May 4, 2015
A long time ago my father told me what his father told him, that there was once a Lakota holy man, called Drinks Water, who dreamed what was to be; and this was long before the coming of the Wasichus [white men]. He dreamed that the four-leggeds were going back into the earth and that a strange race had woven a spider’s web all around the Lakotas. And he said: “When this happens, you shall live in square gray houses, in a barren land, and beside those square gray houses you shall starve.” They say he went back to Mother Earth soon after he saw this vision, and it was sorrow that killed him. You can look about you now and see that he meant these dirt-roofed houses we are living in, and that all the rest was true. Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking.— Nicholas Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks
From before the time of Wounded Knee, this genocide has gone on. It continues today among the children of Pine Ridge: more than a hundred suicide attempts in a 3-month period, among a population of less than 40,000. An entire people driven to and beyond the point of despair, by the very same things as haunted the dreams of Drinks Water and broke the spirit of the great Black Elk — the invasions of the white man with his drugs, oppression, sicknesses, booze, tyranny, guns, and false promises. These children of Pine Ridge today are not even being given the chance to grow old in darkness as Black Elk did — or is it better for them that way?
And so it was all over.I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth — you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead. — Black Elk on “The End of the Dream”
“Our kids today just want to die because they’re sick of all this oppression.” Is it good that another Lakota man of our present moment has lived long enough to see his granddaughter assaulted with racism and driven “back to Mother Earth” amid the ravages of an oppression of negligence that told her, “[your] culture is not successful”? Her culture might have been her last best hope, for it might have turned her vision back toward that “beautiful dream” of Black Elk’s vision.
But the real problem is that 12 year old Santana Janis was never allowed the experience of her culture — for that great Lakota culture is not favored by corporations; nor does it trend on Facebook or Twitter. For in our world, investment banks may be bailed out; new wars may be started; city police forces may be transformed into large armies with some of the most sophisticated and deadly weaponry on Earth; politicians may be bought; and a sound bite message filled with lies may be broadcast as truth over cable and satellite in prime time. But a once great and noble people cannot be allowed the chance to repair the broken hoop of their nation, so that their children might find some connection back to life, to possibility.
It never should have been this way — not in 1890 amid the slaughter at Wounded Knee; not in 1930 when an aging Black Elk told his story of a great hope that ended in oppression, murder, and despair;* and certainly not this year, when a pandemic of suicide ravaged the already broken hoop of the Oglala Nation. It doesn’t have to be this way next year, or a decade from now.
The point here is that we are given a choice: let this quiet end of the genocide continue apace; or rage against it amid a group guilt drawn from the depredations of our white ancestors; or at last, to find within ourselves the thread of humanity that unites the Lakota and all the other peoples and races that live in this land; and then to work freely — without the burden of either guilt or despair — toward the regeneration of a great people.
Regeneration is defined, first and foremost, by self-determination. If all we can give them is more ABC Stores, more McDonalds, more drugs, more gambling casinos, and more poverty; then they will continue to rot and die outwardly, while we also continue to rot and die inwardly. We must offer them both the resources and the motivation to determine their recovery, their correction, their future. We can become as nourished as they by such a restoration: imagine a world where a new generation of spiritual teachers streams out from a vibrant Lakota world, just as Zen teachers came to our shores from Japan over the last century.
Every fate can be ended; every genocide halted and reversed; every guilt absolved — and dissolved. No government or corporate institution can make it happen; it must start here, within and among us. As Black Elk would remind us, it is only through the people and their love for the earth and for one another, that the wishes of the Six Grandfathers may be fulfilled:
The Six Grandfathers have placed in this world many things, all of which should be happy. Every little thing is sent for something, and in that thing there should be happiness and the power to make happy. Like the grasses showing tender faces to each other, thus we should do, for this was the wish of the Grandfathers of the World.
*Black Elk Speaks remains, to my mind, one of the great classics of American literature. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to call it the American Iliad. Much of the credit for the beauty and compellingly literary construction of this book goes to John Neihardt, who conducted the interviews with Black Elk and prepared the text. It is the kind of book that can make you feel like a very different person after you’ve turned its last page.