The Little Snakes
The little snakes
On my way to the Lakota reservation, I was thinking at some questions for the wise man I was going to meet with.
I was nervous. I made sure that I have everything for the interview. The cassette recorder was not that important as the tobacco for the old man. The cigarettes were a must.
Finally I arrived there. There was a rocking chair on the porch and a sort of circle with feathers was hung near the door. No, it was not a dream catcher although it looked like it. I was to find out that it was put there to send away the bad spirits. We entered in the house and I gave him the tobacco. When I asked him if we would smoke from the Ceremonial Pipe he laughed. He said I had heard and seen to many stories, the pipe is now used only at powwows (I figured he would tell me later what a powwow is ).
Suddenly he started telling me things.
“Yes, this is television, it deforms everything. The world only sees movies with us living in a nomadic style and wearing the famous feathers. Figure this: a white boy told me that I am not an Indian because I am not like what movie land created: the “real” Indian.. It is so much stereotyping involved. I admire that in this way they keep the traditional spirit alive, that everybody knows our past and our traditions but we have evolved.”
“Well, I am interested too in your past and culture, but, this time, I came here to hear it from you. So, let’s start with the beginning, shall we? Who are you, the people of this reservation, exactly?
“First of all we are Plain Indians along with Arapacho, Crow, Cheyenne and Santee tribes. We are Sioux Indians. The name Sioux is an abbreviation of the French spelling of the name Nadouessioux by which we were anciently known to our eastern Algonquian enemies. It means
We are called “the buffalo nation” because we hunt buffalos. One wise man said to me < "The Great Spirit Skan made us with bones from Stone, bodies from Earth, and souls from himself, Wind and Thunders. The gifts of Sun, Wisdom, Moon, and Revealer gave us life. A council of the spirits named us Pte Oyate - Buffalo Nation - and told us to care for the spirits.>
Now, the nation has broken into Dakota, Lakota and Nakota Sioux tribes according to the dialect.
We have three main dialects: Santee or eastern (Dakota), Yankton or middle (Nakota) and Tenton or western (Lakota). There are different interchanges of “d”, “n” and “l” .
“So…the population is divided among Lakota, Dakota and Nakota also?”
“Yes, Dakota with four groups, Nakota with 2 groups, Lakota…and I missed one: the Wiciyela.”
“How was the political and administrative organization?”
“In most of what is now the United States, people lived in villages and formed a loosely organized alliance with nearby villages. The alliance and each village were governed by councils; village councils usually consisted of representatives from each family, and the alliance council was made up of representatives from the villages. The council selected a man or, in some areas (especially the North American Southeast), sometimes a woman to act as chief-that is, to preside over the council and act as principal liaison in dealing with other groups. Often the chief was selected from a family that trained its children for leadership. In many areas families in the villages were linked together in clans meaning groups believed to be descended from one ancestral couple.”
“I’m interested in Sioux religion. How strong was the belief in the spirits? Do you still belief in them?”
“Yes, all the Native Americans believed in spirits. They were different from tribe to tribe. It was believed that in this universe there is an Almighty- a spiritual force that is the source of all life. It is not pictured as a man in the sky, but it is believed to be formless, to be everywhere. They thought the sun was a manifestation of the power of the Almighty. They were not worshipping the sun as the Europeans thought, but they were addressing prayers to Almighty and the sun was just a symbol of it.. They also believed that if they use hallucinogenic plants or if they dance and sing prayers till they faint they would be connected to this mighty force through visions. They considered that animals and plants are not too different from humans. All depended of the life-giving power of the Almighty. pppppppppWe have never believed in afterlife. To us the earth was a great island plain surrounded by an ocean. In the west of the ocean was the spirit world. They were two souls. One remained near the grave, after death while the other traveled to the spirit world where he had a pleasant existence carrying on everyday activities. In certain cases the soul became a wandering and dangerous ghost that stayed around their former houses causing misfortunes. In the west lived also the Wakinyan (thunders), the greatest of the gods and enemies of the subterranean earth spirits.”
“Since we spoke about the religion I want to hear about some of the myths!”
Oh, but my dear boy (he smiles toothlessly) there are thousands, this could take weeks. I will tell you the significance of one of them: The Dream Catcher. I think you know that it looks like a spider web with a hole in the middle. The people put it above the bed so the good in their dreams are captured in the web of life and carried with them…but the evil in their dreams escapes through the hole in the center of the web and are no longer a part of them. They believe that the dream catcher holds the destiny of their future.
The legend says
“What was Native Americans main source of food?”
“Well, son, it depended on the zone they were living in. Manioc, a tropical tuber was raised in the Tropical Forests area of South America; many varieties of potato were cultivated in the Andes. Maize was the most common grain. Several varieties of beans and squash were grown along with maize. Some of the other plants domesticated and developed as crops by Native Americans were: cotton, cacao, peanuts, avocados, chili peppers. They went fishing and hunting. For Sioux, bison hunting was always the main source of food.”
“What about the source of fun?”
(laughing) “It is obvious that you are an American…you put weird questions. The children played with dolls. They were doll making traditions. Few of them have still resisted in our culture. The adults were going to social and intertribal gatherings, now called a powwow, where they were singing and dancing, just like now. But this wasn’t really fun for them. They danced and sang in honor of the Spirits. This music was produced by a group of men sitting around a large double-headed drum, singing in unison and drumming with drumsticks. They usually danced solo, with the bent body, but there were also dances with symbolic steps and dances for couples. Now, at the powwows we are trying to maintain this tradition.”
“Your history is riotously. You have suffered a lot. We, the Americans, step foot to your territory and we tried to subjugate you. You managed very hard. Tell me some important facts in your history.”
“Our riotously history began when the United States had purchased the Louisiana territory from France in 1803. The west was expending inevitably. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 established the Sioux Reservation. The U.S government pledged to keep whites out of this territory. In 1874 Lt. Col. George Custer and his army discovered gold in the Black Hills, which led to different battles between the Americans and Sioux who just wanted to defend their area, homes and way of life. On June 25, 1876 Lt. Custer was defeated at the Battle of Little Big Horn by the chiefs, Sitting bull, Gall, Crazy Horse and their men. He had attacked their encampment and, as a consequence, lost his entire command of more than 200 men in the battle. In 1889 we were split into six smaller reservations. Being suffocated by the Americans we began to practice the Ghost dance that was thought to extinguish the whites and to bring back the buffalos. Our defeat was next. On 29 dec. at Wounded Knee 250 Indians were massacred by Custer’s 7th Cavalry. This event is described as the last major conflict between The U.S. and the Native Americans. After this battle we slowly began to fit in the American world- The Citizenship Act, the Indian Reorganization and other major steps.
(Suddenly he raises his view and he says something in his language, then he tells me) I’ve asked for permission from Swift Man to quote him < Brothers, we know that the whites are like a great cloud that rises in the east, and will cover the whole country. Brothers you see that the sweat runs from my face, for I am troubled.>. He had reasons to be troubled. American Indians didn’t want to
“And that happened, didn’t it?”
“The Sioux children were given white men clothes, the boy’s haircuts, and Christian names after entering Christian Schools. They were allowed to keep their father’s names as surnames. The girls were not required to have hair cuts but instead of the traditional two braids they were required to braid it into one braid down their backs. Often these children were beaten when speaking there native language and they learned to forget. When coming back to the Reservations they could no longer communicate with their own family members. These children were outsiders even in there own lands. Often they were adopted by white families without parental consent.”
“But how is the situation now?”
“About 30.000 Sioux live on reservations in South Dakota. There are also found smaller reservations in North Dakota, Nebraska and northeastern Montana. Canada is also a host. Life in reservations? Hmm, look at mine. I live in a wooden house, in fact in more a cabin than a house. Only twice a week I have cold water. Fortunately, people that live in this reservation are united and we help each other.
“Do you have a favorite warrior?”
“Crazy Horse. He’s not my favorite but he is one of the most important Sioux chiefs. When he was little he was often confounded with a white boy. He had curly blond hair. He hated being photographed. He said that a picture would shorten his life by taking his shadow from him. ——– From childhood he had liked to help his people. He had many fights with the Crows, who were enemies. Later he decided he would fight to protect the Lakota way of life and encroachment of white armies and settlers. When his people were obliged to move in reservations Crazy Horse took it upon himself to lead the resistance. General George Crook wanted to advance to Sitting Bull’s camp on the Little Big Horn River. The Sioux chief and his band of 1,200 warriors turned the general and his men back on June 17, 1876. After they defeated Lt. Custer’s Cavalry, Sitting Bull and Gall decided to lead their people to Canada. Crazy Horse remained in the sacred lands of the Lakota. He finally surrendered. =====On September 5, 1877 he left the reservation, to take his sick wife to her parents. General George Crock thought he was planning a plot and arrested him. He always believed that he could not be killed by bullets and he struggled till a soldier ran him through with a bayonet.
I’d like to say more but I think that’s enough. Oh, what is the time? It’s about to start the football match on TV…One thing I like about civilization: the TV.”
I had watched the match with him hoping that he would tell me other stories but at the end he was already tired and I preferred to leave. Though, it was very interesting.