Mitakuye Oyasin: A response to the Looking Horse Proclamation

Mitakuye Oyasin: A response to the Looking Horse Proclamation

On behalf of the elders of the Afraid of Bear/American Horse Sun Dance:

*Basil Brave Heart (Intercessor)

*Robert Brave Heart Sr.

*Vern American Horse

*Joe American Horse

*Dave American Horse

*Clifton American Horse

*Ernest Afraid Of Bear Sr.

*Patrolman Ernest Afraid Of Bear Jr.

*Mike Afraid Of Bear

*Al Weasel Bear

*Beatrice Weasel Bear

*Milo Yellow Hair

*Owen Warrior

*Robert Grey Eagle Esq.

*Solomon Red Bear

*Tom Red Bear

"Anyone may dance the sun dance if he will do as the Oglalas do," - Chief American Horse (Sept. 14, 1896)

Mitakuye Oyasin! We say this all the time. But what does it really mean? Are some of us more related than others? After discussions and consultations since the Looking Horse Pipe Proclamation was issued, the tiospayes involved in our Sun Dance in the Black Hills feel they can not endorse the ethnic limitations placed on the use of the Sacred Pipe, as of March 9, 2003.

The elder Overseers of the Afraid Of Bear/American Horse Tiospaye Sun Dance celebrated at the Wild Horse Sanctuary in the Black Hills, believe that tiospayes are inherent sovereign entities in matters of life and religion. The people to whom the sacred pipe was given own the instrument and the religion that goes with it.

This has left my wife and I, as sponsors and lead sun dancers, along with the elders of our tiospaye, with conclusions different than those expressed in the proclamation issued as a result the Medicine Bundle Keepers' meeting at Eagle Butte.

These words to be expressed we offer with no animosity or disrespect. We appreciate it will be difficult to arrive at the best ways of protecting and strengthening our ceremonies. We also appreciate that it is a very complicated world now, for our tribal relatives. We appreciate that Arvol Looking Horse is initiating the discussion on these important issues. We see his proclamation as a good start on this, even when we disagree strongly with his first conclusions.

In the southwestern Pine Ridge community of Slim Buttes, we follow the teachings of the brothers Ernest and Larue Afraid Of Bear, elders who provided us the reason and justification for making prayers and offerings as we do.

These respected elders who gave our Sun Dance its directions are great-grandsons of Afraid Of Bear and Sword, themselves brothers a hundred years ago. The two ancestors had been leaders in the buffalo-hunting days of the Oglalas, and their knowledge, thoughts, and commentary are available to anyone in the book Lakota Belief and Ritual, University of Nebraska Press, 1980. (Anyone wondering about primary source material should consult these narratives collected at the turn of the 20th Century by Dr. James Walker of the Pine Ridge Agency.)

These two knowledgeable Oglala elders of the Afraid Of Bear tisopaye, along with others in their circle of families, requested that our Sun Dance respect all life, all colors of the human being, as long as respect for life and culture prevailed and as long as the intent of the heart of the prayer was good. We are only continuing the altar of prayer they have brought forward from time immemorial.

The historical autonomy of tiospayes, reflected in the fact that headmen of bands signed the treaties, applies to other facets of Lakota life such as the spiritual business at issue here. All tiospaye bloodlines own the Lakota cultural property rights, along with the power to act on them for the survival and prosperity of their relatives. In this way, respect is most assured.

Our actual dance overseers Vern and Joe American Horse are grandsons of Chief American Horse, an Oglala Shirtwearer installed in 1865, who was a signer of the 1868 Treaty at the end of the war with the United States that he helped lead. These elders, whom we hold in the utmost respect, having directed our dance, have never expressed any concern over the non-native dancers or whites in attendance. In fact, they have consistently endorsed the approach of respect for "all our relations," again, as long as respect for origin and place is provided and as long as it is understood that the home of these prayers resides in the tiospaye line.

Based as it is on race, we feel the Pipe Proclamation contains an unfortunate racial foundation, and we can not, in the spirit of these ancient prayers, endorse a racist approach. It appears to be an attempt at ethnic cleansing of the ways, and in effect, says, "This is just for us." Not only does this approach run counter to the cultural value of generosity for which the people are known, it presents other complications regarding Hunka relatives, and non-Indian spouses married into the tribe. Based on the teachings we are following from our elders, we have difficulty thus endorsing the potential inhumanity and the heartbreak of exclusivity inherent in the idea behind the proclamation.

Having put our minds together, we respectfully submit that the purpose and extent of our prayers can not always be limited by the color of skin nor national origin. The important thing, we find, is intent and the strength of commitment and the history of relations with each and every individual family that our elders host in our annual Sun Dance in the Black Hills. This is the paramount importance to us. Rather than deny or separate our peoples from the range of relatives who pray with us, we say that our prayers and our people are best served by the extension of reverence and goodwill to the Four Directions.

We see death and destruction going on in the world along ethnic and religious lines. It is a horrible negative energy based upon fear and paranoia, and seems to be gaining ground everywhere. One could call it worldwide religious extremism whose reactionary conservatism has also affected Native peoples.

Exploitations may have occurred and may be occurring, but over-reaction to abuse won't solve the problem.

We have to react to abuse specific to the wrongdoer instead of banishing the rest of humanity for the disrespectful actions of a few. It is one thing to strive to protect our ceremonies from abuse and expropriation; it is another thing to dictate to long-established Lakota tiospayes how they must run their sacred ceremonies and to attempt to tell our respected elders that the deepest intent of prayers long held in their hearts is somehow wrong and must be discarded.

The issues in the Looking Horse Proclamation have to do with Hunka - "the making of relatives" - and these are approaches that were proclaimed already nearly one hundred years ago, as far as we are concerned. In a 1904 narrative titled "Hunka and the White Man," Afraid Of Bear said, "I can perform the ceremony for anyone who is chosen in the right way. I can do it for a white man."

His younger brother Sword said in the same year, "White men were not invited unless they were to be made Hunka. A few white men have been made Hunka."

My wife is a direct descendent of Sword and Afraid Of Bear, and both she and I naturally follow their words over recent conclusions on the same subjects 100 years later.

When I came back to Pine Ridge for good in the spring of 1975, I became a participant in the Afraid Of Bear Inipi, an authentic tiospaye altar. I followed what I saw and copied things as I witnessed them being done.

After sundancing for 23 straight years (four of them at Green Grass), Larue Afraid Of Bear named me to lead a Sun Dance he and his brothers wanted to establish at the Wild Horse Sanctuary in the Black Hills, a place of ceremony for the past 10,000 years. We are approaching our sixth year there (my 28th altogether), on private land. Well versed with the protocols attendant to ceremonial abuse and other issues concerning the protection of what we hold sacred, we have been satisfied that our ceremony is proper.

From time immemorial, the sacred pipe has acted to bring stability to the lives of individuals and families of the people. It has been so for me and my relatives. To the extent we have been successful for 30 years, I attribute to our adherence to this sacred pipe religion and by doing things with a good heart.

We are all related, and certainly some of us are more related than others. Let us not deny our relatives, our relationships, our inter-relatedness, or the great need of the world around us to understand and relate to all the elements of our universe.

To those who believe Native people should hold their ways only to themselves, our elders say, "they should know the spirit of The People is in the converging flow of the river." Mitakuye Oyasin!

Tom Kanatekeniate 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.