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Tim Giago: Christmas and Lakota traditions

Lloyd Little Wolf and Aloysius Day Boy were sitting on the steps in front of Red Cloud Hall about two weeks before Christmas. Red Cloud Hall was the main building on the boys� side of Holy Rosary Indian Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The front of Red Cloud Hall faced south so that even on those cold December days the freezing wind from the North was blocked and the winter sun still gave off enough heat to keep us warm.

As I approached the two boys they stopped talking to see who it was and when they saw me they started to talk again. They were speaking in their Native Lakota language and the Catholic priests had outlawed the language at the mission school and anyone caught speaking Lakota would be severely beaten. One day Basil Brave Heart was caught speaking Lakota and Father Edwards, the school principal, made us all line up in company ranks and watch as he forced Basil to bite down on a large rubber band. He then stretched the rubber band as far as he could and then let it snap back into Basil�s face.

The mission school was a boarding school located out in the country four miles north of Pine Ridge Village. We lived, attended classes, worked, ate and slept at the school nine months out of the year. It was a part of the grand experimental proclamation to �Kill the Indian, Save the Child� that was so popular in America for nearly 100 years.

I usually hung out with Little Wolf, Day Boy and the Garnette brothers, Frosty and Heavy. We were one of those mission cliques that formed around friends as a way to survive. We had others join our clique on and off over the years, but the original five of us formed the backbone of the group.

Day Boy�s nickname was �Chief� and he was discussing words he heard in church that morning in a song called �Away in the Manger.� He was telling Little Wolf about the song and in Lakota he was saying �nata skuya,� which means �sweet head.� In the Lakota language everything is taken literally. If you ask a Lakota speaker to say �tree� in Lakota the speaker might have a difficult time of it because he would want to know what kind of tree you wanted him to describe. Every tree has its own description.

And so Day Boy and Little Wolf were trying to figure out how a baby could have a �sweet head.� It was a real puzzler to us. We knew all about Christmas and the baby Jesus from our Catechism classes. In fact, all of us were altar boys and learned much of the Catholic Mass in Latin. Yeah sure, they could try to pound Latin words into our young heads, but rap us on the head for speaking our own language.

There were certain portions of the Christian teachings that were easy for the Lakota people (and the people of other Indian nations) to accept because they followed closely some of the traditional spiritual practices handed down through the ages to the Indian people. For example gift giving was an ancient practice of the Lakota. In the old days when one visited friends or relatives, they took along a small gift. The gift might be a pound of coffee (pejuta sapa or black medicine) or a bag of tobacco (canli). There were days of gift giving to celebrate an important event in the family or to signal the end of a time of mourning for the loss of a loved one. These occasions are still held amongst the Lakota and they are called �giveaways.� A family will spend an entire year preparing gifts. The family handcrafts many of the gifts, but as the modern times dictate, good portions of the gifts are now purchased at the local Wal-Mart. But the tradition survives.

When the day of the �giveaway� came friends, neighbors and relatives gathered at the home of the gift givers and had a meal and as their names were called they went to the gift givers, embraced them and accepted their gifts. It is a Lakota tradition that outdates Christmas by centuries.

Not all of us accepted the religion of the settlers, but the special holidays that we perceived to be a continuation of our own traditions fit easily into our way of life.

Many years ago (1975) I spent Christmas Eve with Agnes Yellow Boy and her family at the impoverished community of Calico on the Pine Ridge Reservation. When we were kids at the mission school we were as cruel as kids the world over and we called Calico �Dog Patch� from the Lil� Abner comic strip. These days we bite our tongues when we think of our cruelty.

Agnes was near death that Christmas Eve. She had a small tree set up in the corner of her tiny cabin and her children surrounded her. She was very poor and she was dying, but before I left her that night she asked me to lean down so she could speak directly into my ear and she said, �Anpetu ke waste� (The day is good). And in English she said, �This is one of the happiest days for me and my family because Christmas is a day when we exchange gifts, put up pretty lights, and go way back to the traditions that still live in our hearts.�

My boyhood friends, Day Boy and Little Wolf have passed away (The average life span on the reservation is about 46). I spoke with �Heavy� Garnette today and we hope to get together with �Frosty� this Christmas Day. Maybe we will speak about the �sweet head� of baby Jesus. And so it really doesn�t matter if one is Lakota or Irish; Christmas will always bring back special memories.

McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago�s weekly column. He can be reached at P.O. Box 9244, Rapid City, SD 57709 or at Giago was also the founder and former editor and publisher of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the class of 1990 � 1991. Clear Light Books of Santa Fe, NM ( published his latest book, �Children Left Behind.

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