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Wambli Sina Win: Honor our tribal holy men and holy women
Monday, October 17, 2011
Filed Under: Opinion
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Holy men of yesterday were so much a part of the Lakota society that everyone knew who they were. As leaders, they were in the center of Lakota life and they were simply accepted. They were known as healers, protectors, prophets and comedians. They made us laugh, cry and look within ourselves when necessary. Their stature at times exceeded the secular leaders or headmen.

Our spiritual leaders had power and influence as well as responsibility for the tribe’s future. Yet these men of exceptional power, our healers and holy men, did not have college degrees and they were not recognized or respected within white society.

I was fortunate to grow up during the last days of some of these great holy men. Our holy men did not preach in flamboyant megachurches or elaborate cathedrals. They did not receive “tithes,” a tax exemption or any salary. Despite their ability to perform healings and “miracles,” these truly gifted spiritual men did not seek fame or fortune. Most lived a simple life of sacrifice and in conditions which today we would call “poverty.”

Grandpa John Fire, a true Thunder Dreamer (Heyoka) to the end, wore faded jeans and rundown boots while others wore old misshapen hats, unadorned by jewelry or the material trappings of success. Still there was something special and strange about these holy men.

At times it seemed they were communicating with the unseen within their stares off into space. One might even call some of these holy men “shape shifters” but this portrayal is very limited and a poor representation of their supernatural abilities. Chief Fools Crow, another powerful Heyoka, described his “spirit travels” outside of his body at times. During the Wounded Knee occupation, he described using his spiritual gift to “shape shift” so he could check on the welfare of those inside.

As I honor the memory of some of these Heyoka, Thunder Dreamers, I recall one such holy man, the grandfather of Eugene Eagle Elk (a recently departed medicine man), who walked above the earth. It is said that he traveled great distances in short periods of time, arriving at his destination ahead of horseback riders and cars.

Eugene Eagle Elk, recalled seeing his grandfather walking off into the distance and disappearing on foot while traveling unnatural speeds. Other heroes with the vision from the West, were Pete Catches, Sr., who could handle hot coals with his bare hands and predict the future.

Can you imagine glowing hot stones in the midst of a sweat lodge, heated by spiritual power alone? Chief Frank Fools Crow could do this. Each of these men had their own unique spiritual gifts. Not all had the calling to be healers and no two were exactly alike, although they shared the vision from the West, the Wakinyan (Thunder Beings).

I also remember two holy men in their last years who had problems with their earthly eyesight. One was the Sicangu, Frank Arrow Sight and the other, the Oglala, George Plenty Wolf. Even though both were considered blind, they could see far into the hidden past of a man’s soul spiritually and mysteriously in order to heal his physical and psychological problems. If they were here today, they would be called upon to help many of our young men and women who return from war with more than physical injuries or scars upon their bodies, post traumatic stress syndrome.

There were other Heyokas long before my time, Chief Crazy Horse, whose supernatural strength to crush his enemies was legendary. He was a supernatural biological weapon by today’s standards, half-man, half-spirit who was a strange and solitary man even to those close to him.

Chief Rain-in-the-Face, another Heyoka from long ago, put on his regalia and danced fearlessly amidst heavy cavalry fire. He was mocked for acting out his vision but his dancing had a spiritual purpose, to shield and save his people.

The Sicangu, Joe Eagle Elk, elder brother of Eugene Eagle Elk, was a more contemporary Heyoka. Joe unselfishly sacrificed years of his own life time and again so that others could live. He gave the last ember of his life to help a young girl with terminal cancer. Joe left us quietly in the same manner as many of our heroes, unrecognized by mainstream society for his gifts to many. He suffered terribly. Read about his extraordinary life in “The Price of a Gift” co-authored by Gerald Mohatt and Joseph Eagle Elk.

Our greatest defense within the past for our future generations was found within the prophecies of these holy men. Interestingly, Christians talk about one holy man, Christ who died upon the cross and “forgave all sins” according to Christian belief. But we Lakota and Native Americans had many holy men, not just one, who sacrificed more than their lives.

These half-man, half spiritual warriors, the Heyoka were in a class by themselves, fearless, eager to sacrifice and face their maker. These holy man and warriors did not cry out, “Father, take this bitter cup from me!” Some of our holy men within the 90’s, never retired. Holy men were holy men until the day they died as there is no retirement from a spiritual calling.

One cannot retire from the purpose of the Great Mystery. One cannot retire from the wing of the Thunder Bird or fall from the Great Mystery’s power. In nature, a bear cannot “retire” from being a bear. He is a bear until the day he dies and there is no room for debate.

The powerful Heyoka, Pete Catches, Sr., who healed many but later died in poverty said in his humble way, “I don’t even want to be called a medicine man, just a healing man because this is what I am made for. I don’t ask for anything. A white doctor has a fee, a priest has a fee. I have no fee. A man goes away healed. That is my reward.”

If one can measure the tail of a dying culture within a falling star, we are witnessing one of the last Heyoka who live today. As his mother, it was a challenge to understand this strange child who was attracted to storms and involved with the supernatural. He often spoke of the unseen and future and acted as if they were here today.

As a child, I thought it odd that he would tell me how the “wind” spoke to him. I watched him grow and noticed that he often knew things before they happened. I did not realize at the time that the great vision of the West also makes a stranger of a loved one for the loved one belongs to his spiritual Creator, the Thunder Bird.

But it is the “storms” within our people that seem to dictate the life and death of a Heyoka. Historically when uncertainty or disease stared down upon our people, the holy men, were at the forefront to confront any living or unseen foe and to guarantee our future. Much in the same fashion of their ancestors, when a child is marked by the Thunder Beings, he or she cannot run and escape their vision.

Today the Heyoka, the half-man, half-spiritual Thunder Dreamer is truly an endangered species. Perhaps like the dinosaurs, soon to become extinct. Isn’t it time to honor our national “treasures,” these holy men and women before they become extinct?

Wambli Sina Win is currently an Associate Professor and Director of the Bacone College Criminal Justice Studies Department in Muskogee, Okla. Her grandfather was John Fire, Chief Lame Deer Tahca Uste, a well known Lakota Holy Man from the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. One of her sons is also a medicine man. She has served as a Tribal Judge for the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, a Tribal Attorney and as a legal Instructor for the U.S. Indian Police Academy at Artesia, N.M. You may contact Wambli Sina Win, J.D. at and on Facebook

More from Wambli Sina Win:
Wambli Sina Win: Eagles disappear into sunset of termination (10/3)
Wambli Sina Win: An attack on Indian spirituality from the FWS (9/26)
Wambli Sina Win: Ancestral artists - the proud legacy of women (8/8)
Wambli Sina Win: Embracing your indestructible Indian identity (8/1)
Wambli Sina Win: Make your stand to preserve Indian bloodline (7/25)
Wambli Sina Win: The ultimate expression of faith in Sun Dance (7/5)
Wambli Sina Win: Pretendians -- the hostile takeover of tribes (6/27)
Wambli Sina Win: Sharing the last moments of Lakota Heyoka (6/22)
Wambli Sina Win: Tribes should protect their Indian bloodline (6/14)
Wambli Sina Win: Racism in South Dakota's justice system (6/6)
Wambli Sina Win: Fallen Lakota stars in a book of ghosts (5/31)
Wambli Sina Win: Indian inmates in Oklahoma need our aid (5/23)
Wambli Sina Win: Imposter Indians finding the truth hurts (5/16)
Wambli Sina Win: Mortal Indian, immortal manifest destiny (5/2)
Wambli Sina Win: Iyeska, the Interpreter, turning extinct (4/25)
Wambli Sina Win: Eagle feathers being robbed of meaning (4/18)
Wambli Sina Win: Heyoka, a man taller than his own shadow (4/12)
Wambli Sina Win: Iktomi legend teaches us about human nature (4/4)
Wambli Sina Win: Uniting Indian Country with indigenous pride (3/28)
Wambli Sina Win: Don't take your elders, holy men for granted (3/21)
Wambli Sina Win: Lakota outraged by theft of sacred ceremonies (3/14)

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