Part Two – The Making of a Warrior
Chapter 12 – South Dakota Summers – AIM
By Ghost Dancer
By the time I reached my early teens, I had been working all kinds of jobs for years and always saved my money so was able to buy a good motorcycle. None of my family knew this at the time, but I learned from news reports on TV or radio about events going on at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. I quickly decided on a goal to go up to South Dakota during the summer of 1972 after my 14th birthday to be with my brothers and sisters in the American Indian Movement. My parents would never have understood this, and had they known my intention, they would have thrown a fit, so I decided to sneak away and that is exactly what I did.
Starting out on a 1,300-mile journey alone on a motorcycle didn’t bother me at all. I had money in my pocket and skills in map-reading and route-plotting from taking trips with my family and working for my dad who had a taxi cab company. The trip took me three days. I camped the first night in Missouri, the second in Nebraska and the third in South Dakota. I left home with a back pack of beef jerky, biscuits, apple fritters, smoked sausage, and dried corn. Along the way, I would find places to camp in the forest, so no one would see. Then I would build a fire and make a soup by adding water to some dried corn and cut up sausage and let it slowly cook. Eventually I made it to the Pine Ridge Reservation.
I didn’t stand out too much. I had dark hair and was tanned from working outside on the farm and doing construction, but trust did not come easy. At first people were nervous about who I was, but I offered to help every chance I had, and soon found acceptance. I met several people who would play a significant role in my life.
My Muskogee Mentors, Phillip Deere and Billy Proctor
My brother, my uncle, my friend, my spiritual teacher – Phillip Deere was all these and more. I only got to meet with him a handful of times there at Pine Ridge, but those times were special for here was a Creek spiritual teacher who was special. There were times when he spoke to a large group of us from various backgrounds, teaching and shaping us, and those were the best of opportunities.
But the times when Uncle spoke to me alone were the most awesome, for in these times he gave me Creek spiritual teachings and then had me figure out the understanding of these things. From Uncle I learned that knowing a teaching is one thing; truly understanding the meaning and purpose of it is what makes it powerful. He asked the questions, “How can you teach what you truly don’t understand and how can you live it if you don’t understand the deeper and true teaching that is there?”
Learning these things from one of my true own people who was highly respected as a spiritual teacher, was truly important to me. Here was a teacher from whom I wanted to learn as much as I could. Phillip Deere also helped me understand that I must learn not to fight my own self. He knew the struggle I was fighting was my own illusion. Being a mixed breed always bothered me because I thought others judged me by how I looked. He laughed at that and said, “See! This is what I’m talking about. People who are true to our ways will truly see the real you. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone but yourself.”
In my mind, I can still hear Phillip Deere’s words: “Just like this thing we are all doing. (AIM) Most see us as radical and the media and the government portray us as evil and trouble. But we are only a spiritual awakening that is now arousing the spirits of the people to step forth and claim their spirits back; to hold their heads up in honor and respect.
“See, they fear us because they do not want this. They can control a broken person, they cannot control a spiritual person. We are here only to protect those who have asked us to come and help them. We follow this spiritual path in a sacred way every time.
“So, you see, this is how you must see everything. Sure, there will be many who doubt you, many who even attack you, but they only win if you let them. Remember a warrior is judged by the strength and power of his enemy. When you are doing right, you will always be attacked that much more. If you were wrong and foolish, people would sit back and laugh and say nothing because your words and actions have no power. All who walk this path have battles, have those who attack and say all kinds of things about us. It makes no difference if you are full blood or mixed blood. Even members of our own tribe attack us because we teach or walk a different path than they do. They have forgotten the old ways. They have forgotten that we are to accept each person’s own path and what Spirit reveals to them. We are not to attack them for it.”
“It seems they are witch hunting again.” Uncle said, “Just stay to who you are and you will always have those who step forth to help and guide you. For they will see your true spirit; your true heart.” These words spoken to me by Phillip Deere have always followed and guided me. I still live by what he taught me all those years ago.
Phillip Deere, helped open doors for me to have access to many well-known spiritual people and elders. He was also Muskogee and loved that I was there, not only to learn our people’s sacred ways from him, but to learn other people’s ways as well by being there with A.I.M. members and elders from the many tribes and nations that were represented.
Billy Proctor was another Creek who touched my life there at Pine Ridge. He was a member of the tribe in Oklahoma and Phillip Deere introduced me to him, saying, “Billy, here is one of your family members from Alabama.” Billy wanted to know who my people were, so I told him the names of all my great aunts and uncles on my father’s side. He was familiar with their names and told me there had been marriages that would make us related through the Wind Clan and Bird Clan town people. Billy’s family had moved to Blount County, AL from southeastern Georgia generations before and his grandparents and great grandparents had all lived there.
We all did ceremonies together, but Billy Proctor was more than a friend, or Uncle. He was someone I could talk to about anything; my dreams, my life, my problems, just anything. He would sit there and listen and then light his corn cob pipe and smoke it for a while before speaking. He always did this. Sometimes at first, I thought he was falling asleep or already asleep. But he was thinking and dreaming on his answers. When I asked him about this, he told me we should never rush an answer, ever. Even if you know the answer to a question, wait because a better one may come to you that will work so much better. He said he always wants to either ask his spirit helpers or dream of what the question was, then see it and see the answer as best would work for that person. We are all different, he would say, and we each may have the same question, but the answer for each may be, and generally is, different because we all have different paths to walk.
Many of Billy’s ancestors, family and relatives, were considered medicine people and did many different things. Billy didn’t consider himself to be a medicine man or holy man. He said he was just a man who tries to walk the path that is his. He just accepted the gifts that he had and would help and teach you if you asked. As he told me, “A closed mouth don’t get fed.” So I learned if you want to know something you must ask. If you need help you must ask. He taught me too, that before you do something for anyone else, they must ask first. Never use any gift you have on anyone or for anyone unless they ask first. We live by our own sacred laws. This you must always follow. Ever since, I have always followed these laws.
Billy was a man who lived the old ways; he didn’t like the modern world. He would not even allow anyone to take his picture and would have fainted seeing today’s world. He loved his sa-bias (crystals) and worked with them all the time. He never accepted or even went to get anything from the tribal offices. He lived strictly off the land and his connection to it.
Through my Muskogee mentors, I met several Lakota elders, and these were the ones who truly taught me many of the Lakota ceremonies and songs. Sun Dance Chief Swallow and Grandfather Ghost were both wicasa wakans or holy men. These were very good men who took the time to teach all the young people there. They both had gentle hearts and I could literally see and feel their spirits!
Leonard Crow Dog was the spiritual leader (wicasa wakan) who was so instrumental in developing the AIM movement. There were others as well, such as Art Solomon, teacher of the Prophecy of the Seven Fires. He was one of the spiritual leaders who led the Caravan of Broken Treaties across America. Art was an Ojibwa from Canada, around Ontario, I think.
I love learning and while in South Dakota I met many elders and teachers who taught me some of my most valued lessons. My attentiveness and willingness to listen and learn caught the attention of the teachers, Swallow and Ghost. They took time and worked with me in learning the seven rites of the Lakota and the meanings of all the songs. Many don’t understand how very important it is to know what the words to the songs mean. To know the meaning and believe what you are saying, gives the song power; you can see and feel the power coming into being.
One of the highest honors of my life came when Grandfather Ghost did a Hunka Ceremony for me. This is an old-time adoption ceremony of the Lakota. In the old days, if a young person had no status or was orphaned, he could be adopted by someone who had lots of status or honor. This provided the young person with a new family and helped him to have a better life and a chance to be elevated in rank.
I would return the following summer and again the next. During the course of these three summers, the world of the Lakota was my world completely. I learned so much more in many Lakota ceremonies, from elders such as Kenton Fast Horse, Old Man Blue Horse, Grandfather Charging Hawk, Eagle Thunder, and so many more.
I still remember every word, every song and every ceremony I learned during those long-ago summers. I have a natural gift for learning things that are important to me because I put my whole self into the experience. During those summers in South Dakota I wasn’t taught from books. The elders taught me by being there, doing the ceremonies and I learned by paying attention and asking questions about things I didn’t understand, always wanting to know more. I found all the elders to be very patient and openly willing to teach me so long as I was respectful and sincere.
“Leonard [Crow Dog] always thought that the dancers of 1890 had misunderstood Wovoka and his message. They should not have expected to bring the dead back to life, but to bring back their ancient beliefs by practicing Indian religion…dancing in a circle holding hands was bringing back the sacred hoop…He also thought that reviving the Ghost Dance would be making a link to our past, to the grandfathers and grandmothers of long ago.” – Mary Crow Dog
It was here at Pine Ridge, in 1972 and 1973 that I did my Hanblaca (vision quest). I participated in the Sun Dance and the Ghost Dance, all of which led to my Hunka Ceremony and my rightful name, Thunder Eagle Ghost Dancer.
During this time, we were all learning from each other and standing together as one; healing the sacred hoop which in turn, would heal us. Most members of AIM were mixed bloods and came from the cities to return to the reservation. Most of the families there had been relocated under the government’s relocation act and many had lost touch with their relatives during those years. The catalyst for coming back to the reservation was a renewed spirit of wanting Native rights and freedom. Many of the elders and women there were crying out for help and protection, and AIM was there for them. Many in the government and the press called this an uprising. But that was not true. The movement at that time was a Spiritual Awakening; and awakening the spirit within all of us.
Because of mounting tensions and open conflict at Wounded Knee in 1973, when I returned to South Dakota that year, I brought several guns with me in my car. Much later, when all the AIM guns were confiscated, and authorities ran checks on them, it turned out several of these guns had been stolen. Eventually, charges were brought against me for buying and receiving stolen property, grand larceny and burglary. For that I went to prison in Alabama. Art Solomon stayed in touch with me while I was in prison and was a witness for me in federal court in my Native American religious freedom case.
Over time, I brought home many treasured photos taken on these journeys: photos of many of the elders with me and even photos from the siege of Wounded Knee. Years later, after my release from prison in 1994, my wife Cat and I looked forward to building a life together. My mom suggested that I let go of the past and begin anew. So Mom, Cat, and I dug a hole and burned the photos and everything I had from back then. Mom has always understood that I had to live my life and walk my path, so she just advised me the best she could. This time I listened to her wise counsel.
Still, these people, elders and teachers I met during those South Dakota summers, changed my path forever. Never again would I be silent or sit back. I would be vocal about our rights and freedom; our right to be who we are. We aren’t extinct, but very much alive and keeping our cultures, languages, and religious beliefs alive and going forward.
Chief Leonard Crow Dog was born in 1942 on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He was a descendant of a prestigious traditional Sicanju Lakota family of medicine men and leaders. Crow Dog was dedicated to keeping Lakota traditions alive and was a significant spiritual leader in the American Indian Movement where he conducted traditional healing ceremonies and led the Sun Dance and the Ghost Dance.
Years later, his great man would stand strong in support of Ghost Dancer when he most needed help in his battle against religious persecution in the State of Alabama prison system.
Next: Part Three – The Legacy of Wounded Knee – Chapter 13 The Spiritual Reawakening of the People Here
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