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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


November 2, 2002 - Issue 73


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Cultural Exchange

The Black HillsHau kola! Hau kola (or hello friend) is one of the ways my people greet each other. To most people, I would be called a Native American. However, a Native American is one of many people who are indigenous to the United States of America and its possessions. Other Native Americans include the Natives of Alaska, Hawaii and a few others. Many Native Americans, myself included, prefer to be called American Indians and that is how most people in the world know us. But I will let you in on another secret. Among American Indians, we refer to each other by our specific tribe. To another American Indian, I would be known as a Lakota (Sioux), and to break it down even more, within my tribe I would be known as a member of the burnt leg band of Lakota’s. To let you in on how my band became known as the burnt legs, long ago when my people were wandering in the plains of America, a fire broke out by the camp. The only way to put out the fire was for the Lakota’s to stamp it out it with their legs and in the process they burnt their legs. So that is how we became known as the burnt leg band of the Lakota.

As many are aware from the history of the United States, American Indians have gone through a lot of suffering . Ask an Indian how they see American history and you may be surprised by their reply. Different tribes have their own stories of where they came from. Within my people, we do not believe our ancestors came across the Bering Straight from Asia but from the Black Hills area of South Dakota. For us (Lakota’s), the Black Hills, or as we call it Paha Sapa, is where life began and where our creation stories begin. How do we know this is where life began? Because the Creator told us. As you can imagine, I often get into some very interesting discussions with non-Indians of how their religion says life began. My mom (moms know everything) once told us that we all come from the same Creator, be it Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, etc, so don’t worry, we are all from the same family.

We saw the exploration and inhabiting of the Americas as the beginning of the invasion. Wouldn’t you call it that if someone came to your country and forced their way of life on you and if you did not agree with it, they would either forcibly remove you to another place you did not want to live on (the Indian reservations) or commit genocide? As time went on, Indians were forced to live on the reservations where even today, poverty exists.

Many are still under the impression that American Indians were always citizens of the United States. Indians did not become American citizens until 1924. Due to treaties enacted between the Indian tribes and the United States government in the 19th century, Indian tribes were viewed as sovereign nations within the United States. The United States tried to get out of the Indian business in the 1940’s through the 1950’s by passing laws, which terminated the sovereignty of many tribes and gave control of the tribes to the states they lived in. Why is this important? Because California was one of those states that dissolved various tribes, more or less, breaking up a tribe and telling them they are no longer Indians. California eventually saw the errors of their ways and some tribes were reconstituted in the 1960’s-1970, but by then the damage was done and some tribes had already lost their tribal members and culture.

Those tribes in California that kept or regained their sovereignty faced another battle with the state government through the Indian gaming. As some would be aware from living in the San Diego area, many of the smaller reservations, such as Rincon, Barona, Pala, Pechanga, etc, have casinos that many people visit. These tribes use the profits from their casinos to improve the quality of life for their people, other non-casino tribes and the surrounding communities. Since the tribes who run these casinos are viewed as sovereign nations, they do not follow California state law but federal law. The California state government has tried to exert their power over these reservations many times but tribal sovereignty has always won out.

My tribe is located on the Rosebud Indian reservation in South Dakota. My family moved to California in the 1950’s because my parents wanted to give us a better life than what was offered on the reservation at the time. Our quality of life was a little bit better living in California but we ended up losing our culture in our new urban environment. It took many years and trips back to our reservation for us to regain our culture.

Some interesting things about my tribe are certain spirits and stories that have a meaning. Four of our spirits are the Owl, the Spider, the Heyoka and the Winkta. Owls are seen as messengers from the Creator, with their brothers the eagle and hawk, and they bring us luck or good and bad news. The spider, or in some other tribes the coyote, is seen as a trickster who is always doing things to undermine life but there is often a hidden meaning or a message in what they do. The Heyoka (in my language meaning the clown) is a human spirit who says everything backwards. If he says you’re going to die young, you are actually going to live a long life. The Winkta is another human spirit in our culture and it is someone with the wisdom of both sexes who can help us with human problems.

One of our stories concerns the White Buffalo Calf Woman. We view white buffalos as very sacred and as a gift from the Creator. The story involves two Lakota brothers who followed a buffalo herd and came upon a beautiful Indian woman who told them to never harm a white buffalo if they ever come upon one. One day while following one herd, the brothers saw a white buffalo calf. One brother wanted to kill the calf and the other brother told him not to, because of what the woman had told them. The brother did not listen and shot an arrow at the white buffalo calf but before it could hit the calf a cloud covered the brother and when it disappeared, only a pile of bones was left of the brother. The White Buffalo Calf Woman appeared before the surviving brother and told him that since he had listened to her good things in life would come to him. After saying this, the woman was engulfed in a cloud and when it disappeared, a white buffalo calf was running back to rejoin the herd. Good things came to the surviving brother but he followed the buffalo herd to try to find the White Buffalo Calf Woman again. Years ago after a failed relationship and at a time when I was feeling very bad, my mom told me that story again. She said that it had a significance for me because I was a Lakota wandering through the world as a soldier looking for my buffalo herd with my White Buffalo Calf Woman and that one day I will find her, I just have to be patient. I have heard that story many times, but on this occasion when my mom told it to me , I saw the meaning in it and I am still chasing that buffalo herd.

If you ever get the chance, go to a pow-wow. Most people think of a pow-wow as a place where Indians dance around. That is part of it but a pow-wow (or as some California tribes call it: a fiesta) is where family and friends meet to enjoy each other’s company, sort of a family gathering. When you see an Indian dressed in their native clothes, don’t call it a costume. Indians refer to it as regalia. You will see many types because of the many tribes in America. In case if I did not tell you, each tribe has its own food, language, culture, religious beliefs and native dress as any country in the world would. Out of respect, if you ever want to take a picture of any dancer or performer, ask them first. Most of the times they will not have a problem with it. Many different types of food can be found at a pow-wow, ranging from American to fry bread. What is fry bread? Fry bread is one thing that is probably common to all Indians. It is fried dough with yeast about the size of a small pizza that tastes very good, especially with honey or sugar on it. Some pow-wow’s have Indian taco booths where fry bread is covered with all of the things you would see in a taco, except bigger. Stay away from Indian tacos if you’re trying to watch your weight! Between the dances, people are honored for different things. At one pow-wow years ago, I was honored by other combat veterans with them presenting me my eagle feathers and making me a warrior. You should go to a pow-wow, you will have lots of fun.

There are many more things to say about the American Indian culture but it would take a long time. If you’re really interested in the culture, talk to an Indian, visit a reservation or go to a pow-wow. One thing to keep in mind though is every tribe is different in language, dress, culture and customs. One thing I have noticed about living outside the United States is that people are more interested in my culture than Americans are. Americans grow up thinking they know everything there is to know about Indians, but are shocked to find out they do not.

I enjoy being a student here because besides learning about other cultures, I am also able to share mine. We do not have a word for good-bye so again I will say Hau kola!

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