by Vince Chafin,
Flying in to Rapid City SD I see a dusting of snow sprinkled across the barren landscape. In my minds eye I can see them, millions of Buffalo that roamed freely over this plain before us, the wasi’chu’s, (the whites), flooded in and wiped the landscape of its wildness. Its a familiar vision for me as I have been to the Pine Ridge reservation a few times before. That name is not a mistake either, “Reservation”, the act of reserving something, not preserving mind you, to reserve it. To hold it, hold it back. That “reserving” and the disastrous results have perforated the Lakota and many of the indigenous cultures of this country for generations.
You may remember the video created to celebrate the Alliance between MKPUSA and the All Nations Gathering Center. If you have not seen it yet, I highly recommend it.
What you should know about the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota.
- 97% of the population lives far below the U.S. federal poverty line with a median household income ranging between $2,600 and $3,500 per year.
- There is no industry, technology or commercial infrastructure to provide employment for its residents, contributing to its 90% unemployment rate.
- There is no public transportation available on the Reservation.
- There are no banks, motels, discount stores, or movie theaters, and the one grocery store of moderate size is tasked with providing for the entire community.
- There is a 70% high school dropout rate.
- The average life expectancy on the Reservation is 47 years for men and 52 years for women.
- Teenage suicide rate is 150% higher than the U.S. national average.
- Infant mortality rate is the highest on this continent, and about 300% higher than the U.S. national average.
- There’s an estimated average of 17 people living in each family home, a home that may only have two to three rooms. Some Reservation families are forced to sleep on dirt floors.
- Over 33% of homes have no electricity or basic water and sewage systems, forcing many to carry (often contaminated) water from local rivers daily for their personal needs.
- At least 60% of homes on the Reservation need to be demolished and replaced due to infestation of potentially fatal black mold; however, there are no insurance or government programs to assist families in replacing their homes.
As a privileged white male coming in from the “outside”, I am always trepidatious when I come to the “Rez”. For most of its inhabitants, people that look like me are not welcome and I am acutely aware of the cultural chasm that divides us. The poverty can be shocking. It wakes me up to the extraordinary gifts I have of a solid home, clean water, employment, security, a car, food and a network of friends and warrior brothers for support.
After a couple hour drive we arrive at Yellow Bear Canyon, the new home and oasis for the All Nations Gathering Center. The 40 acres are spread across a cottonwood filled canyon, pinion studded hillsides and include a large home currently under renovation. I get a cup of tea and sit with my friend Chubb, Becky’s father and our official Elder for the weekend. People begin to trickle in from all over the midwest and the smiles and hugs are flowing freely.
It’s Thursday night and we are preparing for the Inipi Ceremony or for us wasi’chu’s, the sweat lodge. I love the lodge and they always seem better when held on the Rez. By the time the sun goes down, the Grandfathers are glowing and its time for cleansing and prayers. The Lodge is full and the prayers are strong. The men and women share traditional songs and their voices float up to Wakan Tanka and I am quite sure the Great Mystery is listening somewhere in the star filled night.
Friday morning comes and there is a buzz happening in the kitchen. It’s the epicenter of every good communal gathering and this is no exception. I do my best to shoo Becky out of the kitchen, she does enough to keep this boat afloat but at a feisty five foot three inches, I am no match and take my rightful place carrying plates and serving Elders.
Tonight is the Yuipi ceremony. Like the Inipi, it is one of the seven sacred ceremonies of the Lakota tradition and is performed when there is healing needed to be done. Our number grows as people being to come in from far and wide for this Sacred Ceremony. The altar is set by the Road Man and his helpers. All light sources are blacked out and when the cue is given, the lights go off.
The Road Man begins his prayers and calls in his Spirit helpers. This is no small thing. This is a BIG thing and that we whites are allowed in here at all is a miracle. I have been blessed to be at a few of these over the years now and they are always magical. This one is no different. The Spirits come and I feel them bless me and the chanupa I hold in my lap. The songs are sung and the prayers offered. Soon, the lights come on and there are smiles and great appreciation on the faces in the circle.
Saturday starts early with Dallas sharing about the healing powers of the Grandfathers (Stones) and how he has been taking this medicine into the schools to great affect. We have meditation and chi-gong, walking and yoga. Time is so elusive in these settings and soon, before we know it, lunch is ready.
Its 1pm and we circle back up for stretching and then its time for the emotional work, what we in MKP call the Magician round. This is my cue to begin…But where is the beginning? Where do we begin in a circle of indigenous men and women of all ages and outsiders, white outsiders, men and women with good intentions but little knowledge of traditional ways and customs. I have a quick wave of panic as it feels like I have to start pre 1492. I take a breath and invite the circle to do the same.
At 8pm we take a break for supper and some folks leave the circle for another Inipi, a sweat lodge ceremony. Several young people come back to continue our carpet work to until after 10pm.
What happened? Well, the only word I can find is Miracles. Miracles happened. Indigenous women expunged decades, generations of abuse. Young two spirit men mourned and let go of their shame and anguish at the suicide of their beloved. Daughters released anger and shame and forgave their fathers….and maybe, just maybe, another step towards healing the wounds that separate us was taken. One more step towards repairing the Sacred Hoop.
If ever you doubt who we are at MKP. If you have moments where you wonder if what we do really makes any difference at all. Let me assure you my dear brother, the vision of Rich, Ron and Bill is alive and well as are the visions of thousands of initiated men like you who are working to make this world a better place. Bless you all…
One more miracle…
On my way back to the airport, I was given a ride by a Lakota brother who was not present at the weekend. He was very curious about the what we did and though my voice was weak, I did my best to answer his questions over the cocaphony of sounds his rez van made as it swerved like a snake over the badlands. I was sharing about a full bodied, from your balls screaming technique we did and that I sometimes I use when facilitating clearings. He got very quiet. The next thing I know he swerves the van to the side of the road and jumps out, slamming it in to park while its still moving. I watch him as he gets to the edge of a cliff and then I see it. Where we are. A breath taking overlook of the Badlands. A few moments later, I hear it. Centuries of anger and suppression, substance abuse and torture come bellowing from his guts and he screams like a bear warding off an enemy. It doesn’t stop and with every breath he finds a deeper reservoir of pain and anguish, giving it back to the land.
Soon, he’s on his knees, sobbing. Tears of pain. Tears of sadness. Tears of healing. Miracle Tears…..
I’ll be back there again, September 27-30 this year and I hope you will join us.
Miracles await you……
There is no “good bye” in the Lakota language so I leave you with this phrase….
Tókša ache, (Toksha A K) which means later, again
Initiated May 2010 – Broken Rock Ranch, San Diego
The Featured image is the buffalo robe that was taken when the agreement was signed between MKP and the All Nations Gathering center. It has been tanned and now turned in to a “Winter Count” robe which will record the evolution of our alliance.