I am still digesting my time at the Zen Peacemakers first Native American Bearing Witness Retreat held a couple of weeks ago in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was a huge experience and in the next couple of months, I will recount some of what happened there.
The Black Hills, known as Pahá Sápa to the Lakota, translates as Heart of Everything That Is and as Sacred Place of the Heart. It's the entrance to Heaven. It's an area covered with dark green Ponderosa pines. Looked at from above, the Black Hills has the shape of a big heart surrounded by red soil. Native Americans have lived there since 7,000 BC.
"Truly be here with the land and all the creations that will speak up. Allow your hearts to break wide open. Let's live like that this week," said Grover Genro Gauntt, a major coordinator and one of the spirit holders of the Zen Peacemakers Native American Retreat. So, I did.
The first night we all stayed in Rapid City's Motel 6 right next to a busy highway. There were many motels in that area. I slept well that night. Maybe because there were so many peacemakers in the motel? That evening it drizzled, and a beautiful red rainbow appeared.
The next day we rode in an old bus (with a manual clutch) traveling from Rapid City to the Pine Ridge Reservation, the poorest reservation in the nation with an average income of $4,500 - 5,000 per year. Next we traveled on to the Badlands and finally to Wounded Knee.
It was a hot sunny day, dry and dusty. We passed a few homes and many churches. In the Sioux Nation Grocery Store's parking lot, an older native woman with a weathered face was selling a few beaded items. I learned that her name was also June. Our Native tour guide told us that youth suicide is epidemic. Infant mortality is six times the nation's average. Alcoholism is rampant. Homes can house up to 10 - 12 families.
Then we drove past the Badlands - beautiful buttes, pinnacles and spires in the midst of grasslands. Among the buttes is the Lakota Stronghold Table where the last Ghost Dances were held. Many Sioux thought that by wearing special "Ghost Shirts" the ghost dancing warriors would be unharmed by the white man's bullets and could openly defy the soldiers and white settlers. They believed their dance could bring back the old days of the big buffalo herds.
At Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890, as winter closed in, a band of Minneconjou and Hunkpapa Sioux (106 warriors and 250 women and children) led by Chief Big Foot, were surrounded by 470 soldiers of the U.S. 7th Calvary. The troops attempted to disarm Big Foot's band. Gunfire erupted. Before it was over, nearly three hundred Indians and thirty soldiers lay dead.
The Wounded Knee Massacre was the last major clash between Plains Indians and the U.S. military until the advent of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s, most notably in the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
Wounded Knee is located in the center of the Pine Ridge Reservation on a little hill. We walked silently on a dusty, uneven dirt road up to the top of the flat, to a small cemetery. Halfway up the hill a small golden dragonfly caught my eye. It was flying stationary alongside the path. I paused to take in it's beauty as fully as I could. How amazing - beauty in the midst of great sadness!
At the top of the hill stands an old archway that leads into the cemetery. The first thing we saw was a chain link fence surrounding the rectangular mass grave of the 300 massacred Indians. Our guide's wife, Doreen Two Bulls, was standing at the fence, silently weeping. The sky was a clear, powder blue with a few white clouds that bore witness as did two hundred of us - to this awful massacre of men, women and children. It was hard to take in. There was a hush.
After leaving Wounded Knee, our bus started shaking a little, and our guide said, "You're gonna experience a regular Rapid City occurrence - broken down on the side of the road." Luckily the bus made it to the Red Cloud Indian School Visitor Center where we were able to shop for Native art and handicrafts while they change the buses. This eased my heart.
After nearly 12 hours, we got to the Flandreau Santee Sious campsite in the Black Hills. It was dark. There was a big bright, white tent where a solo generator hummed to provide electricity for the lights. A sweet scent of pine trees and mowed grass greeted me. It was dark and hard to see our luggage. There was a chill in the air.
We slept in a big women's tent for the evening. The ground was lumpy with grass clumps and small rocks here and there. We used flashlights to see. There were no mosquitoes or ticks. The spider nation was present however, with numerous small spiders that thankfully didn't bother us. Eventually I found them to be quite sweet and gentle. I wonder if it's because they are honored here.
At about 6 am the next morning, I was the first to awaken in the tent where about 8 of us slept. I dressed quickly and eagerly walk outside the tent. I wanted to see these sacred black hills that I'd heard so much about. Once outside I gasped, was overwhelmed by the natural beauty that greeted me - my heart broke open and tears fell!
There was a little knoll to the south outlined with white morning mist. It looked like a Hawaiian moon-bow to me. I stood as if in a dream. A silver crescent moon hung in a pale blue sky low in the east. The mist did a slow-motion dance moving down the hill and then up again as I silently watched.
To the left of the hill was a circular area where the Sioux perform their Sundance ceremonies. We were instructed not to walk into that area out of respect. Tiokasin Ghosthorse said that sundancers are men who commit to dancing the rest of their lives - metaphorically - first as a service to all life and also to keep that consciousness alive for those who do not have a voice.
Melodic Native American flute tones emanated from the main tent and echoed through the woods. It was Tiokasin playing his flute - gentle yet undeniably strong. That was our wake up call. We had been instructed to leave our watches at home and to turn off our cellphones since there's no reception there. We were now officially on Indian time on the Flandreau Santee Sioux sacred land - the heart's land.
Malama pono (take care of your body, mind and heart),
Sensei June Kaililani Tanoue
Zen Teacher, Kumu Hula
P.S. Here's a slide show of photographs of my Bearing Witness trip. Thanks to Peter Cunningham and Darrell Justus for the photos and music by Tiokasin Ghosthorse. Here are Peter and Darrell's complete photos and Jadina Lilien's photos of the retreat.