Here I Is

Lakota Burial Pit December 29, 1890

When our granddaughter Amy was between two and three years old, she loved to play hide and seek. She was born with a double scoop of cute. Sometimes, she would hide in exactly the same spot as the one she had JUST been in but I would go along with it and pretend confusion. It was a special kind of grandfather’s fun to complain aloud to grandma, “WHERE did Amy go?”-just to hear her giggle and proudly proclaim, “Here I is”!

Lakota people believe that both young children and the elderly are wakȟáŋ. Children are newbies, fresh arrivals from Source, and the elderly, inevitably worn out, are getting signals about returning back to Source. Source is Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka, the Great Mystery, that which connects everything, what some folks call “God”, or what other folks savor as the majestic beauty of “Nature”. Wakȟáŋ connotes being spiritual, sacred, and mysterious. By closely observing Amy’s demeanor, I realized that she wasn’t acting as if she was invisible in the “real world” during our game. She actually had a scuffed toddler’s sneaker in two worlds at once.

By the time I was 20, I’d already flunked out of one college and was trying to redeem myself (with some salvaged credits) as a second year transfer student at a community college . My major was Landscape Horticulture and one day, while walking to class, I saw a flier announcing auditions for the annual college play. I’d never acted in a play before and didn’t aspire to be in any sort of special spotlight. Still, I did audition and somehow ended up getting a lead role.

The play was called “Ghost Dance“. It wasn’t about “ghosts” or regular dancing though. It was about a spiritual movement of the same name started in 1889 by a Paiute shaman named Jack Wilson (aka – Wovoka). Although Jack was the son of a Medicine Man, he’d once lived with a Christian family and regularly read and studied the Bible. In 1888, Jack got Scarlet Fever and apparently went into a coma. When he awoke, he vividly portrayed visions that predicted a new prosperity would soon disrupt the dominant white world; if Indians would resume spiritual practices that many had abandoned after their defeat in the wild West and destitute exile to the Reservations. He talked of a return of the Messiah himself, at the ready to reinvigorate Indian life.

In the midst of a political furnace fueled by rampant rumors, about 500 members of the Seventh Cavalry (yes, General Custer’s Little Big Horn, “Last Stand” regiment) surrounded a group of about 350 Sioux Lakota, including male Ghost Dancers. It was on December 29, 1890 at a place called Wounded Knee Creek. A gun owned by a deaf Indian discharged as a soldier tried to seize it. Nobody knows exactly how many Indians were killed in a cascade of chaos that followed but four Hotchkiss machine guns were immediately fired into close flapped Teepees and at all “enemies” scrambling around the river gulch.

In the aftermath, 146 Indians were buried in a mass grave together, including an outrageous number of pitifully helpless women and children. You can still stare at a picture taken of the burial pit that was widely published by daily newspapers. More than 100 additional tribe members died from wounds beyond healing. Twenty five Cavalry members were killed but newspapers never discovered that most of them actually died or were wounded from “friendly fire”. Twenty US soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, despite the fact that General Nelson Miles, who arrived at the “battlefield” a day later, believed that Colonel Forsyth had actually provoked the massacre and relieved him of his command!

I’m embarrassed to admit how shallow the awareness of the cast was about how and why the Ghost Dance occurred. My own attention was mainly focused on playing my part in the play, as an indignant Army Officer disgusted by “savages”. Forty years later, the ghosts of Wounded Knee unexpectedly found me in 2016! I felt called to prayer after decades of considering prayer to be rather silly. I thought if God knows everything and is everywhere, why did I need to “remind” Him about what’s going on? Through a series of unlikely circumstances and insights, I heard about an informal community of people, right in the Bible Belt of North Carolina, praying together in “the Lakota way”. I joined in their prayers and ceremonies. And here I is, with many more stories to tell.

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