Wisdom, Experience, and Bear Butte as a Sacred Model
By Caitlyn McCarty
In Lakota culture, elders and the ancestral spirits are treated with an astounding reverence that one does not see in American culture. I attribute this to the value each culture gives to either wisdom or knowledge. In American culture, those who gain the greatest respect generally fall into the academic sphere. We trust and listen to individuals who have high-level economic or hard science degrees. Our society is rapid, changing, and intellectuals must compete to stay ahead as new theories and scientific discoveries are constantly being produced. The lucky scientist to have made the newest great discovery becomes rich and famous only until a new guy comes along and steals the spot light. On the other hand, Lakota culture is gradual and builds on itself in a different way. It is changing yet there is so much value placed on connectedness with the past. While American culture passes down historical knowledge through textbooks with academic analysis, the Lakota people pass on teachings through song, prayer, stories, and ritual. The Lakota way acts to evoke emotion and personal connection to history. The younger generations seek to learn from their elders who have a vast vault of personal experience within the world, while we put our elders away in old-folks homes and often label them as outdated and irrelevant. But elders act as a link between the new and past generations. The knowledge that they share with the world is deepened by their wisdom.
In our culture it is often remarked that, “history repeats itself.” I wonder if this is because of the lack of attention we give to those with the most life experience. We continue to allow our country to declare war even though we’ve read so many historical accounts of the horrors, suffering, and often pointlessness of war. It’s scary how easy it is to read about soldiers with their faces half blown off and towns of innocent families blown to bits without breaking down emotionally, the way historical texts write about those things. They convey history with such distance and lack of personality. In contrast, when the Lakota elders speak of past tragedies, the characters in their stories are given life and a powerful realness – they are relatives, and the battles were fought so close to home. The stories are told actively and with emotion – in song, in prayer, in ritual. Aspects of history are symbolically acted out so that all parties may experience some level of the emotion or suffering of the past event. Perhaps if our culture passed down the experience of war on a personal level, and with such respect, we would be less likely to back our government in their endless war pursuits.
Experience is central to wisdom. When one moves through their life journey they are constantly adding to their vault of experiences. This vault is their context, or lens through which they observe, interpret, and understand the world. With a more expansive context, interpretation is more valuable because there is simply more substance to draw from and compare to. Our education system is a great example of this idea. A classroom environment is conducive to the formulation of a system of factual knowledge, creative ideas, and constructive analysis, but a student can only experience wisdom on a subject when they test out this system in the world. Likely, people often realize that their previous knowledge of something is not as concretely reflective of life as they would have thought. Through this realization, the individual is forced to open their mind to something that they had previously been consciously or unconsciously one-sided on. In going through this transition from certainty without experience, to doubt with experience, and then to wisdom with experience, one can reach a greater, more complete stage of intelligence.
It is interesting to compare the value of wisdom over academic analysis in different areas of study. In medical school, a student studying to become a surgeon learns everything they need to know about anatomy, biology, neurology, etc., but there is no simple transition from the books to actually performing surgery. They must observe and apprentice for a long time before they are considered able to lead a surgery. Hence, doctors must go through the process of gaining wisdom over time. A student that graduates at the top of their med school class may do so with the confidence that they know everything they need to know about medicine, anatomy, biology, neurology, etc. Even with their vast academic intelligence they will not go far without finding humility – an acceptance that there is much more that they do not know than what they already know, because they are young and lack experience. Similarly, in the field of psychology, good practice does not come down to reductionist models of the human psyche or an understanding of the complex workings of the brain. It is evident from the writings of some of the most profound psychologists and successful psychiatrists that they personally experienced deep depressions and psychological disorders and breakdowns similar to those they work treat. From their experiences, they gained context and widened their lens of understanding their patients, and hence hold specific wisdom that works to make them more effective in their profession.
I have come to the conclusion that religion reflects this knowledge-wisdom harmony even more so. It is a field that if reduced to facts and models, very little can be truly discovered. Academics can theorize peoples’ connection to religion, symbolism and ritual, internal desires for religious explanation and guidance, etc., and offer interesting and even profound ideas on the subject. In his Religion as a Cultural System, Clifford Geertz offers a theoretical model for understanding how religion explains reality and gives it order, and influences how people think. He defines religion as, “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (90). On one hand, I found this model to be very representative to ceremony and symbolism I experienced in Pine Ridge. For example, I can analyze my experience at the sacred Bear Butte site in the Black Hills through this model.
To the Lakota people, Bear Butte is a landmass that holds great power and spiritual significance. There are many stories told of the great spirits of the land who offer guidance and healing, the visions of the great warrior Crazy Horse, the many powerful vision quests of ancestors atop the butte. The system of symbols relevant to the reverence of this spiritual site is vast. When visiting Bear Butte to give prayer, a group climbs up together, led by a runner who carries the sacred staff. At the top, the group of Lakota relatives forms a symbolic peace pipe circle of unity and they pray together through song and tobacco smoke. They pray to the creator and spirits for healing and guidance for themselves and for their relatives, they ask the creator to provide them earth’s resources, and they make tobacco offerings with prayer ties all over the mountain to the creator and spirits of the butte. I did not experience this, but Bear Butte also acts a sacred site for vision quest. A medicine man will climb to the peak and restrain from food and water for four days so as to reach a state of direct communication with the spirits and creator.
As Bear Butte and its surrounding area hold the seven sacred elements: land, air, water, rocks, animals, plants, and fire one can observe the land itself as a symbol of the creation of life and the creator’s power to provide to and take away from the people. The tobacco is a symbol of offering and humility, and the red, white, yellow, and black ties, a symbol of the four sacred directions. The prayer circle symbolizes unity between the living relatives and the ancestral spirits – a wholeness made up of all the Lakota generations and the creator. The vision seeker’s suffering, as well as the suffering a sick or elderly individual goes through to make it to the top, a symbol of respect to the hardships of generations past and that of the creator to make the world. The moods and motivations that are established include respect, faith, honor, humbleness, love, gratitude, and unity. The Lakota way of life is formulated by these evoked emotions – a set of values and a sort of code of conduct is established. Prayer is essential to the Lakota order of existence. They live in complete faith and practice many forms of prayer regularly. They do not have a single sacred building that they visit once a week – they can pray anywhere, as the creator is everywhere and everything. Elders are treated with great respect, as they are the closest link between the ancestor spirits and the living Lakota community. The importance of the symbol of unity in the pipe circle extends to the Lakota way of living in unity as a community. Family closeness and prayer for loved ones are central elements of the Lakota way.
These conceptions of existence move beyond ritual and become reality through the existence of complete faith, making the Lakota peoples’ motivations reflect factuality and their practices necessary. The creator is the earth. The earth has the power to nourish or create hardships for the people, so the necessity for prayer to the earth creator is a Lakota fact of life. The Lakota ritual and value around the creation of unity is also necessary to their culture. Pine Ridge is one of the most impoverished communities in this country so suffering from disease, hunger, drug abuse and alcoholism, loss of loved ones, etc., is an inherent part of life. Through close family relations and a unified community, support is more available to those in need. Through prayer for loved ones, individuals need not feel alone in their hardships and may access strength to fight back. Lakota culture could not function without such conceptions. It is also significant that important discussion and questions about the state of the reservation are brought to the top of the butte. The spirit guidance, the peaceful nature of pipe ceremony, and the feeling of unity with the living, the ancestors, and the sacred, atop the butte is considered necessary in the making of important decisions for the well-being of the Pine Ridge community. In turn, the sacred feelings evoked by Bear Butte and in ceremony so greatly effect the every day life and state of being of every individual on the reservation, as well as any interaction between Pine Ridge and the rest of the world.
As intriguing as it is to see a religious experience and way of life work so well in this model, I do not feel like the whole story is conveyed. It is human nature to find patterns in everything. It is a way of explaining things to ourselves in an organized way. By breaking things down and putting them into categories, we feel less overwhelmed by the complexity of a process as a whole. There is definitely value in this but it leaves room for the loss of personal significance. Religion is communal but highly personal on a deep level. In my opinion, it is impossible to create a model for an individual’s inner state and experience. Even if the individual produces his or her own model, it cannot be understood in a single way, as no one has any context for someone else’s life experience. However, I do think that one increases their ability to understand another’s experience by continuously working to increase their lens of understanding. Personal ceremonial experience within a religion one seeks to understand is so essential due to the deeply personal nature of spirituality. Perhaps value in learning about religion does not lie in analytical theory, but in entering into new life practice and way of thinking so as to broaden your ability to understand everything in the world and our place in it.