Please relax, and allow yourself to become a Lakota time traveler for just a bit, perhaps aided by the auspices of a Time Lord in the fashion of Doctor Who, or even by way of the dreams of the stories woven for you by the many oral histories passed down through the generations by the grandmothers and grandfathers whose chosen jobs were to keep the memories alive.
You are riding your pony across the vast reaches of the high plains, scouting for a new site for your people’s next camp. The grass-scented wind in your hair lifts your spirits on this bright day in moon of falling leaves, the play of shadow and light caused by the plump clouds overhead makes you feel more alive than you can almost bear. Your spirit soars as another scent wafts over the air: cottonwood leaves, their fragrance enhanced as they turn golden in preparation to fall to the floor of the river bottom, at which waterway they stand as sentinels, emblematic of the cycles of life, death, and rebirth, the hoop circle of life. You are already imagining them budding again in the moon of the tender grass, after a season of blood-run-down in their stark, bare forms … In prayerful gratitude to Wakan Tanka, you cry: ‘Hoka hey! It’s a good day to die, Grandfather! Life is good!’
The buffalo scouts have seen a great host of them traveling not far to the north of you, and your thoughts turn to the people behind you, their travois loaded with the tipis, poles, and supplies that will soon become a village near this river you sense will be a comfortable base for the coming hunt. You picture the children’s gleaming eyes, excited to prove their worth as helpers in this undertaking that is so essential to their families, and more importantly, to all of the people.
As you approach the might cottonwoods, and slow your pony a bit, your eyes see glimpses of the shining water through the trees. But your mind is half on the images of your first Sundance one moon ago, and the many days of prayer and intentional suffering that you were proud to have endured for the well-being of your people. Vestiges of the pain from the sharp and thin bone skewers the holy man had pierced through your chest, then fastened to the Great Tree in the center of the circle…praying to the spirits of the four directions, until you fell backward, releasing the bone from your flesh. Aiiy, such hard and sweet misery it was. But the people will have meat and robes this winter, and the children will grow strong with the berries and plants that the river’s moisture provides, and the white man’s sickness will not reach us here this far to the south!
The white men were killing the buffalo for robes and tongues, leaving their skinned carcasses to rot in the sun. The white men kept coming and coming, rivers of them wanting to fence off the land…and kill you. You were herded like beasts into smaller and smaller ‘reservations’, where your people starved because the food they promised you in exchange…never arrived. Some warriors left the reservation to hunt for food for the people; sometimes they killed white people who attacked them, sometimes they were killed. We knew that they wanted us gone. They’d stolen your children and carried them off to white families and Indian schools, where they were forbidden to be Lakota, and turned into white children with no families to succor them.
But one night at the Sundance during the moon of red cherries, knowing of the plans for the soldiers to force your people into small plots of land, Sitting Bull had a vision: soldiers would fall into their camp like grasshoppers from the sky. He and the other tribes organized the warriors who refused to die like penned cattle, and made an alliance with several other tribes. They camped by the Little Bighorn River.
You can see the battle that ensued when George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry came to annihilate your people, not knowing how many you were, nor of your firm resolve to live another day. It’s the stuff of legend that you witness, and will only know later how flawed and poorly executed Custer’s plans had been. But what you see is your warriors in splendorous attire, painted with the symbols of the visions, fighting as though they were all Crazy Horse, who believed bullets could not pierce his flesh! Ah, you smell the gunpowder, see the blood…and can’t help rejoicing when the white soldiers die in massive numbers. You may or may not have seen Old Yellow Hair go down to his death, but if you had, I reckon that you would have cheered. The white man’s belief in God-given Manifest Destiny was in tatters… for now.
The tribes scattered, knowing that the army would seek vengeance. The ensuing chases of different clans and tribes you can see as though from a vantage point in the sky. You witness the privations, the capitulations, the pain of the decisions thrust on the leaders. Nothing pretty came of any of it; the soldiers and the government were determined to end The Indian Problem once and for all.
Whooosh; the times are now so very hard. The people have been herded onto lands decreed by the Great Father in Washington, and are starving and threadbare with broken promises. The Sundance has been forbidden, so your spirits are weak. In secret, some are beginning to practice the Paiute Wovoka’s Ghost Dance, sent to him in a vision; the hope it brings is spreading throughout the plains. Wovoka had said that if the people practiced it in an impeccable manner, the white man would be vanquished from the lands, and the buffalo and all the Ancestors would be brought back to life. In addition, carefully sewn Ghost Dance shirts would make the wearers’ flesh impervious to bullet fire.The 60 million buffalo (Tatanka) that had roamed the plains were now all but extinct now; fear of Lakota Oyate extinction must have permeated the air.
But now, sensing that the dance spoke of a major rebellion, the anxious white settlers had convinced the government to initiate a program to rid your people from the lands that they coveted. The shining metal, gold, had been discovered in the sacred Black Hills Paha Sapa), and they had stolen it back from you…since your people would not sell it to them. For who can claim to own the land that the creator has given to all of us, providing food, shelter, water and holy sites?
Officers were sent to arrest the ringleader Sitting Bull; he and several of his band were shot dead in the ensuing struggle. The rest fled to various encampments, then fled again… One day 350 of your Minneconjou cousins were surrounded by soldiers, disarmed, and driven to Wounded Knee Creek (Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála) under Porcupine Butte, and wrought a furious vengeance on your people, murdering 300 of you in cold blood: women, children, and men. Women and children, fleeing the battle, some with infants in their arms…were gunned down like dogs.
When civilians were hired by the army days later to bury them, they were loaded into a mass grave on the hill above the battle site. Several live infants were found, wrapped in their dead mothers’ arms. Perhaps you are seeing yourself as one of them, feeling yourself as one of them, and are wondering what may have become of you later.
Or perhaps you are watching those few still left being loaded onto wagons, being sent back to the Pine Ridge Reservation. You may even be among them, grieving and defeated, stunned into silence. Hoka hey; it’s a good day…to die…You certainly don’t ask to be shown the arguments among the military afterward, nor to see the several Medal of Honor recipients whose awards were for chasing an murdering those escaping women and children. Or perhaps you do; who am I to say? Did you ask to hear of the callous and ugly support offered by so many notables of the day? The newspaper editors for whom whole cities and counties in the West have been named?
A simple form of Abracadabra magic brings you to the gates of the prison on Alcatraz, and you are shown those doughty American Indian Movement folks who had decided to Occupy it as an example of what they claimed your people were promised in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, granting the Lakota and associated tribes the rights to property abandoned by the federal government. One notable Occupier was poet and musician John Trudell, who broadcast a daily radio program from inside the prison, the pesky devil. That bold move was one of the early harbingers of the First American roots movement to reclaim their languages, spirituality, cultural traditions, and above all: pride.
Now I can see that you are being whisked of in time to a second Wounded Knee time, this one the iteration of AIM and associated activist tribal members Occupying the church near the site of the original massacre. This daring feat, Alcatraz, and other instances of Native American and the Lakota, having stood up to The Man, demanding rights and sovereignty, helped to spawn COINTLEPRO, whose evil doings were meant to crush dissidence of any sort, but special attention was paid to uppity Blacks and uppity Reds. Danger: ‘wild people of color rising up’ caused white America to quake in their boots. White man fear: what is its origin? That question has launched a thousand ships, erudite essays, and psychological treatises. Never mind.
The Occupation was spurred by the failure of your tribe to impeach and remove from office one evil BIA-backed Richard Wilson, under whose rule began a reign of terror on the traditionalists at Pine Ridge, over 50 of Wilson’s enemies were shot and killed, with absolutely no legal consequences. Dickie’s private militia, called the GOON Squad (Guardians of the Ogallala Nation) was closely allied with the FBI, who had brought them weapons to use against their own people. Use them they did. Was one of the murdered possibly your grandmother or grandfather?
Ah, I see you are nodding in remembrance of those hideous days. They culminated in the killings of two FBI agents who were on the Rez helping Dickie. Yes, Leonard Peltier was convicted of their murder, and will die in jail, even though the trial was crap, exculpatory evidence was withheld, in another show trial travesty of justice. Someone had to pay; he has.
I feel your nose quiver with the scent of the Indigenous sovereign rights and determination movements that are wafting through the air; what a glorious and refreshing spirit it brings! And the sounds that accompany it: drumming. One heartbeat…da-dum…one heartbeat…da-dum…the simplest song of freedom: the rhythm of the drums…the round dances of Idle No More, their calls to a Sovereign Summer. The Lakota Grandmothers Tour, culminating in their failed attempt to deliver articles of Genocide against the US government to Ban Ki Moon just last month. See now the Lakota training sessions to block the Tarsands pipeline, and the marches to force the closing of the liquor stores in White Clay, Nebraska, just off the statutorily alcohol-free reservation’s boundary. ‘You will not profit any more from keeping our members saturated in alcohol!’ the Bravehearts cry.
‘Arise, Lakota Oyate! Rise up, all Turtle Island Indigenous! Teach the young about the Old Ways, and remind them of their power to change the world, and bring health and peace to our people! Remind them them of our cry: ‘Mitaku Oyasin!’, or ‘All of us are relatives’. And teach them, and people of all races and creeds these great words of the holy man Black Elk:
The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Tanka , and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us. This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this. The second peace is that which is made between two individuals, and the third is that which is made between two nations. But above all you should understand that there can never be peace between nations until there is known that true peace, which, as I have often said, is within the souls of men.
With the memory of all you have seen on your travels, please enjoy this bit of a new documentary made in conjunction with the Lakota Grandmothers Rising! Alliance.