“Once Iron Shell, as headman, was among the last to leave the old village site during a move to a summer camp location. As he and his family proceeded they came to aforlornly ancient woman sitting alone with food and water near by. ‘What is the reason you sit here, Grandmother?’ the headman inquired.
“’I’m old and worthless,’ replied the old woman. ‘My son can no longer care for me, so I shall sit here to die.’
“’But that is not right,’ said Iron Shell. Arranging her upon a travois with her meager bundles, he made her a member of his procession.
“When Iron Shell’s party reached the new camping site, he led the old woman on the travois to her son’s lodge. It was a poor family, for they possessed only one horse. Iron Shell called upon the son, saying, ‘Here is your mother.’ And pointing to the horse and travois, he said, ‘Here is a horse for her. Don’t you ever again leave her like that.’ And the son was glad. As long as the old woman lived, the son dragged his mother from camp to camp.”
The Sioux by Royal B. Hassrick
Growing up with a family legacy of leadership isn’t exactly what most people think it is, at least not in Western society. In America, we equate leadership with politics, business or faith and we fall back on the models of George III or even Caesar Augustus. We hold up patriarchs who are either completely pious in public or who eschew material wealth in favor of being seen as “of the people.” That paradigm is rooted in the Western concept that there are social strata to be honored.
In pre-contact Lakota society, leadership was a meritocracy. It was gifted by the consent of the families to those who demonstrated genuine compassion to everyone. It was generally a lifetime appointment, but it was not absolute and it was not hereditary by any means. If the next generation of a leader’s family demonstrated the same values that the previous generation enshrined, leadership would be granted and if they didn’t, the service position was given to those who demonstrated it with their actions.
As a child, I was told many times that I was descended from chiefs, with the implication being that my ethics had to be in keeping with our families’ values. Those values generally went along the lines of generosity, bravery, fortitude and wisdom. As a modern Lakota society, we’ve increased those values to include concepts like humility, perseverance, respect, honor, sacrifice, love, truth and compassion. Personally speaking, I hear my father’s laughter along with the mocking phrase, “hoh, ece!” when I think of 12 virtues, as opposed to the four I grew up with; I have a hard enough time keeping track of where I put my keys, much less adding eight more concepts to my belief system. My personal belief is that so long as I practice the four, the others follow in time.
Knowing that the legacy of my ancestors and my parents was one of being a good relative to all beings helps me to understand my place in the world. There was a time when my ambitions exceeded my talent and my skill and when I realized that, it was a hard fall. But what reflecting back on how my parents, their siblings and cousins, were raised has given me reminds me that I’m not the center of the universe. The connections between others, the beautiful chaos and random order of events that governs the physical world and the source of it all – call it what you like – is what’s at the center of the universe.
Throughout the years, I’ve deconstructed my systems of belief, my religious affiliations, my experiences of reality through thought, consideration, hypotheses and even addiction, to try to make sense, to make order of it all. The problem I’ve had was going through the ashes of what burned away and wanting to keep them intact and ignoring what withstood my own self-will and attempts to control life and remained. This is the paradox of being human, we ignore what’s obvious for the sake of what’s comforting and even then, not all of us do it in the same way. But what remains is the faith, ignore it as I may have tried, it’s what sustained my ancestors and it’s what has sustained me.
Looking back on the stories from six generations ago, I often wonder if my ancestors ever had any inkling of the changes that were coming. According to family history, they did, when one of them sought a vision, but we don’t know how explicit his vision was because of the human error involved in communicating those stories across time. But even without explicit knowledge of conquest, battle, war, famine, death, rape, conversion and assimilation, their values and their virtues endured seven generations. It makes me ponder the things that I could never conceive of and how my descendants will survive and thrive in the face of it all.
The answers are complex but inform me that when I live with generosity, bravery, fortitude and wisdom, the legacy I leave is one of hope, joy and gratitude for those who follow after me.