December is cold month for Lakota and Dakota people. There is a hint of sorrow in the air and we feel something calling to us, but we can never put our finger on what, until we remember our history.
Three of our greatest historical traumas happened on Dec. 15, 1890, Dec. 26, 1862, and Dec. 29, 1890. It was not enough that we suffered defeat, famine and the loss of our culture; we had to surrender our hope as well.
The largest mass execution in the United States happened in Minnesota in 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln sentenced 38 Dakota men to hang for the war they’d started in August of that same year, a war that was the result of the U.S. government ignoring its treaty obligations to Dakota nations that ceded their territory. While Lincoln personally reviewed and commuted the death sentences of 264 Dakota men, none of the original 303 were granted – by any stretch of the definition – a “fair trial.”
Dakota War of 1862: Executions
In South Dakota, almost 30 years later, one of our greater leaders, Sitting Bull, was killed on Dec. 15 on the Standing Rock reservation. He did not have long to wait to be joined in death because only 14 days later, approximately 300 Lakota men, women and children were massacred at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. The details of these events are known to history; Sitting Bull was targeted for his involvement in the Ghost Dance movement – which, was a war-torn culture’s last hope for restoration not to domination, as white people of the time thought it was, but to some semblance of what we had lost –and when the time came for his arrest, rage, anger and confusion ensued. By the end, Sitting Bull, along with seven of his supporters and two horses were dead; in addition six policemen, at least two of whom were also Lakota, were killed.
Sitting Bull: Death and burial
Thirteen short days later, a camp of Mniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota were intercepted by the 7th Cavalry and taken to Wounded Knee Creek to make camp. The next day, the soldiers went to disarm those in the encampment. A deaf man known as Black Coyote failed to comply with a “lawfully given order” by the soldiers and a struggle for his rifle ensued. One shot rang out and what followed could only be described as a massacre. The soldiers of the 7th Cavalry opened fire immediately, indiscriminately and without any thought of mercy or humanity. Those who survived ran. They ran fast and they ran hard for miles, women clutching their children close and men trying to protect them, because most of them were unarmed. And they were hunted by the soldiers, with malice and with intent.
What’s most damning about all of this is when we tell these stories to outsiders, their response is cold, callous or dismissive. We’re often told to “get over it,” admonished that since it didn’t “actually happen to [us]” we have no right to dredge up the past or others feel free to compare oppressions of themselves or others.
Science now indicates to us that genetic memory is tangible element of biology. In a 2013 study in Nature Neuroscience, experiments on animal test subjects showed that a traumatic event could affect DNA and alter the brains and behavior of subsequent generations.
Our place in the world
With all our history behind us and our present state being reduced to indifference by a government that has to be reminded it is still legally obligated to honor its treaties with us as political entities and outright hostility by ignorant Americans of all races, one wonders what future will befall us.
The only answer that we have ever been able to glean through prayer, vision-seeking, discussion or knowledge has been to trust in the wisdom of our ancestors. While we may know little of them in detail, we know what force of spiritual determination they had by the simple virtue that we, their descendants, continue to draw breath. Outsiders may graft on their own, limited understanding of our culture and skew their biases to how we honor the sacrifices of generations past, but we know inside ourselves, that our past guides our future. We exist for a limited time in this plane of existence, but we’re deeply connected to both our ancestors and our descendants across time through our stories, our history, our language and our traditions.
Generational strength forward
When Native people talk of “seventh generation,” it is in deference to our Iroquois relatives and how they made their decision-making, by the impact it would have on seven generations later. In Lakota thought and philosophy, we have adapted it to think three generations past and three generations forward to encompass our worldview.
Specifically, in my tiospaye, we carry on the vision of seven generations ago. When Bone Bracelet sought a vision, he saw the coming cold and darkness of how our nation would be broken through conquest of those who had lost their spiritual connection. He saw that we would suffer for many years. But then, he saw seven generations forward and saw the resurgence and reclamation of the culture, the language and the traditions by those of us in the world now.
We keep it in our hearts and in our minds and we let it guide us in how we conduct ourselves. We believe in vision because it is the legacy of our ancestors and the birthright of our descendants. It is the only thing we have to give, beyond our love and our compassion, that ever saw us through, and we hope and pray it will see our descendants through.
So when the cold winds come and we Lakota and Dakota hear the mourning songs across the prairie winds and through the rivers of time, we acknowledge the loss, but we also strain to hear the hope. We connect with the past and guide the future, knowing that we are but one more voice in the line of our people and that together, we move forward.
Every day an indigenous child lives and thrives, every word of indigenous language that is spoken and sung, every branch or blade of cedar, sage and sweet grass that is offered in prayer by the descendants of indigenous people who survived is a testament to our rights to live freely and in prosperity. Our ancestors paid the ultimate price for our freedom and prosperity. The plan to kill us all, to save our souls, to make us submit to white supremacy has failed and continues to fail. We are restored and we are made whole.