In May of this year a young 20-year-old Lakota man from Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota was cornered by police after a high speed chase. While his uncle (a friend of mine who had been called to the scene) was negotiating and encouraging his nephew to surrender, shots were fired and the nephew ended up dead. He was shot 147 times. Violence such as this on Pine Ridge is not unusual. Tragedy is a common occurrence. The uncle’s daughter contacted me and asked if I might be able to help their family deal with this loss when I came out to see them in a few weeks. Even though I had no idea how I might possibly be of any help to people of a culture so rich in ceremony and so used to dealing with such mayhem (especially coming from a culture that, in my opinion, is so very poor in meaningfully dealing with death in any form) I said “Of course”.
I was clueless as to what I might do. My friend and his culture had been MY teacher in terms of how to deal with life events like this. What did I possibly have to offer? Many of the things that my culture might think would be helpful are absolutely not permitted and can be considered offensive. But, trusting a lesson that I had learned a few decades ago, that of “If there is nothing else to do, you can at least show up”, I showed up. I know how to do that.
As I traveled the two hours to get there from where I was staying, a couple of thoughts entered my mind. So, having learned to also trust those “thoughtful moments”, I stopped and got some art supplies. When I arrived we greeted each other and gathered together. I then asked if they would be willing to make a watercolor drawing to represent the picture that they carried in their minds of that night. They said “Yes”. And they did. So did I.
One of the things I know is that while minimally helpful, and better than nothing, just talking about things like this is not very effective. When we all finished, I asked if we could take our pictures and go to the site of the shooting, (not quite understanding why I thought of that), and they said “Yes”.
After we drove to the site, my friend unfurled a buffalo robe and we all sat on the edge as he did a cleansing ceremony for our gathering. I then asked if they would be willing to share the stories of their pictures. They said “Yes”. As you might imagine the stories were graphic, poignant, maddening, terrorizing, full of anger, regret, grief, anguish, remorse and so many other appropriate feelings. After we went around the circle (which included by the way, the young man’s 8 year-old niece whose presence was an amazing gift to us all) I asked if anyone had anything else to say. Everyone went around again and began connecting that night’s tragedy to the grief and loss of all the other disastrous moments that are and have been such a part of their everyday life and history. I then passed around a crystal bowl filled with water and as each person received it, they dipped their hands into the water. As they removed their hands they allowed the water to drop off the ends of their fingers while saying “These are the tears I shed for……..”. They dipped their hands many times. There were so many tears for so many losses.
Then we talked for a bit about what I know about the grief process in psychological terms. There were many questions.
After that I asked if we might take our pictures and create a space to burn them; in so doing symbolizing that through the rising smoke their memories and pain for that night could be carried to their creator. My hope was that this would relieve them, at least a little, the burden of carrying it all alone.
I then asked them if we could approach a makeshift cross that had been erected where he fell, and after they made their offering of food to their relative, asked if they would be willing to apply some of the watercolor paint to their fingertips as they shared with him some of the ways in which his life had blessed them. As we stood in a circle around it, they approached the cross and while touching it, shared a thank you to their nephew/cousin/uncle for a gift he had given them during his all-too-short life.
I left somewhat in awe of the time we had spent together. While I did my thing, my friend (the uncle) would add teachings and directions from his culture. It was seamless as we “danced” so beautifully together. Respecting and honoring each other’s gifts. Gifts from two very different cultures. Marveling in how despite our (the dominant culture’s) historic (and current) genocidal behaviors have been towards them, the Lakota still make room for us.
Most of all I marveled again at following the wisdom of the voice that said “Just show up, I’ll take care of the rest”.
I was having dinner today with a friend and I told him this story after he related to me that one of his close friends had just discovered that they had terminal cancer. He said, “I don’t know what to do”. You can imagine what I told him. When you don't know what else to do, when there is literally nothing else you can do, “Just show up”, in some form. If it can’t be in person, show up in some way. I have never ever been sorry I followed that voice. I have been sorry I didn’t.
During our dinner my friend asked me “Where is your passion these days”? I said “To do more things like that”. The uncle of the young man who was shot, my friend who had tried to negotiate for the life of his nephew, asked me if I could come back and help again. You may have guessed by now, I said “yes".
After this experience I have decided to offer a 4-day workshop in June 2018 (11-15) that will take place on the Pine Ridge reservation. During this time a small group of us (7-9 people) will spend some time each day learning from their culture through my friend (who is a professor at the Lakota college on the reservation) as well as taking advantage of the environment to come into a better, more loving and accepting relationship with ourselves. Let me know if you think you might be interested in joining me.