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The Missouri River Flood and Chaos Theory

In this day and age, it can be easy to slide into apathy. Globally, we’re wrestling with enormous problems, and there are no simple answers. Furthermore, a sense of powerlessness is often magnified in tribal communities—where the long term effects of broken treaties, decades of oppression, genocide, forced assimilation, poverty, and disease are profound and continuous. When people feel helpless for long periods of time, they may become indifferent.

One reason individuals become apathetic is because they feel inconsequential. Perhaps they’ve grown up in an environment where they felt as though their thoughts and opinions were not valued, or they haven’t had the opportunity to experience honor or recognition. Yet on the other hand, you need only watch the nightly news to get a feeling that your voice is unimportant and will be ignored. Historically, as a native person living in the United States, it often feels that things are done to us, rather than for us, or with us.

Our world is chaotic, but we should take it in stride. In reality, the chaotic nature of the Universe and Mother Earth is a source of hope—but not in the way you might think.

Chaos theory was first discovered in the fields of mathematics and meteorology, but has since been embraced by everything from physics, biology, economics, music, philosophy, to the social sciences. It is a mathematical concept whose premise is that complex natural systems that appear random in the short term actually obey rules; however, they are extremely sensitive to initial conditions. This sensitivity leads to unexpected results that become magnified over time and space. In other words, there is underlying order to that which appears random. These complex systems appear so chaotic that one is unable to recognize a pattern with the naked eye. It is only when the smallest change in initial conditions is accounted for that the pattern may be revealed.

Dynamic, complex, nonlinear systems are unpredictable thanks to the system’s sensitivity to initial conditions. According to chaos theory, very small changes in early conditions within such a system will result in dramatically different results for that particular system. Under chaos theory, it is said that the only way to perfectly predict the weather is with an exact replica of earth. Why? Because failing to account for something as small and seemingly insignificant as the beat of a butterfly’s wing in some remote countryside would skew the results, with the distortion becoming magnified over time. This is why chaos theory is commonly known in mainstream society as the butterfly effect.

Chaos theory confirms that while outcomes may be unpredictable, each of us, no matter how small we may feel, are not insignificant or inconsequential. We all matter. It all matters.

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Within a philosophical context, chaos theory teaches us that we can choose to be a positive or negative force in our communities, who will have an effect on an overall outcome. We can beat our butterfly wing by learning our native language, mentoring youth, or by simply smiling at a passerby as we walk down the street. Words, deeds, even our very being, has some effect on everything and everyone around us.

This week on the Standing Rock Reservation, the people are fighting a flood of historic proportions as the Missouri River threatens residences, water treatment facilities, the main causeway to Fort Yates, and the Sitting Bull Historic Site. You can bet that a single individual’s decision whether or not to help in sandbagging efforts makes a big difference in the flood fight. In fact, a single grain of sand plays an important role all its own.

Chaos theory implies connectedness, a belief that many American Indian tribes have held for thousands of years. Connectedness is the belief that we as human beings are not only connected to one another, but to all of nature as well. Therefore, what we do effects everything else. We are all part of the sacred hoop.

Black Elk, a wicasa wakan (medicine man) and heyoka of the Oglala Lakota, spoke of the idea of connectedness as revealed to him in a vision:

“Round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.”

It appears that modern science may finally be catching up to Black Elk. That said, I implore everyone to remember the principle of connectedness and chaos theory as we attempt to solve various problems among tribes, nationally and globally. These teachings could also prove vital in finding solutions to climate change. Together, we will mend the sacred hoop.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, a pro-bono tribal attorney, a science professor, and a columnist for the Indian Country Today Media Network. She can be reached at