Monday, April 21, 2008

The sacred heart of the Lakota Nation is still beating

Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons are the founders of Bioneers -- a national nonprofit educational organization "seeding practical solutions for people and planet". They have just published "Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future", an important and timely collection of presentations from the annual gatherings sponsored by the Bioneers.

In the book's preface Kenny Ausubel reminds us that:
"For millenia the world's Indigenous Peoples have acted as guardians of the web of life for the following seven generations. They have successfully managed complex reciprocal relationships between diverse biological ecosystems and multitudinous human cultures. Awareness of Indigenous Knowledge is reemerging at the eleventh hour to help avert global ecological and social collapse. Indigenous cultural wisdom shows us how to live in peace -- with the Earth and one another."
Something worth remember not only on the eve of Earth Day but everyday. (GW)

Native America: dark deeds in the Black Hills

By Alexandra Ferguson
April 18, 2008

The drum resonates with a bold, insistent beat. The great man sings, not a melody but something older, discordant, handed down across the ages: a story of a people and their struggle. Above the headband of his war bonnet, the eagle feathers quiver and shake.

I am in South Dakota, in He Sapa Wakan (the Black Hills), the spiritual homeland of the Sioux tribe. Beyond the restaurant chains and shopping malls of Rapid City, the pine-clad peaks keep watch over dusty, rolling plains. The ramblers and rock-climbers may not know it, but they are treading on hallowed ground.

“Sioux” is a white man’s term, the mangled last syllable of Nadoweisiweg — a tribal nickname — seized upon by some cloth-eared settler. Wilmer Mesteth, a spiritual leader from the Pine Ridge Reservation, and his kin belong, more accurately, to the Lakota Nation. His song recalls a victorious interlude in the doomed defence of tribal lands and “life ways”: the routing of Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

It is rare for outsiders to hear such music but I am here with the acclaimed indigenous author and guide Serle Chapman, whose work has been recognised by, among others, Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela.

Tall and immaculately dressed, with a waist-length braid, he cuts a striking figure. Among my fellow tour members, there are differing hopes for the next fortnight. Linda is following up on a Native American Studies course; Danielle from Delft is exploring tribal spirituality, while Bob from Islington is fulfilling a boyhood dream.

We leave Wilmer and drive south through undulating grassland, where we encounter the descendants of the great buffalo herds that once roamed the plains. Tatanka — the buffalo — was everything to the Lakota: the meat sustained them, the hides clothed and sheltered them and the bones provided tools and arrowheads. But more importantly, the buffalo was a direct spiritual link to the ancestors.

The Lakota creation story speaks of the buffalo once being human. But because the human defied the Creator, it was transformed into a four-legged creature, and became destined to sacrifice itself on earth for its kin. Only through death could the spirit of the buffalo become human again.

As the minibus draws to a halt, the prairie dogs appear from their burrows, hopping from foot to foot like anxious doormen. The lumbering bulls and slender cows crop the grass unperturbed, emitting deep grunts. It is the summer moult and clumps of shaggy hair hang from their hides.

Although the Lakota followed the herds, they were never nomadic. They tracked the stars in a prescribed ceremonial journey between their sacred sites. In summer, the tribal bands converged on Bear’s Lodge for the Sundance ceremony.

The lodge, which appeared in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is visible for miles. The tortured rock face towers 1,200ft above the plain. “The first person to hum the theme tune will be walking back!” says Serle, only half-joking, for this is a holy place. Prayer ties and tobacco offerings hang in the trees.

The circular Sundance ground is hemmed by cottonwoods and a rust-red creek. It is a tranquil spot, but once a year it reverberated with the hopes of a nation. For four days and four nights without food or water, the men would dance, praying for the regeneration of the tribe.

Dance is still important to the Lakota. Sequoia Cross White, a dancer and musician from the Cheyenne River Reservation, joins us later that evening. We hear him before we see him, his ankle bells jangling down the corridor. His porcupine quill and deer-hair bonnet casts spiky shadows in the lamplight and his robe is fringed with hundreds of tassels. Historically, this dance was performed before moving camp.

Sequoia demonstrates the first step: tracing a wide circle first with one foot, then the other, mimicking the scouts flattening the grass. Next he is an eagle: eyes darting, head jerking back and forth. As the drumming builds, he begins to twist and turn, leaping in the air. Then he lunges forward: he is a buffalo, galloping across the plains.

The bells accentuate his every move; the tassels ripple behind him like the wind-blown grass. As the tempo quickens he jumps higher, faster. On the final beat, he freezes: sweaty and exultant.

It is through song and dance and storytelling that indigenous culture has survived. “Academics and devotees of cultural Darwinism may call it myth or legend,” reasons Serle, “but this is history, our history, lived and passed down by the people. It’s only when you rely on writing things down that you start to forget.”

He needs a good memory because we cover five states and several hundred years on our journey. The scenery shifts and changes: the expansive sky and sea of green gives way to the desolate moonscape of the badlands. And beyond the high buttes and deep gullies, we find the dappled shade of the pine forest. The days are long but we have abandoned our watches. Mesmerised by Serle, we are on “Indian time” now.

He shares his knowledge with a passion akin to a fever. The spiritual histories challenge literal interpretation but he carries us with him. “You say, ‘Seeing is believing,’ but for indigenous people, believing is seeing,” he chides. We trace the lives of the great leaders: Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Red Cloud, walking their trails and pausing at their camp grounds. We learn how they earned their position, counselled their people.

The Lakota ways changed when the white man arrived. The tribes had lived in harmony with their environment. The fur trade altered that balance. With the settlers came land agents, missionaries and soldiers. The railroad followed. Measles and cholera were other unwelcome guests. Hunting grounds shrank as the people were displaced. The tribes were pushed west into rival territories, leading to inter-tribal warfare. Buffalo numbers plummeted.

When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, prospectors flooded into the Lakota heartland, trampling the last hunting grounds and contravening every treaty that had ever been signed. With the buffalo nation dwindling, the people faced starvation and the skirmishes escalated.

“The Lakota were a people, not an army, yet they were forced on to a war footing,” explains Serle. “They had no army, but they still had to protect the old and the young and retain their economies despite the loss of their physical and spiritual sustenance.”

In a Nebraskan field — the site of the 1875 Treaty Council between Chief Red Cloud and government commissioners — in the face of a gathering storm, Serle draws down the final curtain. The sky is the colour of gunmetal and the wind eddies around our feet, raising the dust in angry spirals.

Gold was the oil of its day and the government wanted the Black Hills. When negotiations failed, a military solution was contrived. If I close my eyes, I can see the lines of blue, hear the pounding of hooves and the stuttering rifle fire. The US Army underestimated the tribes that day at the Little Bighorn but victory was to be short-lived. The government issued a stark ultimatum, threatening to withhold essential food rations. It became known as the “Sell or Starve” bill. The Black Hills were never for sale but they took them anyway.

Later, Chief Red Cloud would say, “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they kept only one. They promised to take our land and they took it.”

Confined to the reservations, the Lakota were forced on to diminishing tracts of land. The government tried to turn them into farmers by allocating allotments. It didn’t work. Their religious ceremonies were banned and their children were stolen: removed to boarding schools where all cultural ties were severed.

Today, the people on the reservations face different problems: unemployment tops 70 per cent and diabetes, alcoholism and drug abuse are rife. The Lakota have the lowest life expectancy of any group in America. The grass may be green but the poverty is palpable.

“People talk about closure, but why would you close a book that’s never been read?” counters Serle. “Native people want cultural understanding and racial healing, not closure,” he says. He has a point. Conservative estimates numbered North America and Canada’s indigenous population at 33 million before the settlers arrived. By 1890 the figure was just 250,000. Spiritual autonomy was restored only in 1978 and the land wrangles continue. Yet the struggle barely seems to register on the domestic US radar.

Despite the challenges facing the tribe, Serle is optimistic: “While there is still one person speaking the language, telling the stories and singing the songs, there is always hope,” he says.

At Red Cloud School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the students display their bead and quill work, pastels and oils alongside the craftwork of their ancestors. And at the Standing Rock Reservation tribal headquarters, the gallery is lined with photographs of armed forces personnel who are upholding the warrior tradition. A sense of cultural pride is being fostered but the Lakota need jobs if they are to have hope.

Tourism helps by celebrating their heritage and bringing money into the local economy. The guides and guest speakers employed by Go Native America are all paid for their services, and we have cleaned out the local arts and crafts studios.

On the last night, we rejoin Wilmer on his grandfather’s allotment — a high, scrubby plain dropping through wooded slopes to arid badlands. He lives the old way, preserving the traditions and conducting an annual Sundance.

He takes up his drum one last time. The wind is whispering in the pines and beyond the dusky ranges, the sky is shot through with crimson. He starts to sing. Behind us, the road splits the reservation like an axe. The lights are flickering on in Rapid City, the neon signs advertising cars and computers, fast food and real estate. But in the Black Hills, the sacred heart of the Lakota Nation is still beating.


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