Two young, uniformed soldiers knocked at the door of a humble Lakota log house on the Lower Brule Sioux Indian Reservation, or the Kul Wicasa Oyate. An older Lakota woman, a widow, answered the door. She collapsed to the ground sobbing before the two the men could tell her, in a language she couldn’t understand, her only son was killed in combat. They left her with a sorry your son’s body wouldn’t be returned and here’s a check for hundreds of dollars.
After local clergy encouraged the mourning woman, she cashed the check. As per Lakota custom, the fourth day after finding out her only son was killed, she cut her hair. The hundreds of dollars from the severance pay was soon given away. All her worldly possession, including her wood stove, were set outside her house. Relatives and community members came by, offered words of condolences, songs of healing, and they took everything from her already humble home.
That night she slept on the bare floor.
The next day, relatives brought her food, as she began the yearlong sacred duty of caring for her son’s spirit. Everyday after that, the community came by her home, bringing gifts of food, cooking utensils, and blankets. Hunters would set aside meat after every kill for her. A couple of potatoes and squash were picked for from the community gardens and given to her. Pies and soups were made for her.
After a year, she was nurtured back to health physically and materially, re-acquiring the necessary items for her home to keep warm and to keep her fed. Her physical needs were cared for as she cared for the spiritual needs for her son’s spirit.
Lakota customary law disallows needless suffering in times of abundance and plenty. It’s an embarrassment to have relatives wanting and in need or deprived of basic humanity.
It’s an affront to Wolakota to have others in want, need, and material deprivation. This, to my mind, was perhaps the most concrete aspect of Lakota kinship.
This also worked the other way around. Those who hoarded or ‘took the fat’—or wasicu—were criminal. Narcissism and greed were punishable by stripping individuals of material wealth or forcing them to give away all their possessions as a means of repentance.
If humility, unsiiciyapi, was not practiced, it was enforced as the highest ideal of ikce wicasa, the common people.
Poverty in Lakota society does not, however, solely equate to material wealth. One is pitiful or poor, or unsica, if they are deprived of belonging and home.
This worked internally and externally. Often, families adopted other poor natives or non-natives, caring for their spiritual and material well-being. Those violating this code, too, were punished, mocked, and shamed—and sometimes killed or their wealth expropriated.
The highest insult in Lakota is to be greedy, to be wasicu.
Stories exist of Lakota headmen and women sitting side by side in council. Amongst themselves, the leaders would wear the most humble attire (not the headdresses or beautiful beadwork we’re so used to seeing) and speak with brevity and clarity. To do otherwise could result in ejection from leadership and one could be viewed negatively as long-winded or worse greedy.
In my short life, these teachings have stuck with me and guided my actions as ikce wicasa. The rampant commercialization of Lakota ‘culture,’ however, troubles me. Many non-Lakota (and Lakota) have taken up Lakota ways, especially ‘spirituality’ like the sundance or other ceremonies, but they have ignored the most concrete aspect of Wolakota, in my opinion—the giveaway.
It was after all not the sundance that was first banned under the 1887 Civilization Regulations, but it was the giveaway or the potlatch ceremony that was first targeted because it posed the greatest threat to the imposed reservation social order. Giveaways kept in tact and promoted the classless, non-hierarchical, and radically anti-materialist political and social structure. In this structure, women owned all the domestic material wealth, like the house and everything in it, and had final say on how these materials were used and distributed.
Anti-capitalism and anti-patriarchal social relations posed the biggest threats to the acquisition of Native lands and subduing Native peoples. Native people were not colonized because of our culture, but because we were ‘Indians’—being ‘Indian’ meant being attached to a land base where relationships to that land required maintaining idealized reciprocal social relations among ourselves and the nonhuman world. Being ‘Indian’ meant defending this social organization attached to land.
To eliminate a people to gain access to desired lands and resources requires annihilating their relationship to that land and therefore their social relations. That’s settler colonialism.
Today, Lakota culture is a readily available commodity to be consumed by anyone, stripped of its concepts of justice and equal social relations. It appears to have become like any other religion, something anyone can take up to ‘discover oneself.’
While it is encouraging to see the revitalization and resurgence of cultural practices, it is equally disturbing to see what aspects of this way of life are taken up and promoted at the expense of others.
For example, there is a rise in ‘restorative justice’ practices, which focus on the ‘healing’ of individuals committing offenses in Indian Country. These are positive and progressive movements away from the punitive system of mass incarceration. Yet, they typically only apply to Native on Native crimes and often center perpetrators not victims. They also limit the application of justice to broader society. We still cannot apply our models of justice to non-Native individuals and societies committing acts of violence against our lands and peoples.
Another troubling trend is the over emphasis on healing just lands and water—singing songs and revitalizing cultural relationships—while often ignoring the rampant violence against Native women, youth, poor, unsheltered, and LGBTQ2 relatives. As we scale up land based direct actions against the nonconsensual trespass of corporate and state agencies on Indigenous lands, I am reminded of the powerful insights of Kwagiulth scholar and activist Sarah Hunt:
So what would happen if every time an Indigenous woman had her personal boundaries crossed without consent, we were moved to act in the same way as we’ve seen to the threat of a pipeline in our territories – the nonconsenual crossing of territorial boundaries? We would see our chiefs and elders, the language speakers, children and networks of kin, all in our regalia, our allies and neighbors all across the generations show up outside the house of a woman who had been hurt to drum and sing her healing songs. What if we looked to the land for berries and to the ocean for fish and herring eggs and seaweed to help her body to heal? What if we put her within a circle of honor and respect to show her that we will not stand for this violence any longer. We would bring her food and song and story, we would truly protect her self-determination and to defend the boundaries of her body which had been trespassed and violated.
With the historic defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline across Lakota treaty territory, we need to also take seriously Wolakota—what it means and how we treat each other and the land. Indigenous bodies, land, and water are not abstract things that can be healed through prayer alone. As our leaders and allies bravely declared war against TransCanada and defeated them, we should expect the same attention given to those materially and physically deprived of a dignified life. It would require not just a political revolution but a radical restructuring of our social relations—how we relate to each other indelibly affects how we relate to the nonhuman world.
In closing, I began this essay with a story of healing during the Second World War. Years later, the woman and her nation, the Kul Wicasa Oyate, would be violently removed from their bottomlands on the Mni Sose, the Missouri River. Our lands were flooded by massive earthen rolled dams and our way of life was forever disrupted.
What would justice look like if we applied the same model of healing shown in this story and in Lakota customary law to those wasicu institutions who flooded our lands and destroyed our life ways? Would our allies stand with us knowing justice would involve a radical reciprocity, redistribution, and restructuring of resources and wealth for a more just future? Would they expropriate the wealth and resources extracted from us with the same fervor they have taken up our culture? Will they give away their wealth and privilege and join us?
I hope so. After all, we have given so much.