I am standing in the foyer of a good friend’s home. There are 40 or 50 of us there. Songs are being sung in a language unfamiliar to me. I am invited to sing along. I told the gentleman next to me that I didn't know what I was doing, and I hoped I didn't do anything to offend. He said, “I'll teach you, just do as I do,” and I did.
It was a remarkable experience. The music, the movement, the dedication, and devotion touched me deeply. It was even more remarkable to me that I had been invited into one of their most sacred ceremonies. Invited because my friend had died. Invited because my friend had asked that I be one of his honorary pallbearers.
Invited even though only a few decades earlier my kind, Americans, and further back my German ancestry, had participated – passively in some cases, and actively in others – in an attempt to exterminate them. Yes America. My America. Check out the “HMS St. Louis” incident for but one example.
My ancestors, culture, and religion, colluded with policies, practices and actions that were (and still are) responsible for millions of deaths. And here I was being asked to join them. Survivors and the children of survivors. To celebrate my friend’s life and legacy.
I asked myself, How do they do that? What allows them to forget, or at least forgive who I am and where I came from and all that I represent? My friend was Jewish and had spoken openly and personally of the Holocaust.
I have experienced the same grace from many other peoples. Descendants of slaves. Those who have experienced America doing her “thing” in Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador, Japanese citizens of America……
Over the years I have been asked to be a part of various ceremonies and gatherings that are a part of the traditions of other groups that we have a bloody history with. Native Americans. The Dine in Arizona, the Lakota of South Dakota.
A Thanksgiving ceremony on top of Bear Butte in South Dakota, attended by five members of four different tribes. Once again, I found myself saying, “I have no idea what I am doing, and I am afraid to offend.” They laughed uproariously and said, “We don't know what we're doing either, so just join with us.” During that ceremony where prayers were offered up, I had the sense that in the asking was the answering. As I looked up, I saw a hawk circling above us. After the ceremony, one of the men said, “By our asking these things, they are granted and our brother, hawk, carries our prayers to the Great Mystery.”
Another time I was gifted a bone whistle from a Lakota friend as he was saying goodbye, giving me a precious relic from his recently completed Sundance.
I was asked by a Lakota friend if they could arrange a healing ceremony for me when I was diagnosed with stage IV liver disease. I said, “Yes.” I went through one year of what I was asked to do every full moon. I was healed.
Another Lakota man gave me back my spirituality by simply taking my hand and asking if I could feel it. I said “Yes.” “That is what spirituality is to us, connection.”
In all of this I stand in wonder of me, representing a people who have done our best to eradicate them from the face of the earth, this dominant white cultural heritage that I carry.
How is it that I am still welcomed by the very people who we tried to exterminate, control, demean? What is that? What do they have as a part of their nature that allows that? Is it grace? Or understanding? A higher level of consciousness? Whatever it is, I've been gifted by it.
These are people who if you look at their lives, have little to nothing that would mean anything in terms of our world. The Lakota, for example, still live in homes where 30% have no water or heat. 17 people live in the average home. The average age of death is 45.
They have so little but, on another level, they have so much. All this grace has been given, freely, never once have they asked for anything in return. Nothing. Offering such acceptance and compassion towards me, spurs the desire to give back. I've tried throughout my life to do that. I have had some successes and some failures.
I wish that I had such grace as I have experienced. Perhaps I have too many other “things” to grant it. How about you?
Toni Morrison once said something to the effect that If you have freedom, your responsibility is to free another; and if you have power, your responsibility is to empower another.
I have also heard that if I have wondered what I would have done, “back when”, look at what I am doing now about those very same situations. I have not always done the right thing in situations like this. I once said nothing when I knew who had beaten another man. To protect myself and my family. That changed me.
So, here is part of what I am “doing now.” Sunday, October 25th, two Lakota friends, a father and daughter, will be sharing with us what they are doing to help save the infants who die at 300% greater rate than the average white baby. The elders who freeze to death. Mothers and fathers.
I met Guss and Tianna about 10 years ago. I have been doing workshops in the Black Hills of one kind or another since the early ‘90’s. The workshops almost always include a trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation. One day I thought “I wonder if I could find someone who lives here, to show us around.” A tour guide that I would be willing to pay.
I found Guss and Tianna. Since I met them they have established a formal tour business (the only Native owned tour business in the state of South Dakota) to share with other outsiders the specialness of their people and their land, trying to bridge those things that separate us all.
I have witnessed them sharing whatever they receive with everyone in their community. They use the money they earn to support the dancers, the storytellers, the artists, feed the children, cut firewood for the elders, carry water to those who have none. Such sharing is the Lakota way.
I believe in their sharing there will be things that might be helpful to us to save our own young, our own mothers and fathers, and our own elders. Please consider joining us for that 90-minute presentation.
By joining us, you will be supporting my attempt to honor Toni Morrison’s challenge, to “empower another”. Empower them as they further establish and develop their skills and program content, which has, at its core, the desire to make all lives better, richer, and safer.
This presentation will include a history of the Lakota, their experiences of Colonial America, current conditions, and what is being done to try to change things. Click on the link below to find out more.