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Cook: Statements from elders regarding the protection of ceremonies

We have gathered at this sacred place this weekend to discuss the protection of our ceremonies, and consider what must be done to assure their safety. It is hoped we will see how to proceed with their continuation in a good and respectful way for both ourselves and our descendents.

Those involved in the discussions are to be commended for the efforts on behalf of the people to protect the sacred ceremonies, but we are here to discuss how some of the decisions reached have caused widespread opposition and far-reaching consequences for many people.

We all admire and respect the Keeper of the Sacred Pipe belonging to all Lakotas, and consider him the most legitimate cultural spokesman the people have. His concerns are those of ours, and he is the proper person to sound the issues. But the currents of politics and religion surrounding some of the points in his proclamation, we believe, can be dangerous for all. We are each called upon to engage the issues of commercialization, exploitation and abuse, and deal in positive ways with the politics of the discussion. The debate should not fan division, religious animosity and misunderstanding, because of the importance of what's all involved. To deny another's legitimacy is always provocative.

Many people view the proclamation as an effort by a small group to impose rules of conformity upon everyone, and see it as a threat to control the spiritual lives of people. This may not be an accurate reflection of what was intended but, unfortunately, the positions as stated in the March 9 proclamation have resulted in fear, division, religious animosity, and misunderstanding. From discussions with our family elders, I have to state that we don't believe this is what any of us wish to create for the people, despite the need to address issues critical to the conduct of our ceremonies.

I submit that our family circles cannot support the decision reached here for some very specific reasons: first and foremost, this body lacks historical precedent or foundation for governance of the people. Traditional governance has always been based upon the sovereignty and integrity of the tiospaye, or extended family, in matters of control, government, and cultural property rights.

The people naturally resist centralized authority, and today, the BIA administration. Indian people are forever claiming their sovereign right to traditional tiospaye self-governance. What another tiospaye does, or "the way they do things over there," was a matter of their own business in the traditional ways of the people.

We do not have to thrust a rule-making responsibility unfairly upon the shoulders of one man. As leaders, each must share equally in the responsibility of governance of our spiritual families and ceremonies, and uphold their integrity. If we are seeking foundations upon which we may establish protocols and legitimacy for our decisions, we can look to our ancestors who dealt with the same issues 100 years ago.

Cultural foundations of ceremonial life are established in "Lakota Belief and Ritual," a compilation based upon the transcribed conversations at the turn of the century with ancestral holy men and medicine men who addressed some of our concerns.

At a time when the traditional ways were being suppressed, it was written to preserve the Lakota beliefs while the old holy men were still living. Those old men chose to give the information so that we would have guidance.

In it, George Sword, holy man, medicine man, and Sundance Intercessor, who conducted the last Oglala Sun Dance held in the pre-reservation days when the people were free, said, on Sept. 20, 1896:

"The Lakota should smoke the pipe first when considering any matter of importance."

Furthermore, not only must the pipe be smoked in matters of importance, it should also be lit in a sacred way.

According to Sword: "When the bowl is filled, the pipe should be lighted with a coal of fire and not with a blaze. This is because the spirit in the fire is in the burning coals and the spirit in the blaze is going away from the fire."

Sword reaffirmed this "original understanding" the same month in his narrative titled "The Pipe:"

"The pipe should be lighted with a burning coal and not with a flame. If the pipe is not filled and lighted in this manner, the spirit of the God will not be in the smoke from the pipe."

What constitutes abuse and where does it start? From one perspective, misuse may begin with the simple plastic Bic lighter. Its use is prevalent and unquestioned, but our elders, who are descendents of Sword, consider it disrespectful and irreverent. The burning coal is not only customary for lighting the pipe within our tiospaye, but as explained by the ancestor in "Foundations," it is essential.

If Sword's assertion that "The God" is absent in the smoke from pipes lit with matches or Bic lighters, then one may legitimately question the efficacy of prayer offered in such a manner. To some it may matter little, but to others, the observance of this protocol is of the utmost importance.

If we are seeking foundations upon which to create protocols, they can be found. To whatever degree we observe our practices and procedures, is again, up to the individual tiospayes and ceremonial leaders. We cannot say what "those people over there" should do or not do, despite how misinformed or disingenuous we may think them to be.

Regarding the concern of racial exclusivity that has been discussed in these meetings, we can also turn to historical documentation for protocol guidelines. George Sword spoke about the future, saying:

"Future generations of the Oglalas should be informed as to all that their ancestors believed and practiced; that the Gods of the Oglalas would be more pleased if the holy men told of them so that they might be kept in remembrance, and that all the world might know of them."

It is clear that Sword had us in mind, such as the world has become today. He set out to preserve the words of the nomadic leaders for the new century just beginning, despite the strictures of the Code of Indian Offenses banning Lakota religious practice that would continue for another 30 years. It has not been lost. Indeed, through the preservation and sharing of our ways, the whole world now knows of the Lakotas.

One may ask how we are supposed to restrict our ceremonies and protect our hochokas from non-Indians when one of those very sacred rites involves taking non-Indians as relatives. On this issue too, which is of great significance to many of us, we can again look for historical foundation. In belief and ritual regarding the Hunka ceremony, Afraid Of Bear said he can make relatives with anybody:

"I can perform the ceremony for anyone chosen in the right way. I can do it for a white man ? Presents must be made to me and to the guests."

Not only does Afraid Of Bear reference inclusion of non-Indians into his family and ceremonies, but he also provides us with a recorded precedent for accepting gifts as payment for services. It was, and still is, an economic exchange, an exchange of energy.

Regarding non-Indians in Sun Dance, Chief American Horse simply said in 1896:

"Anyone may dance the Sun Dance if he will do as the Oglalas do."

One may question what the chief meant by "anyone," but to us it is clear. Afraid Of Bear's younger brother Sword wrote in "Hunka" (p. 199): "A 'Hunka' may be an Oglala, or any other Indian, or a white man, or anyone." Our own elders have maintained the same position. When asked his view on the matter, my father-in-law, Ernest Afraid Of Bear, the great-grandson of Afraid Of Bear, held up four fingers and said:

"There are four colors. Black, White, Red, and Yellow. Anyone who wants to pray with us can come pray."

Based upon the wisdom of our ancestors and our current elders, we continue to practice their ways and what they said to do.

A related issue of concern is the proper language to address the Creation. The use of Lakota in Lakota ceremonies is of course most preferable. This is the language of all host families. But the idea that addressing the superior beings in anything but the Lakota language is impossible appears extreme. Again, there is wisdom in the words of Sword, in "Seeking a Vision:"

"The wakan beings ? can speak Lakota or any other language, and they can use the sign language."

As is apparent, this historical reference to language, as well as the previously cited foundational Lakota beliefs, tends to contradict the positions stated in the March 9 declaration.

On Pine Ridge and everywhere, families - fathers, mothers, grandparents, individuals - are entitled to pray in their usual and customary ways for their lives, for one another, and for all their relations. There is no more fundamental right that people possess. Religious freedom is a birthright, first and foremost, and not subject to debate. The prayers of a human person in relation to the universe need nobody's permission. In Lakota society, this is particularly true for heads of families and the relatives dependent on them.

Unfortunately, we are faced with many examples of abuses that threaten the sanctities of our ceremonies. However, to create encompassing ceremonial protocols without historical perspective and foundation is attempting to address such delicate and complicated issues without consideration of our ancestors and traditional cultural ways.

In the cases of selling or mixing the ways, improper conduct at ceremonies, lack of authority, or where something is being done wrong or without foundation, the situation calls for adjustment appropriate to those particular circumstances. This should occur within the context of the respective tiospayes or spiritual communities.

Despite dealing with such issues, as spiritual leaders, we should continue our ceremonies and extend the good feelings inherent in them, and keep ourselves humble and uncomplicated. I'm sure the men who began these discussions have met for this purpose, and no one can question your sincerity or intent.

We consider the source material on protocols speaks for itself. We can be assured that our ancestors were qualified to speak for Lakota belief and ritual, for themselves and for all their descendants. While conditions today must be addressed, let us not disregard the Foundations of our religious heritage laid out for us so many years ago.

Do we need an external centralized authority to govern our spiritual lives? No. As responsible, spiritual men, our actions and decisions have repercussions for our families, our children, and the people we are associated with in our own time. I urge you to reconsider the proclamation on protection of ceremonies, and refer to and follow the historical foundations of our ancestors who addressed many of the concerns we have before us today.

Tom Kanatakeniate Cook is Wolf Clan Mohawk from Akwesasne married on Pine Ridge. He is Field Coordinator for Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a member of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, President of the High Plains Community Development Corporation, and President of the Chadron Native American Center. He and his wife Loretta (Afraid Of Bear), of Slim Buttes community, reside in Chadron, Neb., and are Sun Dance leaders and co-sponsors of the American Horse/Afraid Of Bear Sun Dance in the Black Hills.