On Pine Ridge: Tiospaye Talk

Milo Yellow Hair is a big, affable Oglala Lakota activist. A fluent Lakota speaker from a traditional family, he is a past vice-president of the Oglala Lakota Tribe and is presently land office director. I met him on the last day of the American Horse-Afraid of Bear-Red Cloud Sundance in mid-June. That Sundance is held in the Black Hills, at a place called Hell's Canyon that Yellow Hair says is, "where the world begins for the Lakota."

Yellow Hair leaned on the hood of his small car, one in a long row parked behind a thin rope. On the other side of the rope, the Sundance grounds opened up to sweat lodges, tipis and a wide rounded arbor, the circle of the Sundance. A tall cottonwood tree, beautifully decorated, was staked out at its center and silhouetted against an immense South Dakota sky.

In the midst of a hunkered down factionalism at tribal headquarters that has nearly paralyzed the reservation government, Yellow Hair recalled there had been some 54 sundances last year on Pine Ridge alone. This one in the Black Hills was the only one off the reservation, although hosted by traditional families. "There is a lot of activity, much of it positive, going on on this reservation," Yellow Hair said. "But with so much commotion at the government level, its hard to see. But at the tiospaye level, there are interesting things going on."

Tiospaye refers to the wide, extended families of common descendency, often from particular old band chiefs and major names through the generations.

"Tiospaye is our first, main way of knowing ourselves and organizing ourselves," Yellow Hair said. "Its the oldest way."

The Oglala Sioux tribal government headquarters at Pine Ridge was occupied January 16. Tribal government functions are under investigation for corruption. Many services have been disrupted, with people summarily dismissed from their jobs and paychecks withheld. In particular, the tribe's nerve center, a million dollar computerized financial system, has been useless for the past six months. Major opportunities to secure development assistance, such as last year's presidential visit, have gone largely unexploited.

"For all the pain, the conflict at the tribal council level might even help us," Yellow Hair said. "It is waking people up that being dependent on the government is not such a good thing. The whole situation is making people think about how to plan and prepare for the future."

Yellow Hair was recently on KILI, Pine Ridge's radio station. They say he spoke for a long time in Lakota, encouraging the community through a time of uncertainty, and that, as he finished, he cried for the people. "There is a lot of respect for Milo," reported Joe American Horse, another past tribal president. "He is very smart and tries to help. The people like it that he speaks their language and talks from the heart."

At the gathering of families that followed the Sundance, Yellow Hair officiated through the afternoon. The gathering in the Black Hills, held on ancient grounds, exemplified the "tiospaye" as alliance-building concept in Lakota culture. The three host families, represented by their elders, include hundreds of Lakota people; the host elders included Ernest Afraid of Bear, Vernon American Horse, Bernard Red Cloud, Henry John Red Cloud, Beatrice Weasel Bear, Joe American Horse and others from the three tiospayes. Willard Fool Bull added his cultural knowledge to the occasion.

This Sundance in the Black Hills is held as an event that celebrates family-based alliances. It is controversial in some quarters but appears to enjoy the strong support of the Lakota families that host it.

"Some people object that non-Indians are invited by our families to our sundance," Joe American Horse said. "But this is a way for our people to greet our old friends. The ones that come here, these are friends of ours, some we get to know through our projects. But we create our own relatives and allies, because we can think and do for ourselves."

The three families hosted some twenty guests, some from as far away as Mexico and Ireland. A contingent of Mohawks from New York and Canada, as well as Navajo, Paiute and other tribes were represented. Woody Harrelson, the "Cheers" actor, joined the assembled Oglala; "I am here in support of their prayers," the actor said.

As we later visited around Pine Ridge, Yellow Hair talked about the tiospaye networks, which he feels are gaining some recognition. "There are three types of tiospaye: the old, big, continuous ones; the re-emerging ones, and; the new ones forming." Yellowhair recalled the alliances with other tribes, such as the Mohawks. "After Wounded Knee, we visited the Onondaga and Six Nations. So its good to see the Mohawks here dancing with us and supporting Tom."

Tom Cook, a Mohawk who allied with the Oglala tiospaye when he married Loretta Afraid of Bear, is an organizer for the tiospayes.

Yellow Hair has traveled throughout the world. He is well-known in Germany, where his full-bellied laugh is used as a nightly sign-off on one of the major radio stations. The activist, who was deeply involved in Wounded Knee '73, has also been a tribal delegate to the National Congress of American Indians and sits in on the National Indian Gaming Association.

Yellow Hair pointed out that these days, government help to the reservation is minimal. "Its a wake up call for our people," he says. Different tiospayes, he says, are leading different projects. He is particularly interested in land use and can rattle off land-use statistics in the communities. He pointed to a major gardening initiative on the western end of the reservation, where the Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a project sponsored by Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills, helps organize the preparation and planting of 430 family gardens. "That's another project generated by the families in the area," Yellow Hair said. "They went out and got partners to get something done."

Other projects ticked off by Yellowhair include developing cultural tourism (we drove past Alex White Plume's large horse herd and resort cabins project); research is going on toward implementation of wind energy fields that could make the reservation energy self-sufficient, while permaculture or homestead food production and nutrition education are also priorities; Yellow Hair even studies different housing styles for what might be most long term appropriate for reservation families. He wonders about the potentials of well-financed gaming tribes assisting less resourceful tribes.

Along with Joe American Horse, Yellow Hair is a proponent of cropping industrial hemp on the reservation. Hemp cultivation, associated with marijuana and outlawed throughout the drug war, offers major a major economic and ecological potential, according to proponents. The proponents and the resolutions they have sponsored at the tribal council distinguish hemp from marijuana by the percentage of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. A record of resolutions at the district, land use association and tribal levels in support of hemp agriculture has woven the development of hemp with tribal sovereignty at Pine Ridge. The tribal resolution draws the definition of hemp to less than 1 percent THC content.

"It is in the terms of our treaties," said Joe American Horse. "We have a right to our agriculture. Hemp is an industrial product all over the world. It grows very well here. Its the perfect crop for our land. For me, it is a matter of sovereignty. We have the right to decide what agriculture is best for us."

One afternoon, we examined an experimental one-acre field of hemp planted on Oglala land. "It has been tested and it is well below 1 percent THC," said Tom Cook, who is building a protypical house made from hemp derivatives. Hemp has many industrial and medicinal uses, according to Cook, who has lectured on the subject at national universities. "Hemp has been grown and used here for centuries. You can make paper, bricks, cloth, medicines - all kinds of things from it. And you can grow it in the most difficult of places. This is the so-called 'wild marijuana' that the Drug War is spending millions to eradicate."

So far, the Drug Enforcement Administration has not moved against the Oglala experimental hemp field. Many feel it is likely to, although it is no doubt aware that the project has many allies. One of them is Woody Harrelson, who toured the reservation with a group of networkers and lawyers. The hemp agriculture movement coalesces farmers, ecologists and tribal entrepreneurs.

"This reservation has many problems but many seeds of sovereignty have been planted," said Yellow Hair. "And, hey, some of it is already flowering There is another wave of thinking coming. Our people will survive."