Wambli Sina Win: Lakota outraged by theft of sacred ceremonies

The Red Road or “Chanku Luta,” as it is known by the Lakota, has been traveled by our ancestors long before us. Today, some may call it the road less traveled. According to Lakota belief, the Red Road begins even prior to conception and is a path which is available to those who are spiritually inclined. The Red Road which runs north and south, is a unique spiritual path, a way of life and enlightenment which has no end. During times of difficulty, the Lakota people could always rely upon the Red Road for strength and renewal, just as they could rely upon the Inipi, also known as the sweat lodge ceremony.

In the sweat lodge, the foremost of the seven sacred ceremonies of the Lakota, one may pray, seek healing, forgiveness, renewal, strength and help with life’s problems. Elders often remind the youth that materialism along with the negativity that it brings, have no place in a sacred sweat lodge ceremony. Just as there is a Red Road, a place where miracles begin, there is a negative counterpart, the Black Road- “Chanku Sapa,” which runs east and west.

This is a path of non-spirituality and greed. A person is never satisfied for desires are insatiable and this road ultimately leads to an early death. On the Black Road, the load of misery accumulated in a lifetime, is carried on when one passes. Unfortunately, many of our youth walk the Black Road and are lost from us through misfortune. I currently reside and work in Oklahoma but when I travel home to South Dakota, I am saddened by the many crosses lined up on the Reservation highways. The Red Road would have been a much kinder and more fulfilling life than the painful loss memorialized upon the Black Road.

In spite of the prosperity which gaming has brought to a small handful of tribes, the majority of tribes and Native Americans in Indian country still suffer greatly from poverty and other hardships. At times, it seems that all we Native Americans have is our culture, language and our relationship with Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery. Our way of life, the Red Road is becoming extinct, just as our language, culture and sacred ceremonies are being lost, stolen, exploited or perverted.

The sweat lodge ceremony is the “Grandfather” of the Lakota ceremonies for the rest of our major sacred ceremonies start out with a sweat lodge ceremony for purification/renewal/rebirth. We Lakota were given these sacred ceremonies by Wakan Tanka and the Tunkasilas (Grandfather spirits) so that our people could live (hecel Oyate kin nipi kte). When a sweat lodge ceremony is conducted and people participate for the right reasons, there is great power and healing as well as other “miracles” which may occur.

The Vision Quest, the Sundance as well as our Yuwipi or Lowampi ceremonies require that we purify ourselves first in a sweat lodge ceremony. I have learned that just being Indian does not reflect that a person is spiritual or that he or she walks the Red Road or is knowledgeable about the Red Road. Traditional Lakota elders teach that the sweat lodge is place for humility, not arrogance, or showing off to impress others.

In spite of the pressures of this material world, there remain many Native Americans who faithfully and stubbornly cling to their culture, speak their native tongue and practice their spirituality, following in the footsteps of their ancestors. It is thought that our leaders in days past such as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Dragging Canoe, Tecumseh, Osceola and other Native American ancestors died defending our lands but this is not entirely true. These tribal leaders defended much more than land. They sacrificed their lives to protect a way of life which includes the Red Road and our connection to Wakan Tanka through our sacred ceremonies.

As an Oglala Lakota, I am one of the beneficiaries of their sacrifices. I was born at Rosebud, South Dakota, but I grew up in Wanblee, also known the Eagle Nest District or Lip’s Camp on the Pine Ridge, Indian Reservation. My maternal great grandmother was Nettie Horn Chips, a close relative of old man Chips, a powerful Lakota medicine man who was close to Chief Crazy Horse. Several of my other ancestors were also spiritual men including my grandfather, Chief Lame Deer, Tahca Uste, a Sichangu holy man.

I feel fortunate that I have a son, Wiconi Was`te, who is also a spiritual man. Every summer, I make my way back to South Dakota to join in the celebration of the renewal of life for the people through our Sundance. I know on a very personal level that the Red Road has many challenges but many of us choose this way of life and we cherish our sacred ceremonies.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that we Lakota are outraged by the recent scandal and events in Arizona regarding the theft/misuse/abuse of our sacred sweat lodge ceremony by James Arthur Ray, a non-Indian whose actions caused the deaths of several non-Indians. This man was not authorized by the Lakota to conduct a sweat lodge ceremony.

The Lakota do not proselytize or pressure anyone to convert or join the Red Road. This has simply been a way of life for the Lakota since time immemorial. It is not a recreational activity, nor does it have any connection to New Age or Wicca ceremonies.

Fees should never be charged for a sacred ceremony. There is also no “tithe” at the sweat lodge or formalities of dress. And it is not that easy to follow this Red Road for the cold north wind blows against you at times but will leave you stronger when it changes to the south.

Certainly, when a person has been healed or there is evidence that the person has been helped, out of gratitude to the Tunkasilas, it is customary to sponsor a thanksgiving ceremony where food, offerings and gifts may be given to show appreciation. Money was not the traditional way to show “gratitude.” In the old days, for a healing of a family member, a man might offer his best horse to show his appreciation. For those who asked for and received help, there should never be an attitude of entitlement as the truly spiritual person sacrifices not only his time and energy but also his very life to help others and his work is never done.

According to news reports, this Wasicu (whiteman), Ray, charged non-Indians thousands of dollars to participate in a perversion of the sweat lodge ceremony. Thus he desecrated a sacred ceremony and in doing so, he disrespected the Wakinyan, the spiritual guardians of the sweat lodge. In time, the Lakota elders say that he will pay the spiritual consequences, regardless of the outcome of the secular legal process for one cannot play with a sacred ceremony.

It is disturbing that because of cultural ignorance and sensationalism, one of our most sacred ceremonies, the sweat lodge ceremony, is grist for entertainment in recent news because of the reprehensible actions of this cultural thief in Arizona and his fake sweat lodge ceremony. News media featured an interview of a fake Indian, a hobbyist, who spoke about our sacred sweat lodge ceremony as if he were a spiritual person or an “expert” on Indian sacred ceremonies and it angered me.

You cannot “train” just anyone to “run” a sweat lodge. You have to be worthy and it is an honor to be able to conduct a sweat lodge ceremony. It means that you have adopted the Red Road as a way of life which requires sacrifice, prayer and preparation, sometimes over an entire lifetime.

I doubt that the Jewish community would allow a non-Jewish person, to walk into a Jewish synagogue, kick out the Rabbi out, desecrate their religion and teachings and take over the synagogue, charging fees too. The Jewish people would be outraged and they would never allow to get away with this. So why do we Native Americans tolerate thieves stealing and exploiting our sacred ceremonies?

Tribes should expand the horizons of their tribal sovereignty. This is not the time to be timid. If in South Dakota all the Sioux tribes would unite and in an exercise of tribal sovereignty, hold these thieves of our culture and ceremonies accountable, we can save a way of life for those who are yet unborn. The time has come to add to tribal codes to protect sacred sites and sacred ceremonies and to be proactive in the international arena for the thieves are exploiting our ceremonies outside of the United States too. If the law was used to destroy us, we can turn it around and use it to save what ought to be precious to us, our culture, language, sacred sites, and most of all, our Lakota spirituality.

There is great danger in apathy, laziness, doing nothing. Government may further impinge upon our diminishing tribal sovereignty by setting precedent through court decisions or more Congressional regulation because of the foolish and reckless actions of non-Indians such as the guy in Arizona who made a mockery of our sweat lodge ceremony. This is an invasion of the last sacred realm of the Indian, our religion and culture. Commercialization and exploitation is becoming accepted and we Native Americans are allowing non-Indians to define who we are. Is this acceptable to you?

What defines a sovereign nation? How far are we from being terminated? Is it the modern trend to not carry on and protect our culture and our spirituality? It is interesting that in states with large Native American populations such as Arizona and New Mexico, state legislators were forced by the voting power of Native Americans in those states to work with tribal leaders to include waivers for tribal religious ceremonies during burn bans, yet while living in Oklahoma, I found a huge difference. The Oklahoma Legislature, despite Oklahoma being the home to over 39 Indian tribes, still does not respect the First Amendment right of Indians to practice their religious activities.

Oklahoma grants waivers or exemptions during burn bans for secular activities such as agricultural brush burning yet there are no exemptions or waivers for the right for Indians to have ceremonial fires (the First Amendment religious right to free exercise of religion) supposedly guaranteed by our Constitution. Many Native Americans including inmates in Oklahoma prisons, are still unable to participate in sweat lodge ceremonies for long periods of time when burn bans are in effect. In 2006, I advocated for a change in the law and I had meetings with several Oklahoma Indian tribal leaders to seek support for a bill which Mike Brown, a courageous State Representative from Tahlequag, Oklahoma, agreed to sponsor. Rep. Brown was concerned about the lack of protection for tribal members’ rights to have ceremonial fires during burn bans.

The following tribal leaders supported our vision and a change in the law: Paul Spicer of the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe, Billy Evans Horse, Chairman of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, the Chief of the Alabama Quasarte Tribe, the Chief of the United Keetowah Tribe, George Wickliffe, the Chief of the Caddo Tribe, Tarpie Yargee, the Chief of Sac and FoxTribe, Kay Rhoades, the Chief Froman of the Peoria Tribe and Chief Glenna Wallace of the Eastern Shawnees all supported legislation that Representative Mike Brown and I worked on to protect the religious rights of Tribes to have ceremonial fires. Here was a non-Indian politician who was more interested and more concerned about the First Amendment rights and Native American sacred ceremonies than most of the Indian tribal leadership.

A person speaks what their heart is and I heard recently an old term that I haven’t heard in years which seems applicable, “Apples are everywhere.” When I sought support for Representative Brown’s bill, I talked to several tribal leaders and some of them told me, “Gaming is our priority, not culture, religion or spirituality.” Have these leaders never heard of Vine Deloria, Jr., a Lakota legal scholar and early champion of Indian rights who declared, “It is spirituality which drives tribal sovereignty, not the other way around”? These leaders (Chiefs) know who they are.

Growing up in South Dakota when some of the old holy men from days past, such as Chief Fools Crow, Frank Arrowsight, Joe Eagle Elk, Picket Pin, Henry Crow Dog, Pete Catches Sr., Robert Stead and John Fire, was a great gift . Our people were able to survive and endure because of their spiritual leadership during a period of extreme deprivation and hardship when governmental policies attacked our language, culture and sacred ceremonies. Youth, take notice today, take heart, for tomorrow these words will be repeated by another elder somewhere, some other time. I pray that you will know who you are, you will remember your ancestors and that the Red Road is not for sale! There has been enough exploitation so let’s do something about this!

Wambli Sina Win (Eagle Shawl Woman) is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. She can be reached at wamblisinawin@yahoo.com.

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