Before this current sabbatical, I would have said that I was torn between my love of the ocean and that of the mountains. After spending a month and a half in South Dakota then three weeks in Montana, my desire to see and hear big bodies of water overshadowed the rugged beauty of both of those states. That is until I entered Yellowstone in Wyoming, a perfect combination of wilderness, hills, and water, and where I rented a bathroom-less cabin for two nights on the grounds of Old Faithful as I fretted about whether a cat could outrun a grizzly or a buffalo.
Yellowstone hosts a number of retirees who live in the park for half of the year while they work as energetically as teenagers and college students, taking on the tasks needed to keep the park running for the overburdening tourists, their trade for the gift of being surrounded by nature. Each time I drove through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, pausing at every bubbling geyser or crystal blue lake dwarfed by snow-peaked mountains, I wondered: What was it like before the paved roads and man-made structures?
There is at least one lake in the Grand Tetons that allows visitors to take a motorboat into the water, the sparkling liquid polluted a little bit more each time. Nausea settled in my stomach when I saw the boats, a feeling similar to the acidic anxiety that forms in my gut when I have to toss plastic into a garbage can instead of a recycling bin. Reluctantly, I placed my hypocrisy back into the Jeep as I drove my motorized vehicle out of the Wyoming parks and into Nevada for the first desert stopover in Ely, inside a motel painted in aqua blue with the sole word “Motel” as its name. The changeable letter signage advertised “pet friendly” and “free wifi,” two basics that lured me in there and in Las Vegas. After a four-hour drive on a back road with Gatita crying non-stop, something I failed to hear in that final hour, those last sixty miles hazy in the 90-degree arid heat, my mind created so many water mirages on the asphalt that I thought I was hallucinating. By the time we reached Vegas, the cat and I were both so wigged out, our bodies still vibrating from the constant hum of rubber hitting the road, that we collapsed onto the musty smelling, hookers-pay-by-the-night sin city motel bed until our bodies cooled off, overheated because of the Jeep’s lame air conditioner. But, we are two blocks from Interstate 15 which will take us into California and our final destination of the Pacific Ocean.
For the first time during this 12-month trip, I used a short-term rental service (AirBnB) to secure a 1 to 3 month apartment in San Pedro, California. From the photos, it’s quaint and airy with the perfect writing desk facing a large bay window that offers a partial view of the Los Angeles/San Pedro Port. The owners advertised “no pets,” but of course I asked if they would consider an exception, briefly explaining my solo writing journey, and Gatita’s perfect feline behavior in hotels, cottages, apartments, tipis, and cabins.
But before I cast off even farther west, I want to return briefly to that one lone week in this sabbatical when I sought out Native American reservations, sitting down with descendants from nation(s) that came before us.
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Honoring the Past
“Those hills are our sacred land,” a Lakota man told me.
He was only one of the many Native Americans I spoke with in my drive across the states of South Dakota and Montana, through prairie land then rolling hills then mountainous ranges, the changing of topography as varied as the native reservations themselves.
It was not my intention to be another American trespasser onto the Lakota’s Paha Sapa, but I inadvertently was as are three million other visitors a year to Mount Rushmore, those American faces looking out over the Lakota’s Black Hills, and not the United States’ as tourist websites read. In 1868, the U.S. asked for a peace treaty at Fort Laramie which guaranteed the Black Hills to the Lakota. Then gold was discovered.
I gave the only heart offer I could after standing in the freezing rain, harsh drops pelting my face as I tightened my thighs for traction against the wind, shivering at the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre on the Pine Ridge reservation. Shaking my head, I closed my eyes as I recalled the history:
Over 300 Lakota killed in 1890, women and children on foot, chased up to two miles by U.S. military on horseback; one baby found two days later in a blizzard, still alive and sucking his dead mother’s breast.
In my research, I discovered that the U.S. awarded more “medals of honor” for the Wounded Knee Massacre than they did during the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Surely the American descendants of those soldiers know the truth by now and have discarded those medals as many recipients of medals during the Vietnam war did.
When I visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield, originally designated as a national monument in revisionist history to ‘Custer’s Last Stand,’ it was comforting to see that the fallen Lakota and Cheyenne were now also being honored, two nations that bonded to protect their land and people from invasive Americans.
Inside the Little Big Horn museum, I listened as a video narrator said, “The Crow sided with the United States Army against the Lakota and Cheyenne.” But that same voice failed to mention that the Crow were offered a land treaty in exchange for helping the U.S. The Crow, of course, lost everything just as the Lakota and Cheyenne did, and eventually all of the 200,000 Native Americans who weren’t killed off watched as over 500 peace treaties offered by the U.S. were subsequently violated, culminating with the Cherokee’s Trail of Tears in the south and the Oceti Sakowin‘s Wounded Knee in the north.
I never visited any gold rush museums that romanticized “how the west was won.” Even in Las Vegas, there is a motel that glorifies “Buffalo Bill,” who shot thousands of precious Tatanka, a critical essential to the nomadic “life way” of the Lakota who used every part of the bison for their survival. For each buffalo killed, a Native American died so that when there were only 200,000 native People left, there were also only 200,000 Tatanka.
All of nature is sacred to the native People; Mitakuye Oyasin: “We are related to everything that lives and breathes.” One never killed animals indiscriminately for sport. Instead, you thanked the deer or the buffalo for their meat that would feed your family or their hide that would warm your body; to harm nature is to harm yourself.
We cannot undo the past.
I met a German woman living with the Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge reservation. She said that growing up in Germany, kids are taught in school early about the Holocaust. German kids read Anne Frank, visit a concentration camp, and are shown horrid photos of that time in history. She answered my questioning look.
“We’re taught the truth so that we never make those mistakes again,” she said then paused before continuing, “And we learn about the Native Americans, too.”
In German schools, young adults choose a Native American tribe to study in depth, learning their language, culture, government, and any other characteristics particular to that clan. She chose the Lakota, a dialect under the Oceti Sakowin, what Americans know as “Sioux.” Out of the nine reservations that exist in South Dakota, I visited five – Yankton, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Rosebud, Pine Ridge – and even though I’m multiple states away now, I still cannot let go of what I experienced.
To make it easier to share, I condensed what I absorbed into three areas: Philosophy; Industries and Misconceptions; A New Future
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Philosophy: Life Way
Oceti Sakowin /oh-cheh-ti sha-koh-we/ is The Seven Council Fires, for the seven nations they represent, which includes three dialects: Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota. All legal U.S. documentation identifies these clans and their reservations as “Sioux,” a shortened French re-spelling of a (derogatory) name Nadowe Su meaning “little rattle,” the sound a snake makes before biting. Sometimes, Nadowe Su was a reference to those who lived by the ‘snake river’ except not all Oceti Sakowin are from the Dakotas or even lived by the Missouri River.
In my elementary thinking, I wondered why they allowed themselves to be called ‘Sioux’ at all. But of course, I do not have 238 years of broken legal agreements with the United States government. The reluctance of the Seven Council Fires to initiate a name change is understandable: It could negatively affect active treaties when already it is difficult to keep the U.S. from violating centuries-old agreements.
When I arrived at the Yankton reservation (Ihanktonwan Dakota Oyate), I shook the tribal leader’s hand; mine a firm grasp demonstrating my purpose and gratitude; his only allowed for the soft touch of fingers to fingers, no palm. No matter how hard I tried to hold on, he let go. I was too much of something, too much American maybe.
I’m writing a blog, I say, about what it means to be “Sioux,” using the improper designation while he gently corrects me without correcting me, pronouncing Oceti Sakowin out loud, then his clan name. I repeat the names over and over again until I say them perfectly.
“The ‘n’ is silent,” he says. Then, “You are a quick learner,” but it’s possible my eagerness is annoying him. I have shown up without an appointment and although he is clearly busy, his staff continuously walking into his office with paperwork, asking him to sign here or initial there, he has invited me to sit at his round conference table.
I do not ask the questions my juvenile brain wants to know: What did you use in place of toilet paper? Did you brush your teeth or just chew mint leaves? What plant did you use for soap? How did women deal with menstruation? What if a woman didn’t like to cook? I can use the internet to find these answers, and he did not live in the time when the Dakota roamed their own lands. Instead, I ask 21st Century questions beginning with the philosophy of The Seven Council Fires.
Q. Knowing what you know today and if you lived in the 1500s, would you still help the Europeans?
Without the native People helping the British and the French, Western Europeans would not have survived. The Yankton tribal leader said that books have been written about the removal of the nomadic ‘way of life’ and that yes, this was as detrimental as the reverse assimilation so that instead of Europeans learning the culture and languages of his land, they forced English and English ways on the People. Nevertheless, he replies “Yes” to my question, because it is the “life way” of the Oceti Sakowin.
“If you ask for help, you receive help,” he said.
I try to re-state the question, emphasizing the destruction of his land and murder of his people. He understands what I am asking, but I’m unable to process what he means until he says, “We are all going to the same place. You have to see the simplicity of people; the humanity of us all.”
No two reservations gave the same answer yet their philosophies were aligned: All of them strive for harmony and peace. One Lakota man admitted, “I wouldn’t want to help, but the People would.” The Oceti Sakowin are/were democratic societies, as were most of the native clans across North America. Even with all the genocide committed, their families torn apart in the name of Christianity, their history rewritten so that American children were taught “Indians are bad,” even through all this, they would still have welcomed foreign people “to share” their land.
You and I are those foreign people.
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Industries and Misconceptions
National newspapers are quick to report about the high poverty and crime on the reservations, and city locals who have never visited their neighbors many times perpetuate only these negatives. When I pulled into the parking lot of the Lower Brule (Sicangu Lakota), I was surprised at the obvious prosperity. Their administration building had to be at least 10,000 square feet, double-level, and overlooking the west bank of the Missouri River while cement tipi poles peeked out from the backside.
Lower Brule has several industries that it relies on from wildlife services to irrigation programs to popcorn production. One of their products, Lakota Popcorn, is a far superior kernel to anything currently on the market or at least that is what my stomach communicated to my brain. It’s not easy to find in local grocery stores, but when I did finally stumble upon it, I purchased as much as I dared, adding to my already over-stuffed truck.
Three of the biggest misconceptions about Native American reservations are what they receive revenue-wise from the operation of casinos, their “ownership” of tribal land, and the opinions of non-native Americans.
Casinos & Revenue: If you work for a casino on a reservation, you receive a regular salary of minimum wage or whatever is the going rate for that position. Yes, the reservations that have a casino do receive some nominal funds for allowing the business on the land, but it’s only the investors who actually own the operation, usually non-native Americans, that benefit from the multi-million dollar revenues generated. The reservations are in need of any businesses that have jobs for their people so they allow the casinos to operate.
Tribal Land and Taxes: Native Americans do not “own” their reservations. All 56.2 million acres of tribal lands are held “in trust” involuntarily and permanently to the United States government. This means that individuals do not possess a title to the land and cannot sell it off or use it as collateral to buy something else off the reservation. Basically, it would be like forever renting and never owning your home, never building equity in anything. And reservations are not exempt from taxes. They may not have a state tax, but they are subject to federal tax from the I.R.S. just like any American.
Negative Press: 90% of non-native Americans who have a poor opinion of the native People have either never met them and/or have never been to any of the 326 Native American reservations still in existence in the U.S. My staple question, when I hear a negative reference shared second hand, is: “Have they ever visited a reservation or sat down with a Native American?” Actually, this is something every American could do: Visit a reservation or museum in whatever state you live or travel to for your next holiday.
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It was a small group of men who spoke with me in the tribal office at the Crow Creek reservation (Mdewakanton Dakota and Ihanktonwan Nakota), east of that Missouri River and across from their Lower Brule friends. Crow Creek does not have the varied industries as their neighbors do, their leasing of farm land to non-native Americans a small revenue-generator for them.
“We have our issues just like anyplace else,” one of them says, but there is more significance to them than only this.
Q. If there was one thing you wanted non-native Americans to know about you, what would it be?
“This is not our home.”
I do not know how to interpret this so he explains: The people of Crow Creek called “home” the land we know today as the state of Minnesota. This is how far south and east Oceti Sakowin spanned. South Dakota is where many of the descendants were exiled to after they staged an uprising and killed white women and children, in retaliation for the 300 native women and children who had already starved to death over a three-year period, food kept from them by a liaison with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who had a Marie Antoinette moment when he told them to “eat grass” if they were hungry. When the liaison was killed, his mouth was stuffed with grass. All of this I learned from reading the Crow Creek reservation website; and when I asked the men questions, they hid nothing.
Those Dakota who hadn’t died from starvation or been hanged after the uprising formed an internal alliance of Hunkpati, translated to mean ‘Making of relatives, to live,’ something they originally thought possible when they allowed the first Europeans to share their land. But even after hundreds of years, their sense of displacement runs deep. Being the transient American that I am, I still did not know how to comprehend this.
As though reading my mind the leader continued, “What happened happened,” and he goes on to explain that although they did not choose to move to South Dakota, they were not destroyed.
“We’re still standing; we’re still here,” he said as he explained how most reservations are in an era of “self-determination.” Where before they were swindled century after century, in the present day they’re prepared to defend their treaties.
All of Oceti Sakowin stands together against the proposed oil pipelines that would stretch across tribal lands, eventually contaminating the only water source for the Rosebud reservation. And these same Native American reservations will not accept money in exchange for the continued violation of the Black Hills. Yes, there is poverty; yes there is crime aligned with a too elevated high school drop-out rate. But frustrated Baby Boomers and more and more GenXs and Millennials growing up on “the rez” are becoming lawyers, learned in Native American treaties; doctors and psychologists willing to return to the reservations to address some of the long-standing issues that have been in existence for decades; teachers and professors willing to learn the culture and languages so they can be taught and passed on to the next Native American generations.
They were indeed decimated, but they are still here.
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A New Future
When the temperatures rose in South Dakota and the Great Plains warmed up briefly, I drove to the Native American Advocacy Program (NAAP) which offers Cultural and Youth Camp services for the Rosebud people, but also tipi stays for travelers interested in living and breathing the Lakota.
Much like it is in the contemporary U.S., it was the women of Oceti Sakowin who managed the pointed house dwellings. The difference is they were responsible for the inside and the outside, processing the heavy buffalo hide that would wrap around the six heavy, wooden poles until the structure was firm and steady. All of this I heard as I struggled to lift the 18-foot poles for my own tipi, my lack of upper body strength making me glad I was living in 2016 and not 1416.
At the NAAP offices, I spent a full day in a classroom-like atmosphere listening intently, hurrying to write as many notes as possible in my journal, confirming phonetic spellings as I practiced the guttural sound that easily lent way to a rich past.
Q. What does it mean today to be Oceti Sakowin?
I learned about the importance and sacredness of four for the Lakota — Life Cycles, Colors, Nature, Ceremonies — all of which sound simple when explained but feel complex when trying to keep track of which tribal member does what and when and why. Every person has a role. What was the significance of a feather again? Some practices can be witnessed during PowWows, explained in their glory; these events originally created to hide tribal gatherings from the U.S. government when ceremonies were forbidden.
- 1890 census: Native children removed from families; Punished for practicing language/culture.
- 1920-1930: Adults are forbidden from leaving the reservation without a government pass.
- 1970s: Forced boarding schools finally closed; Ceremonies legal again.
- 2000s: Era of self-sufficiency for the reservations; Reclaiming their names; Developing a life way that incorporates history with the present.
These are not the most important dates nor are they meant to discount the destruction in the population of the People from the 1400s to the 1800s, going from more than four million to a mere 200,000. But remember, we cannot undo the past. We can, however, teach this history in depth in schools, acknowledging the tragedies on both sides, so that we never repeat it again.
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When I was driving across Iowa, farmers purchased multiple billboards that read: Stop Eminent Domain Abuse. But it was eminent domain abuse that allowed for Oceti Sakowin to lose their original lands. This is how history repeats itself.
In Montana, I was starved for social interaction so I used my time to connect via meet-ups with groups of American women, all of whom seemed laid back and welcoming. During one coffee talk, the subject turned to Presidential candidates and their state visits. One woman said, “We don’t like people from the outside coming in and telling us how to run things.”
“That’s how the Native Americans felt,” I say because the connection was too obvious. She shrugged her shoulders as though that past didn’t affect her present or her future.
For those who say, “Stop looking back,” you are the ones destined to repeat the worst of history with the slight hiccup that the oppressor becomes the oppressed, shocked when no one stands up for you; beleaguered from the remnants of your own suffering while others say, “Stop looking back.”
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Those PowWows that were invented to hide native ceremonies are now some of the largest celebrations held on Native American reservations during the summer months. Americans and other foreigners are welcomed to attend and participate, engaging in select portions of these rituals meant to honor traditions and losses of the past while preparing the mind and the spirit for the future. Whatever state you live in or visit, you can research online for the Native American reservations that exist there. Almost all of them have websites and contact information listed.
Of course, there is so much more that I heard and so much more scribbled notes in my journal, but the reality is that I received only a glimpse into a culture that would take much longer than one week to understand and more than one blog post to convey. Certainly, a true journey could be had by living among the Lakota through four seasons, everything in four. Maybe that’s my next sabbatical; maybe it’s yours.
This post is dedicated to all Native Americans especially the Oceti Sakowin at Yankton, Lower Brule, Crow Creek, Rosebud, and Pine Ridge in South Dakota: Wopila Tanka!