"My story... Lakota ceremonies" South Dakota Travelogue by Alicja1

South Dakota Travel Guide: 1,387 reviews and 3,550 photos

Path through Natives Lands in South Dakota
Third world in United States
June 2001

This text is just a short translation of a long report from my trips to Native Americans reservations, mainly in South Dakota.

How is the life in reservation? Where tepees disappeared? Who is a friend who is an enemy? Is it possible to turn back the time? Is it worth to fight for Natives rights? There are thousands questions Indians lovers ask everyday. They think they know a lot. I was one of them. I thought I knew the life, I thought I knew what “poverty” word means. I thought I am ready to see a reality.

Now, I know nobody knows the truth, nobody really understands their situation. Life of Native Americans from South Dakota (and not only) is a never ending fight about freedom, tradition, religion, honour and…bread.

During my trip I met people who became my teachers and best friends, who gave me more than they had. Together with James – Lakota activist, and David- American “Indian admirer” we took our way from Florida to Pine Ridge. Our trip didn’t go without the trouble. Just after we passed Florida, police stopped us. First time I experienced how Native people are treated.in USA. Our car was searched and we were interviewed without any reason. It was a late night and we were standing in cold outside of our car. The policeman was rude to us and checked all documents carefully. He had to be very disappointed finding nothing suspicious. Well, polish girl, ex Vietnam soldier and Lakota Activist are not the usual team, but there was no reason to stop us at search at all. After almost 2 hours we continued our travel listening to James stories and Native music.

David just joined Native Church. During a hard time in his life, he promised Creator to travel to reservation and take a part in two important ceremonies; the flesh offer and the vision quest. I don’t know much about David, because he never talked too much. All I found out was he had very hard time in the army and he thought he knows a lot about Native spirituality.

James was my friend over the year … he helped me to survive in USA and understand Natives Americans little bit more. He was my teacher and second father. James is Dakota Youth Project Parent Board President, a member of the Spirit Lake Nation of North Dakota. For the past twenty five years he has been an American Indian Movement activist, community education specialist and ceremonial leader dedicating his life to help Native people and tribes survive in a non-Indian society.

On the way to Lakota people we passed Tennessee, St Louise, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska. The trip took us two days. At 1.7 million acres, the Pine Ridge is the second largest Indian reservation in the country. It is home to the Oglala Lakota nation, and its inhabitants usually refer to it simply as "the Rez." Ranging over the two counties of Shannon and Jackson, it lies just south of Badlands National Park and the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. The terrain is stunning, made up of hills, cliffs, buttes, mesas, badlands and a surprising number of red cedar dotted valleys. A vast portion of it is wild prairie, which I took to be primarily the short grass variety, given the paucity of rain which falls here.
In one of those strange contradictions so common out west, this is one of the loveliest parts of the Great Plains, but it's also one of the saddest. A few figures might give you some idea.

The population of the Rez is around 30,000. Shannon is the poorest county in the nation, with an average annual family income of $3,700. Unemployment hangs around 80%, and life expectancy is 48 for men and 52 for women. About half the people over age 40 have diabetes, tuberculosis is common and the alcoholism rate is the highest in the United States. As sad as these numbers are, they're not what gives the place such a melancholy feel for me. Rather, it's knowing that our government — certainly not the same one we learned about in junior high civics classes — has acted so egregiously over and over, in 1890, in 1973 and yet again in 1975, and probably many other years I'm unfamiliar with.

I couldn’t wait to meet James family and especially Crow Dog, very wise, traditional Chief. Leonard Crow Dog was the spiritual leader of the American Indian Movement of the 1960's and 1970's and served time in prison as a result of his political activities. He was born in 1942 on the Rosebud Reservation. Crow Dog Paradise was our first stop. In Crow Dogs there are all the most important ceremonies taking place. Just in the middle of his property, there was a tree prepared for this year Sundance. I have to admit the strange feeling I had standing on this sacred ground of Native People. James touched the tree and prayed, I had to move away from sacred circle because of weird energy I felt. That was a first time I experienced irrational feelings I would never believed before.
James told me a lot about Sun Dance. Sundance is a new years ceremony celebrated in the summer, usually on a full moon. The actual Sundance lasts 28 days, but the last four days are the ones in which the dancing and most of the ceremony take place. A person who is invited to Sundance (you must have an invitation) must spend a year in preparation. This year is spent in sweats, meditation, and perhaps vision quests. You never know what to expect on your first Sundance, and nothing but the experience gives you this knowledge.
When the last four days of Sundance arrive, a dancer will go to where the ceremony is held. Once the sun rises on the first day, the day of the full moon, food and drink other than sage tea are relinquished until the ceremony is over. On each of the four final days, the day begins and ends with a sweat, or purification. During Sun Dance, dancers pierce their chest (woman arms) to sacrifice. I was told that some of the warriors tangle themselves to horse, trying to break the rope. It’s very painful, but gives your prayers more power. Woman in their moon are not allowed to ceremony. They have a separate tipi out of the sacred circle. They too powerful and can destroy the Sun Dance.
I was invited to take a part in it, unfortunately we had to leave few days before the ceremony were held, because of story I tell you below.

Also I can’t forget to mention a tree, which was growing since Leonard Peltier was taken to jail. Also there were hanging tobacco bungles which symbolize the prayers to Creator.

Crow Dog told us the story of his nephew accused for raping a young Indian girl. All family believed he was innocent; what’s more the girl was manipulated by FBI to lie in the court. These things happen in rez very often admitted James. Similar story happen to Leonard Peltier case witnesses. The situation between Indians and FBI is very extreme. I heard so many stories about false accusations, murders, lies I couldn’t believe. “American Law” is money kept saying Leonard. “If I have to fight I will fight, but first I will make sure I kill enough”
Not only FBI and US Government causing trouble in rez, but also Natives divided for different groups and fighting each other, Catholic or other “white religions groups” don’t like Crow Dog organizing Sun Dance, Traditionalists don’t like whites taking part in their ceremony. Some Indians put a catholic cross in front of sweat lodge. It looks they are all confused and traditional souls are fighting with present reality. There is so many thing going on I don’t understand.

After the simple meal and short chat with Crow Dog we camped on his land. Crow Dog and his family made me feel very welcome. Yes, I did have some difficulties with understanding Chief, because his words mixed English and Lakota language, but with James helped we had very interesting conversation.


With Crow Dog advices and prayers we started to prepare David’s ceremonies.
The first and very important ceremony, which we were taking almost every day during my stay in rez was Inipi, also known as a sweat lodge. It is Lakota purification ceremony. The Inipi ceremony is conducted in an Inipi lodge. An Inipi lodge has a frame which is usually made from willow branches, and is covered either with hides or blankets. The Inipi ceremony is an ancient practice of the Lakota people and has been passed down through the generations as sacred knowledge.
The actual ceremony involves the introduction of fire heated stones to the fire pit dug in the center of the lodge, followed by poured water which creates hot steam. The ceremony takes place in pitch black and may include song and drum. A Canumpa (pipe) may also be passed around. My first Inipi was in Jim’s Cross land. There were about 10 of us and only two women including me. Fire man made sure that first three hot stones were facing exactly four directions. Hot smoke mixed with sage smell and peyote drinks made me feel out of this world. Each of us has his own time to pray or just talk for few minutes. Sweat lodge doesn’t have to be serious and sad. To brake the strict atmosphere some of the warriors were saying jokes, Cheyenne woman described her driving test, but the most impressive speech was done by a young guy, James nephew. He told us about Natives problems, about racism and about me (?) He knew things I have never told anyone, my feelings and my doubts. I had tears in my eyes. Our Inipi was divided for 4 parts. Each of them finished by song and opening doors to take some fresh air. The longest part was one of Jim’s friend’s speeches. It took forever so everybody was making fun on him after. When Inipi was finished we all gain together around the fire and started to smoke a pipe. It’s a big honor for a guest to join this ceremony. I was very proud except one small problem: I have never smoked anything in my life!

David’s vision quest took some more preparations. In traditional Lakota culture, the Hanblecheyapi (vision quest, literally "crying for a vision") is one of seven main rites. Vision quest preparations involve a time of fasting, the guidance of a tribal Medicine Man and sometimes ingestion of natural entheogens. The quest itself is usually a journey alone into the wilderness seeking personal growth and spiritual guidance from the spirit Wakan Tanka. The conditions were not easy, it was a middle of the hot, dry summer and mosquitoes were attacking us like the biggest enemies. Without running water (river instead), normal toilet and roof above my head I understood how spoiled I am. James and David went to the hills to look for a tree and a right spot for a vision. I was asked to prepare the tobacco bungles exactly 404, in four colors: white, yellow, black and red. Each color symbolizes different direction: red – north, white-south, yellow- east, black- west. All of them were tangle to rope which will create the borders of the altar. It took me forever because nobody could change me until I finish all color. Slowly day was coming to the end. James said its time to start a flesh offer. I was scared because I am terribly afraid of blood and I had no idea what to expect. James praying to Wakan Tanka started to cut 50 peaces of flesh from David’s arm. My role was to keep a light on and collect the flesh to small peace of red material and sage. There were thousands stars shining and night was absolutely beautiful. James mind seemed to be somewhere else, even there was no much blood it was too much for me. I was about felling down when David stopped the ceremony. It was not even a half way. He couldn’t make it. That what was disappointing to him was a relief to me. We finished a night in Inipi.
Next morning James took David for his vision quest and came back to me. It was a very hot time. The only thing he said was that he hoped David was not praying for a rain. Nobody mention last night .
It was a busy day for us. James decided to show me Lakota youth Project and introduce me to some people. The mission of DYP was "The purpose and mission of the Dakota Youth Project is to help Native children and youth to survive in today’s society by providing them access to safe homes, educational opportunities, survival skills, and traditional beliefs through educational experiences directed towards individuals, families, and the public."

We have visited few DYP houses, where kids and teenagers can find a shelter, relax and also learn the old Lakota ways. I really enjoyed this day. We also visited some Lakota elders and James friend. I was very nicely surprised seeing toys we sent from Poland to rez last year for Christmas. Kids have absolutely nothing over here. Houses are poor and in bed condition, but people are absolutely fantastic and very wise. I could listen hours Lakota elders talking. Spirituality and the knowledge they share with us it’s impossible to describe. Now, I did know… maybe they don’t look like we expect them to look, they wear jeans and shirts like everybody else, but inside of their hearts they are different, they are warriors, spiritual guides and unbelievable people.

Day went fast. We came back to Crow Dog paradise and our camp. I was so exited about everything I saw and I learnt. We had a long talk about Leonard Peltier and his family I met.

Leonard Peltier (born September 12, 1944) is a Native American activist and member of the American Indian Movement. In 1977 he was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for the murders of two FBI Agents who died during a 1975 shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. There has been considerable debate over Peltier’s guilt and the fairness of his trial. Some supporters and organizations, including Amnesty International, consider him to be a political prisoner.[1] Numerous appeals have been filed on his behalf; however, none have been ruled in his favor. Peltier is currently incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Peltier)

It was late, when the thunder came. I hope David is OK – James said before we went to sleep.

Last 24 hours we had two extreme weather changes from hot and sticky to rainy and cold. I was sleeping well when I heard “ James I am home”. It was 4 o’clock in the morning when David came back from his vision quest. Bare feet and wearing only shorts, he left his altar. He couldn’t make it again. His vision quest supposed to take 2 days and two nights, he didn’t survive even half of it. Crow Dogs family was planning a big dinner with buffalo meat to celebrate David’s visions. Nobody said a word. I have never seen anybody so destroyed like David. He didn’t talk, didn’t eat just disappeared in his room. (Last couple days we have moved from Crow dogs Paradise to James sister Loretta house) Not sure what to say I stayed with James. I could see he was disappointed but not surprise. “I couldn’t denied the help in ceremony, But I knew he is not ready” he said. Religion is not a game, not a toy you can play with. You can play being Indian but you can not joke with spiritual believes. That’s a warning for those who copy Natives ceremonies and trying to be more naïve than real Natives are. Next day we left reservation. David didn’t want to hear about staying for Sun Dance. I was very disappointed but I learnt my lesson. I do admire Native Nations and I am trying to learn from their culture but I know I can never be one of them. This is just a short story I wanted to share with others. I missed in my writing wonderful places I visited like Bad Lands, Black Hills, Wounded Knee, Little Bighorn and others… But this is totally different story and I let my pictures to show you a part of it…

  • Page Updated Nov 10, 2006
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