When my grandpa was dying of cancer, he asked for me. He wanted me to sit with him. I was about 8 years old. The cancer had metastasized and spread over his entire body so he was in exquisite pain. I can still see him lying there in his bed, bony and frail, covered lightly with a yellowed sheet. The room was warm and quiet, and smelled like cigarette smoke, pills and antiseptic. My aunt was a nurse. She took it upon herself to tend to him. Grandpa asked me to put my little hands on his limbs. Even the slightest touch hurt him, but he wanted me there. All I could hear was his shallow breathing. Time stood still. I prayed from my heart, “Take away the pain. Give him comfort.” My grandpa was one of my very favorite people on the whole green Earth. Soon he began to say that my grandma, who had passed on decades previous, came to the window with his other deceased relatives. He died in a matter of weeks.
At his wake, voices rang hollow in my head as bowls of cigarettes and chewing gum were passed from row to row. I couldn’t believe he was gone. Hundreds attended his funeral. The men gathered and sang his honor song.
At the time I didn't know that children were considered holy by our People, the Oceti Sakowin (Sioux). In the days before assimilation, the very presence and touch of a child was considered healing. To my grandfather, I was medicine.
"The ones that matter the most are the children." Lakota Proverb
The Lakota call children wakanyeja. ‘Wakan’ means sacred. To us, children are not only blessings, but are meant to be the principal focus of each tiospaye (extended family group). They are sacred of their own accord.
We believe that before a baby is born, its soul specifically chooses its mother and father. It is understood that children are more than miniature versions of ourselves; they are spiritual beings in their own right, with their own voices, gifts, talents, and purposes.
Children are never to be abused or looked down upon. They are to be treated as respected members of the community who are not only capable of understanding complex topics, but teaching adults things of a spiritual nature as well. Traditionally, it was also believed that a child’s behavior and body language could predict future events.
"Grown men can learn from very little children—for the hearts of little children are pure. Therefore, the Great Spirit may show them many things that older people miss." –Black Elk
Genocidal conquest and assimilation eviscerated every aspect of Native identity. Our families were separated. Our children were stolen and shipped off to boarding and residential schools to be spiritually broken and indoctrinated. Many were hurt there. Some did not survive.
We see the long lasting effects of this intergenerational trauma among us today. Domestic violence, substance abuse, molestation, rape, child neglect and suicide is ravaging our Nations, virtually unchecked.
Last year, the Pine Ridge Reservation declared a State of Emergency after a rash of suicides among its youth. Some had not even reached puberty. Now, the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario has also declared a State of Emergency after dozens of its members attempted suicide. The youngest was 11.
These afflictions are spiritual in nature, and that is why the children are so strongly affected. We must honor and respect them again. We must allow children to be the powerful spiritual beings and healers they are. We have lost our way. We’ve got to pour everything into our youth. We must ask them for forgiveness, uplift them, and make them our primary focus once more. They need our love and attention.
Please, tell the children who we really are.
Tell them that as Indigenous youth, their very existence is a revolutionary act. Each beat of their Native heart defies greedy, bloodthirsty kings, conquerors, conquistadors & the U.S. Cavalry, all sent to steal & kill. They are their ancestor's living dream and an answer to our prayers. Because of them, there is hope for the next 7 generations. Millions of people have fought and died so they might live. They are more precious than diamonds. They are love personified. They are proof of our ancestor's victory over tyranny and death.
Love is medicine in and of itself. It heals old wounds, gives us the strength to forgive, and is strong enough to move mountains. Love in action can save us all, the entire world.
Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.