There are some things held in secrecy because they’re too sacred to tell. Or if uttered at all, are whispered in the night in silent places. There are others whose truths are hidden because to openly relate them at all risks great punishment. Or they’re distorted through misunderstanding by a culture that cannot fathom a different meaning than their own.
I’ve admitted to being greatly distressed by the ongoing acts against truth, understanding and compassion in the current political climate and otherwise. And truly attempting to find grace and balance for myself within it all. I do believe that the Universe does deliver when we open in that way. Hence, some salvation dropped in my lap.
I stumbled upon a 2009 interview by Krista Tippett, host of On Being, of Ernie LaPointe, a direct lineal descendant of Tatanka Iyotake. Closest translation from Lakota being Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down—not Sitting Bull.
In the interview, Ernie LaPointe relayed some of the oral history passed to him by his late mother, Angelique Spotted Horse-LaPointe, about his great-grandfather and their traditions. I was so moved I listened to the two-hour, unedited version of the podcast twice—and then bought his book Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy so I could return, again and again, to points that particularly inspire me.
The parts about the Indian Offenses Act of 1883 outlawing sacred practices, all the betrayals and ramifications generated a great deal of sadness for me that is hard to put aside. But within that is an example of a man who held utmost integrity and compassion in his heart. The long-term wellbeing of his people informed his decisions. History calls him a war chief when really he was a great spiritual leader. He was killed on Standing Rock Indian Reservation for who he was. But his Spirit lives on. He was humble, preferring to be known as a Sun Dancer. Not a chief. As a child he was called “slow” by some, a misrepresentation of one who notices everything, weighs all sides to come to deliberate decision.
Here’s one about knowing when to fall on your sword and the good karma that comes when rash decisions are avoided. When Tatanka Iyotake, then called by his childhood name Jumping Badger, was 7 years old he was among a band of young boys being tested for their skills. First they had to make the perfect arrow and then were told to hunt and return with a beautiful bird. He and another boy spied a bird at the same time. The other boy let his arrow fly but it missed and lodged in a tree branch. Tatanka Iyotake offered to help the boy by shooting it down with his own arrow. He succeeded but the boy’s arrow broke when it hit the ground. The boy became angry and blamed him. Rather than get into an argument about the whole thing, Tatanka Iyotake gave the boy his own arrow, which he’d labored over to perfect. When their teacher heard through others about the incident, he gifted him with a full set of bow and arrows.
Perhaps my favorite story is this one that foretold his future as a great spiritual leader. When he was 10 years old, his uncle Four Horns tested his tracking and hunting skills for buffalo, a dangerous undertaking with the potential of stampede. Tatanka Iyotake rode into the center of the herd, aimed at a huge bull, let his arrow fly and brought it down. Proud of his nephew, Four Horns was also angered at the dangerous risk he took. When asked why he didn’t go for the cow at the edge of the herd, he responded that he saw the cow. But he also saw her calf. If he’d killed the cow, her calf would die, too.
Four Horns guided him through the ritual to thank the Great Spirit then directed him to run get this mother and the other women to butcher the bull, which he did. But not before he asked his mother to be sure to save good portions for a widow and her children who lived nearby.
From this incident, which displayed his foresight and generosity, Jumping Badger gained his adult name Tatanka Iyotake, Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down.
Stories like these and other sharing about Lakota ways were so good to hear. It was also disheartening to learn how things changed due to outside influences.
Counting coup, the striking of an enemy with a stick, was as a visual way of settling differences and gaining honor. It was after the white man came that young warriors started killing instead.
During vision quest the young men would often see colors that would then be worn as protection, a part of spiritual practice. Not “war paint”—a measure of disrespect by those quick to misunderstand. Ernie LaPointe spoke of himself and others who carried PTSD as a spiritual wounding because they didn’t wear their colors to protect their Spirit.
The reverence toward women is woven into the culture. The belief is, through their menstrual cycle, women go through a natural, monthly purification process. The wisdom they gain in the process is enlarged upon throughout their lives. So, while the men may consider a direction, the final decision is not made until it is placed in front of the women, who weigh in with their wisdom.
What I’ve shared here is only a token of all I heard and read. For the full richness, view the full interview or listen to it on Sound Cloud.
With so much appreciation to Ernie LaPointe for telling the stories of his great-grandfather, even in the controversy directed toward him for doing so. Because of him, I’ll continue to watch for the leader who Carries the People in the Heart. We’ll know that person by their name. Not because they proclaim it. But because the people have granted it by virtue of the actions that distinguished the honor.