Crossing the line: Invading sacred space

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It is the belief of the Lakota that parents do not choose the child, but
the child chooses the parents. This belief has strong roots in the
spiritual realm of Lakota life. You might be wondering how that can be - a
child choosing its parents? Some might even be thinking, "If I knew that, I
would have chosen better parents."

Lakota people have developed an enduring philosophy that has proven
resilient even in contemporary times. One belief is that of the sacredness
of children. Even the Lakota word for children, wakanyeja, means "sacred."
Translated, this means that Lakota families, guided by this belief, play by
the rules that it is never condoned to physically hit, emotionally demean
or make hurtful comments to a child, or compare a child to another.

So, what influences changed this sacred way of relating to children?

The collision of cultures, the introduction of alcohol and the forced
assimilation through boarding schools are three of the foremost significant
factors that have changed our relationship to children. We will examine
each of these factors in an attempt to understand how we can maintain our
sense of balance in relating to wakanyeja.

COLLISION OF CULTURES

The collision of cultures can be compared to the reproduction cycle when
the DNA from a male merges with that of a female. The outcome is
unpredictable but recognizable. Similarly, when cultures collide, facets of
one impact, clash or overwhelm facets of the other either negatively or
positively.

Spirituality was affected by prohibition of ceremonies, the banning of
medicine men to minister to their people, forbidding the use of the pipe
which is integral to the spirituality of northern Plains tribal people.
Therefore, forced assimilation through education has erased, diminished and
distorted the true history of American Indians.

INTRODUCTION OF ALCOHOL

The first time northern Plains tribes experienced alcohol was during the
Lewis and Clark expedition, who brought with them as an economic bartering
tool 120 barrels of whiskey to pave the way for gaining access to tribal
lands and resources. While Europeans had used alcohol for centuries and
incorporated its use into their daily lifestyle, northern Plains tribes
found it to be peculiar since it affects your physical, mental and
emotional being in bizarre ways.

This strange and intoxicating beverage forever changed the lives of the
Indigenous people of America. There are historical accounts of how tribal
people behaved while under the influence. William Penn wrote to the Earl of
Sutherland in 1683: "Ye Dutch, Sweed, and English have by Brandy and
Specially Rum, almost Debaucht ye Indians all. When Drunk ye most Wretched
of Spectacles. They had been very Tractable but Rum is so dear to them."

We are now faced with many "debaucht" Indians who are "most wretched
spectacles." While individual Indians are taught from infancy the qualities
of respect, honor, decorum and adherence to the rules of family
interaction, the introduction of alcohol has damaged the respectable way of
interacting with family members. When family members are under the
influence, they fail to maintain their sense of boundaries and invade the
sacred space of family members - particularly children - by conducting
themselves in a disrespectful manner that brings shame to the family.

A Justice Department study entitled "Indians as Victims of Crime" reported
that two-thirds of American Indian victims say alcohol was a factor in
criminal incidents.

BOARDING SCHOOL AS A TOOL OF ASSIMILATION

American Indian families suffered when their children were forcibly
wrenched from the home and confined in Christian boarding schools for nine
months out of the year. American Indian children received narrow education,
one that did not honor their culture. This experience was a failure and
disaster on a large scale:

Guidance by adults from totally different cultures (nuns and priests, dorm
matrons and prefects) irreparably impacted the lives of untold children
whose sense of self-esteem was devalued.

CONCLUSION

In order to repair the damage inflicted upon the self-esteem and sense of
purpose of American Indian children, parents, grandparents and other adult
caregivers must be re-trained, re-oriented and reformatted to be reminded
of the value of cultural teachings that have guided tribal people to this
time.

The memories of those teachings remain innately in the hearts and souls of
our elders and traditional people. Healing the wounds, practicing the
teachings of the ancestors, honoring the culture and specifically
respecting the sacredness of children will ultimately allow tribes to
thrive.

Carole Anne Heart is the executive director of the Aberdeen Area Tribal
Chairmen's Health Board. She can be reached at (605) 721-1922 or
execdir@aatchb.org. Visit www.aatchb.org for more information.