Jared Frazier, a citizen of the Santee Sioux Tribe, tends to the sacred fire on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Winnebago Tribe sees change after veteran comes home and lights sacred fire

Tribal veteran Aric Armell finds new ways to support his people

'Ever since that fire was lit, I’ve noticed a different atmosphere,' council member says
By Kevin Abourezk

WINNEBAGO, Nebraska – Aric Armell has been on the frontlines.

After two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, the 43-year-old Winnebago man came home a few years ago to try to find other ways to serve his people.

He struggled at first, looking for a purpose.

Then he heard the call for veterans to travel to Standing Rock to join the push against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Armell, whose beard, scraggly hair, Army jacket and red high-tops hearken to an earlier time of protest, joined the fight and quickly discovered a new purpose, a new frontline.

“It sparked a fire that a lot of people didn’t know they had in them to stand up for our Indian Country rights and constitutional rights,” he said. “I found another place that I could serve my people.”

He eventually returned home to Winnebago, where he again struggled for a while, trying to find a purpose. He found it briefly after traveling to South Dakota in November to help the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate ensure an oil spill from the Keystone Pipeline near their reservation didn’t harm the tribe’s water resources.

While on the Lake Traverse Reservation, Armell learned about a sacred fire the tribe had lit to give its people the opportunity to pray in their traditional manner whenever they wanted.

Tribal leaders told him that drug- and alcohol-related crimes and domestic violence incidents had fallen since the sacred fire had been lit.

He decided to bring the idea to his people.

“It was doing a lot of good for their people up there,” he said.

Aric Armell, a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe, lit the sacred fire on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska on January 1, 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

He approached the Winnebago Tribal Council about the idea and immediately got support.

Roland Warner, the tribal treasurer, said Armell’s veteran status earned him the council’s support, and his efforts to create unity were much needed.

“I want to be of support to the energy that he wants to generate here within our community,” Warner said.

Earlier this month, Armell set up two tipis across the road from the Winnebago Tribe’s powwow grounds. One is meant to provide a place for socializing, while the larger tipi provides shelter for the sacred fire, which Armell lit shortly after the New Year.

Inside the tipi, a small altar provides visitors access to tobacco, sweet grass and sage. Piles of wood surround the fire, and an interior canvas liner provides further insulation from the cold.

Jared Frazier, 29, who’s been helping tend the fire with his wife since it was lit, said the fire is available to anyone who wants to visit 24 hours a day. He said nights get rather cold but the fire and interior liner provide enough protection to allow people to continue to use the fire all night.

He said visitors have come from around the area to learn about the fire and pray there. A non-Indian couple from Soldier, Iowa, who had heard about it recently visited and promised to return, Frazier said.

“They wanted to come here and know what was taking place,” he said.

Sometimes, he said, intoxicated people have visited as well, and he’s prayed with them.

“This is for you, too,” he tells them.

Armell said he hopes the fire brings a sense of unity to the Winnebago people, who have struggled with internal divisions in recent years. Already, a variety of tribal programs – including parenting, domestic violence and drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs – have used the sacred fire as a site for classes, he said.

Isaac Smith, a council member, said he’s noticed a change within the tribe’s offices and among its employees.

“Ever since that fire was lit, I’ve noticed a different atmosphere within the tribal council’s offices,” he said.

He said he’s seen less conflict as more people discover the fire and go there to pray.

Armell said he plans to keep the fire burning until the end of January, when he will host a run from Winnebago to Lincoln, more than a hundred miles to the south, to bring awareness to the more than 500 missing and murdered indigenous women in America and as a show of protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline.

He said he’s also begun reaching out to the three other tribes in Nebraska – the Ponca, Santee and Omaha people – to ask them to host sacred fires of their own.

His hope: Once the Winnebagos’ fire goes out, new fires would be lit in other tribal communities.

Those fires, he hopes, will strengthen the resolve of tribes to work together to stop future fracking and oil pipeline development near reservations, as well as help them heal any divisions within their own nations. “Standing Rock is finished, but the fire within us all still burns,” he said.

“There’s not always a frontline there, like in war or Standing Rock,” he said. “This is a frontline within ourselves to break that barrier down and come together.”

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