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  • Dr. Ted Klontz

Elder Worship

We were on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Allen, South Dakota. A man I have gotten to know whose heart seems to be a big as he is, Dallas Chief Eagle, was demonstrating the Lakota Hoop dance for a group of us attending one of the listening retreats we do each year.

He was teaching all of us about the symbolism of the hoop and the dance itself. As he talked he twirled the hoops around his wrists and arms, sometimes throwing them across the room with a reverse spin, so that like a yo-yo, they would return to him. He was a master at configuring them into amazing shapes, at times standing in the middle of them as if in a geodesic dome, other times they became eagle’s wings all to the soft beat of the drum all the while teaching us about it.

Then something magical happened, he invited the Lakota young people up front with him. Shyly at first, reluctant they were, but with his huge and welcoming smile he invited them to join him as he continued to talk and twirl. He started slowly with the young people, giving each one a hoop. Wordlessly, with a nod of the head here and a smile three, he encouraged having them mimic what he did. Twirling a hoop around his wrist, they all followed. Switching it to their left wrist. All the time Dallas, beaming with pride and approval. Picking up a second hoop he began twirling the hoops around each wrist. The kids followed. Over the next 20 minutes I sat transfixed as I watched kids who had never done anything like this, and if they had, certainly never in public, in front of a group of people they had never met, become graceful hoop dancers, the grand finale being all of them moving around the room with their hoops intricately looped together each one appearing as eagles. It was one of the most masterful teaching moments I have ever experienced. No words were ever spoken, just demonstrating, smiling, laughing, encouraging. With never a, “Come on up, I want to teach you how to hoop dance”. I watched the reverence Dallas seemed to have for these young people. Such love and respect. Acting as if he was being privileged by their mere presence and willingness to join him. I watched how in twenty minutes a half-dozen children aged 9-15 who started out, reluctantly coming forward, with some significant degree of what seemed to me to be embarrassment and self-consciousness, be transformed into honest to goodness beautiful ‘Eagle Dancers’. Swooping, circling, and flapping their wings, going low, going high, big circles and then little ones. They saw it. They felt it. That feeling of doing something they had no idea that they could do. The smiles were mile wide. I thought, “So this is how they teach their young people their ways, how stunningly beautiful and profound.”

Next we heard from a group of teens, who called themselves those who “Dances With Words”. They shared their poetry, from their lives. As moving as any I have ever experienced. Honored by all the awestruck adults present with a spontaneous standing ovation. Their poetry was focused on their perspective of reservation life and death, especially deaths. With poverty, illness, shortened life spans, high mortality rates, suicide rates, alcoholism, traffic accidents; unemployment rates reaching 80%; their painful life experiences rival that of any place on earth.

I was with a group of 12, who as a part of a workshop we do every year in the Black Hills of South Dakota were spending a day at the Youth Center, in Allen, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation. We were watching a program that our Lakota hosts had prepared especially for our group. We were among 60 others. Moms, dads, grandmothers, grandfathers, all from the local community. We had brought, as our gift for them, lunch for the community. Food enough for a couple of hundred people and the call soon went out to “take food for our elders who couldn’t come”.

Part of the reservation experience was also being invited to join in a sweat lodge. Several of the young boys, seemingly emboldened by their earlier dance success, decided to be a part of it. For all, except one, this was their first sweat lodge experience.

After we entered and several ceremonial acts were completed, the elder, who was leading the sweat began talking to all of us about what the sweat lodge ceremony represented. Then very subtly the young people became the center of attention. The elder spoke of his appreciation for them being willing to participate. He told them that someday it would come to pass that he and the other elders would not be around to teach the people these things and that he was glad that by participating in the sweat they would someday be the ones to share these things with their people. He went on to tell them that the elders would no longer be around to protect and take care of the needy, the women and children. He spoke of how without the women and children the people would disappear and how they would need to be the ones to take their (the elders) place. He spoke of what protecting meant. That sometimes joking and making fun of others might seem harmless, but it was actually hurtful. He spoke of what it meant to be a husband and a father and a brother. I sat amazed at the gentleness of the information. The respectfulness of the instructions. It made ME want to be that kind of person. I was amazed at the contrast between this way of teaching boys how to be men, compared to our dominate culture’s admonition “don’t treat your sister like that”, or “don’t talk to your mother like that”, in our attempt to correct what we perceive as inappropriate behavior.

The Sweat Lodge Ceremony has a number of “rounds”, usually four. The leader told us that the second round of this sweat would be dedicated to prayers and that he would like for each of us to take turns, saying our prayers, out loud. I was intimidated. As a severely introverted adult, I couldn’t imagine how the young boys must have felt. Almost as if he had read my mind he said to the young men, “There will come a time when my voice is still. The people will need to hear your voice, your prayers. This would be a good day to begin letting the people hear your voice. It is dark in here, no one will know who is praying; no one will laugh at you”. (Well that was sort of true, it WAS dark and no one laughed, but when it came time to actually speak the prayers, he would say “what is your name? I want to hear your prayer.”

And, it was amazing. When it came their turn, I heard what had been children’s voices become men as they prayed for their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, and more (never for themselves) with incredible elegance and grace. It was stunning to me, how gentle and loving this elder was with the young people, and how profoundly effective his “teaching” style was and how quickly those young men, who had earlier been acting age appropriately silly seemed to grow into men, seemingly instantly.

At another time, we were talking with one of the leaders of our gathering and his granddaughter came up to him, pulled on his pant leg, wanting his attention. He stopped his conversation with us and tended to her needs, never apologizing for the interruption, never scolding her for bothering him while we adults were talking. Not one moment’s hesitation in making sure she knew that what she needed to say or know from him was more important than any adult conversation. No exclusion as in “Go away while we adults talk”.

What’s my point? In that culture, the elders are worshiped. They are honored. Almost as deities. Deferred to, listened to, assisted, and taken care of. They have a purpose. They know it. They feel it. It isn’t manufactured. They go first. They have the last word. No assisted living segregation here. It is immediately obvious, even to outsiders like us.

One of our group members was wondering how this, what I call, elder worship could be so true, especially in an environment where so many have so little.

I said that perhaps they are simply getting back what they give their young people. Gentleness, respect, honoring, a sense of importance (even when adults are talking). They are more guided than lectured to. Shown (rather than being told) how essential they are to their people’s survival. More shown how to do things they never believed they were capable of than told. More invited to be a part of than being commanded to.

And sadly, that perhaps the reason most elders are anything but worshiped in our culture is that we are simply getting back what we gave our children. They are treating us elders as we treated them as children. I’m not sure, it was just a passing thought.

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