of the younger men unloaded the groceries.
My father joined the circle of men and a cannunpa wakan (Sacred Pipe) was lit and handed from man to man, each puffing on it in turn. I noticed that two of the men had very smokey or clouded eyes and when the pipe came to them they held their hands out until it was placed into them. Later my father told me they were blind.
He said they were preparing to have a Sundance, one of the most sacred rites of the Lakota, and it was outlawed by the United States government so they had to do it in secret or they could be put into jail. Traditionally the Lakota celebrated their spirituality with song and dance each adapted to the sacred rite they wanted to honor. He said the two blind men had danced in the Sundance many times.
My father told me that all of the men seated in that circle had been Lakota warriors. They had fought in the final wars against the United States of America. Some had fought in the battle on the Rosebud where the U. S. Army had been severely thrashed, and others at the Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn) where Custer met his demise.
He said the warriors I saw that night had scored major victories over the United States Army and each year they met in secret to celebrate the Sundance and each year their numbers became less and less.
Like my father, all of the Lakota men seated in the circle smoking the pipe that night are all dead. They were the warriors who had fought and died defending a way of life that had existed from time immemorial for the Lakota people. I believe that the reason that memory has never left me is because of the deep feelings of saddness I felt that night as I watched these elderly warriors smoke their pipe and pray for their people.
And the spirituality of the Lakota nearly died after that summer night in 1939, pushed to a waiting grave by the Christian ministers urging the federal government to end the Sundance and other Lakota rituals. But it didn’t because Lakota families like the Under Baggage family, the Little Wounds, and the Bull Bears, took it underground and kept it alive.
These strong Lakota warriors with their equally strong winyan (women) at their sides knew that if the Church and government killed their religious practices and their language, they would no longer exist as a people.
The government and the religious organizations gave it their all, but the spirit of the Lakota would not die and the return to their traditions, language and culture is ongoing and it has never been stronger.
I saw it alive in that circle of elders in 1939 when I was five and I see it now 70 years later. It will take more than a Church and a State to kill the spirituality of a people.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the 1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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