“I have been all over the world, and have had many personal spiritual experiences, with many different peoples, and I have to tell you that what I witnessed yesterday, was the purest form of love between human beings that I have ever experienced.”
This short note from a friend was referring to an event that she was a part of in June.
The experience she was referring to was a Hunkapi, sometimes spelled Hunka. A “Making of Relatives” ceremony. As I understand it, this is one of the seven sacred rites of the Lakota Culture. She, along with a number of my family and friends had been a part of the ceremony that took place under the dazzling, impossibly bluest of skies, speckled with brilliant white clouds at one of the sacred sites of the Lakota; Bear Butte.
About nine months earlier, a friend and I had been asked if we would be willing to become adopted brothers to a Lakota man we have known and loved for more than a decade.
What’s the back story?
In the preparation for one of my workshops a number of years ago, I called the Pine Ridge South Dakota Chamber of Commerce, asking if they knew of someone who might speak to a group of us. I was hoping the workshop participants could learn about the Lakota culture, the Pine Ridge Reservation, the history, values, beliefs, and the lives of the Lakota people.
I called the first of three numbers I was given, and the first words the man said were, “I know you’ve been given a couple of other names, but there is no need to call them, I’m your guy.” This was the beginning of a special friendship that developed; the depth of which is beyond words. He said his name was Warren Guss Yellowhair. I learned that his Lakota name is Tasunka Najin which, in English, translates to Standing Horse.
Indeed, he was “my guy.” Our group travelled to the Pine Ridge Reservation (which was originally designated as POW camp #334, by the way) from our cabins in the Black Hills. We met him and members of his family near the Bad Lands of South Dakota. I was amazed. I had never been in the presence of a person with possession of such expertise in his ability to connect his peoples’ ways to our culture. He spoke eloquently, moving seamlessly and soulfully with pride, humor, power and passion, between his culture and ours (with a few tears shared among all of us), as he told us countless stories, in ways we could all understand and relate to. He spoke of the historical tragic interaction between their world and mine. He shared what life was like, today, for his land and people. I was transfixed by his simplicity and humility. His ironic sense of humor. His absolute love for and dedication to his people and land was evident. And, most importantly, his determination to do whatever he could to make things better for the people he loved.
After the presentation, I approached him, thanked him, and suggested that I would like to find ways to learn and share more. Over the next decade there were many more gatherings of the type mentioned above. He (and his daughter) also attended a number of workshops and trainings that I led. Their presence has always added a profound depth to every experience they were (and are) a part of. Our families have grown closer over those years, and this fall we will be co-leading a workshop, where we blend the best of our culture and theirs.
About a year ago, on a brisk, beautiful afternoon in October in Tennessee, my friend’s daughter, Pehin Zi Sahiyela Win, which translates to Cheyenne Woman, was attending one of our Ultimate Listening® workshops. She approached me and asked if we could go somewhere private, indicating that she had something to ask me. “Of course,” I said. She also asked if we could bring a friend of mine, Tom, along. “Of course,” I replied.
We jumped on my Japanese mule (the four-wheeled kind, not the four-legged kind) and moved away from the group that we had been sharing the week with. When we got to a private space we stopped. She, with some hesitation, turned towards us and with her head down, said that her father had a question that he had been afraid to ask us.
I was a bit surprised because Tom, her dad and I had spent the previous week together at a men’s workshop with him where we shared many things. Touching things. Intimate things. Personal things. Very authentic and deep conversations. A fair number of those conversations was him answering questions about the ways in which he and his family suffered from prejudice and racism, some of which I have personally witnessed. Some of those conversations were about historic racism directed towards the people who had occupied what we now call America before colonization, but some were about the racism and prejudice they still experience on a DAILY basis. We have also shared many personal and powerful moments over the dozen years we had known each other.
She warned us that she would be asking a question that her father had been afraid to ask us, fearing we might laugh at him, reject, or scorn him somehow. His story had included a lifetime of experiences where those things happened with people of my race. That broke my heart, because I loved her father and couldn’t imagine ever doing something like that to him.
She looked at both of us and said, “My father would like to know if you would be willing to become his brothers.” Tears filled my eyes. A huge lump caught in my throat. His brother? Her dad wanted me to become his brother????
I knew in their culture that this “making of relatives” ritual was something that was sometimes done, but usually among tribal members. I knew that it was very rare for a person like me, of my race, an obvious descendant of those who perpetrated (and still do) genocide on them and their culture to be invited into their family.
All of that flashed before me in a second or two and through my tears I said, “OF COURSE!!!!” I glanced over at my friend, Tom, saw the tears in his eyes, and heard him say, “ABSOLUTELY!!!!!”
Though I had heard of the adoption rite, I didn’t know what was involved. So, I asked, “What do I need to do?” She said, “There will be a ceremony. You don’t need to do anything. We will take care of everything that needs to happen.” With that, she handed each of us a palm sized medicine wheel and told us, “bring this on that day,” and looked away, signaling that there was no more to be said. As we silently drove back to the group, I was in shock.
I wasn’t sure if I should let anyone know. I wasn’t sure what the protocol was. Was this a secret ceremony? A private one?
When asked, we were told that we were free to ask anyone we wanted to join us and witness the ceremony. She told us that her father wanted to also use this day and this gathering to promote reconciliation between their culture and ours. If you understand our historic (and sadly, current) relationship with the people who lived here when our European ancestors came, you understand what he meant by offering a day of reconciliation. It felt sad that he was the one who was doing something specific (conducting a literal ceremony) to promote reconciliation, not me.
What did it mean to become a brother to my friend? Over the next months, I asked myself that question several times a day. I am lucky enough to have a biological brother and sister. I know the role I play and have played with them. Was this to be any different? Would this mean that I would become an uncle to his children; a great uncle to his grandchildren? Would I be a brother to his siblings? Was it just a ceremonial title?
Fast forward eight months. The day had arrived. As mentioned the ceremony was held at Bear Butte, one of the sacred sites of the Lakota, in the Paha Sapa (Black Hills) in South Dakota.
Our entourage included thirty of our family and friends from all over the US and Guatemala.
We were asked to wait at the visitor’s center as Tasunka and his family prepared the ceremonial site, out of sight and off into the distance. Gradually the sound of singing and drumming caught our attention. His daughter came to get us, and we were ushered into the clearing where the ceremony would take place.
We were greeted and shown to our places by Tasunka and the leader of the ceremony. We joined about thirty of his friends and family member, the drummers, and singers. All in attendance were invited to “cleanse” or smudge ourselves with the smoking sage. Prayers in the Lakota language were offered. The three of us, Tasunka, Tom and I, were brought to the center of the gathering. More prayers, and songs, were offered.
The specifics of the ceremony itself need to stay sacred and private, but the one thing I can share is what the man conducting the ceremony told us at the very end. “Now, this isn’t just some ceremonial thing.” It’s not like you call once a year on their birthday. You are now brothers. Look around at all the people gathered here. You are to take care of each other and their families.”
That answered my long-standing question, “What does it mean to become his brother?” I am happy to say that the three of us are in constant contact these days, working at supporting each other physically and working on ways to support our loved ones. (Coincidentally, without intending to, I have been in touch with my own brother and sister much more than before.)
As I said, I am a brother to my sister and brother. We acknowledge that. I am also a part of a men’s group, and I hear them frequently call each other “brother.” The meaning of that, to me, is vague. Ceremonial? Perhaps intentionally so? I’m thinking we might benefit from having our own “brotherhood ceremony.” I wonder if and how that might change our relationships in a positive way.
This is the outpouring of love that my friend spoke of that she had witnessed. It all came together at the end of the day when sixty people shared a magnificent feast together. Laughing. Talking. Prayers of thanksgiving. Practicing brotherhood. “Your people are my people,” was the unspoken message. The spoken message was “Mitakuye Oyasin; we are all related.”