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A Retreat in the Black Hills
Walking up to Sun Dance site of the Santee Sioux
In Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk described how, at the age of nine, he had a powerful vision and was told by the great Thunder Beings to share this vision with his tribe. Afraid and unsure of himself, he was miserable for the next eight years:
A terrible time began for me then and I could not tell anybody—not even my father and mother. I was afraid to see a cloud coming up, and whenever one did, I could hear the thunder beings calling to me, “Behold your grandfathers, make haste.” I could understand the birds when they sang, and they were always saying, “It is time, it is time.” The crows in the day and the coyotes at night, all called and called to me, “It is time, it is time, it is time.” Time to do what? I did not know . . .
Sometimes the crying of coyotes out in the cold made me so afraid that I would run out of one tepee into another, and I would do this until I was worn out and fell asleep. I wondered if maybe I was only crazy, and my father and mother worried a great deal about me. I could not tell them what was the matter for then they would only think I was queerer than ever.
I was seventeen years old that winter. When the grasses were beginning to show their tender faces again, my father and mother asked an old medicine man by the name of Black Road to come over and see what he could do for me. Black Road was in a tepee all alone with me and he asked me to tell him if I had seen something that troubled me. By now I was so afraid of being afraid of everything that I told him about my vision. And when I was through, he looked long at me and said, “Ah,” meaning that he was much surprised.
Then he said to me, “Nephew, I know now what the trouble is. You must do what the big horse in your vision wanted you to do. You must do your duty, and perform this vision for your people upon earth. You must have the horse dance first for the people to see. Then the fear will leave you. But if you do not do this, something very bad will happen to you.” So we began to get ready for the horse dance.
He shared that vision and the dance at the age of seventeen. It was also Black Elk who said that in the seventh generation things would begin to change for the Lakota people, and I’ve heard a few elders say that this is now; we’re approaching the seventh generation.
In the Blue Cliff Record there’s a koan called Reviling the Diamond Sutra. It quotes the Diamond Sutra, which says in effect that if you did terrible things in the past, the punishment you’re going through now is a way of resolving that past karma. But how does that happen, I wondered. There’s cause and effect; therefore, if I did bad things in the past, I’ll suffer now. But how does my present suffering resolve the bad things I did earlier?
Anticipating our trip back to South Dakota in early June for meetings, I felt that many things we see around us—not just in the Black Hills, but here on this earth—spoke to this koan. As a society, we’re guilty of grave misdeeds against the first nations of this earth and against all its inhabitants, including the four-legged, those that crawl and those that fly, and the plants that supply us with precious oxygen. This earth is suffering; its people are suffering. How does that resolve the past?
What a past that is. Only recently I discovered that American Indians refer to reservations as prisoner of war camps. Originally, I believe they were under the jurisdiction of the Department of War. The Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the poorest places in our country as measured by parameters like life expectancy, drug and alcohol use, teen suicide, domestic violence, and incarceration. Charmaine White Face, a biologist I met on this trip and one of the leaders of the organization Defenders of the Black Hills, has been testing the water in the aquifers under Pine Ridge over many years for uranium. The corporations that mined the Black Hills for uranium left hundreds of mines open, without sealing or treating them in any way. Her tests show that uranium has leeched not only into the Pine Ridge aquifers, but also as far away as the Missouri River.
At the same time, many people feel that resurgence is taking place for the Lakota, who are respected by other tribes for bringing back and teaching many of the old ceremonies. There’s a sense that something is shifting. Young people, aware of how many first nations have been driven to extinction, want to learn their old language and culture; they want to reconnect with their history, with who they are as a people. And when they do, they look to the Black Hills, an hour’s drive away from the Reservation.
This is their sacred place, where they always did vision quests, ceremonies, and where they buried their dead. One of the oldest places in the United States, near the midpoint of this continent, its hills are replete with wildlife, its rivers with fish. Metals with magnetic forces, giving rise to resonance, lie deep inside its earth, and enormous limestone rocks rise high up to the sky.
- Black Hills, South Dakota
What have we done to this sacred place? We built gambling casinos and cities. We built Sturgis, where a million motorcycles will rally this August, before our retreat, and pound the roads and byways with their loud, heavy machines. And of course, we gave it to the corporations to extract the very metals that create this resonance, gold and silver in the 19th century, uranium in the 20th and 21st.
The Lakota don’t buy into our historical narrative that says they originated somewhere else and came from Asia across the Bering Straits. We were always here, they say. For me, it’s not a matter of right or wrong, of which narrative is validated through anthropology, science or history, and which doesn’t. It’s a matter of my ability—or inability—to listen. Catching the subtle expressions on people’s faces, I bear witness to my habit of saying things—even making sweeping statements—I assume everybody agrees to. But the American Indians have a different narrative, one that has been deprecated and ignored much like their language and culture. I bear witness to what it means to colonize a people not just with guns or restrictive laws, but also with education, values, and narrative, such as requiring them to send their children to Christian schools, prohibiting their language and religion, mocking their stories of their history and telling them what we know is true: This is what happened. This is how and when you came here. We know your real history; you don’t.
The Black Hills belong to the Lakota also through the Laramie Treaty of 1868, which was violated very quickly when gold was discovered there. Some years ago the Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills do indeed belong to the Lakota and the government should compensate them. They rejected the money because they want the Black Hills.
If you think that there’s no way that can happen, I note that New Zealand has begun a concerted effort to return to the Māori their ancestral homes, including some of its most beautiful and expensive coastline properties, unlike the land we allocated to reservations that, in addition to often not being the tribe’s home, also lacked resources such as arable soil and water. I was told that New Zealanders did this because they realized that their national identity is intimately connected with the Māori. This is also reflected in changes they’ve made to their historical narrative as taught in their schools.
Nelson Mandela said: It always seems impossible until it’s done. The day we return the Black Hills to the Lakota will turn the page not just on how we behave towards them, but also towards the earth we all share.
So two weeks ago we visited the site we will use for the August retreat, 175 acres used for sun dance by the Flandreau Santee Sioux. Genro and local Indian elders planned where the camping area would go, the tepees, the prayer circle, the kitchen, bathrooms, and showers, making it possible for us to stay on this sacred ground for the retreat. Throughout our days of meetings the Diamond Sutra koan didn’t leave me. I thought of the history, the causes and effects that become causes in turn, the suffering of this earth that obviates the wicked actions of the past.
Finally, a few days after we returned home, a Lakota elder wrote us the following: What we would like you to do is to pray. Come and pray with the Lakota. Come and pray with us, and for this earth. Immediately I was reminded of a verse Black Elk cited in his book: In a sacred manner you shall walk. Your nation shall behold you.
Right after reading that email I took our old dog to the forest, as I usually do. Walking up the path, I saw him chasing a deer. The deer made a big circle, came around, crossed right in front of me, and ran down to the creek. Ten minutes later he was back, crossed the path further up, and looked back at us, standing still.
We have to show up at the Black Hills, and in whatever form, we have to pray there, meditate, and send out our invocations for this land. I’m reminded of a teaching someone who once sat here repeated to us some 10 years ago: Your job is to eat what’s on your plate. It’s not to eat what’s on somebody else’s plate, but to eat what’s on your plate. The Black Hills are on our plate because we’re Americans. I’ve talked here about other Zen Peacemaker retreats at Auschwitz and Rwanda, but this retreat is ours, as Americans. It’s our thing to go there, do council, and listen—not just to the Hills but also to the people who’ve lived and worked there.
Listen to Steve Newcomb talk about his efforts to get the Vatican to rescind the Papal Bull of 1493, giving the kings of Spain all rights to this hemisphere: We assign to you, and your heirs and successors, kings of Pastille and Leon, all islands of mainlands found, and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the West and South. Listen to Charmaine White Face talk about her unrelenting efforts to show the Environmental Protection Agency what is happening to the waters under the Pine Ridge Reservation. Listen to Tuffy Sierra talk of what he has experienced in his lifetime, and in his family’s lifetime.
Really, really live this karma. Be there, take it on completely: This is what we did. This, too, is who we are, unconditionally, moment after moment. Bear witness to the Black Hills: colonized and exploited for 150 years, and still offering grasslands and canyons, lakes, streams and waterfalls, and summer wildflowers for those still seeking a vision.
What we have to do, all we can do, is take that first step. That will lead to the next step, and the step after that. Begin the process. The Hills are magic. Our gathering there is insignificant over the general course of time, but bearing witness isn’t about past, present, or future, it’s becoming the place, the people, the moment. It’s having no idea or expectation, just the wish to be there with other people who want to do this.