23 June 2009

Mitakuye Oyasin

The Lakota language is wonderful for getting to the nub of a thing. I began learning the language last year, while I was on sabbatical. I worked with four Lakota mentors in designing a project that would allow me to study the depths of traditional Lakota worship, prayer and ceremony. The idea was to look for connecting antecedents that correspond to ancient Celtic practices (this began with a Lilly grant sabbatical project in 1999-2000 working with Celtic cultural/spiritual traditions). I have been more rewarded than I dreamed possible in this journey. I have discovered things about myself and others that have literally transformed my sense of being and purpose.

As a moment of background: The Lakota are seven Council Fires of a larger group that include the Dakota and Nakota. We know the entire Nation as the Sioux. The term "Sioux" is not theirs but a French term that may have more than one meaning. Originally, the Sioux avoided contact with European trappers and traders...preferring to stay to themselves in their own culture. Continued encroachment "called them out" to pursue relationships and develop a more visible cultural presence. The young US government treaded harshly upon all First Nations peoples, and made, then broke, eight consecutive treaties with the Lakota people. The ensuing breech of trust gave us the Lakota about which history has written...warlike and aggressive.

The real Lakota people are caring, open, deeply spiritual and kind people. I have rarely known the kind of hospitality and kindness as shown to me during my time in the summer of 2008 and my nine days I just spent in ongoing study. If one comes to Lakota folks with an open mind and heart that openness will be returned in kind. As a people, the Lakota have an innate way of knowing the sincerity of others.

In this work, I have been led to read and study history, cultural anthropology, family dynamics, relationship with the surrounding creation (we might call this "cosmology") and spirituality. Next to the ancient Celts, I have found no place where daily life includes an intimacy with the Transcendent God present in creation and actively engaged in intimacy with those who are open...which are most of the Lakota with whom I have talked and interviewed. Their symbols may be very different from what many of us "westerners" (also known as European Americans) are accustomed to engaging. I have found that the "cultural icons" of the Lakota are wonderfully alive, real and can transport one into the reality of Spirit quickly and intimately...even moreso than those of my own background.

I began by suggesting that Lakota language brings deeper meaning. The title of this blog is "Mitakuye Oyasin" (pronounced Me-tah-koo-ya O-yah-seen). It is descriptive of community but in a deeper sense than just the Lakota community. This phrase directly implies that all people are connected in a dynamic community -- that we are all related. It is an ancient phrase and is often heard at the end of prayers (in place of our "amen") or as part of leave taking with one another (there is no word in Lakota that translates "goodbye," for they don't understand separation in spirit).

I last saw my Lakota friends in the middle of August 2008. When I showed up on 14 June for my nine day visit, it was as if I had only parted company with them a few days ago. Conversations and interactions almost literally began where they had been left last year. I took my place among them as if I had only just slipped out briefly. There are no words in the Lakota language that demean, judge or reject another person. The language is very descriptive, and they can disagree without ever saying that another is wrong in what he/she has spoken or expressed. Example: in preparing for the annual Sundance celebration, I was invited to help erect the tree that is at the center of the dance circle. Believing one of the persons holding a rope was having trouble, I went to grab a portion of that rope and assist this young man. Another Lakota man came over to me quickly, touched my arm and told me in Lakota to "back away." He was emphatic but not demeaning of me -- either as a person or a wasecun (white man). As it turns out, the young man was required to handle his rope by himself as part of the ritual he was entering. I learned but never felt embarassed or put down for not knowing. It was all explained later with a smile and mirth.

From this I am beginning to ask questions of the Christian community and our ability to really be a community. I am absolutely sure that the teaching of Jesus speaks of community as a depth of relationship, trust and integrity exactly like what is transmitted and experienced in "mitakuye oyasin."

We have so much to learn from our Lakota sisters and brothers...indeed from all First Nations cultures.

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