Buried at Wounded Knee

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“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream . . . . the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
Black Elk (Oglala Sioux) in Black Elk Speaks

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Big Foot, a great Chief of the Sioux often said, “I will stand in peace till my last day comes.” He did many good and brave deeds for the white man and the red man. Many innocent women and children who knew no wrong died here.
Inscription on the Wounded Knee Monument

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Like most Americans, I had only a superficial knowledge of the history at Wounded Knee, a low hill that rises above a creek bed on the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation. Last week, we visited the site of this last major battle between the white man and Native people, which broke the spirit of the tribes’ striving to maintain their nomadic life as free people. This unnecessary, brutal massacre of over 150 Lakota men, women and children by the Seventh Regiment of the U.S. Army Cavalry took place in December 1890.

The dead lay where they fell for four days due to a severe blizzard. When the frozen corpses were finally gathered up by the Army, a deep mass grave was dug at the top of the hill, the bodies buried stacked one on top of another. The massive grave is now marked by a humble memorial monument surrounded by a chain link fence, adjacent to a small church, circled by more recent Lakota gravesites.

Four infants survived the four days of blizzard conditions wrapped in their dead mothers’ robes. One baby girl, only a few months old, was named “Lost Bird” after the massacre, bartered for and adopted by an Army Colonel as an interesting Indian “relic.” Rather than this adoption giving her a new chance, she died at age 29, having endured much illness, prejudice in white society, as well as estrangement from her native community and culture. Her story has been told in a book by Renee Sansom Flood, who helped to locate and move her remains back to Wounded Knee, where in death she is now back with her people.

There is unspeakable sadness on that lonely hill of graves. It is regrettable history that all descendents of immigrant Americans need to experience personally to understand what our expansion into the New World cost the people already here. As Black Elk says, the dreams of a great people have been scattered and lack a center.

We must never allow hope to be buried at Wounded Knee.

Awful Quiet

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“A dark mist lay over the Black Hills, and the land was like iron. At the top of ridge I caught sight of Devil’s Tower upthrust against the gray sky as if in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through its crust and the motion of the world was begun. There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devil’s Tower is one of them.”
N.Scott Momaday in The Way to Rainy Mountain

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Over the years of cross-country road trips, we have passed by the turn-off to Devil’s Tower in eastern Wyoming because there was urgency to get where we needed to go. Occasionally we would see it hazy in the far distance, so I could say I had “seen it” but I really had not seen it according to Scott Momaday.

Scott is a Kiowa for whom Devil’s Tower is named Tso-i-e or “standing on a rock” and is sacred ground. The Cheyenne, Crow, Lakota, Shoshone, and Arapahoe all revere this rock monolith although most tribal members did not live near enough to see it themselves, but the legends traveled many miles through the generations through oral tradition.

Scott taught an unforgettable class I took as a 19 year old sophomore at Stanford on Native American Mythology and Lore. He has a commanding presence, a booming resonant voice for story telling, a predilection for the poetry of Emily Dickinson and a hankering since childhood to be part of the legend of Billy the Kid. The first day of class, he introduced us to Tso-i-e first and foremost. He told us his grandmother’s story passed to her from her grandparents:

“Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified.; they ran and the bear after them. They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade them climb upon it, and as they did so it began to rise into the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were just beyond its reach. It reared against the tree and scored the bark all around with its claws. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper.”

Today we finally made time to see the Tower up close. For me, this “close encounter” was meant to connect the dots from my class taught by Scott 39 years ago and to understand more fully the spiritual background of the Plains people our son now lives with and teaches on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The Tower is holy ground for us all-we are diminished in its presence without enshrining or worshipping it. It disquiets the heart with its awful grandeur and sheer other-worldliness. In its own way, it is resonant as Scott’s captivating stories about its origins, yet remains a reminder of the ever-changing impermanence of geologic formations.

We need more holy places in our lives even as they change with the sands and winds of time. We need more awe-filled awful quiet in our hearts.

We need to tell the sacred stories, generation to generation, never forgetting Who set the world in motion.

Mountains of the Sky

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It’s wonderful to climb the liquid mountains of the sky. Behind me and before me is God and I have no fears. ~Helen Keller

They don’t make clouds like this in the northwest. These are thunderheads over Sioux Falls, South Dakota tonight, complete with constant lightning flashes sparking the center of the shimmering liquid mountains in the sky.

God behind, before, overhead. I am not ashamed to admit awesome fear of His mighty power.

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Need a Hug

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“I’m still discovering, right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

There are plenty of mornings when we climb out of bed and know we need a hug to help us meet the obligations of the day. The troubles we face can seem so overwhelming, we can’t do it without help and encouragement. Without that support, it can be tempting to turn and run, or hunker and hide.

Instead some of us choose to battle through troubles alone, relying solely on the strength of our own feeble problem-solving skills, or our frail muscle power to persevere. Others rely on the seductive fickle embrace of the bottle or other addictions to get through the day.

Today as we drove through drought-stricken dust-stormed central Iowa, I sense the deep need of the people here for any kind of encouragement and hope as they watch their crops dry up on the stalk. 91 degrees with a strong hot wind from the south withers farms, families and faith.

Many here are being called to live through this time of trial wrapped within the arms of God. We are asked to gratefully surrender our supposed autonomy; He graciously surrendered Himself for us to sustain us eternally through times like these.

We need to throw ourselves into His arms before we too dry up and blow away like dusty chaff. He bathes us in living water, a drenching from above, soaking us through and through in His sacrificial embrace.

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Dead Daylight

photo by Josh Scholten

“Every trace of the passionate plumage of the cloudy sunset had been swept away, and a naked moon stood in a naked sky. The moon was so strong and full, that (by a paradox often to be noticed) it seemed like a weaker sun. It gave, not the sense of bright moonshine, but rather of a dead daylight.”
― G.K. Chesterton

It is not the real thing, only a reflection of the sun’s brightness and warmth and energy. Still we believe in lunar paradox, willing to put faith in what cannot give or sustain life. Naked, the bluffing moon puts on a poker face to fake the light of day. It looks real but is mere phantom.

We are seriously seduced by moonshine, unconcerned about its origins.

It is time to go to bed for the real sun rises early, chasing away the overnight imposter, welcoming a new and vital dawn.

There can be nothing dead about it.

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No Place to Hide

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This land changes you if you let it…

There is no place to hide here
from yourself and what you fear.
The meadowlark will break your heart
the magpie steal your breakfast
and once you’ve seen the buffalo graze on Sage Creek they will rumble through your dreams forever.

Diane Weddington in Badlands III

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Barrenness incarnate, given this tortured body
By way of instruction from a literal minded maker
in some kind of love  
With gorgeous desolation.

Evan Harris in Badlands Near and Far

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The scorched earth from wildfires along the highway in Montana is nothing compared to the utter desolation of the Badlands only a few miles north of where our son teaches in South Dakota.  It is disorienting to see rolling grassland turning to alkali and stark rock tables and spires. There is no where to hide from the brutal transformation.

It seems hopelessness may be all that thrives in this loneliest of places where wind chews at the rocks.  But there is toughness and remarkable color and diversity too.  Hope cannot die where the sunrise and sunset create a portrait of paradise for a few brief minutes twice each day.

It is a promise that even the barren can bear fruit.

Something Happened

photo by Josh Scholten

“There was only the dark infinity in which nothing was. And something happened. At the distance of a star something happened, and everything began. The Word did not come into being, but it was. It did not break upon the silence, but it was older than the silence and the silence was made of it.” N. Scott Momaday in “House Made of Dawn”

Traveling today through the open spaces of Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota, I am aware of a spiritual essence rising from the vistas extending as far as the eye can see.  The Plains Peoples,  from which my Stanford professor Scott Momaday came, intimately understood the infinity of creation.  They were born, lived and loved, hunted and died beneath the silent stars.

Something happened.

Something happened, lighting the darkness and overcoming nothingness.

Something happened and the story of the Beginning breathes within us.

Something happened when God’s silence spoke.

His Word was, and always was, and always will be.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  John 1