A few years back the hot topic in academic and literary circles was that of “sense of place.” Spanish-American philosopher/author George Santayana described it best when he wrote “...the freest spirit must have some place, some locus standi from which to view the world, and some innate passion by which to judge it.”
In my thoughts I am often taken back to my own places, my own locus standi, from which to this day I view the world and judge it with passion. The first was my birthplace on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I was born at home in the village of Wanblee in 1935.
The name ‘Wanblee’ is the Lakota word meaning eagle, and is derived from the town’s proximity to the Eagle Nest Butte, wanbli hohpi paha, a long, high mesa upon which eagles nested. The village is the most isolated on the reservation, and takes pride in its strong traditional and cultural community.
When I grew up there, Wanblee was a real Indian town, with a main street its only organized street; off main street, homes were scattered haphazardly as if some giant hand dropped seeds and houses sprang up where they fell. The houses were connected by trails of ruts made by wagons and cars. Most of the trees were cottonwood, which one village elder used to describe as the world’s largest weeds.
For me, life in Wanblee was a barefoot, happy existence. Wanblee to me was always summer time and Christmas, because those were the only times I spent there; the rest of each year throughout my youth was spent 100 miles away at Holy Rosary Mission, a Catholic boarding school, now known as Red Cloud Indian School.
I visit the school whenever I return to the reservation, which is seldom now that my siblings are all gone. As always, my visits bring back many memories of my twelve years spent there.
My father died in 1937, leaving my mother alone to raise five boys. My father had lost everything in the Great Depression, and left only the small house he was building at the time of his death. Although the great depression was on the wane, there was little money. Two years later, my mother was very ill and with the threat of losing me to adoption as social workers were insisting, she decided instead to place me in the mission school, even though I was only four years old at the time.
I dreaded the thought of being away from Mom, even though two of my brothers, slightly older, would be there with me. While my mother enrolled us, I stayed close to her side. But one of my brothers lured me into the playroom to see a special toy or game. Being inside overly long – perhaps only a few minutes, really, I sensed that something was terribly wrong and panic hit me. Tearing back outside, I saw that my mother was gone. My brother held me fast to keep me from running after the car that took her away, and he was crying too as he held me. Thus began my school days at Holy Rosary Mission in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
I hated my brother for his betrayal, but later realized that he did it only to spare our mother further heartbreak, added to the terrible sadness she felt over what she had to do. I forgave him.
When I return to the school, I usually visit the beautiful new church on the campus. The old church, built in 1898, burned down in 1997 and a new modern structure was erected in its place. The new church is beautiful and impressive, but it is nothing like the old one we students in those years attended every morning, and twice on Sundays. The new church will never resound with the medieval strains of the Latin Mass and rituals, nor will it ever have the warm sweet smell of years of incense and candle wax.
The school is now state-of-the-arts in technology. A very good school as it always was. But it is no longer a boarding school, which is good. But the students there now will never experience a night visit to the cemetery on the hill overlooking the campus. They will not hear stories or see the tombstone that bears the likeness of Satan obliterated by a Jesuit priest, a tombstone that will not remain standing, according to legend. They will never fear sighting a headless nun who floats through the halls of the old building. They will never hear stories of ghosts of old Indian scouts whose graves are in the school cemetery, old Red Sack and No Legs, who roam the flats above the school at night, looking for runaway boys – this according to our Jesuit prefects.
This was the locus standi of my youth. It is from the vantage point of that experience that I view the world and judge it.
It was good growing up there on the reservation, filling my tribal soul with stories told by family and elders at home in the summer months, and getting a good education in the school months. Despite the loneliness and sadness of boarding school, it wasn’t bad, especially in light of the fact that most of our parents couldn’t afford to feed us for twelve months of the year anyway.
Later on, prior to my going to Washington DC in 1972 to serve as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians, I was taken by a holy man to perform the Hanble’ceya, or vision quest. The vision I experienced was one that has guided me ever since.
When I was brought down from the hill, I felt that I did not achieve a vision. I thought of Black Elks vision, and Crazy Horse’s vision, and Sitting Bull’s, and my experience was nothing like that of those great warriors. But as my holy man instructed me, I thought about it over time and it became clear to me. I interpret it to mean that in the magnitude of the world, I am nothing. I am only part of it. In my NCAI service in Washington I tried to keep in mind that I am not the star of the organization, I am part of a larger and much more important effort: a struggle for justice and greater welfare for our people.
That hill of Hanble’ceya too was my locus standi from which to view the world.
When he wrote his most notable work, Black Elk Speaks, John G. Neihardt presented the words of the Oglala Holy Man; and in that book Black Elk gives an explanation of the Lakota sense of place. As he explains, we are, each of us, placed in the midst of six directions. They are six Grandfathers, he tells us, and these Grandfather-spirits are kind and loving, full of years and wisdom.
As he stood in prayer on Inyankaga (Harney Peak), he told of being at the center of the world there. But the message he sent was that we are – each of us – the center of the world. For, wherever we are, we are always dead center amidst the Six Grandfathers.
In essence, Black Elk tells us that our locus standi is the entire universe. And the greatest tenet of Lakota belief is the inter-relationship between people and the earth.
The Lakota end all prayer with the expression, “Mitakuye Oyasin” or “All my relations – man, animal life and the earth itself.”
Charles “Chuck” Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was principal founder of the American
Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as Executive Director of the
National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He may be reached at
email@example.com. His website is iktomisweb.com.
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