Something about the visit to Pine Ridge awakened a sense of spirituality in me that I have never known before. We as human beings strive for significance, a space for meaning to manifest in our lives. Hermeneutical theory aside, personal experience is the existential core to identity and understanding meaning. I wrote the following poem after speaking with a friend about the complexities of who we each are:
The human being is
A work of art, perpetually composting
Experiences: all that we see, hear, listen to,
Think, feel. An opening – the uncarved
Absolute, sharing in one thing purely:
The moment, the present
Before interpretation sets in, and we’re just
Naked to the vibrating energy that is life,
Connecting all beings to one pulse.
In a similar vain, I wrote the following conclusion after reflecting upon theory and personal experience in ceremony:
“It is the delicate dance between theory and experience, I believe, that manifests the most fruitful understanding of ceremony. Through the act of communication of ideas and thoughts, we develop, define and refine the subjective lenses through which we interpret and grasp meaning in the world. The ability to share and communicate ideas and perspectives allows for inter-subjectivity – the capacity to coexist and thrive and learn from one another as human beings. In this way, I believe, studying theoretical models of religion and applying it to personal experience of ceremony demonstrates our capacity to expand our interpretive possibilities. In the end, it all ties back to the Lakota philosophy of interconnectedness. Despite different interpretations and models, theories and experiences, those present in theYuwipi were present to a shared moment, inexpressible, “really real.” How that moment manifests itself for each individual will vary diversely, as we each walk our own path, but it all stems from one moment, one source – Life. Mitakuye Oyasin.”
Storytelling, myth and personal narrative have always fascinated me. So much so, indeed, that my Independent Study in India last Spring focused specifically on the oral history and philosophy of the Merasi Community in Rajasthan. Given so much creative freedom for this final project, I was interested in pursuing this passion for stories and inter-subjective connection in terms of Lakota spirituality. Members of my extended family, I knew, had long-term connections up on Pine Ridge, so I decided to get in touch with them, open myself up to the power of their stories.
Friday and Saturday were my days of listening. I spoke at length with the following folks about their journey through life in a spiritual sense Their willingness to share has invoked in me a profound sense of gratitude and inspiration.
Jeff Galuza – a long-time family friend and mentor, Sun Dancer, adopted Lakota and Blackfoot, Sweat Leader from the wild woods of Maine.
George Kahrl – a cousin from the windy plains of Montana who has participated in more than a dozen Sun Dances with the Lakota, as well as other spiritual practices.
Judy Kahrl – my great aunt, an incredibly strong woman with openness to the world around her, observed Sun Dance and connected with the Lakota through her son, George.
Jim Epstein – my father, whose stories of sweats and his vision quest spoke of an immense respect for the origin of the traditions that allowed for his spiritual self-reflection.
Through the conversations I had with Jeff, George and my father (and the written stories from my aunt Judy), a commonality of themes emerged: interconnection, unity, respect for the origins of traditional Lakota ceremony, humbleness to a greater power, the web of life, family, ancestry, care for the future, prayer, time, forgiveness. I was struck by the idea that by sharing personal stories we can find common ground; we can relate to one another on a much more profound level and learn from one another if we take the time and make a conscious effort to share and listen.
The richness of the material I gathered from these conversations was overwhelming. What to do with all this wisdom? I was hesitant to try to convert such raw material into a paper, and because this project allowed for so much creative expression, I began to contemplate the concept of manifesting stories physically and creating an expressive vice for storytelling. But where to go from here!? The image of the web seemed the place to start. I decided to construct a large web as a representation of the connection I felt with my family and friends, my classmates, the earth, the stories, the spiritual world, the Lakota.
On Sunday morning, I walked alone to the student Farm to collect branches for my Web. As I made my way across campus, I thought about the process of creating a work of art as an expression of something, and how much of this piece was inspired by Lakota tradition and ritual. I began to intentionally ritualize my experience. I said thank you to the trees for lending their branches to my project. I thought about the stories that the trees tell, what the worms in the earth would say if they spoke our tongue… It became evident to me that the values instilled in me through life, especially those reaffirmed in my interactions with the Lakota people on Pine Ridge, were present even in the process of constructing this web. I looked up the Seven Sacred Laws on http://ili.nativeweb.org/constitution.html, and while re-reading the notes I’d taken during my conversations with Jeff, George, and Jim, I was able to see how these values permeated their narratives.
Woope Sakowin (Seven Laws)
- 1) Wacante Oganake, “To help, to share, to give, to be generous.”
- 2) Wowaunsila, “Pity, Compassion.”
- 3) Wowauonihan, “To Repect, to Honor.”
- 4) Wowacintanka, “Patience and Tolerance.”
- 5) Wowahwala, “To be Humble, To Seek Humility.”
- 6) Woohitike, “To be Guided By Your Principles, Disciplined, Bravery and Courage.”
- 7) Woksape, “Understanding and Wisdom.”
With this idea of ritualizing experience in my mind, I made 28 prayer ties – one for each of the four storytellers pertaining to each of the seven values. I took the time to smudge sage in my room, to cleanse the materials and myself before focusing in on the project at hand. Making ties was a meditative practice that involved a lot of patience and discipline, but as I placed the tobacco in each piece of cloth and tied it up, I prayed for these laws to permeate the spirits of my four storytellers.. I then selected passages from my conversations and hand-wrote them onto strips of paper. Finally I tied these snippets of stories onto the web, each beneath the prayer ties that represented the seven sacred laws. The story bundles look like feathers. I’ll include below a few examples…
Jeff’s story about Baby Jay (Jalen) embodied the spirit of generosity, help, giving: For my vision quest, I had to make 488 prayer ties. Baby Jay came down, asked if he could sing for me. He musta been about 10 or 12 at the time, and he was covered in chicken pox. We just sat there and sang and prayed for me for 3 or 4 hours, in a trance and non-stop. The spirit is doing the work, there are channels that open themselves up to it. But I’m so grateful that he prayed for me, help me get through.
George’s words about reciprocity embodied the spirit of compassion: Giving begins with friendship, creating personal connection and codependence. If we begin with a human connection with other people, one begins to find an answer to the gift the Lakota have given by sharing their spirituality. The answer we can find in an intuitive space vs. a conscious one – dynamic openness is giving.
Jeff’s reflection on leading sweat embodies a deep sense of respect for the traditions: When I lead songs, which I don’t do all the time ‘cause I don’t have a good memory so I don’t lead ‘em, but when I do, I lead out of respect. My heart is in the right place.
Judy shared a story with me that spoke of the importance of patience and deep tolerance: Another incident which taught me something about forgiveness. On the Tree Day ceremony when the tree was still lying on the ground, the Sun Dance leader had said that it was preferable not to walk over the tree. Within a few minutes, some kid did just that. There was a bit of a stir, but the leader said, “there are no mistakes here. He just went over the tree and the tree is still holy.” An attitude of forgiveness permeated everything that day.
In the spirit of humility, my father expressed: I have a sense that there’s a power greater than ourselves on an energetic level. Within ceremonies, I can really connect to that power and it makes me feel grateful.
And, as Jeff said: I live close to the earth, I say thank you.
George expressed the value of “Woohitike” by explaining that, as outsiders, we cannot necessarily do everything ourselves to help the Lakota people – the sense of bravery needs to come from within: People need to help themselves out. They’re embedded in a difficult situation. A greater connection to this community is a positive choice of the self to play a supportive role, but in the end an individual needs to make his own choice.
In terms of self-disciplined and living by principles, Jeff’s words are powerful: If you’re not prayin’ every day, the Sun Dance is gonna be a bitch. The Sun Dance itself involves a lot of physical suffering, but those four days are a place for me to really be supported in meditation and prayer. I’ve learned that I can’t just save up my prayin’ for then, though. The other 361 days of the year, I need practice the lifestyle [these spiritual practices] until practice becomes my practice. If I’m gonna be truthful, my words and my actions better line up. I can’t lie and live in it. Goin’ to ceremonies brought integrity to my life. We’ve gotta be an active participant within ourselves of the change to be truthful.
These storytellers spoke in such a way that Lakota understanding permeated their wisdom:
Jeff: We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience. The world is getting smaller all the time. The more positive relationships, the more we can resonate outward genuinely, the world will be one hell of a better place. It’s all temporary structure – we’re movin’ through and we gotta participate – but I got a choice not to get caught up in it. That’s a gift.
George: Ceremony helps those who lack spirit. The ceremonies are given as a way to access spirit, and they really do that. The Ref Road, there’s no binding nature to it. But it’s very real. I like that, it’s very grounding for me, and really connects up with nature. This spirituality evokes a lot of gratitude and appreciation. I can carry that gratitude through the more demanding and challenging relationships and struggles of my life.
Judy: Perhaps the most important part of all to me is the belief that everything is interconnected. “All My Relations” include not only people, but animals, plants, rocks and stones, everything. And all can speak to us if we will listen.
I still feel very raw from the experiencing of attempting to manifest story in a physical form, but I believe the web is a way for me to begin to recognize how important it is to learn from life and find beauty and ceremony in each action. Pine Ridge has opened doors for me that I didn’t know existed before. Another thing I took away from this project was the sense of deeper connection I felt towards the people who shared stories with me. There is something to be said for making and effort to deepen the relationships in our lives, to go out there, be curious, listen to stories and learn about others and ourselves. I could go on and on, but I will save you all from the ramblings of my brain by closing this piece with an immense THANK YOU to all the folks who helped me out on this journey, especially Jeff, George, Judy, Daddy, Ben Kahrl, Bruce, the IRT family, and Kyle for talking things through with me. Above all, I am grateful for the opportunity given to us by the Littleboy family and friends who enabled me to find myself. Mitakuye Oyasin
Justine Epstein, November 2012
(Photos coming soon!)