Tim Giago. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today
Notes from Indian Country
A wacipi (dance) that hid many secrets

It is hard to know where you are going until you know where you have been.

85 years ago a wacipi (powwow) was held in the Pejuta Haka (Medicine Root) District, Kyle, on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The powwow went on for 4 days and 4 nights. The significance of this particular powwow cannot be understated. We need to take a look at the years leading up to this powwow to understand its importance.

At the turn of the century the United States opened up the Pine Ridge Reservation to outside settlers. Much of the land that once belonged to the tribe was lost to them. This loss of this land that was taken from the tribe by an Act of Congress, included the Sacred Black Hills. But taking the land was just the beginning.

The people of the Sioux Nation had to be civilized, and by that it meant the government had to start with the children. By following the example of the Spanish Government when it took over the indigenous lands of South and Central America, the government, in collusion with the Christian churches, built Indian missions like Holy Rosary at Pine Ridge, St. Francis at Rosebud, St. Stephan at Crow Creek, St. Joseph’s at Chamberlain and Marty Mission at Wagner on the Yankton Sioux Reservation with the sole purpose of destroying the language and traditions of the children. They sent cars to the outlying communities on the reservation and physically took the children away from their parents and hauled them to the boarding schools.

At the same time they outlawed the traditional spiritual practices and at times even jailing holy men and women. They did away with the traditional tribal councils and turned the tribal governments over to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

A modern-day wacipi, or powwow, at the Little Wound School, home of the Mustangs, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Kyle, South Dakota. Photo: Ben Piven

The wacipi at Kyle 85 years ago went on for 4 days and 4 nights, the exact number of days and nights of the traditional Sundance. During the powwow a group of male dancers emulated the motions of the forbidden Sundance without the Sundance Pole or leather thongs attached to their chests. But all of the elders knew exactly what they were doing. Under the very noses of the BIA observers, they were secretly doing the Sundance and along the way several other small bits of tradition were woven into the powwow.

Native Americans were not going to allow the federal government to tell them that they could not practice the traditional spirituality they had practiced for hundreds of years. They took it underground to keep it alive.

But the Christian and BIA boarding schools made every effort to destroy a culture. The parents tried their best to keep their children out of the boarding schools and the children themselves often ran and hid when they saw a black car approaching their homes. But a lot of parents just gave in because times were very tough. There was little food to be put on the tables. The mighty buffalo herds that once provided all of the sustenance needed by the people were systematically destroyed.

I was writing a story about the boarding schools many years ago and I interviewed an elderly Lakota man. He said, “When my daughter came home from the boarding school I greeted her as I always had in the Lakota language and spoke to her in Lakota. She did not understand me anymore.” A tear ran down his cheek as he told me this.

Most of the elders knew that along with the buffalo, many of the old ways were gone and would never return. A way of life that had gone on for centuries had been nearly lost, but the young people would not let it die. They are still fighting to revive it, but in 2021 it is proving to be very difficult.

In this modern day of cell phones and lap tops, things will continue to evolve in Indian Country. The young people will communicate on their devices and the language they will use will be English. Does that mean further erosion of the Lakota language? I asked a couple of Lakota children as they were playing with their electronic devices if they ever communicated in Lakota. The said “No” because it was too difficult. I posed that question to some reservation school teachers about how they were going to address this situation and none of them had an answer.

The government’s efforts to outlaw the religions of the Native Americans are gone. The Lakota, Pueblo and Hopi Indians kept it alive secretly and wacipis like the one held in Kyle 85 years ago laid the groundwork for its revival.

Every Lakota knows where we have been and now we are struggling to find out where we are going. There are those wasicus who say, “Just put it behind you; it was a long time ago.” When I hear this it is apparent to me that these people have absolutely no idea of the damage done to the Lakota people by the Churches and the United States government.

In the coming years there will be a blending of the old with the new, but then again, that is the way it has always been. We have survived the worst and now we must build on the new.

Contact Tim Giago, Oglala Lakota, at journalist1@gmail.com. Giago is the founder of the Native American Journalists Association and the recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award for editorial writing.

Note: Content © Tim Giago