Volume 2 Number 3
Hello My Relatives
01 March 1989
Perhaps the world's people will begin to fully understand their connection to all of Creation when Native Americans are included in world forums.
By DAVID LARSEN
Introduction by Gordon Regguinti, Editor, The Circle, Ojibwe, Minnesota
The Native American voice should become an important ingredient in world debate. This became increasingly clear to me on a recent journey in India to honour the `Great One', Mahatma Gandhi. I had the chance there to talk with people from throughout the world.
Many people were pleasantly surprised not only to meet a Native American but also to have a number of their misconceptions challenged. They had the same stereotypes about us that many of the non-native people of America have. Too many people form their conceptions of us through the eyes of others. It is time for the history and philosophy of Native American people to be expressed by Native Americans, for two major reasons.
One, Native American societies have been subjected to tremendous stresses and changes during the past 500 years. Yet we survive, and hold firm to our belief of being related to very created being, even to those responsible for the stresses. Perhaps a lesson can be learned from examining how a people can still extend love after enduring massive change, a lesson that could help others remain sane and happy in the fast-developing world environment.
The second major reason for listening to Native Americans is our connection with Mother Earth. We were isolated from the rest of the world for tens of thousands of years, and we developed a unique relationship with all of Creation, that goes deep into the spiritual and psychological level of our being. We knew we were not greater or lesser than any part of it. This thought, this part of our being, has survived and grown stronger over the years.
The connections between human beings and Creation are discussed very little. Many people can see the need to heal relationships between individuals, groups and nations. But very little is said about the healing that needs to take place between ourselves and Mother Earth, Father Sky, the plant and animal kingdoms, water- all the things we are so dependent on for our continued existence.
We can no longer ignore our interconnectedness to the whole o f life. Our gift o f reason can no longer serve as an excuse to elevate ourselves above others, nor to deny our responsibilities for ensuring a clean and healthy world. Perhaps the world's people will begin to fully understand their connection to all of Creation when Native Americans are included in world forums.
Since the beginning of being a people our greeting has been (in phonetic spelling) 'Hau mitakuyapi chawntay washtay napay chiyuza'. That means, `Hello my relatives. With a good heart, I offer you my hand.' It doesn't mean `hello my family relatives' or `hello my Native American relatives' or even `hello my human relatives'. It means hello to all the Creation of God.
My people, the Dakota, are among the most misunderstood of all the world's people, a people who have had so much misinformation written about them that the more you read the less you really know about them.
We used to be called the Sioux, a word that means `snake' or `enemy'. Others had the ability to call us whatever they chose, and it's very easy to attach adjectives to that word like bloodthirsty, savage, warlike. When you know that our real name is Dakota, meaning `friends', you can't use such words. But if you want to take away something people have, you don't say positive things about them.
Such a good job was done of misinforming people that even our Native American religion was outlawed until ten years ago. In August 1978 President Carter signed into law the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Until that time, like many of my brothers and sisters, I had lost touch with who I really am. Since being allowed to become a full person, and to have my own contact with God, I've come to feel better about myself and who our people are. Before then, I would never have had the courage to write an article like this.
I have learned to love my own people. We are a very caring people, and we end all our prayers in the same way that we greet people. We say, `Whatever I ask for myself, I ask for all my relatives.' Again that's not just the ones I know, but all living people. So we are not able to ask for personal things just for ourselves.
I love Christianity also; it is one of the most beautiful philosophies - at least when it is lived. But sadly many who came to my country spoke of Christianity but did not respond to my people in a very Christian manner. As a result, many of us had a hard time ccepting Christianity. And as what was called the frontier moved further west toward the Pacific Ocean, the missionaries no longer had a great deal of interest in us, and they also moved on. They left us with vacant church buildings and no religion of our own.
So it's no wonder you haven't learned much about us. Before 1978 many of us were actually trying to live all the stereotypes that people had of us, and it was literally destroying us. It's very hard to have someone tell you you're so bad that even your prayers to God are bad. It has also been the practice to write and say things about us without consulting us. Fortunately that is beginning to change.
I used to be an alcoholic and an embarrassing person for the entire reservation. When I quit drinking, and making all that noise, the silence was very noticeable. Some of the elders asked me to take part in one of our traditional gatherings. I said I would be glad to.
They wanted me to be the announcer who described what was taking place. Because music and dance are part of our religion you have to know quite a bit to be a Master of Ceremonies, and I wasn't sure I could do it; I had only just stopped drinking. Finally I agreed.
During the event one of my uncles asked for the microphone. One of our ways of teaching is by teasing, and I thought he was going to tease me publicly about some of my mistakes. Instead he said that some of the older people liked the changes they saw in his nephew, and that he had been authorized to give me something. He pulled a long pipe out of a leather pouch and said, `It came to me in a dream that this is the pipe I'm supposed to give to my nephew.' That was one of the few times in my life I've been speechless. Another uncle took the microphone - he was a spiritual leader - and said, `If my nephew wants to learn how to pray with the sacred pipe, he can ask me and I will teach him the proper way.'
Then he asked the musicians for a special song, not for him, not for me, but for the pipe. So my two uncles and I, with the pipe, danced one circle. When we'd completed it the lead singer got up and said, `If you think this is a good thing they're doing, support them.' Then the whole group, from old people to young children, came out to dance for my pipe. And I knew that my life was going to change. I told my uncle as we were dancing, `I want to learn about who we are', and he told me about the special teaching times of the year. I chose the last four days possible, because I was afraid I would be giving up all my freedom. `Maybe I'll go back to drinking,' I thought; I didn't want to give up that option.
When the time came my younger brother went along with me as a helper. For four days and four nights I learned the creation story of our people. I have no problems with what I have been taught in our schools, but I know now who I am. I had to stop my uncle several times during the talk because I needed time to digest so much new information.
While I was learning, my wife was still back in our home. She wasn't sure she could support me; she, too, had heard all the bad things about our people. I asked my uncle what I could do. He answered, `Nothing, because you don't know anything. What we can do is pray together with the pipe that she understands the importance of what you are doing.' As a result my wife did support me, and the teamwork was essential.
I had to go through what is called a 'Vision Quest'. It's an experience that teaches us to hear the voice of the Creator and all the Creation constantly around us, and find direction for our lives from this, not unlike the concept of the quiet time or inner voice that many religions and groups speak about. It involves prayers of purification in a Sweat Lodge and then being alone on a sacred hill or mountain from one to four days and nights, fasting and praying with the pipe. Going without food was the easy part; the hard part was learning something totally new, totally un-European (because all my education had been European up to then).
The first night was very difficult. Without my uncle's help through prayers I probably wouldn't have stuck it out. By the second night I was already perceiving things in nature that gave me strength: rocks, trees and animals, and especially birds. For the first time I was learning to listen to things besides human voices - I think the inner voice comes in many different ways.
Because of the teachings and ceremonies I've taken part in, I have earned the right to be called a warrior. A warrior is a person who has learned to put the welfare of the women, the children and the elders before his own. As a last resort we are expected to put our lives on the line in the defence of our beliefs.
To my family the left side has much meaning, so I always keep a reminder of my Vision Quest in my left pocket. Every morning when I change clothes, I always change this last; and it tells me again who I am, and to whom to give thanks for whatever has allowed me to live this long and to learn the little I have learned. So with this in my left pocket, I am frequently brought back to an inner quiet.
And every morning I take a quiet time. It's usually not very long; it involves a prayer and asking for guidance from that inner voice. It's not a spoken voice that says, `You will do this today', or `here's the right thing to do', but it's an inner sense of what is right to do or say. Often, before speaking to a group or meeting with someone, I'll ask for that guidance. Sometimes during the day, when I meet with people and get a little frustrated or upset that things are not going the way I think they should, without realizing it I rub my hand past my left pocket, and this reminds me once again to take another quiet time.
It's a little arrogant to think that because we're not speaking in human voices there is quiet. God's work is taking place all the time. And that's never silent. If we start seeing ourselves as above other parts of Creation, we begin cutting off that quiet time; and then it really is quiet, and we make ourselves alone.
One of our faults, people say, is that we're so trusting. But I hope that Native American people, in spite of all we have suffered, never lose that trust.
David Larsen is Tribal Chairman of the Lower Sioux Community