Wednesday, May 16, 2007
The Human Factor
We are all Related
"It feels like my brothers and sisters are buried here," I said as the tears ran down my face. My friend Leatrice responded, "that's because they are." I was standing by the mass grave in the Wounded Knee cemetery in South Dakota where I draped prayer ties over the surrounding chain link fence.
The cemetery is on top of a hill overlooking a road, a grassy plain and then Wounded Knee Creek. I sat with my friend, looking at this tranquil view, picturing the tragic event that had happened here, and thought what an incredible journey my husband and I have traveled. We volunteer at a Boys and Girls Club on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation located in the southwest corner of South Dakota. We live in a suburb west of Detroit, Michigan. The physical journey is 2200 miles round trip; the spiritual journey is infinite.
My husband, Rick, first visited the Wounded Knee cemetery when he went to the Reservation in 1997 to work on their first Habitat for Humanity house. When he returned home, Rick told me what he had learned about the massacre that had happened there in December 1890, the mass grave, and how people come and leave various tributes: He saw flowers, bouquets of sage, bird feathers, and a teddy bear.
He also told me about the SuAnne Big Crow Boys and Girls Club. The Club was located in a converted factory building with half of it being the Happpy Town restaurant and the other half for the Club. The restaurant was the primary source of financial support.
SuAnne Big Crow was a natural leader, an outstanding student and a South Dakota basketball star, still holding the state record for scoring the most points in a game. She led her team to the state championship in 1991. Tragically, she was killed in an automobile accident in 1992. SuAnne always wanted a place for the children. A safe place where they could play and learn together and support one another and it would be called "Happy Town." For more about SuAnne see www.suannebigcrow.org.
My husband and I were deeply touched by the stories of SuAnne and her family. Out of a personal tragedy Leatrice Big Crow, SuAnne's mother, her family and the tribe took the daugher's vision and made it a reality.
In the spring of 1998, Rick was told that the Boys and Girls Club could use some help. He learned that the restaurant kitchen was in need of many repairs to bring it up to code. Without these repairs, the restaurant, which was the financial source for the Club, would be closed. We managed to raise money for materials and recruited four other people to go with us.
Rick wanted to take a tribute to leave at the Wounded Knee cemetery. He decided to have a wood carver construct an eagle feather. He told Leatrice what he would like to do and she contacted a medicine man to meet with us during our time at the Club. Will Peters sat with us and held the carved feather. He told us in his way about the massacre on December 29, 1890.
The Big Foot band of the Oglala Lakota people agreed to come live on the reservation. It was a group of primarily old men, women and children. They had little food, many were sick and so they surrendered at Wounded Knee to the 7th Calvary. The soldiers demanded they give up their weapons and when they tried to explain that they needed them for hunting, their reason was ignored and the soldiers started shooting. A mass grave was dug for those who were injured and left to die in the snow along with the dead. These people never had a proper burial, and so their spirits still wander there to this day.
I sat and listened to his story and it felt like it had happened yesterday. Will Peters agreed to perform a consecration ceremony at the cemetery. He said that the person who carved the feather has a good heart, and he believed the same of my husband and me. The carved eagle feather was put in a box top surrounded with bouquets of wild sage. Each bouquet was tied together with four strips of cotton cloth in the four sacred colors of white, black, yellow and red. I was given the honor of carrying this offering up the hill and presenting it to Will Peters.
We stood around the mass grave. Will Peters stood by the head stone and started to chant. My eyes filled with tears and ran down my cheeks and I was surprised at my reaction. I reasoned that my ancestors had nothing to do with this. My grandparents came from Europe to Michigan in the early 1900s. As he continued to sing, I continued to cry. His song came from his soul and he was praying that the spirits find a resting place. He then motioned to me to give him the carved feather and his chant continued.
At the conclusion of ceremonies and prayers, Will explained that in the Lakota tradition, everyone joins in and says "mita kuye oyasin." The translation is "we are all related." By the end of the ceremony, I had pulled myself together, pushing away what I felt and started helping people set up and serve the food we had brought.
For two years, I was drawn to the Wounded Knee cemetery. Leatrice came with us. She invited us to pray, she showed me how to make prayer ties, and we were invited to ceremonies. God, Yahweh, Spirit or Higher Power gives us many opportunities for growth, and I truly believe my higher power was not going to let me go until I understood in my soul the meaning of "we are all related."