What began as purely an economic assistance program from the government of Venezuela and its energy company, Citgo, has evolved into a journey for myself and the Lakota people: one that provides hope and a model for how indigenous people can work together to overcome the challenges we face.
For the last three years, the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe has benefited from an energy assistance program sponsored by Citgo. Last year alone, Citgo provided more than $460,000 in assistance to my tribe. So, when Sabine Kienzl, who works for the Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in the political economy section, contacted my office with a thought in mind of bringing a Venezuelan delegation to visit the Cheyenne River reservation, I took this great opportunity to meet those responsible for this act of generosity and invited them to tour Lakota country as my guest.
In late July, I escorted the Venezuelan vice minister of popular power for communal territories in urban zones, Aloha Nuñez, and her delegation, Yancy Maldonado, a Yekwana tribal representative of the Venezuelan Ministry of Popular Power for Indigenous Peoples; Roberto Vargas, representative of Citgo; and Kienzl on a cultural and historical tour designed to give them first-hand knowledge of the Lakota people, land and heritage. We began in Cheyenne River, toured Lower Brule, visited Rosebud and ended on the Pine Ridge reservation. In each place, we met with tribal leaders and visited sites of cultural and historical significance, and along the way, developed a mutual respect as we discussed Native affairs. Departing as friends, the representatives invited me to their homeland in August to attend the first Indo-American Congress of Anti-Imperialist Warriors of the Americas, from around the globe.
I landed in the sprawling Venezuelan capital of Caracas Aug. 8 and, upon arrival, took full advantage of a busy schedule of meetings and events with the leaders of indigenous tribes from across the Americas, including Colombia, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Peru and Argentina. As one of only two U.S. leaders invited to the conference, we were provided a translator so we could actively participate and interact at the predominantly Spanish-speaking event.
In each place, we met with tribal leaders and visited sites of cultural and historical significance, and along the way, developed a mutual respect as we discussed Native affairs.
After a meeting with tribal leaders to discuss key issues, our delegation joined a march in progress on the streets of Caracas to show solidarity and support for Bolivian President Evo Morales. Morales, the first Bolivian president of full indigenous ancestry, was facing a referendum on his presidency that day that would determine whether he would remain in office. The atmosphere was electric as thousands of people marched and chanted in unity, “Long live Evo Morales! Long live [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez!” I looked and saw massive waves of people supporting these leaders.
The next day we learned the referendum had been a great success, with more than 67 percent of the voters in favor of keeping Morales in office. According to the 2001 census in Bolivia, 66.2 percent of Bolivia’s people are indigenous. I thought the indigenous population in Venezuela would match that of Bolivia, given the massive support I had experienced, but I learned that the indigenous population in Venezuela is similar to that of the United States, at only 2.2 percent in Venezuela and 1.5 percent of indigenous people in the United States.
As we marched that day, I contemplated the overwhelming support that these indigenous leaders received, including Chavez, who is a Native descendant of his country and a leader of indigenous causes globally. These leaders and the people were being seen and heard in a way that I had never before experienced. I knew from our meetings that these tribes have faced the same tragedies and losses we have experienced, from the murder and loss of leaders and their people, to wars and cultural and spiritual deprivation. And yet, they were still gathered together to show strength and support for one another – unifying for a cause in which they believed. It made me believe in possibilities, of our own strengths as traditional people with good values. These indigenous people made my heart feel strong, knowing that we were no different in our struggles.
As inspired as I was by the procession, the opportunity to meet and speak to the people only affirmed to me how connected and alike we truly are. I marched among many tribes in their traditional regalia but almost stopped when I noticed a particular group of young men. At first glance, it looked as if they were wearing Lakota Sun Dance regalia, but it was their own Native attire.
I approached the group and their leader, Hector, and struck up a conversation by way of the translator. We spoke for hours, and eventually Hector showed me a very old picture of a Native man in leggings, a breechcloth and a war shirt, with a feather sticking straight up that was attached to his hair. It looked to me like I was gazing at a photo of one of my Lakota ancestors from the 1800s, but Hector surprised me by saying it was his relative from hundreds of years ago.
My amazement grew when looking beyond the regalia, I noticed that the man in the picture held something in his lap – “La Pipa,” said Hector, at which time my translator informed me he meant it was a canupa, a pipe. Hector explained that long ago, his relatives received this pipe from the people to the north and that they had prayed with it. I knew the Canupa was first given to the Lakota. I knew that these people Hector spoke of were our own ancestors from long ago.
Hector’s face darkened when he told me how his tribe lost their Canupa. The Spaniards overtook their land and forced them to cease their spiritual practices. I explained that we, too, had faced such persecution in 1908 when the Lakota ways were outlawed – but that our relatives had managed to keep the practices alive by taking them underground and that not until the1970s were we able to practice our cultural ways again in public.
Over the next few hours, we exchanged many stories about our people, our medicines and our practices. Hector told me a story passed down by his ancestors, that the people who lived at the tip of Alaska all the way down to the bottom region of South America all lived under the Creator and were one nation. This encounter, like so many others I have experienced among indigenous people, reinforced that there is a great connection between our people and tribal people everywhere.
The next day, the other delegates and I were placed on a panel to address questions from the local tribes. There, I answered questions about tribal people in the United States and the Sioux Nation, including our treaties, culture, spiritual practices and beliefs. Most of the questions focused on our spiritual beliefs and practices, so I explained the Sun Dance, the Sweatlodge, the hanbleca
I learned that to other tribes, our people symbolize strength because the Lakota people have always stood up when no one else would; they fought and died, living under a law that Tunkasila (God) had put in place, for family and culture.
Many of my meetings and encounters in Venezuela have made an impact on me and inspired me. A speech by the minister of Indigenous Affairs, Ms. Maldonado of the Yekwana tribe, told of the development and progressive attempts the country was making to address the poor living conditions and lack of economic development in the various regions. She spoke of the strengths that the indigenous people historically had, but how it fades when we do not exercise our cultural practices. This was a very powerful meeting; it meant much to me to hear the words of encouragement for our people to regain our strength through our cultural identity.
I visited with the indigenous brother from Argentina who asked me questions about Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and the Wounded Knee massacre. I shared my knowledge on the stories, the families and the attempts that we have made to heal our nation’s wounds. When I informed him of the bloodlines that still exist on our reservation, he cried with joy. He returned the favor by telling me the story of an Incan prophecy about a condor and an eagle. He said the Condor and the Eagle will meet in the air and join together, at which time will begin 1,000 years of peace on Earth. This Indian man believes that the Eagle represents the North American nations of indigenous people and the Condor represents the South American tribes.
On the final day, I was taken out of one of the meetings, driven to the Bolivian Embassy and asked to say the invocation for a meeting where Chavez would be present. I agreed and told them that I would do so by way of a song, the Tatanka Oyate (Buffalo Nation) song. Since I didn’t have a drum, I borrowed one from a local tribesman and taught another tribesman how to drum for the song.
When the time came for the invocation, Chavez sat on the stage, along with the ambassador of Bolivia and the minister of Indigenous Affairs for Venezuela, with a live feed connecting Morales. I said a quick prayer and walked on stage to give the invocation.
I thanked Chavez for the assistance he has provided to our people in the United States. I told him that he is viewed as a brother by the Lakota, that our people in the United States and the indigenous people of Venezuela are one family and that all the people on Grandmother Earth were one nation.
I sang the Buffalo Nation song, after which Chavez walked around the table where he was sitting and gave me a big hug. He said in English, “I have met you before?” I answered that we had not met, that this was my first trip outside of the United States. At this point, the ambassador of Bolivia grabbed me and gave me a big hug, telling me that he was so happy that the Lakota could be here in Venezuela. When I turned to leave the stage, Chavez said to me as I was walking away, “Lakota.” I turned and he said, “We are with you.” I nodded in agreement and exited the stage.
I was excited and happy to hear these words from Chavez and for our people to receive such support. We sat back in the audience and watched the colorful traditional dances of different regions and countries. We listened as Chavez and Morales spoke of the unity of the indigenous nations and of the possibilities and strengths of all indigenous nations.
Before leaving for the airport, I visited with Nuñez, who asked me to stay longer and visit some of the villages and witness the development that is occurring there. While I was very appreciative of the offer, I knew it was time for me to go home to my family and to take care of my own people. The vice minister presented me with a traditional tribal shirt from her family, bearing her family symbols. According to her Wayuu traditions, this action made me her brother.
I left the conference with a full heart, a new family and a feeling of rejuvenation, with an excitement to share the stories of these encounters and revelations with my relatives at home.
On my flight home, I thought about the stories, the struggles and the history of our Lakota people. Our heroes, like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, who stood in resistance and opposition to forces that threatened our way of life and our people. How a man named George Armstrong Custer attacked our camps on the Little Bighorn River in 1876 but paid the ultimate price, because our people refused to be beaten and stood together. When at Wounded Knee, our bands of Minniconjou and Hunkpapa fought and suffered while our Chief Spotted Elk (Big Foot) was killed, our journey to mend our sacred hoop had just begun. Our great leaders have given their lives for their love of the people.
Today, as a young leader in the Great Plains region, I feel the burden of this past on my shoulders but remember the standards our relatives have set for us all, in conduct and in life.
This July during the Sun Dance, Warfield Moose Jr., my cousin, told me to look at the path in the ground that was made by the buffalo skulls that were being pulled by the men. The path is very small and difficult to see – but it is the path that our relatives the buffalo have made for us. To me, this path is not an easy one, but our relatives are here with us and it can be done. The more people who travel this path, the more visible it will be in time and the more relatives will be able to undertake their journeys.
This journey was only the beginning for me, and provides true inspiration and hope from the indigenous people of the world who are so beautiful, alive, and strong. I hope it one day provides inspiration for our Lakota Nation and North American tribes to come together in unity, so that we may all witness what had occurred: the unity of many different tribes and a strength that comes from that togetherness.
Joseph Brings Plenty is chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. (vision quest) and our values.