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Jace DeCory, Cheyenne River Sioux, was one of the presenters of the 2020 West River History Conference. Courtesy photo
History holds the lessons between races
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Native Sun News Today Health & Environment Editor

DEADWOOD, South Dakota – Descendants of both the original residents and the settlers of the Great Plains brought their experience and philosophies to bear on contemporary challenges of race relations at the 28th West River History Conference here October 8-10.

“Hope is the only thing that ties us all together,” former Black Hills State University American Indian Studies Professor Jace DeCory said in her presentation entitled “Words of Wisdom from Lakota Elders.”

A Cheyenne River Sioux tribal member, DeCory shared concepts encompassed in Lakota language that have helped people stay alive and have helped a culture to survive — vocabulary every bit as relevant in this pandemic period as in past times of trouble.

“Wise words are what I call them, the w words; they help us to heal, as our people have gone through a lot,” she said. She proceeded to explain the terms wolakota, wotakuye, wicozani, wokicunze, wicoh’an, wiconi, wicoyake and wokiksuye.

“We lived in balance and harmony – wolakota – with good hearts, good minds, good bodies,” she said. “Advice from the elders helped the tiospaye stay emotionally strong.”

From the 2019 West River History Conference: The “Dakota Daughters” performance took place at West River History Conference in effort to “spread the word on healing racism and building a shared inclusive future.” Photo by Talli Nauman / Native Sun News Today

DeCory is a participant in the WoLakota Project, a partnership between Technology and Innovation in Education and the South Dakota Department of Education that aims to improve learning opportunities for all students, Native and Non-Native, in South Dakota.

“With the decimation of the buffalo, really on purpose, it almost exterminated us,” she related. From its once vast herds, the American bison population was reduced to only about 1,000 head. “We almost lost this wonderful, beautiful animal. It almost caused ethnic genocide,” DeCory lamented.

However, with careful reintroduction, “the buffalo remains our relative,” she noted.

By the same token, she said, “We lived through diseases, such as smallpox.”

Boarding schools, with devotion to the cause of cultural collapse, cut children’s hair to “so we could be assimilated; it was taking our identity. Hair holds our memories; that’s why we only trim it in mourning,” she said.

“We also survived confinement,” in the form of being bounded by reservations, she said, recalling the need to learn farming and ranching skills to supplement the “survival mechanisms” of gathering berries and digging timpsila.

Through it all, storytelling, humor, meditation, prayer, and ritual have provided “coping mechanisms”. Natural herbal remedies and traditional recipes have supported daily health. More than a few lessons were handed down between generations:

“Knowing when to listen more and talk less is associated with being courageous and having the fortitude to deal with whatever is put in front of you.

“It’s important to find your niche. All of us were given gifts. There’s no accident that we are here. The creator puts us where we’re supposed to be.

“Put responsibility and respect above riches and rights. Look inside yourself each day. Share your knowledge. Be the change.

“Always give thanks for the water and that Tunkasila has given us a life.

“We should be kind to one another and try not to berate or denigrate but choose to hold people up.”


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