Wakan, wakan, wakan
Holy, holy, holy
Just a few weeks ago, we sat at the feet of a wise woman as a strong afternoon wind blew across the prairie. Lois Red Elk was seated in a portable camp chair on a grassy bluff overlooking the green valley of the winding Tule Creek, teaching us about the healing uses of native plants. Lois teaches traditional culture at Ft. Peck Community College. But her wisdom extends far beyond herbal pharmacology. Traditional culture, she explained, is inseparable from traditional spirituality, which is founded on understanding the relatedness of earth and its landscapes, soil, air, water, rocks, all living beings, and the Creator of all.
The “we” who were listening were members of a mission team from my church, returning to the reservation for a second time. Last spring we set off with the purpose of establishing a relationship with the Dakota Presbyterian Churches on the Ft. Peck Reservation, home to Dakota, Lakota, and Nakoda people. After all, we share a state (Montana) and a faith tradition (Presbyterian). We should know one another. We have much to learn from one another. We are family, after all.
Lois is part of that family, she told us, for she was baptized in the Dakota Presbyterian Church at Chelsea, a community located between Poplar and Wolf Point on the reservation. She has returned to the church throughout her life for gatherings of the Chelsea community. At the same time, she is a traditional Indian, raised in traditional ways, whose spiritual life is infused with dreams, relations with the plants and animals of her native homelands, stories told by grandmothers and grandfathers, and Dakota/Lakota lifeways. The bluff where we were seated was formerly a winter campground for many generations of native people, as evidenced by numerous tipi rings and prayer rings made of stones carried from elsewhere. It was easy to understand why they chose this spot. An expansive 360⁰ view ensured no surprises. The Missouri River with its plentiful fish, and the grasslands which were home to buffalo herds provided life. Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapa band lived here following the Battle of the Greasy Grass (also known as Battle of the Little Bighorn). Lois is a proud member of Sitting Bull’s family.
And because Lois is auntie to Patrick, and Patrick is part of our church family, so am I. We who gathered to listen and learn felt the peace and welcome of being with family. We asked her to tell us more about her spirituality, and she replied by speaking about prayer. “Our prayers are mostly ‘thanks,’” she told us. “We don’t ask for much in our prayers.” Then she eloquently named the beings and aspects of Earth and sky for which traditional D/Lakota people, as well as other indigenous peoples, offer thanks.
Lois is a published author, and her poem, “This Awareness,” makes it clear why gratitude is the theme of her prayers.
All my life I have had this awareness that
I was a part of a world that took care of me.
(in Why I Return to Makoce, p. 27)
Lois’ traditional spirituality teaches an alternative to our culture’s dominant assumptions about the relationship between humans and the earth. Instead of a relationship of exploitation or dominion, or even the gentler relationship known as stewardship, she reminds us that the earth takes care of us. Such simple wisdom makes a slogan like “save the planet” seem silly. For after all, the planet saves us every day.
In her introduction to the same book, Lois explains her culture’s foundational belief in relatedness.
In Dakota/Lakota Cosmology, we are all related because we believe the Great Spirit created everything with the same materials, the same forces, and the same energy. We believe the same spirit exists in all the universe. We believe that we can stretch our spirit far into time and see or feel other energy. (p. 3)
So on that bluff, at the feet of a wise woman, we held onto our hats. We watched waves of wind move across the grasslands. And we remembered the same Holy Spirit who, our tradition teaches, blew over the face of the waters creating the world we know, and continues to blow where she wills.
Wakan, wakan, wakan
Holy, holy, holy.
Books by Lois Red Elk:
Our Blood Remembers, Many Voices Press, Kalispell, MT, 2011
Dragonfly Weather, Lost Horse Press, Sandpoint, ID, 2013
Why I Return to Makoce, Many Voices Press, Kalispell, MT, 2015