Charles Trimble: Some thoughts on Lakota spirituality
The reader response to my recent column published in Indian Country Today and, “On Being a Nobody,” was mostly positive. Actually, I didn’t really expect any response, since it was a personal statement of my own experience and my own beliefs. Some writers said that it inspired them, which pleased me to have done some good.

However, one writer from Santa Rosa, California, said that my account of hanbleceya, or vision quest, made him laugh; he said that I had “totally missed the point” (of hanbleceya), and listed a number of technicalities or protocols that weren’t covered in my column. He criticized me for “going up on the hill” only after being selected to a leadership role in the National Congress of American Indians. This, according to him, should have been done before I was selected.

As a matter of fact, when I did the hanbleceya I described, I had no idea whatsoever that I would be selected by NCAI. Moreover, I had not planned to even try for the job.

Another criticism was that the hanbleceya I described appeared to be the only one I had ever done. Indeed, it was my only one, for I understood that hanbleceya is not like a sacrament, so to speak, something you are required to do regularly like Mass on Sunday or other religious requirements. I am not a traditionalist and have never been one. However, I am still learning from many people and from the mediums people have used through the centuries, such as books and lore, and now the Internet. I am still collecting and organizing my beliefs, my values, and my ethics. And I try to live by them.

Two beliefs I have garnered from my experiences and learning are that our supreme being, Wakan Tanka, is not an arbitrary or unbending master, and that God is in each of us, and in all nature. In our traditional cultures there is no dogma, and no single human authority to enforce beliefs or practice. We are a spiritual people, not a religious society.

At least for me, it often takes much time to figure out a lesson that I must learn, or a “vision” that I might have received. Most often it comes to me from what someone else has said or written. That is why we read, or why we listen to scholars and holy men. Recently I read the words of ex-U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey in a talk he had given at a National Humanities Conference. His words profoundly affected me, for they are what I was trying to say in my column. Here is what he said:
“I believe in praying to God. I don’t expect my prayers to be answered. The act of praying is an end in itself. In prayer I acquire – at least temporarily – the humility needed to see that I know and am worth less than I think. In prayer I become thankful, grateful, and capable of loving others more than myself.”

That is what Lakota prayer is to me. That is the great lesson I learned in hanbleceya. I may have expected that some great manifestation would take place, like in the visions told to John Neihardt by Lakota holy man Black Elk, and published in the book, Black Elk Speaks. Or like Sitting Bull’s vision when he told of the soldiers falling upside down into camp, predicting the Custer defeat at Little Big Horn. And I was disappointed that nothing even close to a great manifestation came to me in my hanbleceya. However, upon thinking over my experience, the great lesson was clear to me in the recognition of myself as a nobody is the context of the universe and among fellow human beings.

There are people among new generations who may have gotten their learning from any of the many books about Native tradition, beliefs, religion, ceremony, and ritual. To be sure, some have learned from whoever they have determined is a holy man. These are new traditionalists, scholars of what they see as “Native religion.” In urban areas and on college campuses I have noted that some people – Native and white – talk about “going up on the hill” on weekends as if it were a golf outing. To some it is a status symbol, or something to out-Indian others. Some I know go to an annual Sundance on the Pine Ridge reservation, and are pierced and dance every year. This has moved one traditionalist I know to observe that it seemed to him like a Boy Scout requirement for merit badges in the form of scars. Some have even resurrected the Ghost Dance as if it were a long-held traditional belief instead of the tragic act of mass desperation that it was.

Even so, one of the lessons we all must learn is religious or spiritual tolerance of people trying to do the right thing, even in their lack of knowledge or their ineptness. In his criticism of my hanbleceya, the Santa Rosa expert ended his message, “It is not the quantity of blood that makes an Indian, rather it is the embrassment (sic) of the Great Spirit and Sacred Tradition/Knowledge that matters.” Assuming that the word he sought was “embracement,” there is truth in what he says, but that should not rule out non-scholars or non holy men to be good Indian people with sound Indian values and culture.

It has been my learning that in the native spirituality we try to preserve in our culture, the Great Spirit or the Great Mystery – as Wakan Tanka means – is not offended by our ineptness in prayer or ceremony. In native spirituality or religion, there is no dogma, and no great Ayatollah or Pope to enforce dogma. And prayer is a very personal thing that comes from the very soul of each of us. This I believe, and this is how I try to live.

Charles “Chuck” Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. He may be reached at His website is

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