OHSWEKEN, Ontario - As the summer-long Unity Ride and Run neared its end at
the International Elders Summit on the Six Nations Reserve of the Grand
River, Arvol Looking Horse, one of the most widely known and possibly most
controversial Native spiritual leaders of the current generation, defended
the traditional position in a conversation with Indian Country Today.
"We're the original caretakers," he said. "We're traditional people. I've
been traditional people all my life. I have no choice."
Looking Horse, Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Woman pipe bundle, was in
the news recently in a protest over the use of pipe-stone in a floor
installation at the new National Museum of the American Indian. Because of
several complaints, the NMAI removed the pipestone, which came from the
Minnesota quarries of red clay stone (also called Catlinite) used to
fashion the bowls of the sacred pipes. But he also discussed broader
controversies arising from decisions at recent meetings of traditional
elders to restrict non-Indian involvement in sacred indigenous ceremonies.
This long-standing concern came to the fore in an important gathering
December 2002 in Lame Deer, Mont., which one organizer, Northern Cheyenne
Sun Dance leader Bernard Red Cherries, said at the time was inspired in
part by reports of the deaths of two non-Indian participants in an
improperly run sweat lodge. Looking Horse emerged as a spokesman for
subsequent meetings on "protection of the ceremonies" and also took the
brunt of the critical reaction.
In March 2003, he issued a detailed statement excluding non-Natives from
the hocoka, the sacred center of the Seven Rites of the Sioux Nation.
According to a tradition that some scholars say is confirmed by
contemporary documents, the Sioux learned these rites from a mysterious
visitor known as the White Buffalo Calf Woman.
Looking Horse told ICT that he was asked to make that statement by
participants in a meeting of some 22 "Spiritual Leaders and Bundle Keepers"
of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota nations, the Cheyenne and the Arapaho.
"When I met that statement," he said, "only a person in my position could
make that statement.
"When I went back home, they turned around and criticized me, about
protecting the ceremonies. Even today, they're saying Arvol stands alone.
"If Crazy Horse was alive, I'm sure he'd stand with me."
An accomplished horseman, Looking Horse was also a leader in the Unity Ride
healing movement begun in 1986 to retrace the journey of Chief Sitanka,
which ended in the 1892 massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D. Subsequent rides
have journeyed through Canada. The current Unity Ride began in the spring
of 2003 with the ultimate goal of honoring the "Great Tree of Peace" on
Iroquois territory. The current stage set out from Sioux Valley, Manitoba
on June 24 and was scheduled to arrive at the Six Nations Reserve on Aug.
27 to inaugurate a week-long International Indigenous Elders Summit.
"We're trying to do this as traditional as we can today," he said. "So
we're going to ride there."
Looking Horse explained his role in the controversy about the new NMAI
"When I heard about the pipestone being in the lobby, or entrance where the
people come in, I thought this was very disrespectful. In our traditional
ways, in our protocols, ceremonies, in our sacred way of life, we respect
everything; everything is sacred. For instance, a child, you can't put our
children's clothes on the floor. You can't even walk over our children's
clothes or our children.
"What I told them was this is something that is created by the Creator, the
red pipestone, is part of our people and the sacred pipe made of the red
pipestone and to do that is like putting Bibles on the floor and walking
all over them.
"In our sacred places we don't allow women to come in who are on their
moon. We don't know how many women on their moon are coming in [to the NMAI foyer]. These are things they're not looking at. We were upset."
In a broader context, Looking Horse said the pipestone protest was part of
the campaign to protect the sacred rites. "What we're up against today," he
said, "is every time you turn around someone is borrowing our ceremonies.
We're talking about protection of our ceremonies.
"In spiritual sense, we have a spiritual people getting sick as a people.
It falls back on our people, and people are getting sick because of it.
Even people are trying to blame me. They say that I'm doing this and I'm
doing that, and people are getting sick. Look at what's happening to the
sacred sites and the pipestone quarries, the red pipestone itself. They're
selling that and abusing that, and that's why the people are getting sick."
"And one of the elders we have today said the leaders think about the
seventh generation, but today people just think about their back pocket. We
need to bring strong leaders back to our sacred way, they need to
understand why we have sicknesses and negative energy-because people are
not walking the sacred way of life.
"And the White Buffalo Calf Woman said 'walk upon Mother Earth in a sacred
manner.' And this is a way of life, that we walk upon Mother Earth in a
Looking Horse said that he had met the U.S. Attorney in Pierre, S.D. for
help in enforcing federal law prohibiting non-Natives from using eagle
feathers. The elders behind the "protection of ceremonies" statements look
to that law as the means of enforcing their protocols.
"I told him we respect the eagles, the eagle nation," Looking Horse said.
"Where eagles are being taken off the endangered species list, I told him,
no, we have to add on the red pipestone quarry. Right now, the market makes
it an endangered species.
"Every person is supposed to make his own pipe; that's our traditional way.
That way they understand the meaning of the sacred pipe.
"But today, everybody buys their pipes, and who knows what kind of energy
it comes with? You sell them for different reasons, and that's what we're
Looking Horse has sometimes been criticized for his extensive travels and
his efforts to introduce the outside world to the Lakota religion. He
replied that the message had global importance.
"Some people think we're just talking about on the reservation. But no, I
tell them 'open your eyes to what's going on around the world.' On Internet
they're selling our ceremonies. Even when a white buffalo calf is born, why
do we pay attention to a white buffalo born in Janesville, [Wis.] because
it's off the reservation? Our people are thinking about boundaries, just on
the reservation, but in our ceremonies, it's so important, everything is
"It's Mother Earth," he said, illustrating with the ceremony often called
the sweat lodge. "In the Inipi, our ceremony we call inipi, you go in there
you only see half; the other half it's below the earth. They argue it's
only on the reservation, but holistically it's the Mother Earth.
"But always maintain the ceremonies," he said. "They're doing this very
important message from our reservation, from our sacred sites."
Looking Horse has emphasized this global reach in a series of World Peace
and Prayer days held each Spring Equinox for more than a decade. In recent
years, ceremonies have taken place in sacred sites around the world.
Borrowing a term from Tibetan Buddhism, he said, "These are the chakras of
But next year, he said, the main observance would come home to the Black
Hills in South Dakota, in the Tower, Grey Butte area. "Right now, we're
working on that," he said.
But his recent schedule has revolved around the Unity Ride. "It's a huge
event in Six Nations, Canada, the Elders Summit," he said. "Since I came
back from Japan, I've been on this ride. I ran a Sun Dance, and I'm going
back on the ride. The UN had an Indigenous Day for 10 years," he said,
"This is the tenth year."
Looking Horse sees the past decade as a momentous period of the Lakota
religion, as well. "In 1994, the first white buffalo was born. Almost every
year since then a white buffalo calf has been born. White Buffalo Calf
Woman said, "I shall return, when the people are having a hard time.' She
said, "I would come to earth as a white buffalo, with black nose and black
"Since 1994 almost every year a white buffalo calf has been born. When I
came out of Sun Dance I heard ... that a white buffalo calf was born in