03 June 2011

Wisdom and the Pe Sla

As I write, I am sitting in my cabin on the campus of Borderlands Ranch and Spiritual Education Center. Borderlands is 253 acres of rolling prairie hills in the very center of the Black Hills in South Dakota. It is the highest elevation of the Hills at nearly 5200 feet. It is now completely ranchland or land owned by the National Forestry Service. It is covered with prairie grass and dotted with various trees…usually alongside the numerous streams that flow through the hills and down to the rivers at lower altitude.

This prairie area can be seen from satellite photos as a bare area in the central part of the Black Hills. The Lakota call this area the “Pe Sla.” It means “Peace in the Bare Spot.” As with all the Black Hills, this is an historically (and current) sacred area. The Pe Sla may be the most sacred, because, for centuries it has been a place where Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho and other high plains First Nations groups came to worship, pray and “cry for a vision.” The latter is one of the Pe Sla’s central purposes. “Hanblecheya” means to “Cry for a Vision” or simply to make a “Vision Quest.” The Borderlands property has two places where Vision Quest has been made…archeologists say for at least 500 years. They are still used by Lakota leaders.

The Rev. Linda Kramer is the owner of Borderlands. She is a “Hunka” of the Lakota…one who is not Lakota but adopted into the Oyate (family). Her Lakota father is Fr. Robert Brokenleg (now deceased) who was an Episcopal Priest and council leader of the Sicangu Lakota Council Fire (tribe)…one of seven Council Fires that make up the Lakota Nation. (btw, Euro-Americans may know the Lakota by the name given by the French in the early 1700s….”Sioux”.) Non-First Nations persons can be adopted into a Nation and be part of life and culture. Mother Linda (an Episcopal Priest) spent several years working in parishes on both the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations of the Lakota.

I am not adopted into the Lakota Oyate (Oh-yah-teh). However, since 2007, I have been welcomed and accepted as both a friend and trusted sojourner among these gracious, generous and good humored people. I currently have four Lakota mentors. One is an archeologist and former professor of field archeology. One is an Episcopal Priest and psychotherapist living and working as co-director at the mental health facility in Kyle, a town on the Pine Ridge Reservation. One is an Episcopal Priest and Rector of the Lakota Parish (St. Matthew’s) in Rapid City. One is an Episcopal Priest & retired professor of developmental psychology and education and, until his retirement two years ago, was the Dean of Indigenous Studies and Vancouver School of Theology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC. He still lives there.

How did I get here? It’s a long story. The key points: I was introduced to Mother Linda Kramer by reference. I shared my vision with her for a project, and she graciously invited me to make a retreat at Borderlands in August 2007. She spent five days of her schedule taking me to meet three of the four persons noted above, who would become mentors. The fourth (Fr. Martin Brokenleg in Vancouver, BC) I met via email and phone conversation that week. The archeologist, Ben Rhodd, became my chief mentor and spiritual advisor. He is an acknowledged leader within the Lakota community. In hearing my personal story…along with my project vision…he strongly suggested I make an Hanblecheya (Vision Quest) before any decision could be made. This suggests the depth of his own spirituality.

I made the Vision Quest in early October 2007…a three-day intense time of prayer, fasting and spending a day and a night “crying for a vision” on one of the spots where this has been done for centuries…at the far east end of Borderlands. In the end, the elders gathered in the sweat lodge (at the end of my time of fasting and being “on the hill”) spoke to the visions I had and the visions seen in their own prayers and welcomed me to engage in this journey. After further preparation, I spent most of three months in the summer of 2008 (sabbatical) either in the Black Hills or Vancouver, BC.

I was invited to experience the Sun Dance and have returned each year…until this year. I am at Borderlands for 6 days to accomplish a pre-retirement retreat (suggested by my advisor from Church Pension Group) and to spend time with two of my mentors. This time will form the vision for the next phase of what this journey becomes. It is a full three weeks before Sun Dance…and that week is my last week prior to retirement. These last 21 days before retirement will be critical.

Sitting here today, an Episcopal Priest, husband, father, friend and seeker of knowledge, 60 years and 6 months old, I have been slowed by a rather awesome wind storm. The sky is bright, deep blue with no clouds. The wind howls at gusts of at least 50 miles an hour. This has been going on for several hours. Down below, in Hill City (still in the Black Hills but about 2000 feet below us and 16 miles away), the wind may be only light with occasional gusts. This is part of life in the Pe Sla. The horses across the road are gathered in a bunch on the leeward side of a barn. They don’t like the wind either. It has been like an aviary here since my arrival Monday evening. I have counted 17 different species of birds that are very active. They are quiet and hidden this day.

The very deep, centuries-old spirituality of this place draws me into a contemplative space, and that is what I have mostly done over the past four days. I have taken breaks to walk the hills, drive to two other Pe Sla locations of Vision Quest and travel to Hill City to do email/phone business. There is no cell or internet connection here. Mother Linda has a phone and satellite dish internet connection (with television) in the “big house” (her house). I like the challenge of silence and its requirement that I listen, observe and experience myself and life on a very basic level. I cook my own meals in this cabin. It is a “complete” home in the sense I have all I need to have a daily life routine….kitchen, bathroom, living/sleeping room and a porch with a rocking chair.

Today, I experience and reflect on the wind. I cannot see it. It is invisible. However, I can certainly observe the emerging prairie grasses bending and shifting; the trees bending and branches moving wildly; dust from the gravel road; the manes and tails of the horses blowing briskly. I feel the wind in my face and hear it whistling through the eves of the cabin roof.
Wisdom is the same. It is not seen and cannot be contained or created. It moves, and we experience its impact in our lives. Knowledge comes by learning the elements of our craft, reading a book, hearing a lecture watching someone accomplish a task. Wisdom comes from engaging what we know and by experiencing both successes and failures; by conversation and experiences of others and taking those into our own experiences…thus expanding our horizons. Wisdom comes with time…age and embracing all aspects of life’s joys, sorrows and encounters. How we manage those moments, what we learn, how we incorporate past, present and future into our journey…all of these make for wisdom.

In Lakota culture, there is no word for “authority” or “war.” In strict, pre-reservation Lakota culture, there was a Council of Elders…older men who had experienced all life could offer and were of an age to give advice. They would meet to discuss and pray about issues and problems. At the end, they would share their combined opinions and advice on action. However, it was never as authority but as counsel. Because of their combined experiences (hundreds of years combined ages), the advice was usually taken.

Because of our revisionist history, we think of Native Americans as warlike people. War is not in any of the plains nations languages. One goes into battle to settle issues or fight over territory (land ownership was not known among Native Americans before reservations were forced upon them). A battle wasn’t won or lost. It was ended when the redress was made. “Warpath” is something Euro-Americans made up for our books and movies. No Indian ever went on a warpath. There were occasional renegades…just as there were/are among Euro-Americans (whites). They were dealt with handily by their Oyate.

I am here, because I am on the doorstep of being an elder by most standards. In general American culture, being an elder most often means being pushed aside for “younger folks.” Interesting to think, when one defines wisdom, just why our culture is in the mess it finds itself. We fracture wisdom rather than drawing upon it for the current moment and future of our culture. I am here, because I look for the next road of my journey and how the Holy One will use what I have learned, experienced and observed over these 60.5 years of life. Like the wind, I don’t see it, but I feel it. Such is the onset of Wisdom and encounter with the Spirit.


Fr. Fred+

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